Four Times A Refugee

Photos by Patricia Williams

April 26, 2016: For the second year in a row, Dr. Henry Oster, Holocaust survivor and teenage refugee, returned to STF to help students commemorate Genocide Awareness and Prevention month. This year he tied his personal story of tragedy and triumph to the current global refugee crisis. And just as his first visit with STF last spring, students listened in awe and silence to Henry’s presentation, followed by a torrent of questions as they crowded around him after his talk. Students expressed their appreciation that Henry shares his painful experiences so that young people can better understand the lessons of history for today’s troubled world. Rising leader Kaden Kessel said, “Dr. Oster was inspirational and I can’t wait to see him again!” Others made plans to invite Henry to speak at their schools.

Born in Germany in 1928, Henry described how he was a refugee four times throughout the 1930s and 40s. First he was a German Jewish refugee in a Polish ghetto. After surviving Birkenau Concentration Camp, Henry was “repatriated” back to Germany, despite having the Nazis revoke his German citizenship years before. He was transported for a third time to France with the surviving “Boys of Buchenwald,” where he lived in a deserted sanatorium converted into a refugee orphanage. At the last moment before Henry boarded a ship to Palestine, an uncle living in Los Angeles, who Henry had never met, saw Henry’s name printed in the LA Times as a Holocaust survivor, and found a way to bring him to the U.S. as a refugee in 1946.

After a long and successful career as an optometrist, Henry retired in 2014, and he has continued to speak out about his Holocaust experiences. “I wish you good luck and success,” Henry said to students as he congratulated them for their advocacy efforts on behalf of today’s refugees around the world.

Before Henry spoke, more than 60 students, teachers and supporters participated in: 1. reenacting STF calls last fall to the White House urging President Obama to do more to protect refugees; 2. sharing campus conversations involving anti-refugee sentiments; 3. and demonstrations of three very different meetings with Congressional representatives regarding efforts to stop HR4038, “the American Safety Against Foreign Enemies Act.” Participants then discussed how they can continue to grow as human rights advocates.

Chapter leaders took action once again on behalf of refugees by writing to 31 U.S. governors, opposing their efforts to keep Syrian refugees out of their states in recent months. STFers asked the governors to reconsider their positions, reminding them that “playing on fear is not only bad for our country, but sends a message that could harm refugees abroad.”

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