Discriminatory Passports – Never Again

BY SAM WALD

Americans are used to passports opening doors almost everywhere, so we view the documents like keys. We don’t have experience with passports that keep us out and that ostracize, marginalize, and dehumanize us. Now New York is introducing its own vaccine ID technology, and the Biden administration is working with companies to create a set of standards that will be used to introduce vaccine passports—or similar papers by other names—into multiple aspects of American life. Even without a federal mandate, a document that discriminates against and excludes a certain group of people from normal life activities is divisive and nefarious. 

When my grandmother passed away at the end of 2020, a month shy of her 98th birthday, she left me her passport. This is not the indestructible blue book adorned with an American Eagle, but a faded and flimsy booklet from Austria, featuring a Nazi Eagle and swastika. The first page is stamped with a bright red J—for Jüdin, meant to mark her for the world as Jewish or, in that time and place, undesirable. This is not a passport that recognized her freedom to travel the world, as she later did as an American, but rather a document that separated her from others and designated her as unwanted and subhuman. 

Every page of this passport except the last one was a testament to the fact that my grandmother was not wanted. The Anschluss, or Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, occurred on March 12, 1938. For almost nine months, my grandmother lived under Nazi rule and faced the terror, physical agony, humiliation, and fear instilled by the Nazi regime. Finally, on the last day of November, my grandmother managed to obtain this passport, which was stamped with a swastika across her photo and marked her as Jewish. Two days later, she received a visa from Belgium—but only for transit—and a visa from the United Kingdom—but only for a temporary visit.  She left Vienna almost immediately and landed at Dover, England, on December 9, 1938. She illegally overstayed her visa in London. What choice did she have? She could not return to the only home she knew, and no country wanted her.  

Finally, on April 19, 1940, an agent at the U.S. consulate in London stamped an Immigration Visa onto the last page of my grandmother’s Nazi Reich passport, even though the passport had expired four months earlier. Thankfully, and with the intercession of the Swiss government, the U.S. ignored the expiration. She found freedom in America despite the limitations the Nazis tried to impose on her. Notably, when she arrived in New York, the United States did not even bother stamping her Nazi documentation. That “passport” was not worth anything at all except as a reminder that she had been unwanted in Europe.

In her 80 years in the United States, my grandmother had many passports and used them frequently to visit family abroad or to see the world. Her American passport was not a method of discrimination and did not separate her from society. America recognized her freedom as a human being and a citizen, and America did not separate her from humanity for her religion or other characteristics or choices.

My grandmother was lucky to obtain a passport at all in 1938. Eventually the Nazis stopped granting them to Jews. The issuance of passports to some people and not others was, and still is, used as a means to divide and to persecute. This is not unique to the Holocaust, of course. For example, communist regimes and other authoritarian governments have withheld passports from political dissidents. Still today, a common form of punishment for free thinkers in Saudi Arabia is withholding the liberty to travel abroad. Just this month, the Saudi government sentenced an aid worker and human rights advocate to 20 years imprisonment followed by another twenty years in which he will not be allowed to leave that kingdom. Documents that grant freedom to only some, also discriminate against others.

Vaccine passports and restrictions based on medical choices are wrong. They would mark some as privileged and others as less valuable, just as Nazi passports did. We must learn from the Holocaust, even though the inequality of today does not match the unique evils of that dark time. That’s what Never Again means—learning to avoid similar mistakes. Today, many Americans are scared of COVID-19, but despite those fears we must act in ways that will make us proud tomorrow and in decades to come. Those who separate, classify, and alienate their fellow people seek to dehumanize them. Ultimately, they only succeed in dehumanizing themselves. That cannot be our legacy.

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