Archive for June, 2013
As Refugee Week draws to a close, my thanks go to the bloggers whose posts I’ve republished here – Manchester Archives, Futile Democracy, Cities@Manchester, Bristol Somali Media Group, and to Pauline Levis for sharing her father’s story of the Kindertransport.
I’ve also flagged up campaigns from the UNHCR and Amnesty, and celebrated particularly the work of CARA on their eightieth anniversary.
Thanks too to all of those who have retweeted and shared my posts with their own contacts and reached a wider audience.
Finally, a plug for one of the organisations that work to provide safety in a hostile world, Refugee Action:
and for one particular project close to my heart:
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport. In November 1938, after Kristallnacht demonstrated clearly to any doubters that Jews in Germany and Austria were in real danger, Parliament agreed to allow unaccompanied children to enter the country, under certain conditions, and with financial support from refugee organisations. An appeal was put out for foster parents here, and in Germany and Austria a network of organisers worked to identify priority cases, and to get the necessary paperwork. The children could bring with them only a small suitcase, in which many parents placed photographs or other keepsakes along with more prosaic items. Between December 1938 and May 1940, 10,000 unaccompanied children, mainly Jewish, arrived in Britain. As the danger spread, Czech and Polish children were helped too. They went by train to the Netherlands, and then crossed the Channel by ferry before taking another train to Liverpool Street station where most were met by their foster families.
The last group of children left Germany on 1 September 1939. A party left Prague on 3 September 1939 but was sent back. The last boat transport left the Netherlands on 14 May 1940, the day the Dutch army surrendered to Germany.
Of the children who joined the transports, some were later reunited with their families, many others discovered after the war that their parents and other close family had been killed. As were many of the children left behind, after the borders closed.
I wanted to tell a Kindertransport story this Refugee Week, and so I asked Pauline Levis about her father’s experiences.
When 11-year-old Arthur Levi travelled to England with his older sister Inge in 1939, his strongest impressions of the journey were of the warm welcome when they crossed the Dutch border, and the train was boarded by people with flowers and gifts, and of the barrel of biscuits provided on the boat. They were in the unusual situation amongst other children on the Kindertransport, that their father had already arrived here. (He was later interned on the Isle of Man, and then joined the army, where he changed his name from Levi to Levis, for safety should he be captured by the Germans.) Their mother was to follow, six weeks later, the last of the family to make it out of Cologne, and went into domestic service. Both parents lived into their 90s. Members of the wider family were not so fortunate – Arthur’s aunt was deported from France and an uncle from Belgium. His grandfather was long thought to have been killed but it was later discovered that he had in fact died of natural causes in the Jewish old people’s home in Cologne.
Arthur and his sister were fortunate in so many ways. They got out in time. They found a safe place, unlike those who fled to territories later occupied by the Nazis. His immediate family escaped too, and so whilst he lived in a series of hostels for refugee children and foster homes, he did have family, and links with his past, beyond the small collection of photographs he brought with him.
He always felt lucky, and grateful, and his love for his adopted country was such that after six years living in Australia in the 70s, he felt the need to come back where he belonged. When he was given the chance to participate in the Spielberg Foundation’s Visual History Archive, his daughter Pauline had to work to persuade him that his story was worth telling – he was reluctant because he saw that so many others had lost so much more.
Arthur’s family was from Cologne, where they had lived for hundreds of years. His father was a travelling salesman, much of the family had been cattle dealers. Life before the Nazis was not idyllic – his parents’ marriage was turbulent and home life was tense and difficult. Under the Nazis there were some close calls – the Gestapo came for his father just around the time of Kristallnacht, but he’d already left, with the help of his non-Jewish employer. And the old people’s home where his grandfather lived, where many Jewish families had taken refuge in the cellar, was raided, and men and boys over 14 taken away. Arthur had to attend a Jewish school (his own background was secular), where the foreign-born children were targeted first – he remembered the Gestapo arriving, with a list of the Polish children, who were taken away and never seen again. Of Kristallnacht itself he remembered the mix of excitement and fear.
Arthur met Edna Gordon, herself the daughter of Lithuanian Jews who’d come to the UK at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was 21, and they were very happily married for fifty years. He had a successful career as a dental technician, working for many years in the hospital service.
He died in 2000, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, 9 November.
The stories Arthur shared with his daughter Pauline shaped her passion for justice, for example in her campaign against the deportation of young Iranian artist Behnam and his family, who were facing imprisonment and torture if they returned, which achieved over 11,0o0 signatures on a petition and ultimately saw the family being granted indefinite leave to remain.
His sister’s son and grandson, along with Pauline, are to take part in commemorations leading up to the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport later this year. I’m immensely grateful to Pauline for sharing her father’s story.
For all mothers in anguish
Pushing out their babies
In a small basket
To let the river cradle them
And kind hands find
And nurture them
In a hostile world:
Our constant gratitude.
As in this last century
The crowded trains
Taking us away from home
Became our baby baskets
Rattling to foreign parts
Our exodus from death.
