Our Country, Our Legacy & the Past We Ignore

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Ellis Island 2018 trmugler

As the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum celebrates its 75th Anniversary of Liberation,[1] which took place on January 27th 1945, the push for awareness of the events that rocked an entire country and impacted the world as a whole, are saturating the globe as a new generation is taught the horrors of the world’s largest genocide.

What many won’t recall however, are the incidents that led up to the attempted annihilation of an entire people. History tends to skip over the events that built the foundation for such an abhorrent act to ever take place. July of 1933, Germany invoked the ‘Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases’, calling for the forced sterilization of all persons who presented with a hereditary disease, mental illness, deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness as well as learning disabilities. Sorting the disabled into categories of ‘life unworthy of life’ and ‘useless eaters’ the propaganda highlighted the societal burden of allowing these people to continue to exist. [2]

Code named T4, an acronym for the street address of the programs office in Berlin, the mass genocide of the institutionalized mentally and physically disabled spread wide and fast. Though the sudden deaths of thousands with strangely similar ‘causes’ listed on death certificates raised suspicions, it continued openly as people turned a blind eye.

In August of 1939 a decree circulated from the Reich Ministry of the Interior, obliged healthcare officials such as doctors, nurses and midwives to report all newborn infants as well as infants under the age of three that presented with signs of mental or physical disability. This quickly grew to include anyone up to 17 years of age[3]. It is estimated that over 300,000 physically and mentally disabled children were executed during the T4 program[4].

Many aren’t even aware that the T4 program was the prequel to the Holocaust, but you would have to go back even further to find the beginning of the atrocities cast upon those perceived as unfit. It was common place for German psychiatric institutions to sterilize, abuse, and experiment on the disabled as far back at the 1920’s[5].

The testing of gas chambers and mass human experimentation was vamped up by the Third Reich, as droves of institutions were emptied for the protection and welfare of all mankind. Hitler had a long list of people he deemed unfit and a danger to us all. In his attempt to cleanse the world, he began with the most vulnerable. The burden of those with disabilities caught the propaganda train and went out into the airwaves, seeking to bend the minds of the healthy, hardworking, and productive. Assuring everyone that the drain on civilization was dire, the Nazi’s moved even further into darkness proclaiming those afflicted with disabilities wanted to be put out of their misery and their execution would be a humane and compassionate task to oblige[6].

The world at large has a long history of treating those with disabilities as less than human, and America is no exception. You need only visit Ellis Island to come face to face with the discriminatory actions taken against the frail, sickly and perceived disabled.

Long seen as the Isle of Hope, it also holds the history of a deeply rooted tradition of discrimination. Opening in 1892, it served as the largest immigration processing center for over 60 years. It’s estimated that 40% of all American citizens can trace at least one ancestor to the island.

Regardless of one’s reason for fleeing their country of origin, they all entered the center with hope of a better life in the ‘new world.’ Standing in long lines they were each examined for any attribute that would deem them unworthy of entry. In 1910 a law passed denying entry to persons with mental or physical disabilities, only to be expanded on in 1918 when a literacy test is added to entry requirements leading to the ban of nearly all Asians seeking to immigrate.[7]

Chalking an L for suspected ‘lameness’ and an X for suspected mental defect[8] onto the immigrants clothes, was common practice for identifying the unfavorable. No one was immune to the sorting and categorization practices of discrimination, and those with real or perceived disabilities were at the top of the list of those certain to be a unwelcome burden on society. Embracing the ideals of eugenics the medical examinations carried out on Ellis Island designated a disability as automatically undesirable.

The Immigration Act of 1924 tightened the belt on entry due to intensifying fear across the country of communism as well as the belief that too many unskilled and uneducated immigrants were being allowed in, creating an inequitable competition for land and jobs. The new law would only allow for the entry of college educated or special skilled individuals, provided they were not Mexican, Japanese or from Eastern and Southern European countries as well as those with real or alleged disabilities.[9]

America’s current commotion over the separation of children at the border from their parents, has caused protests, law suits and disgust from citizens across the country, insisting this is not America, this is not how we treat immigrants. However, the separation of children was not uncommon during the operation of Ellis Island. If granted entry, a parent had to cross into New York or risk deportation whether or not their child was detained. Regardless of age, any child thought to be ill or ‘lame’ were quarantined for days, weeks and even months to the hospital area of the island without the accompaniment of a parent. The difference from then to now, officials on Ellis Island didn’t misplace children or whom they belonged to, as is the case today with over 1400 unaccounted for[10].

This new attempt to prevent immigrants from residing in America illegally has literally led to thousands of children stuck in a country that deported their parents without them. The financial burden of housing, clothing, feeding and educating these children doesn’t seem to be an issue with those claiming America can’t afford for illegals to be here. The contradictions weaving and threading their way through the same fabric as our ancestors leaves one wondering if anyone listens to themselves when they speak.

Young children weren’t the only minors being removed from their parents, due to new laws in 1917, anyone over the age of 16 wishing to enter the country had to first pass a literacy test, those that failed were deported as undesirable. Anyone thought to be an idiot, feeble-minded, insane as well as epileptic were barred from entry[11].

It’s not just children of immigrants that our nation has an appalling history of separating, it was an accepted and customary practice to sell off slaves without their children, seen as no more than another piece of property. The business of selling enslaved children was lucrative and equally common place.

Our country was literally built upon the foundation of oppressing an entire race for the benefit of free labor and personal financial advancement, regardless of a slaves age[12]. It’s no surprise that slaves with physical or intellectual disabilities continued to suffer long after emancipation, deemed not-able bodied they were often forced to stay on the plantation of their former owner under the same conditions and treatment prior to the 13th Amendment.

On this anniversary of liberation, may we all recognize the strength and faith it takes to overcome prejudice, bigotry and oppression. May we insist on remembering the atrocities and join in preventing them.

Difference is not celebrated in America, although it has a long history of creating change. As I acknowledge that I live in a country that today would not allow my own child entry, it is my hope that we all rise up today and create a better legacy than the one before us. May each of us also, remember to lift someone else up with us.

[1] http://auschwitz.org/en/museum/news/the-grand-anniversary-of-the-liberation-of-auschwitz-next-year,1340.html

[2] https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/nazi-persecution-of-the-disabled

[3] https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/nazi-persecution-of-the-disabled

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/opinion/nazis-holocaust-disabled.html

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/opinion/nazis-holocaust-disabled.html

[6] https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/nazi-persecution-of-the-disabled

[7] https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/ellis-island

[8] http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/immigration/tour/stop6.htm#tab2-content

[9] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/coolidge-signs-stringent-immigration-lawd

[10] https://cmsny.org/from-the-cms-archive-separation-of-families/

[11] https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-ugly-us-history-of-separating-families-goes-back-way-beyond-trump

[12] https://www.aaihs.org/slavery-and-americas-legacy-of-family-separation/

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