This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings.

The initial response to the Nazi takeover in 1933 was a substantial wave of Jewish emigration, much of it to neighbouring European countries. But in 1938, after an increase in personal assaults on Jews during the spring and summer, the nationwide Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’) pogrom in November, and the subsequent seizure of Jewish-owned property there was a dramatic increase in Jewish emigration.

That year, under the headline, ‘German Jews Pouring Into This Country’, the Daily Mail warned of ‘aliens’ entering the UK through the ‘back door’:

‘The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest.’

In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalde, the Old Street Magistrate yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering this country through the ‘back door’ – a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed. The number of aliens entering this country can be seen by the number of prosecutions in recent months. It is very difficult for the alien to escape the increasing vigilance of the police and port authorities. Even if aliens manage to break through the defences, it is not long before they are caught and deported.

While there has been no coherent or coordinated international response to this year’s crisis, the 1938 crisis led US President Roosevelt to convene a conference in France that July. Delegates from 32 countries, including the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia attended, but only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees.

In response, WH Auden wrote ‘Refugee Blues’:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said:
‘If you’ve got no passport, you’re officially dead’;
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’;
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die’;
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

A dinghy with Syrian refugees is towed by a Greek coast guard patrol boat into port on Greek island of Kos, following a rescue operation, May 31, 2015
A dinghy with Syrian refugees is towed by a Greek coast guard patrol boat into port on Greek island of Kos, following a rescue operation, May 31, 2015

In the last few months a crisis that has been developing for more than two years has reached disastrous proportions. Nightly, we see terrible scenes unfold on our TV screens: on the roadside in Austria, an abandoned lorry  contains the decomposing bodies of 71 refugees, mostly Syrians fleeing war; on the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos, more than 9,000 have refugees have scrambled ashore in the past week alone, whilst many have drowned at sea; once ashore, many thousands of refugees follow the western Balkans route, via Greece, Macedonia and Hungary.

This week, the Director of the International Organization for Migration stated:

Just as we have seen on the Mediterranean for these last three years, the spectre of death now haunts the European continent. Something must be done, and soon, to make all migration safe and legal.

But there has been no collective international response. Hungary is busy erecting a fence along its border with Serbia (ironic, given that it was Hungary’s tearing down of border fences in the name of freedom that triggered the events of 1989), and Bulgaria is building its own wall along its border with Turkey. In Macedonia, police use tear gas and barbed wire to deter people from reaching the EU through that country.

The makeshift Ethiopian Orthodox church in the refugee camp at Calais.
The makeshift Ethiopian Orthodox church in the refugee camp at Calais.

Earlier this summer, the British media and government reacted with hysteria to the desperate scenes at Calais as a few hundred refugees attempted to gain entry to the UK each night. So far this year over 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, compared with 219,000 for the whole of 2014. Many don’t make it: this week 200 refugees drowned off the coast of Libya – just the latest in a seemingly endless catalogue of misery and wasted lives.

Steve Bell cartoon from the Guardian
Steve Bell cartoon from the Guardian

Britain has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7,000.

As Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War develops, the response has been a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices which employ the same kind of language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s: our foreign secretary talks of migrants ‘marauding’ across Europe, while for David Cameron  it’s a ‘swarm’ massing at our borders, threatening our way of life.

But the way words are used in this context can be even more subtle. Recently, Al Jazeera English announced they will no longer use the word ‘migrants’ in the context of these desperate people trying to enter Europe, but rather, ‘refugees’. Their online editor explained:

It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the  Mediterranean … Migrant is a word that strips suffering people of voice.

Another journalist, working for the Guardian, says:

They are people – men, women and children, fathers and mothers, teachers and engineers, just like us – except they come from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Why not just call them ‘people’, then list any other information we know that is relevant?

It’s a point of view expressed in ‘I Am a Refugee‘, a poem by Mohamed Raouf Bachir, the Syrian short-story writer who has lived in exile in Turkey since 2013. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, he has turned from writing fiction to producing poetry about the Syrian situation, drawing upon his experience of losing his home and being forced into exile in his eighties. His poem begins:

My apologies, Sir,
That I come to you
As a refugee.
Accept me as a human being and not
As a slave.

Laith Majid holding his son and daughter breaks out in tears of joy after arriving on the shore of the island of Kos in Greece.
Laith Majid, holding his son and daughter, sobs after arriving on the island of Kos last week

Those coming ashore in Lampedusa and Lesbos, or trekking north through the Balkans are people like us: people like the family from Deir Ezzour in Syria, who arrived on Kos five days ago. They had been driven from their home after the town had been bombarded for years by Assad’s forces, then more recently by ISIS.

The image of Laith Majid sobbing as he cradled his son and daughter on a Greek beach was taken by freelance photographer Daniel Etterat at dawn on a beach in Kos as the family of four came ashore with eight others in a small rubber dingy designed for just three people. After more than two hours at sea the boat had lost air, water had leaked into it, and the refugees were soaked. The family hope to make it to Germany.

Refugees walk down the tracks towards Hungary
Refugees walk down the tracks towards Hungary

Meanwhile, alone among EU countries, Germany has announced that it has stopped enforcing European Union rules under which Syrians fleeing the civil war face deportation (since migrants can only apply for asylum in the first EU member state they enter). Instead, Germany will guarantee all Syrian refugees a home.

