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Yesterday, Lawrence S. Bacow was named Harvard’s 29th president. In that role, he will lead the nation’s oldest, wealthiest, and most prestigious university. He will add to his decades of service as an environmental policy researcher, a White House advisor, and a public policy expert.
But it is all too easy to forget that his story might never have begun.
His father, born in what is today Belarus, was brought by his family to America to flee anti-Semitic violence before the Holocaust. He was one of the lucky ones: At least sixty thousand Jews were killed in Eastern Europe between 1917 and 1921.
His mother came to the United States at age 19 after surviving Auschwitz, where about one million Jews were killed. She was the only member of her family and even her entire hometown to survive the Holocaust. Her story is a testament to survival but also to destruction. Indeed, of the roughly nine million Jews living in Europe before World War II, two out of every three were killed.
It could have been different. Many of those who faced death tried their hardest to come to America. My own great-grandmother managed to flee the same pogroms in Eastern Europe as Bacow’s father and eventually made it to Cuba where she waited for years before being finally granted entry to the U.S. Very few others succeeded in that path.
Countless others were killed as the U.S. and other countries closed their borders. In 1939, for instance, more than 900 Jews aboard the ship St. Louis set sail from Europe to the U.S. by way of Cuba, but they were refused entry. After sailing so close that they could see the lights of Miami, they were forced to return to Europe. Hundreds of them were killed in the Holocaust. Even Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, begged for help from an American friend, writing that the U.S. “is the only country we could go to.”
This was because of the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited entry to the U.S. by European Jews. It was a means of excluding from the U.S. those who most needed its help. In 1938 alone, for example, the American consulates in Europe received 125,000 visa applications, but the vast majority were rejected.
It is so disturbing, then, that just a few years ago, then-Senator and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the 1924 law as an example for the U.S. to follow today. He expressed concern at the number of immigrants in the U.S., only adding to the many anti-immigration statements made by President Donald Trump.
On their watch, the U.S. has more than halved the maximum number of refugees it will admit in a year. The Trump administration enforced a months-long severe restriction on refugees entering the U.S. early last fall. It has also fought for the deportation of immigrants facing persecution and violence in their home countries. These actions have real effects: With continuing violence in South Sudan, Afghanistan, Chad, Somalia, and Syria; massacres of minorities in Myanmar; and much more, the U.S. again faces the dilemma of helping those in desperate need of assistance, and we are again poised to neglect our responsibility.
Bacow today is a product of the very few European Jews lucky enough to have made it to America alive. Think of the untold contributions those others might have made to America. Think of the research that might have been done, the colleges that might have been led, the lives that might have been lived. And had just a few incidents been different, had a visa application been rejected or even the smallest decision gone another way, Bacow, or I, or most any American Jew might have been one of the members of that town whose name you will never know.
His story should serve as a grave reminder to all Americans: Turning our backs on refugees has immeasurable human costs. Doing so risks losing those who might go on to make untold contributions. Indeed, as University President, he will be serving the nation like few others. Harvard University counts among its graduates eight American presidents, at least 52 billionaires, and more than 150 Olympic athletes. Its contribution to the nation is unsurpassed.
During his press conference yesterday, Bacow said, “I would not be standing before you today, literally, if this country had turned its back on my parents.” Yet the U.S. might be turning its back now on the parents of a future Harvard president. It might be ending his or her story before it begins. Trump should be watching.
Caleb J. Esrig ’20, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House.
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