By David Gulliver
The plight of Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany is mirrored in what refugees from Syria and Central and South America face today, a leading Holocaust scholar said at a Day of Remembrance event at New College on Monday, January 27. More than 100 people, including many local high school students, attended the breakfast and talk at the Jane Bancroft Cook Library.
The Cross College Alliance, a partnership of Sarasota-area colleges, sponsored the event, which was part of the Butterflies of Hope and Remembrance Project, a year-long initiative across southwest Florida. The project commemorates the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps.
The speaker, Dr. Debórah Dwork is the inaugural Rose Professor of Holocaust History and founding director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. She has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the American Council of Learned Societies and served as the Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Dwork was among the first historians to record Holocaust survivors’ oral histories and to use their narratives as a scholarly source, and her New College talk drew on letters, diaries, newspaper articles and other primary sources of the period.
The often-heartbreaking accounts vividly depicted the reluctance or refusal of the United States and European nations to accept Jews fleeing the Nazi regime in the 1930s. Dwork paralleled those stories with reporting from the refugee camps and detention centers housing refugees fleeing violence and poverty in Syria and Central and South America today.
“Refugee Jews’ desperation prompted too little help during the Nazi years, and the desperation of refugees and asylum seekers prompts too little help now,” Dwork said.
“Not identical, to be sure. Yet the parallels shine bright, and not solely with regard to Syrians on the Jordan-Syria border. Our government’s harsh refugee and immigration policies have led to mass detentions on the southern border of the United States.”
Then and now, U.S. presidents have instilled fear of refugees. Dwork quoted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking with reporters in the 1930s, as saying “Now of course the refugee has got to be checked because unfortunately, among the refugees there are spies.”
She paired that with the Trump Administration’s drastic reductions in admitting refugees – just 16,000 from Syria in six years, and just 62 last year. ‘Donald Trump called Syrian refugees, and I’m quoting him now, ‘the greatest Trojan Horse of all time,’” she said.
In his opening remarks, New College President Don O’Shea noted the recent resurgence of antisemitism, racial hatred and religious intolerance, and the need to recall the lessons of the Holocaust.
“Today we remember and honor those who died in the Holocaust,” he said. “But we do more than that. We remember evil and hate and the indifference and fear from which it sprung. And we commit ourselves to remember always, even as the reality of human aging takes those who directly witnessed the Holocaust, where hatred and fear bring us.”
The event also reconnected New College with some of its history and a new scholarship. Judy Fagin represented her mother, Dr. Helen Fagin, who was unable to attend. Dr. Fagin was a Holocaust survivor, Sarasota resident, and a professor of English at University of Miami. Cook Library houses the Dr. Helen N. Fagin Room, which has a special collection of materials on the Holocaust, genocide and human rights.
Judy Fagin, the national chair of the Legacy of Light Society at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, noted that this spring, New College will award the inaugural Dr. Helen N. Fagin Student Prize for an essay on topics related to Holocaust, genocide, and human rights studies, that use the resources of the Fagin Collection.
— David Gulliver is interim associate director of the Office of Communications and Marketing.