The Wisdom of Nine-Year-Olds

women-arriving-at-AuschwitzI have a good friend who lives a day’s drive from me. Mostly, we’re friends from a distance. I have never met her spouse or her daughter, except on Facebook.

About the daughter. She is nine years old. Her antics (at least, those recorded on Facebook) are intelligent and inspired. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a posed picture of her. The photos of her on Facebook are all activity. When I think of her, I think of a picture of her lying on the ground, face partially hidden, examining a bug or banana slug, asking questions at a pace that defies answer. I picture her as a mass of brown curls with a girl somewhere underneath.

I have little reason to know more about her, but I do know a little more about her. She is adopted. She is half Latina. I assume she was born in the United States; I know she was living in the United States when she was adopted. Do these details matter?

I learned last week that my friend’s daughter is afraid of Donald Trump. She’s heard of Trump’s plan to deport the roughly 11 million undocumented aliens residing in the United States. She’s probably heard of that other plan of Trump’s, to deny entry (or perhaps, re-entry) of Muslims into the United States solely on the basis of their religious faith.

My friend’s daughter wants to know whether, if Trump becomes President, he’s going to send her back to Costa Rica because she’s brown.

I learned that conversations like this are taking place all across the United States. According to this article and others I’ve read, kids do hear Trump in the media, and they do talk about him. They hear Trump wants to send people back to the countries where they came from. They want to know what will happen to them if Trump is elected President.

I want to write my friend’s daughter and tell her not to worry, that this is America and she is an American citizen, that the things she’s worrying about cannot happen to her. But I don’t write.

Instead, I think of a picture of another nine-year-old. He is naked and standing in a tub in a white tiled bathroom. Unlike my friend’s daughter, this boy’s face is always pointed at the camera. He likes attention. He smiles as broadly as his little face can manage. The picture was taken in 1936, in a boarding school near Berlin. The little boy’s father fled Nazi Germany the year before, to escape arrest by the SS. The little boy’s stepmother and oldest stepsister left Germany earlier that year, to set up a household in the United States for the little boy, his father, his sister and his other step-siblings. There is no assurance when this photo is taken that the little boy will be able to leave Germany to join his parents. The little boy doesn’t know all of this, because he is in boarding school, and his parents divorced years earlier, and his mother died of cancer. He’s not sure who his family is at this point, let alone where they all are.

This little boy is my father.

I think of a picture of another little boy. He is nine years old, or maybe ten. I can see a picture of this boy only in my mind’s eye. He is sitting on the edge of his parents’ bed, alone, in front of the TV, because his mother put him there. There was something on TV that night, something too grown up for his little sisters to watch, so his mother turned on the TV, closed the door of her bedroom and left him alone to watch. The little boy understood only some of what he saw on TV that night. He saw movie clips of soldiers shooting naked men, women and children who fell dead or dying into trenches they’d dug for themselves moments earlier. He saw film of death camps, gas chambers and ovens, dead bodies stacked on top of each other like refuse. He saw railroad stock cars where people were deported from one place to another, towards imprisonment and slave labor and near-certain death, packed so tightly they had to raise their arms above their heads to make room. The little boy had known, seemingly always, that his father had spent part of his boyhood in Nazi Germany, before the mass murder had begun, but not before life there had grown nearly impossible for Jews. But he’d never seen this before, pictures of where his father had grown up, and pictures of the Holocaust his father had so narrowly escaped.

This little boy, the boy watching TV, was me.

We may be fond of telling our children that their dreams can come true. We don’t want to tell them that their nightmares can also come true.

I’ll repeat. The Republican nominee for the office of President of the United States, Donald Trump, proposes to deport roughly 11 million people from the United States to their countries of origin. 11 million is, coincidentally, the number of people murdered in the Holocaust. There’s a risk in any system of deportation that deportees will die. But for the moment, let’s not focus on death. There’s plenty of misery and hardship in mass deportation that falls short of death.

The scale of Trump’s proposed deportations staggers the imagination. Trump proposes to accomplish his deportation over a two-year span. This comes out to a rate of roughly 15,000 deportations per day, compared to the present average daily rate of 645. Measured in this way, Trump is proposing to deport people at a rate 25 times faster than at present. But the Trump plan is even more drastic than this, because the vast bulk of people deported today are people apprehended (a) at or near the border, or (b) in criminal proceedings. Only around 5,000 people deported from the United States in 2015 (approximately 15 per day) fit the description of the vast bulk of U.S. undocumented resident aliens: namely, people residing some distance from the U.S. border who do not have criminal records. Trump proposes to increase these deportations by a factor of 1,000. The 5,000 deportations of law-abiding aliens that took place in the U.S. interior during the entire year of 2015? Trump proposes this number of deportations in an average morning.

