Save for the image of a six-year-old Hungarian girl which I do not possess — these are the photographs of 10 of the 11 members of my family who did not escape from Europe in the critical prewar years, when the path for refugees fleeing fascism narrowed, then disappeared. Fear of these people — their otherness, their politics, their faith — was sufficient to close borders and deny safe passage to America and elsewhere. The first six photos are an extended family on my mother’s side lost at Auschwitz, the last four a branch of my father’s clan slain in the woods outside the city of Slonim, in what is now Belarus.
The facelessness of the hundreds of thousands fleeing our time’s great cruelty is in some basic way part of their undoing. In their anonymity, the Syrian refugees running from Assad or the Islamic State appear in our political discourse as mere numbers, abstract and enormous. Save for the occasional photograph of a child’s body on a beach or some video footage of an exhausted woman in a rail station, these lost souls exist for us as an amorphous collective. To our minds, they are a vast multitude of disordered humanity, victims and victimizers, terrorists and those terrorized. Sorting them will be exhausting and imprecise and burdensome. There will be costs. And risks.
And yet every time I begin to listen to someone explain to me the social or political problem of opening our country to this breaking wave of humanity, every time some sonofabitch summons fear or prejudice or uncertainty, I am steadied and restored by my own familial history. Yes, populations are vast, uncontrollable, threatening. Their swell and weight are great enough in our frightened minds to overwhelm systems, or resources. But people are people. Our precious singularity, when at last acknowledged, makes the cowardice of our worst politicians and the fear of those who respond to their rhetoric that much more craven and shameful.
For me, I just have to turn the page of the family photo album and stare at these faces. The people of my blood, the lost branches of my tree — Esther and Solomon, Fanci and Gitel, Leo and little Batia and the others — ordinary mothers and fathers and children who an entire world failed to see as completely and irreplacably human. They, too, were a feared and unwanted wave of chaos and risk, confusion and otherness. And they were butchered on the short end of someone else’s geopolitical equation.
Knowing that much, I can’t look at these lost faces and then succumb to the worst imaginings of a Trump or a Cruz or a Carson. It would be an affront to the memory of my tribal dead, and to the fortunate journey, too, of all of those in my mother’s and father’s family who got out, who got here, or to Palestine, or Australia.
This, now, is the same moment, with the same stakes. Soon and forever, many more families will have nothing left but names and photographs over which to grieve, just as the names and images of others — today’s Tafts and Coughlins and Lindberghs — will be stained and dishonored by what they say or do in this time. These are men and women who wish to claim the mantle of moral leadership, yet would trade innocent lives for any and all chance for an abject and equivocal safety, or worse, for some immediate political gain. Tether yourself to their ugliest fears and you, too, can embrace the shame that this moment offers.
Or be more.
But know for certain that the history that is happening today — right now — will judge us all.