(Kindertransport, Before and After: Elegy and Celebration. Sixty Poems 1980–2007 by Lotte Kramer).
- Kindertransport: ‘To my dying day, I will be grateful to this country’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- The unsung British hero with his own Schindler’s List (telegraph.co.uk)
I’m not a train person in general. Not in the sense that I have any feeling for the ‘romance of steam’ or the beauty of the engines. I’m the wrong gender to feel any urge to catalogue their numbers, or to build model railways in my attic or garden. Trains, like cars, and planes and buses are just ways of getting where you want to go.
In general. But in the context of the stories I’ve been posting and reading and thinking about during Refugee Week, trains have a powerful, poignant, terrible significance. I’ve stolen my title from Steve Reich, whose composition of that name explored the journeys that he had made and that he might have made during the war years, using recorded speech from Holocaust survivors, amongst others.
The railway station is a heterotopic space, holding together both the actual location and the destinations with which it connects. And so Liverpool Street Station for W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz connected him with his own past, as the small boy who had arrived from Prague with the Kindertransport, and with the station on which he’d said goodbye to his mother, clutching a small suitcase and a rucksack with food in it. Indirectly it connected him with the station at which his mother was herded onto a cattle truck and taken off to Terezin.
His name recalls the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where Francois Mauriac describes children being dragged from their mothers and pushed onto the trains, one sombre morning.
Not long after, on another continent, trains crammed with refugees from India to Pakistan, or from Pakistan to India, after Partition, were ambushed and their passengers massacred. The dramatisation of those events in The Jewel in the Crown still haunts me.
Perhaps because on another continent, twenty years later, a train commissioned by an expat who worked for the Nigerian railways to take Igbo refugees south, was ambushed, and its passengers massacred. Among them were the people who my father had found hiding in an abandoned house opposite our own, in Zaria, and taken to the army compound in the back of his car, covered with blankets, hoping they would find safety. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun, describes the arrival of another train full of refugees that did reach safety, but traumatised, mentally and physically.
I think sometimes of a children’s book by Susan Cooper, who can conjure up a terrifying sense of evil, enough to chill adult bones – it’s part of her The Dark is Rising series, but I can’t recall which – in which the rhythms of the train say ‘into the dark, into the dark, into the dark…’ Hard to get that out of one’s head, once it’s been introduced. And I think of it every time I read the accounts of those trains crossing Europe, heading East, to ‘work camps’, to Pitchipoi, into the dark.
And perhaps most hauntingly, of ‘le train fantome’. In the summer of 1944, as the Allies were advancing across Europe, with Paris liberated, the convoys were still rolling.
But not all of the trains took their passengers into the dark.
This photograph captures an extraordinary moment. The 743rd tank battalion encountered a group of civilians, skeletally thin, terrified. They had been en route to another camp, but abandoned by their SS guards – at this moment they understood that they were free.
And at railway stations in England, in 1939, and so many years since, the trains have brought people into hope and life and freedom. They brought with them not just the belongings that they had managed to salvage and to hold on to on the journey but the places they had lived, and the lives they had to abandon, and the memories that would shape them.
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish
(W G Sebald, Poemtrees, in Across the Land and the Water)
- The Haunting Persistence of Memory: W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” (rosslangager.com)
- Disused train station to host Holocaust museum (praguepost.com)
The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief was founded in 1942 by a group of Quakers, social activists and Oxford academics to campaign for food supplies to be sent through an allied naval blockade of occupied Greece during World War 2. In 1965 they became OXFAM adopting their new name from their telegraph address.
They already had a gift shop in Oxford when this letter was written in January 1960, ‘Oxford’s most interesting shop’. I wonder what it sold.
Mrs Barash was very involved in the support of refugees in Manchester during and after World War 2. Her contribution is recorded in material held in the archives at the Greater Manchester County Record Office .
World Refugee Year was a United Nations led initiative and ran from June 1959 until May 1960. By July 1961 £9 million had been raised and the final total was even higher. It inspired a new…
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A powerful post from blogger Futile Democracy on Syrian women refugees.
The Syrian crisis poses an intense amount of questions for lawmakers across the Globe, with each question just as important and as crucial to the process of peace than every other. Do we arm the rebels? If not, then what next? If we are to provide arms to the rebel groups, which rebel groups to provide arms to? How to know and ensure those arms won’t fall into Islamist hands? How to ensure a peaceful and stable democracy upon the fall of Assad? What balance to strike with regard diplomacy with the Russians? How to deal with unwanted intrusions of Iran? These are all grand scale, legitimate questions that rightly require thoughtful and decisive action from the international community. There is however, one major and shocking crisis that we seem to hear very little about, and that is the refugee crisis. And within that crises, is the crisis of the…
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If there is a place on earth that seems to sum up the grim chaotic reality of the refugee crisis it’s Goma. Chiwetel Ejiofor described it recently in The Observer:
“I was in Goma,” he recalls, “which is an extraordinary place to be. We crossed the border from Rwanda and were almost immediately in the midst of these camps, thousands of displaced people. People had been there for years in some cases. They had got caught up in the fallout from the Rwandan genocide, which became their own war, and all that time the eyes of the world have looked away.” He talks about some of the people he met in a place that “was as close as I have ever seen to despair… a woman who when the rebels had come in and killed three of her children in front of her had grabbed the fourth and fled and ended up here. And what did she dream of? You know, a sewing machine so she could start to rebuild her life…” And he talks too of the other unpalatable side of that conflict, the fact that it is fuelled to a large degree by the world’s need for Congo’s mineral wealth, particularly coltan, the rare ore that is a key component of all our computers and mobile phones. (Observer, 16 June 2013)
When Paul Kagame’s army took control of Rwanda and ended the genocide in 1994, over a million Hutus fearing reprisals (just because they were Hutu, or because they had taken an active part in the massacres) headed over the border into DRC and Goma – just 1 km from Gisenyi in Rwanda – was where they ended up.
