City air makes you free. A Case for Sanctuary Cities.

In the printed edition of the Courier-Journal on January 25, a letter-writer contributed the following:

‘Dignity of Labor’ to get healthcare is wrong.
According to your report of Jan/ 13, Gov. Bevin wants to change Medicaid requirements to enable the “able bodied” poor to learn the “dignity of labor.” It was a teaching of the Nazis that “Arbeit macht frei.”  The similarity between these two simplistic positions is too dangerous to ignore.  Stephen Schuster, Louisville.

Based on reflection over the past two years, I do not deem Mr. Schuster’s reaction to be overblown.  I submitted my own letter in response, but it appears that it was not accepted. Having my own “barrel of ink,” I publish it below.


Dear Courier Journal.
A recent correspondent to these letters drew uncomfortable attention to a similarity of phrasing used by Gov. Matthew Bevin and the German Nazis.  To obscure an ultimate goal of decreasing Medicaid enrollment, he and other governors would require “able-bodied” beneficiaries to either work or provide compulsory volunteerism [an oxymoron?] under the dissembling cover of gifting the poor with the ability to learn “the dignity of labor.”  Mr. Schuster and I were both reminded of the phrase Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free) posted by the Nazis at the entrances to their Arbeitslager (labor camps) which evolved into the death camps of Europe.

A much older German phrase entered my mind as President Trump and his acolytes scold and sue cities like Louisville for protecting their inhabitants born under other suns.  Stadtluft macht frei  (City air makes you free.) expresses a centuries-old common law concept of medieval Europe whereby slaves, serfs, or peasants who entered a self-governing city were protected against involuntary repatriation to the rural countryside or servitude by their owners or landlords.  Remaining in such a city for a defined period ruptured the physical and economic bondage of structural rural poverty. Those so sheltered could become Bürger, or citizens.  Cities were places of opportunity!  The concept of a path to citizenship in a sanctuary city has a long and honorable history.

In the late 19th century, the abstraction of Stadtluft was still being used to summarize the motivation of rural Germans wishing to escape the tyranny of their birthplace, their legitimacy, their institutionalized poverty, or limits imposed on their occupations and ability to make a living.  I am proud of the leadership in Louisville and similar cities which protects those living in their jurisdiction against the unleashing of the most ignoble of nationalistic urges.  Louisville should not reopen its workhouse of the early 20th century.

Peter Hasselbacher
Louisville
29 January 2018

Addendum:
I come from a family of immigrants. My father and his parents came over from (you guessed it!) Germany in 1924.  Most of my mother’s ancestors immigrated in the later 19th century.  Their sanctuary city was Newark, NJ.  Tracing out my family history has been an enjoyable avocation for me as it is for so many others. We learn so much more than who lived where and when.

All four of my paternal Great-Grandparents entered the ancient city of Nürnberg in the early 1890s from small villages elsewhere in Franconia.  I asked a German cousin who actually knew these people what forces led them to the big city from what appeared to me in the 21st Century to be idyllic rural villages.  That is when I first heard the phrase Stadtluft macht frei, which incorporates the motivations I describe above. The answer I remember best was that “there was no ability to accumulate wealth” in those small villages.  The City was where opportunity lay.