Ellicott A. Cochrane, Queen’s University
In December I had the opportunity to visit Terezín, a small town in Czech Republic just 45 minutes outside of Prague. The small fortress town was also the location of a hybrid Jewish ghetto and concentration camp, established during World War II by the SS. As more Jewish people were transported to Terezín, the Nazis forced the townspeople out of their homes so they could occupy the space and continue to grow the ghetto. The town has never been able to recover from its past. A tour guide who works at the Terezín memorial grew up in Terezín and describes it as a “ghost town.”
Although propaganda advertised Terezín as a town for Jewish people run by Jewish people, the events that took place within its walls are inconceivable. During its time as an active ghetto and concentration camp, over 150,000 Jewish people were sent to Terezín, including over 15,000 children. Those sent to Terezín were separated from their families upon arrival, exposed to astonishingly poor conditions, and many were transported to extermination camps. By the end of the war there were just over 17,000 survivors, including some that had been sent to death camps, less than 150 of those survivors were children.
There is a room in the memorial that has the names of all the murdered children written, the names take up four walls, floor to ceiling.
It is important to remember the events of history to prevent repetition and identify red flags in present events to stop ourselves from falling into the same paths of the past. By drawing parallels between historic events such as those of WWII and contemporary political on goings we are able to better understand why the present is the way it is and where it is going if we continue on the same way.
Under the Trump administration there has been a much greater focus on both legal and illegal immigration into the United States. President Trump take a much stronger stance; or at least is much more vocal about his position than his predecessors.The administration has a “zero tolerance” immigration policy which permitted the separation of families attempting to cross the border. Under this policy in one month alone (April 19 – May 31) there were over 2,000 separations of children from their families at the southern border.
In June 2018, President Trump announced that he would end the practice of separating immigrant children from their families when trying to cross the U.S. boarder illegally. Since this announcement over 80 children have been separated from their families. While this is a significant decrease compared to the numbers that occurred while the “zero tolerance” policy was in full effect, separations are still taking place.
According to David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, “No administration has institutionalized the practice of family separation on such a scale, as intentionally and as broadly as the Trump administration attempted.”
The U.S. claims that it is criminals and gang members trying to enter the country and they are the ones facing separation and prosecution. The Department of Homeland Security addressed concerns of the public regarding familial separation stating that separation only occurs when the child’s safety is at risk, the adult is not the child’s parent, there is a medical reason, or there is criminal activity by the adult.
Despite the government making the claim that is in the best interest of the families that they be separated, it is the children who are placed in holding under the custody of the U.S. government. Due to the overwhelming number of migrants under their custody, long-term holding is overflowing so children are kept in short-term detention where there is lack of the facilities provided in long-term care such as medical professionals, teachers, and sometimes even running water.
Two children that had attempted to cross the boarder with their families died in these conditions. Although they were with their guardians, there are many more separated family members in the same situation.
We can draw on a comparison between the events that took place in Jewish concentration camps such as Terezín and what is currently unfolding at the US-Mexico border.
The two cases present similar justifications in that Nazi Germany believed the treatment of the Jewish people was justified as it was they who caused the collapse of the German economy and presented ghettos as a better option for Jewish people too. This is similar to the events transpiring at the border as the US justifies separation as being for the safety of the country and the benefit of the children.
We can also compare the use of language by both power holding parties as the Nazis used language to demonize the Jews as a source of all Germany’s trouble while Trump refers to the immigrants attempting to cross the border as rapists and criminals going after American jobs. Separating people through the use of language makes the process of “othering” easier, if they are not “us” it is easier for us to treat them as less than.
As well, we can see in both cases this spiralling system which sets up the targeted groups for failure. WWII Nazi Germany implemented laws that restricted Jewish people from participating in daily activities as an excuse to increase arrests and send greater numbers to camps and ghettos. In the U.S. we can see this pattern as well where border security must separate families when the child is in danger or there is a medical emergency, but these trips to the border from Central America are often dangerous and periling providing the U.S. with further justification for separation.
It is important to analyze present events in comparison to history so that we are able to identify key characteristics which hint at the path we are headed on so we can be proactive and proceed with caution and preventative measures. If the U.S. is not careful in upholding the cherished rights of equality and fairness, there may be some heavy ghosts for generations to come.
“The History of Terezin.” Terezin: Children of the Holocaust. n.d
Sands, Geneva. “81 children separated at border since Trump’s executive order on dividing families.” CNN News. 6 December 2018.
Merchant, Nomaan. “Deaths of 2 children raise doubts about US border agency.” CTV News. 26 December 2018.