The camps quickly became caught up in ongoing violence between Hutu and Tutsi (who fled the 1994 genocide itself, or previous pogroms) from Rwanda and neighbouring countries, and over 10,000 Hutu militia and former troops effectively controlled the camps, including food distribution and information (eg about possibilities of safe return). The confusion was such that humanitarian organisations found themselves feeding and supporting genocidaires – as Ben Barber says, ‘For Americans and Europeans who saw the televised images in 1994 of the smoky plain in Goma covered with 500,000 starving Rwandans – men and women wrapping the bodies of their children and their elderly in straw mats to hurl them into mass graves – a refusal to help would have seemed inhuman.’ (Barber, 1997, p. 13). Add to that the collective guilt that we had all stood by whilst 800,000 were massacred, and it is no wonder that an outside world which had barely grasped what had happened in those few weeks after 6 April 1994 should have assumed that the refugees now so visibly suffering in Goma were people we should help.
Nearly twenty years on, Goma is still a focus for refugees, for military activity, for human misery.
Refugee camps are amongst Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ – ‘transit points and temporary abodes … under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shanty towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity’ (Augé, p. 78). They are also ‘hors-lieux’, ‘outside of the places and outside of the time of a common, ordinary predictable world’ (Agier, p. 323), sites of segregation, where ‘life has to redefine itself within wholly unprecedented and unknown contexts’.
This redefinition can be emancipating – Twa refugees who had fled Rwanda during the genocide were able for the first time in Goma to win official recognition, having been previously amongst the poorest and most marginalised community in Rwanda, scorned by both the large ethnic groups (Godding, cited in Agier, p. 335). So this place, ‘predicated on collective suffering and interpersonal conflicts’, can provide an innovating framework.
A refugee camp should be a neutral place of sanctuary – but it can also become a training camp for a routed army, suffer internal control by exile groups, and its inhabitants can become the shields and targets of local military operations. It can also of course be a focus for disease – around 40-45,000 refugees died of cholera or dysentery during the month following their arrival in Goma in July 1994.
The refugee camp is a liminal space. Like a border or no-man’s land, it is a place through which people pass, but not a place where they should live. It is a between-space – between the place from which the refugees fled and the place of safety which they hope to reach (which may, of course, be the place from which they fled, if conditions and circumstances have changed). The camp’s inhabitants are uncitizens, marginalised and separated both from their former home and from the country in which the camp sits. It’s a waiting zone where nothing can be fully brought to fruition, a place of quarantine. Is it purgatory – a place of temporary suffering, though without the promise of paradise to come? Or limbo – the first circle of Dante’s Hell?
There are many Gomas out there.
UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report covers displacement that occurred during 2012 based on data from governments, NGO partners, and the UN refugee agency itself. The report shows that as of the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement compared to 42.5 million at the end of 2011. This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers, and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries. The report does not include the rise in those forced from their homes in Syria during the current year. War remains the dominant cause. A full 55 percent of all refugees listed in UNHCR’s report come from just five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. The report also charts major new displacement from Mali, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and from Sudan into South Sudan and Ethiopia. “These truly are alarming numbers. They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts and promoting timely solutions for them,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and head of UNHCR. The report highlights worrisome trends, including the rate at which people are being forced into situations of displacement. During 2012 some 7.6 million people became newly displaced, 1.1 million as refugees and 6.5 million as internally displaced people. This translates to a new refugee or internally displaced person every 4.1 seconds. (http://www.unhcr.org/51c071816.html)
Michel Agier, Between War and City: Towards an Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps, Ethnography, 3 (2002), 317-41
Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995)
Ben Barber, Feeding Refugees, or War? The Dilemma of Humanitarian Aid, Foreign Affairs, July/August 1997
Alain Deztexhe, The Third Genocide, Foreign Policy, 97 (winter, 1994-5), pp 3-17
Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Portobello Books, 2009)
Barry Levy & Victor Sidel, War & Public Health (Oxford UP, 1997)
Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed (Zed Books, 2009)
Kate Nash, Between Citizenship and Human Rights, Sociology, 43, 6 (Dec. 2009), pp. 1067-87