In 1982, as a first time mom with a two year old, I should have known better than to watch the haunting movie Sophie’s Choice.
One scene so disturbed me that, for weeks afterward, I would weep to think of it. If you saw the movie, or read the book, you already know the scene.
Sophie (played by Meryl Streep) is a Polish Catholic woman who arrives at Auschwitz with her two little children, a boy and a girl. Terrified, Sophie stands in line holding her young daughter in her arms while her little boy clings to her skirt.
After a Nazi officer makes lurid comments to Sophie, he asks, "Are you a Christian?" When she nods, he asks if she agrees with Christ’s words “suffer the children.”
Then he demands the unthinkable – that she relinquish a child. “You can keep one of your children,” he says matter-of-factly. “The other one must go.”
Sophie, disbelieving, asks him to repeat what he has said. He obliges with a more forceful: “You can keep one of your children. The other one must go.”
Stricken, Sophie screams “I can’t choose!”
The officer threatens, “Choose or I’ll take them both.”
As Sophie desperately chokes out, “I can’t choose!” the officer orders his guards: "Take them both!”
One can almost see Sophie’s soul fracture as she is forced to make her gut-wrenching “choice.” “Take my little girl. Take my baby.” The little girl's screams are piercing as she is wrested from Sophie’s arms. Sophie’s scream, though silent, is shattering. It is eternal.
Indelibly etched in my memory, this scene came to mind as I watched coverage of another Sofi who was also ordered to make an impossible choice.
Sofia, called Sofi by her family, is a three year old girl, the youngest of three children of Tania and Joseph, a married couple from Honduras. The family fled Honduras to seek asylum in the U.S. after Tania witnessed her mother get killed and her sister, who had also witnessed their mother’s murder, had been kidnapped, tortured and slain to keep her from testifying.
At a Border Patrol holding facility in El Paso, Texas, an agent told the family that one parent would be sent to Mexico while the other parent and the three children could stay in the United States.
A doctor informed the agent that Sofi had a serious heart condition and that it was imperative that the family stay together. But the agent insisted on the separation. Then, incredibly, the agent turned to three year old Sofi, and told her to make a choice. Which parent did she want to stay – her mother or her father?
Not fully comprehending what was being asked of her, little Sofi "chose" her mother; but when the children realized the family faced separation, they clung to their father, the son wrapping his arms around Joseph’s neck and Sofi and her sister holding on to Joseph’s legs. Sofi’s mother told NPR that the agent, upon seeing Sofi’s panic, said, “Why are you crying? You . . . picked your mother.”
No child – let alone a toddler – should ever be told to make such a horrible decision.
In divorce cases, if parents cannot reach an agreement on custody, a judge will make the determination; and, if a child is sufficiently mature, he or she may be able to let the judge know if there is a preference. But even then, it is not the child, but the judge, who makes the ultimate decision.
Fortunately, Sofi’s story has gotten better – for now. Doctors intervened and the family was allowed to stay together with relatives in the United States. But it is unconscionable that Sofi was ever forced to make such a heartbreaking “choice.”
No family should ever be torn apart at the cruel whim of an agent working for an indifferent bureaucracy. And no child should ever be made to choose one parent over another. That is an unspeakably heavy burden, one they must never be forced to bear.