Migration – Then and Now: A Personal Response to Today’s Crisis
Earlier this year a relative of mine was going through the possessions of my late German grandfather. She found a curious document, folded and slightly faded. As she unfurled it, the faces of more than 50 men stared out at her. The large, single-sheet document showed an arrangement of over 50 individual portrait photographs of men dressed in dark suits and ties, many moustachioed, each in formal pose.
While there is scant written information on the document, the title, the years indicated and the names beneath the photographs revealed much to me – brought up as I was on a diet of stories of ‘the old country’ – Heimat.
The year of the document appears to be 1929. The place was what we now know as Serbia – then the Bačka region of Yugoslavia. The occasion: the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Literary Club of Kucura and neighbouring villages (in the north of the country, 100 kilometres south of the Hungarian border).
The men look proud, serious, dignified. Among their number are a doctor, several teachers, and many farmers and carpenters.
My great-great-uncle, my great-grandfather, my great-uncle, and countless cousins several times removed are all depicted. While these men had all experienced, in different and various ways, the horrors of the First World War and all that it had meant for the Balkans, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, none could have known that within little more than a decade, those still alive would flee their homes of many generations, that they would lose everything: that they would become refugees.
In 1997, as a traced my family roots, I walked across the Serbian border into Hungary – and I sobbed. They were tears for those refugees of the mid 20th century – some of whom I had come to know; many of whom I had not. But many were and are my own flesh and blood.
In 1944 my then 3-year-old father – with his desperate mother, sick sister and ageing grandparents – crossed that same border … but as terrified, confused and incredulous refugees.
My family are ethnic Germans, originally from Swabia in southern Germany. My ancestors migrated to the flat, rural and fertile lands of Bačka in the northern Balkans (now Vojvodina in Serbia) in the late 18th Century; and because they travelled there by way of the River Danube, they called themselves Danube-Swabians. The ethnic Serbs, Croats and Ruthenians called the ethnic Germans ‘Colonialists’. At the time the region was ruled by Austria; but with the ebb and flow of history and the flaring up of wars and conflicts, borders shifted and were redrawn. By 1944 the land was Yugoslavia.
In the turmoil of the closing months of the Second World War, Tito and the Partisans wanted rid of those groups allied to the Axis Powers, namely the ethnic Germans, the ‘enemy within’ – the Colonialists. So thousands upon thousands – including my father and his family – left on the backs of lorries being driven north by the retreating German army. On a cool, mid-October evening, there were heart-rending scenes as the Danube-Swabians climbed onto the backs of lorries – laden with screaming children, crying mothers and bewildered grandparents. Families were now divided – between those who decided to get out of harm’s way, and those who felt compelled to stay and protect their property, their animals, all their worldly possessions. A short while later, those who had stayed were forcibly removed from their 150-year-old homes, held in camps and, in many cases, including that of my great grandmother, perished in the particularly harsh eastern European winter of 1944-45.
Those who fled spent many months on the move. They lived first in lorries, then in the cattle wagons of trains. On several occasions the Allies bombed the train on which my family was living – but somehow they survived. They passed through Budapest and then on to war-ravaged Vienna, where conditions were so grim that people were chopping down the trees of the famous Vienna Woods to use as firewood and eating the bark of the trees to stay alive. At the railway stations in Vienna there was chaos and mayhem as the local authorities, themselves shattered by six years of war, struggled to cope. My aunt was struggling to walk, as she was born with malformed hips; my father was undernourished; my grandmother and her parents-in-law were trying to keep body and soul together.
Sick and hungry, they were moved on from Vienna and housed with a family in a small village in the mountains near Salzburg. But the Austrians now viewed them as loathed Germans who had brought this catastrophic war to an ‘unwilling’ and now liberated Austria. The family moved on – first to Munich, and from there they were eventually billeted to the loft room of a farm in southern Bavaria. Here too they were treated, at first, with disdain. They were Germans whom Germany had long since forgotten about and certainly had no more interest in, least of all if it involved housing and feeding them. They spoke an almost forgotten form of German; they dressed in the darker heavy clothes of the Balkans; they cooked food that was heavily influenced by the cuisine of Hungary and Yugoslavia; they were now strangers in their own country.
Today my father – now in his 70s and living in England – goes cold as he watches nightly TV bulletins of long lines of families with small children walking along the railway lines of Eastern Europe. Like so many of today’s fleeing Syrian children, he too was very young when his family became ‘expellees’ (known in German as die Vertriebenen) and their lives were turned upside down. His old-man mind is jolted unwillingly back to very early childhood memories of horror. It was the period in his life that turned him into a life-long refugee.
Yes – life-long refugee.
Because however well things may turn out (my father is now enjoying a comfortable retirement in England) you never lose the deep and indelible mark of being a refugee. It reveals itself in an almost manic obsession with never wasting a thing; with getting the very last thread and layer of use out of every possession; with using every last tiny scrap of food; with haggling over every purchase; with feeling personally wounded when you witness any wasteful behaviour; with trying to please everyone and never cause offence; with trying always to fit in, to melt into the crowd, to mask your origins; and you are almost unable to shake off the nagging sense that at any moment all that you now have could be taken from you – without warning.
Once you have been a refugee – however young – it seems these feelings never leave you.
In this year’s State of the European Union address, EU Commission President Juncker tackled the refugee crisis head on. And he pulled no punches. He suggested that most Europeans have themselves either been refugees or are the descendants of desperate people who were persecuted and forced to take flight. Look at the phone book in Vienna and see how many family names are from the Balkans and Hungary; look at the names from north Africa and the Middle East that populate school registers across France; and do the same in even a small British village and you will of course find names from across the continent and beyond – and clearly not all of us arrived by choice.
Recently I took the train from Brussels to Vienna. In twenty four hours I went from migration talks (EU Summit) to migration reality (Vienna Main Station, a temporary place of refuge for hundreds of Syrian refugees).
My first impressions as I stepped down from the train will stay with me for a long time: the strong, almost overwhelming, smell of hundreds of frightened and anxious people taking some brief respite after many days on the road; the debris caused by hundreds of families living on the floors and in the waiting areas of the station; the calm and order in the long lines of people queuing to try to buy train tickets to Germany and beyond; a polite young man asking me if I might have a spare mobile phone; and young children everywhere, their parents desperately trying to distract them from the frightening reality of their plight.
Some of the EU leaders who in recent weeks have been discussing quotas and relocation, and economic migration and ‘hot spots’ (not all necessarily their terms) will not of course be able to relate personally to what it really means to be a refugee; that’s obvious and fair enough. They will have been moved of course by the tragic photo of little Aylan. But for them this is a humanitarian crisis mixed with issues of logistics, potential integration and money.
At Vienna Main Station I ate breakfast with a group of young Syrian men. Their immediate concern was to be able to charge their mobile phones – their lifelines to family and vital information. They were polite and well educated. They spoke in broken English, telling me they wanted to move on to Germany or Sweden.
Over the course of several days meeting Austrian friends and family the topic of conversation always turned to the migration crisis. People were thoughtful; there was one hundred per cent horror at some of the actions taken by the border guards on the Hungarian-Serbian border. But there were also many concerns about potential integration issues; the impact of the crisis on the economy of Europe; and whether or not the asylum system is even remotely adequate to cope with the current situation and ensure everyone’s safety and security.
I reflected again on the Syrians with whom I had shared breakfast. I had asked them what they had left behind, but at that point their faces had changed: they looked away, their deep dark eyes filled with a sense of tragedy. The darkness alone spoke of horror, of struggle, of fear and uncertainty; no words were necessary.
This is once again the reality of being a refugee.