This article is part of Phoenix New Times' issue focusing on immigrants in the Valley of the Sun. See our full coverage here.
A black-and-white photo of a family of five in winter clothing, all smiles, flashes on the screen above Oskar Knoblauch while he explains to an audience of about 300 juniors and seniors at Ahwatukee’s Horizon Community Learning Center how he survived the Holocaust.
In an assembly room at the K-12 school, during a recent weekday, Knoblauch unfolds the tale of his life, one he speaks about often, and one he has written about in his heartrending memoir, A Boy’s Story, A Man’s Memory.
The photo was taken in Leipzig, Germany, in 1932, when he was a skinny kid of 7, and was living a happy, normal life, with friends at school and at a sports club where he learned to play soccer.
“I can’t tell you how sweet life was,” says Knoblauch, who looks and acts decades younger than his 91 years on Earth.
But in 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and soon enough, everything changed for the worse.
His friend, a Christian boy, joined the Nazi youth, and did not play with him any more.
The local sports coach, in his new Nazi uniform, forbade Knoblauch from using the sports club. And Knoblauch, one of the only Jews in a school of 900, was made to sit in the back of the class, and not allowed to participate.
The Nazis scapegoated the Jews, Knoblauch tells the teens, and Jewish businesses were forced to close. He remembers watching the Nazis burning books from the window of his third-floor apartment. Eventually, Jews were stripped of their citizenship.
“That citizenship was taken away from us,” he explains to the teenagers. “We are whatever our parents are. And we have to get out. Sounds familiar.”
The family moved to Krakow, Poland, where they endured the Nazi occupation after 1939, and was forced to live in the rat-infested Krakow ghetto. His mother was taken to a concentration camp, where she worked making uniforms for the German army. His father later was killed on a whim by a Nazi.
Knoblauch survived as a virtual slave, barely eluding the regular roundups for the Final Solution. After the war, he wanted to emigrate to the U.S., but the wait was too long. He chose Canada instead, eventually meeting his wife, an American citizen, and moving to America, where he became a U.S. citizen, and settled in the Valley, one of many immigrants in a valley of immigrants.
But how did the Nazis change Germany? How did it go from gentiles and Jews peacefully coexisting to the hostility and hate that birthed genocide?
Lies, Knoblauch tells the kids. Lies and propaganda, used masterfully by the likes of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels to smear the Jews as the source of all of Germany’s ills.
“Today, the same lies are being used against other people than the Jews,” he says to the students. “And repeated continuously.”
A timely message.
In addition to watching Knoblauch during his presentation at Horizon, I interviewed him for this special issue on immigration in the Valley of the Sun, titled “A Frayed Fabric,” because his experiences and his opinions as a survivor of the Shoah seem more relevant than ever in the age of Trump. And like many others who have come to Arizona to work and thrive, Knoblauch, too, is an immigrant, with a poignant story to tell.
In this issue, Phoenix New Times writers show the myriad ways that immigration touches us, enriches us and, sometimes, seems to threaten us. Aside from Knoblauch, you also will meet a Russian barber, an Ethiopian restaurateur, an acclaimed Copenhagen-born dancer and choreographer, a radio host from Côte d’Ivoire, an undocumented student, and a local mother who blames illegal immigration for the tragic loss of her son.
Though many Americans agree that immigration is a positive force, with the election of a president who holds a dim view of Muslims and Mexicans, we are experiencing an ugly resurgence in nativism and white supremacy, often cloaked in the faddish nomenclature of the so-called alt-right.
For his part, Knoblauch perceives dark parallels between the era of Trump and the reign of the Nazis.
Personally, I am always shy of such analogies, but if anyone is allowed to go there, it is a Shoah survivor such as Knoblauch, one of 100 to 200 living in the Valley, according to the Phoenix Holocaust Survivors’ Association. In our new president, Knoblauch hears an echo of evil times past.
“I want you to understand, it can happen to anyone,” says Knoblauch, rapping his knuckles on a table before him. “Today, it’s the Latinos. They have to go back. If this so-called president of ours wouldn’t have those, quote, illegals and the Muslim people, he would pick on the Jews. Because we would be next in line.”
Knoblauch observes the similarities in rhetoric.
Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” sounds a lot like Hitler’s promise back in the 1930s to “make Germany great again.” There also is the Trump administration’s fondness for “alternative facts” — lies and propaganda by a different name.
Also, both during the campaign and as president, Trump has demonized immigrants and refugees, using scare tactics and extreme rhetoric, another parallel to the lies Hitler and his underlings told of the Jews.
“What did Trump say in the beginning as he was running for president?” Knoblauch asks. “The illegals come over here, and they are murderers and they’re rapists. And maybe some of them are good.”
