Save the children . . .

JACK L. LEVIN

June 15, 1992|By Jack L. Levin

I DON'T want any privilege for myself or my family that other people do not have. It makes me uneasy in my conscience to have opportunities that are denied to other people."

So said humanitarian Sidney Hollander Sr., Maryland's beloved warrior for social justice, who died 20 years ago. His memory was honored again recently at Har Sinai Congregation, when the Maryland Chapter of the American Jewish Congress presented its annual Sidney Hollander Award of Distinction to Ruth Wolff Rehfeld, who has served many Baltimore area community service organizations as volunteer and staff person.

If Sidney Hollander Sr. is looking down on the society he devoted his life to improving, he might wonder if much has improved. He would see:

* Three out of four low-income Maryland families are at constant risk of running out of food, usually toward the end of each month, when food stamps have been exhausted. Over 60,000 children are hungry in the land of pleasant living.

* Hungry children suffer two to three times as many health problems as better-fed kids, and they fall behind in school or drop out.

* U.S. infant mortality statistics resemble those of impoverished Third-World countries.

Seeing all this, when other Americans are splurging $50,000 on a car and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a yacht, Sidney might wonder if many today feel any twinges of conscience at having privileges and opportunities denied to the less fortunate.

He might recall his 1939 testimony, as president of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Committee, before the joint Senate-House Committee on Immigration, pleading to save Jewish children from the impending Holocaust. (He was advocating adoption of the German Refugee Bill, which got nowhere.)

Reporting on a fact-finding trip to Europe, he stood before the people's representatives, whom he later referred to as the "stony-faced inquisitors." They listened to the eye-witness accounts of cruelties "without change of expression."

Sidney said of the children's parents, who were facing extermination: "Such a fate they were prepared to meet, almost with resignation, for themselves; their agony was for their children. Toward these they felt as you and I would were our own left without home, without protection and at the mercy of a merciless state. The same question met me everywhere: Will America do nothing for them? Do the people there not understand?

". . . Is there no chance? Will not America open its doors? I reminded her how tens of thousands have been kept alive through our help. America has always been kind to children, and America is still America."

Was it then? Is it now? Are we again abandoning our children?

Sidney Hollander died before the Reagan-Bush cultivation of self-indulgence, irresponsibility, suspicion and even hostility toward the poor.

In Sidney's time, we rejected "a flood of alien hordes." Today, we reject our own children. We have other priorities. Again we turn our backs on what we don't want to see: children in pain, denied refuge, food, shelter, nurture and life itself. We don't set them adrift on rafts; we just set them adrift on the streets and ignore them until they rob or murder us for a drug fix.

Then we pay attention and pay to support them, not in homes but in jails.

Is this the kinder, gentler America? Can we, who are so generous in responding to the plight of one child-victim publicized on TV, do little or nothing to rescue millions of kids in distress, whose stories are so common that they are not news?

In the endless debates of the current election campaign, which candidate is addressing the questions being asked by poor parents speaking for thousands and millions of poor children:

Why must we be hungry and homeless in this bountiful land?

Where do we eat and sleep tonight?

We're illiterate; how can we go to school or get job training?

We're in rags; where do we get decent clothes?

We're sick; how can we afford to see a doctor?

Will anybody take care of us while our mother is out working for minimum wages, or looking for work that does not exist?

Will any candidate talk to us who are too young to vote, or too un-middle-class?

Many Americans are listening and responding. Many are hard-working but frustrated volunteers in social-service organizations whose budgets have been drastically cut or eliminated as needs multiply.

But too many of us again turn away. We say, "We've got our own troubles," without considering that one of our biggest is our forgotten children.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

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