Tucson joins nationwide HIAS refugee vigils

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron speaks June 6 at the Jewish History Museum. [Steven Michael Braun)

Tucson joined 20 communities across the country on June 6 for a vigil honoring the struggles of refugees past and present. The date commemorates the anniversary of the day in 1939 the M.S. St. Louis began its voyage back to Europe with more than 900 mostly Jewish refugees aboard, many of whom eventually fell victim to the Nazi “Final Solution.”

June 6, 1939 is “a date that is infamous both in Holocaust history and in the history of U.S. immigration policy,” said Bryan Davis, executive director of the Jewish History Museum, which hosted the event. HIAS, the oldest refugee resettlement organization in the world, coordinated the vigils. “HIAS was founded as an organization to support Jewish refugees. Now it is a Jewish organization that advocates for all refugees,” Davis explained.

At the Jewish History Museum June 6, Ron Schneider speaks about his mother’s experiences aboard the M.S. St. Louis. (Steven Michael Braun)

Despite 100-degree heat, more than 75 Tucsonans sat or stood in the sculpture garden of the Holocaust History Center, listening raptly to remarks from Davis, Rabbis Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim and Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash, and Steve Kozachik, Tucson City Council Member from Ward 6. Participants also heard the recorded testimony of two women who were survivors of the St. Louis and later lived in Tucson, Inge Schneider and Gerda Wilchfort Marcus, whose sons Ron Schneider and Peter Marcus attended the event.

Holding a lit yahrzeit candle aloft, Aaron said that other candles had been left unlit as a testament to the work still to be done to provide safe havens for the millions of displaced people around the world. Today, Davis had pointed out, there are more than 65 million displaced people worldwide, a number that for the first time exceeds the scale of displaced persons and refugees following World War II.

The speakers also included Khalid Al Jashame, an Iraqi refugee who had worked as a translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq. Al Jashame explained that even with that record of service, which meant that he and his family might be murdered by the Iraqi forces, it took six years of vetting before they were allowed to immigrate to the United States.

Louchheim spoke of outcries from U.S. citizens in the late 19th and 20th centuries against refugees from many lands and noted that “today, Jordan and Lebanon host more Syrian refugees per capita than any European country … while we, the greatest country on earth, take less than 1 percent of any refugees” worldwide. However, instead of isolating refugees as in Europe, the refugees we do accept are welcomed and embraced — a policy, he says, “jihadists hate … because it disproves the claims about Americans they use to sow hatred and violence. Acting according to the best angels of our nature, we produce our greatest long-term strength and security.”

The evening ended with participants singing “Pitchu Li,” a verse from Psalm 118, led by Cantor Janece Cohen of Or Chadash. The verse translates as “Open the gates of righteousness for me, that I may enter them and give praise. This is the gateway to the Divine that the righteous will enter through.”