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Never Forget: We’ve Been Here Before

Sybill was the second of two daughters born to Walter, a merchant, and his wife Margarete, in the south of Poland in 1931. Poland had been entrenched in one sort of political skirmish or another for most of Sybill’s young life. But in the fall of 1938, the racial hatred that the Third Reich was cultivating towards the Jewish people of Europe had begun to pour across Germany’s borders and into Poland.

Sybill’s father, Walter, was a smart man. Seeing the signs of the times, he purchased tickets for his family to board a ship bound for Cuba. They would be safe there until visas came through for the United States. His instincts were right. Within four months, Germany would invade Poland.

Sybill’s family got out just in time. But after a two-week journey, the ship and almost all of its passengers were refused entry into Cuba. Some of the passengers appealed to U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The State Department responded, saying that they should “await their turns on the waiting list.” Passengers appealed to Canada, but they also denied the passengers entry.

After ten days of asking for entry, the ship sailed back to Europe. The passengers were admitted into Great Britain, Belgium, France, and Holland–where Sybill and her family ended up. Within a year, Germany invaded Holland. Sybill’s family was placed in the Westerbork internment camp in Drenthe before being moved to the Theresienstadt ghetto. By 1944, Sybill and her parents were transported to Auschwitz. It is not known what happened to her sister.

Sybill’s father was killed on September 30, 1944. One week later, on October 6, Sybill and her mother were murdered in a gas chamber. She was twelve years old. That’s three years younger than Anne Frank was when she died.

Her name was Sybill, but today, it could be Fatima, Maryam, Zahra or Hya.

This week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the president’s policy of refusing entry to people from five countries with Muslim majorities. It is a discriminatory policy rooted in fear, and that fear is already having devastating consequences. It separates families. It denies opportunities. And it costs lives.

Policies like this, implemented in the name of national security, are rooted in the same faulty reasoning that murdered Sybill, her sister, and her parents. Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, pointed this out. “As Jews, we remember the consequences of being turned away from America’s shores,” he stated, “and we recall those who perished at the hands of bigoted policy.

We are reminded by those who survived the Holocaust to never forget, echoing the frequent calls that we hear in Scripture, calls to remember. We cannot forget Sybill. We cannot forget how the hatred, and the apathy, of others led to her death. And beyond that, we can honor Sybill’s memory by advocating for those in similar circumstances. We can honor her by living faithfully in relationship to God and to one another, with courage and not fear.

You can read the stories of some of people being impacted by the U.S. travel ban policy here:


Photo by Justin Leibow on Unsplash


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Which is why we are marching with Jews in Manhattan this Saturday.

    • Kris Van Engen says:

      Thanks for that powerful message. When I facilitate workshops in churches that look back on historic U.S. decisions related to immigrants and refugees the parallels between then and now are obvious to everyone. They usually involved myths and fears without any grounding in fact plus rhetoric about the U.S. needing to put ourselves first. At a time when Chinese made up .001% of our population, we passed the Chinese exclusion act with the rhetoric that Chinese were taking U.S. jobs and turning us into a country of people who eat rice. Of course, when we look back those decisions are regrettable and what’s happening today is no different.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    No. We have not been here before. The “Muslim Ban” is not similar to the plight of Jewish people who faced widespread extermination on the European continent. Granted, living in Muslim-controlled nations Is an awful prospect. But there are many awful places in this world, and we can’t take everyone.

    Also, the first duty for our Administration is to protect the citizens. As the Court rightly decided, they should be given much leeway to do so.

    As an aside, there are many Coptic and Assyrian Christians living in my area. They make wonderful neighbors and citizens.

    The very intelligent minds who contribute to The Twelve would do well to understand why our Western culture has been so successful (tip: it has not been at the expense of others). Once a person can grasp the reasons for our situation, then one can go about making the world a better place.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Yes, we’ve been here before … simply because cruelty (call it sin) isn’t so creative to keep coming up with new devices and designs. “Nationalism” (one of Satan’s finest inventions, a bit tired, but it works) breeds fear of the other, with a good dose of righteous hubris (total depravity, ha) dresses it up in all sorts of bunting and parades and flyover of big jets, with boots marching away, and we shout “Hurrah for the red, white and blue,” while condemning to suffering and death countless peoples whom we have deemed “a threat to our national security.” Nothing new here; this is how nations behave, when under the thrall of dark angels. It happens all the time, and we’d be wise to pay attention. There’s nothing unique here about the US of A and its treatment of the Border People and its attitudes toward Islam. Sin isn’t inventive enough to come up with the new. Sin relies on the trie and true, and nationalism is one of the simple strategies of evil.

  • Marge Vander Wagen says:

    We’ve been here before”. We will be faced with nationalism again and again because of fear. If we trust God, we will take a risk to assist immigrants.
    I disagree with the rise of Western culture’s success not based on expense of others. There were many African slaves exploited by southern plantation owners and new immigrants of other nationalities under paid for their labors. America’s wealth is generated by abusing those who are not protected by the government nor represented by collective bargaining.
    We need to practice deep and wide hospitality for all God’s children because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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