Refugees Then and Now

The some 1,500 migrants now seeking to cross the U.S. border are not particularly welcome, though they are fleeing the cartel violence financed by insatiable American drug consumers. Similarly, in World War II an equal number of Polish refugees trying to find safety in the U.S. were not welcome because they were thought to jeopardize the alliance with communist Russia against the Nazis. Immigration is seldom easy.

In 1939, attempting to avoid a two-front war, Hitler made a pact with his sworn enemy Stalin. They divided a prostrate Poland between them with dire consequences for both sides. The aim was extermination of Poland. Stalin uprooted close to two million Poles and sent them largely to harsh labor camps in the Siberian Gulag, where many perished from cold, disease and brutality. Then suddenly, the Fuhrer changed his mind and invaded his brief ally. But now that Stalin was aligned with the more democratic West what to do with his Polish prisoners?

Why … send them westward, and by a circuitous route they came. Long grueling trips first to a refugee camp in Iran, then to one in India and finally to the U.S., land of their dreams. But it was not to be. In pursuit of the war, the Roosevelt administration was anxious not to offend the Soviet Union in any way. So the refugees were placed temporarily in an internment camp that had held imprisoned Japanese Americans. The surrounding barbed wire was all too familiar, but they were kindly treated by U.S. authorities. In a few days, they were sent by sealed train to their ultimate destination – Mexico.

Polish children refugees in Santa Rosa, mexico
Polish children refugees in Santa Rosa, Mexico

They were enthusiastically welcomed at a renovated hacienda called Santa Rosa in the city of Leon. “Mexico was the first place where we felt at home, where we realized we were still part of the human race,” says Thaddeus Piezcko, who was a teenage resident at Santa Rosa. Then came work and play in a congenial environment. The refugees looked forward to returning to Poland at war’s end but once again were thwarted. The victorious expansion-minded dictator who had thrown them out now controlled their country in line with postwar agreements. They were not about to return to that. Instead some stayed in Mexico, while most moved to the now welcoming U.S.

Though worlds apart, there are curious similarities in the two groups of refugees – Hispanic and Polish. While talk of Soviet communism was suppressed in the one, there’s scant mention of drug cartels in the other. Yet they are equally oppressive. The excuse for Stalin is that while totalitarian, he was at least on our side against Hitler. But what can be said in favor of the cartels that virtually control Mexico and parts of Central America while they poison the U.S. with drugs and slaughter their own citizens?

Yet across the political spectrum – right, left and whatever – there is as much silence about them as there once was about communism. Is it the fear that they have penetrated this country with their enormous ruthlessness? Or is it the money – some of their annual 60 billion dollars in U.S. drug sales which stays here and circulates into willing hands? We need to find out. Surely it is a national security matter beyond Syria and Somalia, even China and Russia.

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