A Refuge From Tyranny

By Kevin Shannahan

refugees from tyranny

This July Fourth will mark the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Fireworks, barbecues and concerts will fill the day as much of America enjoys a three day weekend. This is as it should be in a free country. Friends and family living their lives as they wish, free of the fear so common throughout human history. Every once in awhile however, something comes up to remind us that the ordinary is actually quite extraordinary.

In the Jewish section of Shreveport’s Greenwood Cemetery, a husband and wife lay buried together. They died less than a year apart, the wife in 1970. They are strangers to me. I never met them, nor do I know anything about their lives. I was an eight-year-old growing up over a thousand miles away in upstate New York when they died. I came across the tombstone while photographing the cemetery. Looking at the dates on the tombstone, they lived through the Second World War and were refugees who escaped from Nazi Germany.

What struck me about the couple was the inscription on the stone. The concise inscription is a beautiful testament to their adopted country. It reads “Coming here as refugees from tyranny, they found a haven…”

I thought I understood what America was meant to be. I have served as a military officer. Later, as a school teacher and scoutmaster. I attempted to bring the ideals and promise of this nation to the young people in my charge.  Standing there in the hot sun in the middle of a cemetery looking at the graves of a couple I never met, I realized my understanding was not complete.

I was born in the United States. I have never feared the late night knock on the door from the secret police. The Gestapo, KGB, gulags and concentration camps; all the horrors of totalitarianism are figures in books and movies. I can intellectually understand them, but I will never know them as does someone who has seen tanks in the streets, the approaching Cossacks or the inside of a boxcar and the SS on the selection ramp.

I thought of another refugee escaping a different, yet same, tyranny. In 1893 a Jewish Cantor named Moses Beilin fled the pogroms of Tsarist Russia with his family to make a new life in the United States. The family lived in abject poverty in New York City where Moses Beilin died a few years into their life in America. One of his eight children went on to make something of a name for himself. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America”, a song that should be the National Anthem: “…Stand beside her, and guide her through the night with a light from above…” In the years since that song was written, many of the nights have been long and difficult, but we have prevailed. May it be ever thus.

In a cemetery in Shreveport, there is a testament to this nation’s greatness more powerful than any parade or speech. I was never more proud of the United States. May we stand as a bulwark against tyranny for another 240 years. God Bless America!