I am not the only one frustrated by our country’s apparent inability to face its own history. Some of us have the luxury of leaving history in the past; others, especially the oppressed, recognize that those painful histories are still unfolding. Meaningful discussions between the two sides are few and far between. People who try to shed light on the United States’ legacy of colonization, slavery and other injustices always seem to run up against an impenetrable wall of defensiveness. It should be no surprise, then, that after hundreds of years our society has reached no consensus about the causes of the Civil War, the European colonization of native lands or of countless other injustices that have shaped our nation. This disconnect, I believe, explains some of today’s most severe political divisions and alienates Americans from the tangible problems that result from these histories. For the same reason, much of the patriotism I witness in this country feels cheap and immature. I sometimes feel like my fellow citizens are celebrating a country they know nothing about.
It can be disheartening, sometimes, to live in a country that doesn’t seem to learn its lesson. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on immigration (the “Muslim ban”) was another sobering reminder that our country has not successfully grappled with its past. I am the granddaughter of refugees. After their liberation from Auschwitz and a brief convalescence at a displaced persons’ camp, my grandparents came to the United States under the purview of the 1948 Displaced Persons Act. They were part of a globally despised religious minority, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy to undermine Western civilization. Sound familiar?
My family got in. Many people didn’t. In 1939, almost a thousand Jewish refugees on the ship M.S. St. Louis were turned away from U.S. ports and forced back to Europe, many to their eventual deaths in Nazi concentration camps. In the 1980s, the U.S. closed its doors to Central Americans fleeing political upheaval and mass killings. Today, as Trump’s order demonstrates, we are again experiencing the cowardly impulse to turn our backs on the world’s most vulnerable.
My family always holds up Nazi Germany as the epitome of human evil. The Germany of today, however, displays a level of political maturity and historical understanding that I believe the U.S. would benefit from learning more about. Modern Germany is dedicated to honestly facing up to its historical legacy of crimes against humanity. German schoolchildren learn about the Holocaust, German laws prohibit denial of the tragedy and the German government admits refugees as an attempt to right its historical wrongs. Even my 89-year-old grandmother still receives reparation checks from the German government so she can continue living in her apartment. Can the United States say the same of those it has enslaved, exploited or killed?
I major in history not because I love the stories. I study history because I believe in the fundamental importance of coming to terms with the past, not only on an individual level, but also as a society. History may make us proud, sure – there are many accomplishments and innovations that might make us proud to be part of a particular family, community or group. But, we must look for more than pride. We must look back in time with an eye towards what humanity is really made of, and when we do so, we might understand that humanity is equally capable of fear, of complacency and of unimaginable evil. Let’s know who we are and prove that we can do better.
Sarah Weiser ’17 is a history and Russian double major from Merion, Pa. She lives in West.