Emotional Health · Politics

Pittsburgh and the Psychology of
the Immigrant Experience

The recent killing of eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh has  provided an inflection point for the tone of bigotry and divisiveness that has marked our country in recent years. The mid-term elections held around the country today have brought emotions to a fevered pitch.

While the United States, as a slave-owning nation, was literally founded on a structure that supported racism, it also professed ideals of freedom. Historically, many immigrants came here seeking that promise, fleeing from poverty and persecution in their native land, just as they do now.

My great-grandfather emigrated with his family in the 1880s from Vilna, which is now part Lithuania. Like millions of others, he was trying to escape the pogroms that were a regular part of life for the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. Between 1880 and the onset of restrictive immigration quotas in 1924, over 2 million Jews from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania came to America.

He settled in Pittsburgh, in the neighborhood where the massacre occurred, and he was the city’s first orthodox rabbi. Though he later moved to a congregation in California, my great-grandfather stayed for many years, and my father was born in Pittsburgh in 1919. Despite widespread anti-immigrant sentiment, directed at Jews, the Irish, Italians and others, his family prospered and fared much better in their new homeland. They were safe here.

The director Mike Nichols, who came to the United States as a young boy from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, recalled being astonished when he saw a sign for a deli with Hebrew lettering in New York. Such things were already outlawed where he came from, and he saw this as a sign, literal and figurative, of the greater freedom provided here.

Meanwhile, in Germany, anti-Semitism had been progressing from prejudicial attitudes to a widely and openly endorsed policy. Kristallnacht, on November 9, 1938, almost exactly 80 years ago today, was a turning point. Police and other officials were notified in advance that there would be widespread violence against Jews that night, and they were instructed not to intervene. Officials stood by as synagogues and Jewish-owned homes, schools, and businesses burned to the ground. By the next day, 91 Jews had been murdered, and between 20,000 and 30,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps.

The 1930s witnessed a steady escalation from prejudicial attitudes against Jews to officially endorsed policies  to the law of the land. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany he gave voice to these attitudes and permission for them to be spoken aloud, and ultimately, enacted. The result was the Holocaust.

The reason why survivors are so fervent in their wish that we “never forget” the Holocaust is that they know the dangers of incipient racism. They witnessed the creep from prejudice to policy to murder in their lifetimes. Men like Mike Nichols and millions of other immigrants felt safe that the rule of law would protect them from these horrors, but also knew the fabric that held these laws together must be vigilantly maintained.

To deter history from repeating  itself, it is our responsibility to identify and fight against dangerous trends when we see them. Racial divisiveness and hatred threaten all of us. If everyone is not given equal protection, who will decide to whom it is denied? When will it be your turn to be hated for your religion, country of origin, or color of your skin?

Racial tensions are more easily stoked when people feel insecure. When leaders come along who are able to point the finger at someone who they say is making your life worse, it is tempting to believe that keeping that person away will solve your problem. But complex issues rarely have simple solutions, and deciding who and how to keep people away is a messy, cruel business, as demonstrated by our recent, disastrous policy of separating immigrant children from their families.

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 6, 2018 at 9:18 am

    Thank you Dr. Ford for this thoughtful post for midterm 2018 election day. Most polling places stay open for those who could not vote before work so there is no reason not to stand in line at the end of the day to make sure that each of us has a voice, earned with a vote.
    Dr. Pat

    Reply