Caleb Marll, a sophomore at Mt. Spokane High School, won first place in the Spokane Community Observance of the Holocaust creative writing contest. Here is his essay:
‘An Open Letter to America’
As I sit here today and articulate these thoughts, I think of how these words are not only for you, but also for me. You see, America, you and I are one and the same. I am part of you, and you are part of me. Yet, you have seen far more than I have. You were just a child when you, a group of European colonists, demanded freedom from your mother England. You wrote down your morals and beliefs in a Constitution. One should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you said. You grew larger and larger and stronger and stronger until, eventually, you spanned the entire continent, east to west. Through hard work, you put yourself in a position of power that caused your neighbors around the globe to fear you, as well as respect you. You had established yourself as a role model, and you were on the high road, but I pose this question to you, America: Where were you during the Holocaust? Where were you when people across Europe were being targeted based on their religion, something that you believed was a natural right of man? Why did you allow Lady Liberty’s torch to lead oppressed peoples across the Atlantic on the MS St. Louis, only to revoke your outstretched hand and show them the door? Why America? You had the opportunity to prove who you were, but you didn’t. The world watched, and you were no better.
When the Great Depression steamed into town in 1929 and hit you like a freight train, you got scared. Jobs were scarce, and so was income. People felt hungry, and out of options. A decade later, you had gotten yourself under control. You were on the rise again. Then word came across the high seas that Jews were being rounded up by German Nazi forces and being put into work camps, or worse, death camps. You did not like the Nazis, nor did you support them in any way. It was inhumane what they were doing. But, you were in no position to take on immigrants. Your people had just regained their jobs and were starting to be able to support their families again. There was no way that foreign Jews were going to enter your land and take the jobs that you had just worked so hard to bring back.
There was another force that hurt you, both socially and economically. The ideology of social Darwinism, stating that groups of people are subject to the same laws of natural selection that plants and animals are, had swept through Europe and was reaching American soil. This social Darwinist ideology justified racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, and it began to spread like disease among your people. Your people realized that their jobs could be taken by immigrants, pouring fuel on the already-blazing fire of anti-Semitism. This virus did not affect everybody, but it overtook enough of them that your public opinion did not support the immigration of Jews to your lands.
The hurricane that was the Holocaust had you, a single tree in the storm, swaying side to side. To make matters worse, your roots were tangled. Your leadership, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was incoherent and unsure of what to do. In 1939, the Wagner-Rogers Bill was introduced to your Congress. The bill proposed the rescue of 20,000 German Jewish children. It was supported by many people, including former President Herbert Hoover, for obvious reasons. 20,000 children could be spared! However, many people were yet again worried about the impact that children of that number would have when they grew up to be adults. President Roosevelt declared no action on the bill, and it eventually died after failing to gain enough public support. Five years later, matters got messier. Your State Department was delaying assistance to Jewish organizations that would send money into Europe to help. The Treasury Department, in charge of approving licenses for relief, realized this and brought a proposal to your President, who established the War Refugee Board. The purpose of the War Refugee Board was to put one group in charge of overseas funding. The board was committed to saving lives and was a positive factor, but it was established in 1944. Had it been established six years prior, its effectiveness would have been far more vast.
Oh America, how I wish you and I could go back and change the course of history. Unfortunately, we cannot. What is most important is that we must not forget what has happened. If we forget, history will repeat itself. In order to grow out of our mistakes, we must learn from them and strive to make the world a better place. To do this, we must take action. In the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Courage must take precedence over fear. We can help those who are victims of injustice. We can be a voice against genocide. We can fight human trafficking. We can end racism and sexism. But, we must speak out. The power belongs to the individual. That is how legislation is moved. So I ask you, America, are you a nation who hides beneath the Stars and Stripes in hopes that you will not be forced to act? Or, are you a people who stand proudly waving your flag, supporting and helping the oppressed? We are a strong nation with a mighty voice. Most importantly, we are a free people. We must remember that while others’ freedom is dependent on ours, the value of our freedom is dependent upon theirs.
A Proud American