Today, the Guardian reports on a reception centre for refugees in Passau, just over the border with Austria. There, Dr Ingo Martin, a German general practitioner, expresses his shock at seeing the injuries the refugees exhibit:

Ulcerous gunshot wounds, grenade splinters in arms and legs, and feet that are cut to the bone. Lots of war injuries that have not had a chance to heal during the long and stressful journeys here. It’s a little like being in a military hospital.

It seems that because these refugees hail from beyond Europe we can turn aside, turn the page, change the channel, and leave them to be bombed or persecuted at home, or die on their desperate journey to safety. This poem, ‘I Am Syrian’, by Youssef Abu Yihea (translated by Ghada Alatrash) was written from the perspective of a Syrian living in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Jordan. The two countries are now home to nearly 2 million Syrians, of all faiths:

I am a Syrian.
Exiled, in and out of my homeland, and
on knife blades with swollen feet I walk.

I am a Syrian: Shiite, Druze, Kurd,
and I am Alawite, Sunni, and Circassian.

Syria is my land.
Syria is my identity.
My sect is the scent of my homeland,
the soil after the rain,
and my Syria is my only religion.

I am a son of this land, like the olives
apples pomegranates chicory cacti mint grapes figs …
So what use are your thrones,
your Arabism,
your poems,
and your elegies?

Will your words bring back my home
and those who were killed
Will they erase tears shed on this soil?

I am a son of that green paradise,
my hometown,
but today, I am dying from hunger and thirst.
Barren tents in Lebanon and Amman are now my refuge,
but no land except my homeland
will nourish me with its grains,
nor will all the clouds
in this universe
quench my thirst.

Newly arrived refugees wait to be registered in Mytilini harbour, Lesbos
Newly arrived refugees wait to be registered in Mytilini harbour, Lesbos

In the recent past, when disasters in Africa or Asia have resulted in large numbers of displaced persons there has been a coordinated international response, whether from UN agencies, NGOs or the Disasters Emergency Committee. Quite apart from the failure of EU nations to agree on a common humanitarian response, in this case those international agencies appear to be absent from the picture.

Is this because the victims are knocking at our door? What is urgently needed is a Europe-wide agreement to resettle more of the refugees arriving in Greece and Italy. But why can’t the UNCHR coordinate a network of temporary camps in countries to accommodate those now entering Europe? Why can’t the refugees be rescued from the people smugglers and transported across Europe to countries prepared to resettle them? (Some may remember how, in 1989, the West German government transported around 8000 East Germans who had besieged the West German embassy in Prague to freedom in West Germany.) Why isn’t the Disasters Emergency Committee appealing for immediate funding to help accommodate and safely transport  the refugees? Why can’t the EU and UN coordinate help from international agencies and NGOs?

Above all, perhaps, we need to consider how the image we hold of ourselves in British and European society as people who are civilised, tolerant and respectful of human dignity is tarnished. This is the conclusion to an excellent post by blogger thoughfullydetached:

The strategy of de-humanising enemies in war time to make it easier to kill them is universally employed. Hence the emergence and use of such terms as Huns, ragheads, kaffirs and so on. Precisely the same approach is adopted consciously or unconsciously by advocates of ‘charity begins at home.‘ By refusing to consider that refugees seeking to escape from torture or death are people in all essentials like themselves behaving precisely as they themselves would behave in a similar situation they can flatly decline to help them. But the reason why we should welcome refugees is to be found in the proposition ‘do to others as you would have them do to you.‘ They are people ‘like us’ and as we would like to be rescued by others if we ever found ourselves in a similar plight so do they. By refusing to consider them to be fully human we do not diminish their humanity we diminish our own.

See also


7 thoughts on “This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

  1. Our Europe-wide reluctance to help these refugees follows our arms-length approach to engaging in military ‘interventions’ in the countries many of these people seek refuge from.

    1. I would love to be rid of Assad and ISIS, too. But the disastrous consequences of the Iraq intervention and the whole history of western involvement in the Middle East suggests to me that military interventions don’t work, but just increase the mess.

  2. Thanks for this, a great read. Will read again tomorrow when I’m less tired to pick up more details. We really do need to start thinking about our actions as a country, f**k

  3. “And night will fall” – as it did in 20th century Europe. They are people, they are us and they are treated like vermin. I am ashamed of the country I live in these days.

  4. Similar things here Gerry with people making it from Afghanistan to Indonesia then risking dodgy boat-rides to get to Australia. Australia came-up with the “Pacific Solution” and the current Aussie Prime Minister has this view
    ‘…on 19 July 2013, newly returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced, “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia”
    Somewhat ironic when their anthem has this
    ‘.. For those who’ve come across the seas
    We’ve boundless plains to share..’
    John Williamson, proposed Eric Bogle’s, ‘Shelter’ as an alternative anthem for Australia, here’s John Williamson’s version

    We (NZ) take a proportion of the asylum seekers who get caught in the Pacific Solution net but I understand we are punching well below our weight. I also have no idea what to do about it but it seems Europe is, overall, responding better than Pacific nations to similar problems.

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