Using a broad brush to impugn a class of people is inexcusable, he notes, especially for the leader of the free world.
Still, is it too much, this Nazi comparison, I wonder? Is it too easily made? After all, no one is being killed, just deported, as harsh as that is.
“Everything is systematic, slowly,” Knoblauch warns. “You don’t want to tell your own people suddenly you will kill certain types of people, because people will oppose that. If you are a religious person, you still have that little bit of, ‘Wow, my God is not going to allow me to do this. This is a sin.’”
In fact, there have been trial balloons sent up by Trump and his surrogates over the past year, skirting the abyss. Suddenly, the public begins to ponder what at one time was unthinkable, like using the National Guard to round up the more than 11 million undocumented among us, requiring a registry for Muslims, and the shuttering of mosques.
If we are not there yet, it does not mean that we won’t be some day. After all, by the time this article goes to press, Trump will have been president for just a little over two months.
As in Hitler’s day, rhetoric inspires policy. Trump’s executive orders on immigration have made nearly all those present in the country illegally subject to detention and removal, no matter how long they have been here, or how clean their records.
Under these executive orders, the number of refugees the U.S. will accept in fiscal year 2017 is cut in half. And 10,000 new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are to be hired, for more aggressive “interior enforcement.”
Trump’s widely reviled travel ban on first seven majority Muslim countries — now revised to six — had as its stated purpose the protection of the U.S. from foreign terrorists infiltrating the homeland.
But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals crushed that rationalization in its unanimous decision blocking Trump’s initial ban, stating that the government had provided “no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.”
Last week, two federal judges, one in Hawaii and one in Maryland, issued temporary restraining orders blocking what critics have called Trump’s “Muslim ban 2.0.”
And yet, Trump’s executive orders, including his decree to build a “Great Wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, offers a peek into a new, Kafkaesque reality. Imagine ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection acting together as a national police force, with the power to demand your papers, Gestapo-style, or seize your cellphone at an airport.
Regularly now, mothers and fathers are separated from crying children by ICE agents wearing jackets that read, deceptively, “POLICE.” And the most irrational of suspicions cause Customs and Border Protection officers to turn mad with power.
Some of the more egregious, recent abuses of authority include the following:
• February 6, Australian children’s book author Mem Fox, 70, is stopped at Los Angeles International Airport, held for nearly two hours, and aggressively questioned by immigration authorities. Ironically, she had been en route to Milwaukee to give a lecture on tolerance.
• February 7, Muhammad Ali, Jr., son of the late heavyweight champion, is detained at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where CBP officials demand to know if he is Muslim. Ali later testified before Congress about the incident. Prior to boarding a flight home from D.C., he was singled out, this time by the Transportation Security Administration, for additional questioning.
• February 8, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos is taken into custody and later deported during a routine check-in with Phoenix’s ICE office. The 35-year-old mother of two U.S. citizen children had been given a pass heretofore by ICE, despite a felony conviction resulting from a 2008 work-site raid by the MCSO.
• February 22, passengers disembarking from a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York must present their “papers” to CBP officers before being allowed to leave. It’s later reported that CBP was on the hunt for someone its sister agency, ICE, thought was on the plane but wasn’t.
• March 1, ICE collars Daniela Vargas, 22, after a press conference during which the DREAMer from Argentina, who has qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, advocated on behalf of fellow DREAMers. She later was released after the intervention of national civil rights organizations.
• March 3, ICE arrests an undocumented immigrant father as he drives his 13-year-old daughter to school in Los Angeles. The teenager takes cellphone video of her father being hauled away by ICE agents in “POLICE” jackets as she weeps.
I could fill this newspaper with such incidents, as well as incidents of ICE agents showing up at local courthouses and arresting domestic-abuse victims, among others. There have also been raids by ICE on businesses and homes since Trump’s order.
ICE claims such operations are routine. And, admittedly, the agency does remove some truly “bad hombres,” as Trump might say, from the country.
But Trump has suspended the previous administration’s prioritization of serious criminals for deportation. As a result, the agency has become unhinged and unrestrained.
For example, a recent series of tweets by ICE called into question a memorandum issued February 20 by ICE’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which seemed to carve out an exception for those who qualify for DACA or DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents).
The DHS memo states that “with the exception of” these programs, all policies that conflict with Trump’s order are rescinded.
Nevertheless, on March 9, ICE tweeted that DACA “is not a protected legal status,” making it clear that young men and women who were brought to this country as kids, and have applied for and been granted DACA, can be zip-tied and detained just like your average undocumented schmo.
Arbitrary use of police power is one characteristic of autocracy. And one does not have to be paranoid to wonder what all of those ICE agents and CBP officers will do when the last illegal immigrant is booted from the country.
Who’s next, I wonder?
