My Mom, Irene Mohrer Steinberg
February 11, 2018
Thank you for coming to honor my mom. I never get a turnout like this for my book signings . . .
In early 1926, shortly before the birth of my dad, a wise man wrote, “History runs on a circular track, but spectators see time pass but once.” That man was Walter Trumbull, sports editor of the New York Post. Sportswriters were often armchair philosophers back then, and this statement by Trumbull, so simple yet so profound, has stuck with me for many years.
In 1918 and just after the Great War (WWI), Congress passed restrictive immigration measures. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed them, but the 1920 election of Warren Harding and what he called “a Return to Normalcy” (though no such word existed) led to these measures becoming the law of the land.
They culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924, a National Origins quota system that limited annual immigration from a country to 2% of that nation’s population in the US in 1890. Why base the law on the 1890 census and not the more recent 1920 census? Because 1890 was the beginning of the mass immigration to the US from southern and eastern Europe, which included many Jews and Italians. And by the way, Asians were banned altogether. Zero per cent.
The result was that the few immigrants who enter the country were from nations like England and Ireland . . . and perhaps places like Norway.
Make no mistake: When Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, for most of the rest of that decade of the Thirties, the problem was not GETTING OUT. People could get out. The problem was GETTING IN. Anywhere. Almost everywhere.
In 1933, a four-year-old girl said good-bye to her grandparents, her father’s parents. With Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, they decided to GET OUT. And they decided to go where they could GET IN, to Palestine.
In 1936, that little girl, now age seven, prepared to join her grandparents in Palestine. Before the move, her father made a preparatory trip. While walking on the streets of Jerusalem with his father, gunfire broke out, and they began running, quite literally, for their lives. They ran to a building whose front door was fortuitously unlocked.
They survived what would become the Palestinian uprising of 1930-1939, the “first Intifada before the first Intifada.” The girl’s father decided he could not move his family (which consisted of two young girls and his wife) to Palestine. He instead began developing an alternate plan.
Two years later, the little girl and her family prepared to move to the United States. Before their departure, her father made one last appeal to his in-laws that they too had to leave Frankfurt now, that time was running out.
Eighty years later, that little girl (now approaching age 89) vividly remembered the ensuing scene. Her grandfather walked to the entrance of his massive library, with floor-to-ceiling books on all walls. (I think of a library from a movie scene, such as “Finding Forrester.”) With a wave of his arm across the library, her grandfather said, “My books. I cannot leave my books.” She also remembered him saying something about protection from the League of Nations.
Just before Kristallnacht in the Fall of 1938, that nine-year-old girl and her family departed for New York. Seventy-five years later, in 2013, my family (with Colleen and the kids) visited the location where that girl’s grandfather (the one who stayed behind) died. In Mauthausen, the concentration camp in western Austria, Pincus Buchbinder died in the gas chambers on his 66th birthday, June 29, 1942.
The little girl and her family eventually settled here in Seattle. Fifty years later, in 1988, the girl, my mother, was now a middle-aged woman on the Board of the Jewish Family (& Child) Service. She led the Seattle resettlement program of Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union. Among those immigrants to Seattle were little girls similar in age to hers a half-century earlier. (Our Senator, Scoop Jackson, played a key role in that immigration to the United States.)
Fast-forward again, this time by forty years, to 2018. Last weekend, the daughter of one of those 1988 immigrant girls celebrated her Bat Mitzvah in Tacoma.
1918. 1938. 1988. 2018.
“History runs on a circular track, but spectators see time pass but once.”
I’d like to close by saying that the Torah (the Old Testament) expresses concern for “strangers” (explained as immigrants and refugees) four times. Coincidentally (or not), two of the four mentions appear in the Exodus portion (Mishpatim) read in synagogues this past weekend, when my mom passed away. They both forbid “oppressing strangers;” they both end with the comment, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
A later mention, in Deuteronomy, declares, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”