It is not clear how Trump would manage to deport people hundreds of times more quickly than at present. For example: how would Trump manage to move so many people from their current homes to their “countries of origin”? Again, I’ll return to the Holocaust for comparison. Scholars have studied the rate at which victims of the Holocaust were transported to the death camps. The Nazis, masters of brutal efficiency, managed to place their victims into train transit at a rate of around 7,500 people per day. During the height of the Holocaust, the Nazis loaded 1.5 trains per day with their intended victims, with each train pulling 50 boxcars that could “hold” 50 people, but which were often packed to twice this capacity, so that many died before ever reaching the death camps. To keep the pace of 15,000 deportations per day, Donald Trump would have to at least double the transportation capacity of the Holocaust. How would he manage it? How many airplanes, buses, trains, passenger cars, refugees on bicycles, refugees on foot, would it take? How much human misery would result?

If we consider the human cargo that Trump proposes to transport elsewhere, we also have to consider what Trump would force his deportees to leave behind. Holocaust victims were sometimes allowed a single suitcase (a ruse to help convince them that they were not being transported to their deaths). How much luggage would Trump permit his deportees? Amidst the unspeakable cruelty of ripping 11 million people from their homes would be 11 million individual decisions of what to pack in allotted deportee luggage, and what to abandon. And what would happen to the abandoned property? By some estimates, the Nazis looted tens of billions of dollars in property from the Jews they murdered. Is this what Trump imagines for us? That the roughly 300 million of us permitted to remain in the U.S. will divvy up the belongings of the 11 million forced to leave?

Is this the country we’re being asked to become?

There are other ways to measure the potential impact of Trump’s proposed deportations, but I prefer to focus my attention on the question raised by my friend’s nine-year-old daughter. Would she be deported if Trump is elected and allowed to implement his plan? She is a U.S. citizen, but Trump proposes to strip citizenship from many children whose parents were born outside of the U.S. And Trump’s proposed “deportation force” would mistakenly deport some people—“brown” people, as she refers to herself. It’s been estimated that perhaps 1% of those apprehended in the U.S. today for deportation are actually U.S. citizens. If this number stays steady, then Trump’s deportation effort will result in the detention of over 100,000 U.S. citizens—a number that exceeds the population of Japanese-Americans interred during World War II.

I should pause. You’re reading these anguished words on a site devoted to interfaith dialogue. I don’t know if what I’m writing here has anything to do with interfaith dialogue. I know I’m writing from a place in the heart that feels Jewish to me.  Many times in our history, Jews have been told by their neighbors, “This is our country, not yours, now get out.” We were supposed to learn lessons from this treatment about the right way to treat our neighbors and the strangers in our midst, and in dialogue with our non-Jewish neighbors, we were supposed to learn these lessons together. Evidently we did not learn well enough, because there is Trump.

I don’t know what to say to my friend’s nine-year-old daughter. She understands something that many of the rest of us cannot consistently keep in mind: that the next President of the United States may seek to rip little girls like her from their homes. I want to tell her that no such thing can happen, only I remember that such a thing did happen to my father when he was nine, and I remember learning when I was nine that such things do happen.

I have nothing to say to my friend’s daughter. Except maybe, to promise to listen more, and talk more, about the things that fuel the nightmares of nine-year-olds.

  • This is a perfect topic for interfaith dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. Defending the powerless is our highest calling.

  • Defending the powerless is Judaism and Christianity’s highest calling.

  • Marie Hartung

    I have to admit, being one of the many “married” LGBT folks in his country, this very topic has crossed my mind many times. How difficult -or easy -would it be to look us all up, find our addresses, and deport us after the long line of others had already been deported. It’s nice to believe it’s not “you” they are coming for until in fact, it is you. And having a 10-yr old, not far off from nine, when is it his turn to also pack a suitcase?

    • Marie, your comment recalls the oft-cited quote from Martin Niemöller about Nazi rule: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Niemöller

      I try to be careful to note that this time around, there’s no reason to think that Trump is coming after the Jews. He’s not a social conservative, and he broken with Republican Party orthodoxy about transgender rights. But I think the Niemöller logic is that when someone comes for our neighbor, we must react as if they have come for us. At the same time, we must keep in mind that the nine-year-old I wrote about has a special, personal reason to be afraid.