Illustration by: Asha Jones
Years ago, I had dinner in Lakewood, New Jersey, with my grandmother and her friend Helina. I was in the prime of my awkward teenage years, complete with emo bangs, flared jeans and a barrage of insecurities—admittedly, not the best conversationalist.
Yet in spite of my teenage angst and gawky exterior, I was instantly captivated by Helina’s demeanour. Behind her warm brown eyes lay a deeper understanding of the world, and a story that needed to be heard.
Helina was a Holocaust survivor. She and her family had lived in a small town in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis came. They collected all the Jewish people in her neighbourhood and crammed them onto a train headed to Auschwitz. Upon arrival at the camp, soldiers assessed each Jewish person and, based on silent criteria, pointed to the left or the right. When Helina approached one soldier, he pointed left, where Helina would work in a factory assembling guns; her parents were directed to the right. She never saw them again.
Nazi soldiers starved the camp’s inhabitants, and Helina watched people all around her die of malnutrition and disease. She recounted how, at one point, she could feel the protrusion of her ribs and on several occasions tried to eat from the frayed patches of grass that grew sparsely around the camp grounds.
The conditions were squalid, with Jewish prisoners not even granted sufficient means to bathe let alone exercise any semblance of human function.
When the camp was finally liberated, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society helped Helina to emigrate to the United States, where she was able to live with extended family in Brooklyn, learn English, and start a new life.
Helina’s story of sacrifice and struggle has stayed with me as I grew up and learned to navigate life as a Jewish American. I will never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, and I can’t help but compare the detainment and neglect of Jewish people to what is unravelling before our eyes in US border detention centres.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was criticised recently for likening border detention centres to concentration camps, but I agree with her. Granted, the comparison is emotive for obvious reasons, and the action being taken by McAllen Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is not yet the scale and severity of the Holocaust. That being said, if we look purely on the basis of the dictionary definition of ‘concentration camp’ – a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc. – Ocasio-Cortez is correct.
As an unconfirmed number of Central American immigrants continue to be held in overcrowded border detention centres, more stories come out each day of how families are being separated and kept in cages, deprived of proper food, hygienic necessities, and medical care.
In the last year, seven children have died whilst in CBP custody.
Meanwhile, president Trump boasts that conditions in the detention centres are much improved from those of the Obama administration, and even claimed that conditions in the centres were better than what the immigrants faced at home. He also contends that while his predecessor separated families, he is bringing them together. Go figure.
A subsequent investigation by House Democrats and investigators has confirmed that Trump’s statements are, in fact, lies.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, travelled to the CBP processing centre in Texas on 26 June to see for herself what is happening at the border.
Before entering the facility, she and her colleagues were forced to watch a propaganda video detailing the threats immigrants bring to the United States, from “gangs to skin rashes,” which positions the CBP as the pillar of protection keeping the innumerable threats to state security at bay. An employee then took them through to see the “pods”—an internal term used to describe the overcrowded cages in which the immigrants are kept.
Warren described the horrors she witnessed: the wall of body odour that hit her as soon as she walked through the door; cages so packed it would be impossible for everyone to lay down at once; men begging her as she passed for “a shower, please, just a shower”; cages filled with children who had been separated from their parents, sitting utterly shell-shocked on thin mats with foil blankets.
From the perspective of a Jewish American who has heard the stories of many Holocaust survivors, I see eerie correlations between the actions of the Trump administration and 1930s Germany. In both cases sickness, disease, and malnutrition run rampant. Both groups of people were propagandised as “undesirables” who could harm the rest of society, thus justifying their treatment.
It’s a horrific and tragic state of affairs which should shame every American. I sincerely hope that the grassroots efforts to work against what’s happening in the detention centres will be fruitful, reunite families and end this heartless treatment.
If you also denounce the treatment of Central American immigrants in US detention centres, you can donate to the Project Corazon Travel Fund or donate your frequent flier miles to help volunteer lawyers travel to the frontlines of the humanitarian crisis.
Our researcher Erica Salowe is a masters student at the University of Glasgow studying global markets. She has a passion for applying creative storytelling to her professional endeavours, and is naturally drawn to topics regarding human rights and bonnie Scotland.