The images that are coming out of Hungary today, yesterday, this past week, are so searing that I regularly find myself in tears. I realize that I have internalized the fear and anxiety of a period of flight and dispossession to the point that I forgot the feeling of fear. Seventy years ago my family was in the limbo state: no homeland, no national identity. My emotions are telling me that those early memories are still there. Those families fleeing from Syria and Iraq, from Libya and Somalia, from Afghanistan and countless other places: they are refugees and they are migrants in the 21st century.
The 1945 the displaced person, DP’s, were scattered across Europe. Germany itself was riddled with traumatized people released from various Nazi prison and labor camp. Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Baltic peoples—all those nationalities that had been attacked and traumatized by the Nazis were wandering around from their pre-war homes trying to figure out: what’s next?
Until the pictures started appearing this summer, I did not realize just how much trauma I still felt about those years in Germany. I was born into a newly formed Polish family. My parents married in Germany just months after the war ended. They had come from Warsaw and Cracow but saw their way home blocked by the Soviet occupation. My father was both energetic and ambitious and found work both with the Allied occupiers as well as the German state. He re-established his medical credentials and matriculated at Gottingen University. Mother continued her nursing profession.
But there were so many others in far worse shape. Germany had been carpet bombed into a pile of rubble. Quonset huts, re-purposed barracks, and shacks were utilize to house all these refugees. Homes were shared with Germans who grudgingly tolerated DPs in their spare bedrooms. We had one of those rooms, but I remember visits to squalid housing with shared kitchens and filthy hallways with public water spigots.
The most notable anxiety that remains clear to me today was the problem of papers. “Do you have papers?” That question dominated my childhood. The adults were constantly asking each other: Do you have residency papers? Do you have work permits? Do you have travel documents? Do you have citizenship papers? No one walked out of POW camps or labor camps with those identity papers which define modern life. No one knew anyone. No one could prove anything without incredible effort. There was no guarantee that they could emigrate, work, go home, or lead a normal life.
Today I watch children’s faces distorted with fear and confusion as their parents try to protect them from soldiers and policemen. The parents are bringing their children to safety as refugees from intolerable conditions in Syria, Libya, Iraq and other current hell holes. Since the start of this year more than 300,000 people have sought to enter Europe in desperate flight. The deluge hasn’t abated. It’s now called a “moral crisis” for Europe as 800,000 are expected this year.
In 1945/46 there was little of that ambiguity about refugees as the hell hole was Europe itself. All the states of Europe, not yet a European Union, faced similar problems. How to recover from the war, and—by the way—how to assimilate, how to repatriate, and how return people to normal times.
What is different today is that it is framed as a “moral” question. States are not clamoring to address the problem of refugees at their gates because they are not seen as other Europeans, but simply as “others.” Religions, cultures, skin color…these people aren’t displaced Europeans. They are displaced global people. The cry, in English no less, of a distraught father is: “We are people, too.” But all that I see is that 21st century European states are asking: where are your papers? Your passports? Your permits?
And in the meantime we see the corpse of a three year old Syrian child pulled out of the waters of the Mediterranean. I weep. I just weep. The dead child. The frightened child. The traumatized child. The bereaved parents. The terrorized people. It happened seventy years ago as well and the echoes of that terror have not faded from my mind.