When countries do not open their borders and provide safe haven for refugees horror inevitably follows.

Ruth Altbeker Cyprys was a Jew in Warsaw in the 1930’s, until her deportation in 1942 and eventual escape to return to Warsaw where she went into hiding.

In her book A Jump For Life, Ruth Altbeker Cyprys, describes some of the horrors she saw in the Ghetto.

On 6 August 1942 Cyprys describes her first personal experience of being herded through the streets of Warsaw for possible deportation:

The way was strewn with horrific sights. Along dead, deserted streets of the big empty ghetto we were driven stumbling over scattered bundles, haversacks and all kinds of clothes – every few steps a corpse. By a doorway in Gesia Street the body of a dead woman lay face-down on the pavement. From underneath the corpse, the live feet of a little baby struggled in vain to emerge, the baby crying desperately, half asphyxiated by the body of his dead mother. The woman carrying her baby had been shot and had pressed it down with her weight during the fall. This picture will remain in my memory of ever. 55

On this occasion Cyprys managed to avoid deportation.

At the end of the month she was again taken to the Umschlagplatz (square in Warsaw where ghetto Jews were gathered for deportation by train to the Treblinka execution camp). There she experienced the horror of the process in which Jews were divided into those who were to be deported and those who would remain a while longer in the Ghetto:

I saw mothers prostrate at the German’s feet, pleading for the life of their children; I saw mothers from whom neither the German fist nor the heavy hand of a militia man could tear their babies away from them. In such cases the German would make use of a precious bullet and the mother would die hugging her child until her last breath. And I saw other young mothers who at the moment of selection abandoned their children, tore away the little hands clutching at their skirts; on her own she might have had a chance, but with a child her death was a certainty. Then, standing with the group of the released and facing her child in the condemned crowd, she would cover he eyes so as not to see it, she would plug her ears not to hear her little one crying. And when, sometimes, the motherly feeling defeating the last instinct of life the mother ran to her child, the fat German would not let her go. All God’s rules, humane instincts, all those precepts and commandments inculcated in us since time immemorial, lay in the dust on the Umschlagplatz. 56,57

In another selection, Cyprys saw,

a strong workman who had tied his child around his waist and had tried to smuggle it under a thick overcoat. The German who noticed it fished him out of the row, proceeding to slit the secure ropes with his dagger. It did not matter that he mortally wounded the child and stained the poor father with his child’s blood. ‘You are still young, you can work’, yelled the German, thrusting the limp child aside to die, and driving the father to join the group of the saved. (Cyprys, Ruth Altbeker. A Jump For Life: A Survivor’s Journal From Nazi-Occupied Poland. ed. Elaine Potter NY: Continuum, 1997, 69,70)

It is too easy and too self-serving to relegate such viciousness to a time long ago and a place far away.

The horrors Cyprys experienced took place seventy-three years ago. The violence to which she and millions of others were subjected occurred at the hands of people who belonged to one of the most cultured sophisticated civilizations on earth. Nazi violence was not a momentary aberration. It merely pulled back the veil that often covers the civilized veneer of human community. What Cyprys experienced is what happens when one group of human beings feels entitled to view another group of human beings as less than human.

The people fleeing Syria in our day are not primarily Muslims, or Arabs. They are not first of all Sunni, Alawis, Druze, or Christian. The refugees washing up on the shores of Europe are, before all else, human beings; they are part of the world community.

In 1942 Irena Sendler was a twenty-nine-year old Polish nurse and social worker living in Warsaw. Along with twelve other women and with the help of a few sympathetic Poles and around 200 Roman Catholic convents, and at risk of her own life, Sendler smuggled over 2,500 Jewish children out of the Ghetto and hid them around Poland for the duration of the war. All the children Sendler rescued survived.

Years later when Irena Sendler was asked why she was willing to take such a terrible risk for the Jewish children she rescued, she replied,

My father always told me, ‘If you see someone drowning, you extend your hand to help them.’ (see: “Irena Sendler: In The Name Of Their Mothers.” DVD, 2011)

Today human beings are drowning, some figuratively, others literally. The world community bears a burden of responsibility to do all we can to reach out a “hand to help them.”

Advertisements