Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster recounted during Thursday's event how he came to the U.S. as a refugee after World War II.
There are few people with more moral authority than Holocaust survivors, and at a press conference at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie Thursday, they used that authority to speak out against President Donald Trump's immigration ban—which, they noted, had, in a supreme irony, been enacted on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Eighteen survivors came to the museum to show their solidarity for the refugees and nationals of seven primarily-Muslim countries who have been forbidden entry into the U.S. for 90 or 120 days.
"Ninety days is a lifetime," said Fritzie Fritzshall, the museum's president. "Ninety days was a lifetime for us. When you're hungry and thirsty and cold, 90 days is a very, very long time to wait."
Fritzshall recounted how her father had immigrated to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of World War II. Fritzshall, her mother, and her two brothers had their papers in order and were prepared to join him, but they couldn't get out in time. Instead they were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Fritzshall was the only one who survived.
"I lost my entire family in Auschwitz to the ovens," she said. "I feel for all those mothers out there who are trying to bring their children here to give them a better life. What is this country built on if not freedom?"
Ralph Rehbock, a museum vice president, was able to escape Germany with his family in 1938, but said they would not have been able to manage without the kindness of strangers in both America and Germany: the relatives in Chicago who let his mother stay with them and helped her fill out the immigration papers; the Marine guard at the U.S. consulate in Berlin who called the Consul General who issued the family's visas on November 11—even though it was an American holiday—because it was two days after Kristallnacht; the neighbor who tracked them down in Berlin by telephone to warn his father not to return home to Gotha because the Nazis had come to arrest him; and the anonymous passenger at the train station on the Dutch-German border who guided Rehbock and his mother to the train that would take them into Holland.
"My family is so indebted to those Chicago cousins who did not know us and the several other upstanders who helped us and allowed us to establish a life in America," he said.
Aaron Elster, another museum vice president, survived the Holocaust by hiding in an attic of a Polish family. The rest of his family was killed.
"By the good graces of people in this country who sponsored orphans, I came to this country," he said. "I was able to succeed and raise a family to make up for the family that I lost."
As a result, Elster said, he and other survivors were able to "contribute to the welfare of this country."
"I served in Korea in the American army—I was not even a citizen," he said. "We all pay our taxes. We all do what we have to do to make this country great."
Elster emphasized that even before the ban, the process of seeking asylum for refugees was a long, drawn-out process that can take two years. And though he acknowledged that the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in, among other places, Boston and San Bernadino were immigrants, he argued they weren't terrorists because
they were immigrants.
"We cannot exclude thousands and thousands of people because of what the terrorists have done," Elster said.
"It's a sliding slope," he added, thinking back to his own horrific experiences. "You dehumanize people, and then it's OK to do what you want with them."