Such was my pattern of thought when I paid a visit to the Chandler Museum’s current exhibition, “Un-American: Japanese Internment in Our Backyard.”
The exhibit documents the Gila River War Relocation Center, which from 1942 to 1945 held more than 16,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent, a sliver of the more than 120,000 detained, mostly from the West Coast, as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066.
According to the exhibit, 70 percent of those 120,000 interned were American citizens, and their loyalty to America was under suspicion merely because of their race. While imprisoned in these camps, the internees lost their livelihoods, their businesses, and their property.
Reading newspaper accounts at the exhibit, as well as official documents and government posters from the time is like being slapped in the face with 2-by-4 of pure racism. One reproduction is of a Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) cartoon depicting a horde of identical Asian men picking up packages of TNT being handed out from a shack titled “Honorable Fifth Column.”
Will a future generation look back on this time as we now look back on the hysteria that gave birth to the internment?
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia answered my question from the grave. One of the exhibit’s panels quotes from an address Scalia gave in 2014, where he discussed a 1944 decision of the high court upholding the legality of the internment, which Scalia slammed as dead wrong.
He added, “But you are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again.”
Many, no doubt, will contend that what is happening today in the U.S. is not comparable to what happened to the Jews in the Third Reich, or to the Japanese during the internment.
They have a point.
Those being deported are not being killed. Not by us, anyway. Though that may happen at the hands of others to deportees in their home countries.
Still, removing a mother from her children, or arresting a father in front of his child, for the “crime” of immigrating to this country, or detaining someone on the suspicion of FWM, “Flying While Muslim” — is that the America in which we want to live?
As Trump and his followers try to force this backward “America First” mentality upon the populace, demonize immigrants, and institute white ethnocentric social policy, it is worth reminding ourselves of the valley of immigrants we live in, and why we want that diversity to enrich our lives.
There are many reasons to embrace immigration in all forms. Contrary to naysayers, nearly every study of any merit shows that immigration, both legal and illegal, is a net gain for the U.S. economy.
For proof, look no further than the college Trump attended, the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania. The school publishes online something called the “Penn Wharton Budget Model,” a survey of national budget issues.
A June 2016 analysis for the model concludes that the effect of immigration on the U.S. economy is “broadly positive,” and it finds that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are “unlikely to replace native-born workers or reduce their wages over the long-term.” Any short-term hardship is outweighed, the study suggests, by pushing American workers into better paying jobs.
What about illegal immigration and crime? Most studies say there is no link between violent crime and illegal immigration. If anything, some urban areas are safer because of it.
A recent study by the trade journal Governing found that “concentrations of unauthorized immigrants were associated with marginally lower violent crime rates,” a result consistent with numerous other studies on the same topic.
This is not to discount the grief felt by the loved ones of those who have been slain by someone here illegally. For this special issue, my colleague Ray Stern interviewed Mary Ann Mendoza, the mother of a Mesa police sergeant killed by a drunk driver in the country illegally.
Such anecdotes are powerful, which is why Trump has deftly exploited family members like Mendoza, whose grief and anger would be no less pointed if the drunk driver who killed her son had been an American citizen by birth.
I ask Knoblauch what he would do with the millions here illegally. He obviously has been asked this before, and without much pause, says that he would give those here sans papers three years to make up their minds: either stay, work, learn English, and become citizens, or leave.
“You have to give them a choice,” Knoblauch tells me. “This would be, I would say, the most decent, humane way of dealing with people.”
Which may be why it will not happen. Also, there’s no quarter in it for Trump, who seems intent on retaining his alt-right base, his fascist followers, who are some of the most ardent of his supporters.
So, to borrow a line from one of Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s favorite historical figures — V. I. Lenin — “What is to be done?”
Especially if we want to maintain America as a bastion of liberty, multiculturalism, tolerance, and respect for human and civil rights?
There are two answers: one prosaic, one heroic, neither mutually exclusive.
The prosaic is activism, involvement in the political process on all levels, opposition, resistance.
The heroic example comes from Knoblauch’s life story, which he tells to as many groups and schools as will have him. They involve ordinary Germans and Poles who saved his life on different occasions, while he was in the ghetto.
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One was a gentile farmer, who brought him bread, an illegal act at the time, and who sent him away on an errand when the Nazis came to the street they were working on, for one of their regular roundups of Jews.
Another was a German SS officer who, against all odds, befriended Knoblauch, defied his colleagues, and refused to let Knoblauch be transported to the death camps.
As Knoblauch likes to say, these men chose not to be bystanders.
“They defied every possible threat,” Knoblauch tells me. “They defied their orders and said, ‘I have to do what I have to do.’ They became those proverbial ‘upstanders.’
“Standing up is the key,” he adds, “the thing to do. We need millions of upstanders.”