My Uncle Max made it past the Border Patrol and became a doctor in the United States — a chest specialist. He wasn’t really my uncle. He was a med student who fled the Nazis in 1936 — before the United States started turning away Jewish refugees — and ended up living in Chicago with my grandparents.
I don’t know how Uncle Max found his way to my Oma and Opa, and I suppose I’ll never know. All of them are dead. I heard the story from Uncle Max in 1973, after I graduated from college and had a nagging cough.
I had no money for a doctor. I was working for the Post Office in Portland, Oregon, and playing baritone sax in a funk band.
“Call your Uncle Max,” my Mom told me from Chicago.
“Who’s Uncle Max?” I said.
Uncle Max examined me, suggested I cut down on the weed, and told me his story.
He was a medical student in Germany — fairly advanced, as he already had the tools of his trade. He lived with his parents. They were Jewish.
One day, some Nazi gentlemen knocked on their door, or barged in, ransacked the place, and found Max’s little black bag. In it they found a syringe and some hypodermic needles.
“Aha! A morphinist!” one said. They left, but said they’d be back.
Uncle Max’s parents — I do not know their names — told him he had to leave the country immediately. And he did — the next day, I believe.
This was two years before Kristallnacht — Nov. 9-10, 1938 — when the war on the Jews had become official policy. Four years after Kristallnacht, with the big war on, FDR turned away boatloads full of Jews fleeing the Third Reich. FDR called them a threat to national security.
Max’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis. In Auschwitz, I believe. But what does it matter where they died? We know who killed them, and why, and to some extent, how it could have been prevented.
How Max hooked up with my Oma and Opa, as I’ve said, I do not know. I suppose through some Jewish relief organization.
Uncle Max, a refugee, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1944, though he did not have to, as he was 35 years old. He married in 1950 and he and his wife raised three children, two girls and a boy.
Now, here is an interesting thing. This is not the first time I’ve written this column. The first time was 30 years ago, give or take. I was city editor of The Brownsville Herald, in Texas, and the Reagan administration was rounding up and imprisoning tens of thousands of refugees from government death squads in Central America — women, children and babies — for the despicable crime of trying to escape from war.
The Herald hired me because I’d written a few news articles about the work I’d done as a paralegal in U.S. immigration prisons, helping attorneys represent victims of rape, torture and war. I’d also covered the privatization of our immigration prisons, in which our federal government hired private, money-seeking Republican campaign contributors — I mean, corporations — and gave them the power to strip-search children, mothers and babies.
The privatization of immigration prisons gives private corporations — above all, Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, which changed its name to CoreCivic in 2016, because the CCA logo had become so thoroughly soaked in the blood of children; and GEO Group, CoreCivic’s main competitor; and dozens of well-intentioned but benighted church-affiliated groups that imprison refugee children to save the federal government the bother and expense — as I was saying, all these private prisons give the U.S. government a way to sidestep responsibility for the war crimes it is committing, and has been committing for decades — surely since 1985, when my 3-year-old client was strip-searched in CCA’s Laredo prison because her Salvadoran mother made the outrageous demand to speak to a pro bono attorney.
This is all true.
Do you like it?
I can’t see how you could.
What is going on today, under the Trump administration, is far worse.
I know what you’re thinking: What could be worse than strip-searching children?
I am tired, my friends. I worked for virtually nothing in U.S. immigration prisons to try to save Central Americans’ lives under the Reagan administration. I’m not going back to the prisons. But hundreds of other human rights workers are doing it.
They are doing — dare I say it? — God’s work, and doing it under obnoxious and intrusive government surveillance. Most of them are doing it for free, or for far less than minimum wage.
I would like to list the names of a few of them here — pro bono legal organizations, human rights groups — who are doing what our government should be doing, and failed to do, in the 1940s and 1980s, and is failing to do today. But times being what they are, I fear this might do them more harm than good.
We should support them. Most of them are tax-exempt nonprofits.
(Courthouse News editor Robert Kahn’s book, “Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade,” (1996) was the first history of U.S. immigration prisons.)