When he looks into the tired eyes of the Syrian refugees now flooding Europe’s borders, Guy Sorman is reminded of his father, Nathan, who fled Germany for France just months before Adolf Hitler came to power.
“He wanted to go to the United States. Visa declined. He tried Spain, same result. He ended up in France, neither welcome nor deported,” Sorman wrote last week in an op-ed in Le Monde in which he argued that Europe should learn from its abandonment of the Jews during the Holocaust and accommodate the stream of migrants pouring through its borders from the war-torn Middle East.
Sorman’s view is not uncommon among European Jews, many of them living in societies still grappling with a sense of collective guilt for their indifference to the Nazi genocide — or complicity in it. At a Holocaust memorial event in Paris on Sept. 6, French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia urged Europe’s leaders to match the actions of non-Jews who saved Jews from the Nazis by welcoming Syrian refugees.
Yet as many European Jews rush to the refugees’ aid in word and deed, some worry that letting them stay may further contribute to the anti-Semitic violence driving Jews to leave Europe, much of it perpetrated by immigrants from the Middle East. Eager to exploit such fears, ISIS claimed in July that it had sent 1,000 fighters to infiltrate Europe as refugees.
“Some of these new immigrants — the Syrians and Iraqis especially — have been taught to hate Jews,” Henri Gutman, president of the left-leaning Belgian Jewish cultural group CCLJ, wrote in an op-ed published Aug. 31 on the organization’s website. “We risk further increases in anti-Semitism.”
While urging “generosity” toward the refugees, Gutman said Europeans must observe “imperatives of defense” against Islamism. The Central Jewish Organization of the Netherlands, where two elderly Holocaust survivors were hospitalized recently following an assault by robbers who appeared to be Middle Eastern immigrants, spoke to a similar tension in a statement from its chairman, Ron van der Wieken.
While “aware that some Middle Eastern refugees harbor very negative feelings toward Jews … Jews cannot withdraw support from those in need and fleeing serious violence,” van der Wieken wrote. He urged Holland to devise a “charitable” refugee policy.
Such tension even exists for some of the hundreds of Jews helping the refugees on the ground in Hungary, Austria, Italy and beyond.
“As Eastern European Jews, we carry the knowledge of how it feels like to flee our homes,” said Zoltan Radnoti, the newly elected chairman of the rabbinical board of the Mazsihisz umbrella group of Hungarian Jewish communities. “Still, I help the refugees with fear that I am helping send danger to other Jews in Europe. I know some of the refugees may have fired on our [Israeli] soldiers. Others would have done so in a heartbeat. I know. But I am duty bound to help.”
In Hungary, the main point of entry for a wave of refugees that authorities have only partially been able to check since its onset last month, approximately 150 Jews are involved in a relief operation mounted by local Jewish communities. Two weeks ago, Mazsihisz set up three collection depots in Budapest Jewish institutions from which it delivered approximately half a ton of food, clothes and other necessities to migrants. The community also collected $5,000 to buy diapers, medicine and water.
In Italy, the Jewish community of Milan threw open the doors of its Holocaust museum last month to accommodate homeless migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
And in Brussels, Menachen Margolin, a Chabad rabbi and director of the European Jewish Association lobby group, led a delegation of rabbis to deliver food and nonperishables to the refugees.
Such actions are part of a wider popular reaction in Europe to the migrant problem. It’s an issue that has worried immigration authorities for more than 20 years, but the wars in Syria and Iraq along with instability elsewhere in the region brought the crisis to a head last month, as tens of thousands began pouring into the European Union from Serbia.
In some cases, border guards were unable to stop the masses from crossing. In Hungary, authorities helped the masses move westward to wealthier EU countries, a policy consistent with right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s claim that the migrants are “a German problem” because that’s where the refugees “would like to go.” The move flouts EU rules that make refugees the responsibility of the first member state they reach.
On Sept. 8, Germany vowed to absorb 500,000 refugees per year — far beyond the figure pledged by other members.
Some 340,000 people have immigrated from the Middle East into Europe in 2015 alone, according to EU figures.
Some of the volunteers were jarred into action by the image of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach on Sept. 2. Aylan’s father was the only member of his family who survived when its boat capsized en route from Turkey to Greece. The gruesome sight followed the discovery the previous week of 71 bodies in a truck abandoned on an Austrian highway.
But for Julia Kaldori, a Hungarian-born Jew who divides her time between Vienna and Budapest, the trigger was less shocking.
“I started seeing people convening at train stations in Budapest,” said Kaldori, the editor of Wina, the monthly publication of the Jewish Community of Vienna. “I began talking to some of them, and I couldn’t help becoming involved.”
Kaldori says she is aware that statistically, Middle Eastern immigrants are responsible for most of the violence driving French Jews to leave in record numbers — nearly 7,000 in 2014 alone. But “when you look into their eyes, the refugee issue stops being a demographic issue,” she said.
Kaldori hopes that having been helped by Jews, refugees with anti-Jewish views may reconsider. But Radnoti, the rabbi from Budapest, says he is less hopeful. Instead, he cites the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sinner cities that Abraham had pleaded with God to spare.
“If there are but five righteous souls in that group,” Radnoti said, “then we must do what we can to save them.”