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Israel Banned the Organization that Saved My Family
by Tzuria Falkenberg
LAST WEEK, Israel published a list of twenty international organizations whose members will no longer be allowed to enter the country because of those organizations’ support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Almost eighty years ago, members of one of those newly-banned organizations saved a member of my family.
Among the banned is the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that describes itself as “promot[ing] lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action.” These days, the American Friends Service Committee works to end racial and economic injustice, campaigns for human rights, and seeks peaceful solutions to violence around the world. But to me, the organization means even more, due the role they played in saving my ancestors.
In the late 1930s, my great-grandparents and their two children were living in Stettin, Germany. They were a half-Jewish family under the Nazi regime, and my great-grandparents did what any parents would -- they tried to protect their children. My grandfather, a young man of military age, had little choice but to stay in Germany, though he hoped to finish his high school education. His sister, not yet 10, could barely remember a time before Hitler. She had not been raised Jewish, so when she returned from school one day in 1938 to ask her mother, “What are Jews?”, she was surprised to learn that her grandmother was one -- and, according to the Nazis, so was she.
Her mother searched in desperation for any way to get her out of Germany. A connection with a British Quaker gave my great-aunt the chance she needed; 9 years old and sworn to secrecy, she took a train alone to Hamburg, where another Quaker helped her board a cargo ship to London.
My aunt had a difficult childhood, spent at boarding school and in foster homes, but she survived. By the time the war broke out, her mother had escaped to England, too. Joining her, her father overstayed a travel visa, issued just a month before the war began, and was permitted to join the Royal Armed Forces.
MANY WEEKENDS, as the war loomed closer, my great-aunt accompanied her mother to Bloomsbury House in London, where Quaker, Jewish, Catholic, and Anglican service organizations worked together to support Jewish refugees. There, they sought news of my grandfather, who was still stranded in Europe. Though they rarely heard anything, he, too, survived the war. One of the few messages they received from him, written in code, informed my great-aunt that her own grandmother had been deported to Poland and killed.
I am lucky that my grandfather, my great-aunt, and their parents survived the Holocaust, and that my great-aunt is still here telling her story. But my family’s story is not unique -- Quaker leaders and their Jewish counterparts were instrumental in organizing the Kindertransport, which brought 10,000 German-Jewish children to safety in Britain in 1938 and 1939. For this work and more, British Quaker organizations and the American Friends Service Committee won the Nobel Peace Prize together in 1947.
This is my family’s history. So I cannot accept that we, as an international Jewish community, should now turn our backs on those allies and organizations, those moral leaders, who saved many of our lives and actively resisted the annihilation of our people not even a century ago.
My great aunt still lives in England, and had just turned 89 when I saw her in September. She lives her life unapologetically and is unafraid to speak out when she sees injustice, whether it be air pollution from the semi-trucks that drive through her small town or the imprisonment of political opposition leaders around the globe. For my part, I’m an organizer and a leader in IfNotNow, a movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for Israel’s occupation, and I take inspiration from her -- what she’s lived through and how she’s lived, as we work to build a Jewish community that affirms freedom and dignity for all.
Tzuria Falkenberg is an organizer with IfNotNow Boston, and a recent graduate of Tufts University, where she studied Middle Eastern Studies and French. She works in the housing department of a public-health non-profit in Boston.