Archive for category Genocide
It’s twenty years since we all blinked and failed to notice that hundreds of thousands of people were being hacked to death in a small country in Africa. Twenty years since we decided that the appropriate response to machete-wielding mobs on the streets, targeting anyone whose ID card gave the wrong ethnic origin, was to withdraw almost all the peace-keeping forces stationed there, and tell the rest they could not intervene. Twenty years since we waffled and fudged about ‘acts of genocide’ and muddled up Hutus and Tutsis, and showered emergency aid on killers, and muttered about tribalism, and ‘six of one…’.
There are all sorts of excuses. The failed intervention in Somalia, the joyous distraction of the South African elections (for once, a good news story from Africa), and the general reluctance to commit troops and risk ‘our’ people’s lives in such a messy, chaotic and volatile situation. But it is inescapable that part of the reason that we didn’t stop it happening was because of where it was happening. Because, as Francois Mitterand actually said, more or less, in Africa massacres aren’t such a big deal.
In many ways, genocides resemble one another more than they differ from each other. If we discount scale, as we must, since it is the intention to wipe out a race/group/community rather than the numbers involved, or the degree of success in that endeavour that defines genocide, there is a common trajectory that we can trace. The group marked for destruction must be isolated, vilified, made objects of fear as well as hatred. They may be identified as less than human – vermin, lice, cockroaches – since no one baulks at the death of such creatures. They must be classified, marked, labelled, listed, so that they can be tracked down. And once the killing starts, for the group marked for destruction there is the desperate search for safety, for shelter and protection, the knowledge that each person you encounter may denounce or protect you. Not only that, but the threat to those who did try to help that they too, and their families, would die if they were exposed. In fact, merely refraining from murder may be an act of resistance likely to be punished with death.
There are things about Rwanda however, that are different. Firstly, the sheer speed of the events that engulfed that small country in Africa is staggering. There had been decades of sporadic massacres, which is why a Tutsi rebel army, composed mainly of refugees and children of refugees, was in the process of invading the country. And preparations had certainly been laid well in advance, lists drawn up and machetes stockpiled. But still, from the trigger of the shooting down of the President’s plane to the RPF victory only four months elapsed. Four months, and 800,000 people dead. Many more maimed, raped, traumatised, orphaned. So much destruction in such a short time. A tsunami of brutality, when everything was irrevocably changed in moments.
There was no great machinery of bureaucracy to process the destruction of the Tutsi, who were killed, for the most part, by their own neighbours, or by the militia on the roadblocks who simply needed to ask for their ID to know whether they should die. There were no camps set up to process those captured and marked for death, just places where people sought refuge and instead found that their hoped-for sanctuary was in fact a trap where the killers waited until they were gathered together, before sweeping in to destroy. There was not even the pretence of any fate for the Tutsi other than death.
And because of the speed, and because the victims, like their murderers, were in many cases rural people, not highly educated and literate, and if they hid it was in the bush, there is no Anne Frank, no Helene Berr from Rwanda, both murdered, but who left records of what it was like to have to hide, to live in fear, to be marked for death. The narratives of Rwanda are those of the survivors. Whole clans were wiped out, so that now it is as if, as a survivor put it, a page in the album of humanity has been torn out, and of many of those families and individuals there may be virtually no trace remaining. After all, that’s what genocide aims to do. It’s never enough to kill all the people, you have to kill their history, their culture.
But that’s one of the odd things about the Rwandan genocide. The Hutu and Tutsi peoples were not distinguishable from each other by a language – even an accent – or a religion. They were – supposedly – different in physique, but in reality decades of intermarriage meant that one could not actually identify anyone reliably in this way. The mythology of their enmity was fostered by successive colonial governments, who favoured first one group and then the other, exploiting the tensions that this created. The different names existed, certainly, but the identities were not fixed. Because Hutu and Tutsi were associated with different modes of life, if your circumstances or occupation changed, your ‘ethnic’ identity could change too. It was the colonial governments who put in place the system of identity cards that stated which group one belonged to, and made that identity fixed and inescapable.
Many, many ordinary people did extraordinary things to protect friends, neighbours or total strangers. And many of those who were there in an official capacity broke ranks to do what they could. Major Stefan Stec, with the UN Peacekeepers, faced down militia at the Hotel Mille Collines, attempting to evacuate some of the many Tutsi and moderate Hutu who had taken refuge there. He was so tormented by the events he witnessed, by his own sense of failure, and by the harsh judgement of many who weren’t there and had no choices to make, on the inadequacy of the UNAMIR response, that he died eleven years later, as a result of PTSD. Romeo Dallaire, who commanded those forces, suffers similarly, and attempted suicide six years after the genocide. And Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese UN military observer, ferried people through roadblocks to the Mille Collines, bluffing and bribing his way past the militia until he was killed in a mortar attack in May 1994.
Yolande Mukagasana’s world changed on 6 April 1994. Within days she had seen her husband killed. She had lost contact with her children. She had come close to death, and had seen people who she, as a nurse, had healed, ready to kill her or hand her over to be killed. She also encountered people who owed her nothing and yet who kept her safe, just because it was the right thing to do. She was tormented first by not knowing her children’s fate, and then by knowing it. Once safe, she threw herself into her old role of healer, but her own healing took a long time – to the simple guilt of having survived when so many didn’t, she added the guilt of having survived when her own children didn’t, and of knowing that others had died for refusing to hand her over, or because they were mistaken for her. She drew orphaned and lost children to her, and started an organisation called Nyamirambo Point d’appui, named after the area of Kigali where she lived with her family, and where she saw her neighbours become murderers. She started to rebuild, there, where she’d lost everything.
Yolande writes ‘contre l’oubli’, so that the dead aren’t entirely lost, so that the truth isn’t buried with them. And that includes uncomfortable truths about the role of international bodies, and most particularly of the French government, both actively and passively enabling the genocide.
But this duty of memory is not just for the past, but for the future. Surely if we remember what happened twenty years ago in that small African country, as we remember what happened over seventy years ago in Nazi occupied Europe, what happened almost forty years ago in Cambodia, we will see the signs next time before it’s too late? We will make the right choice about whether and when to intervene?
Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)
Rwanda pour memoire, Samba Felix N’Diaye (L’Afrique se filme, DVD, 2001-2003)
- Dallaire, Roméo (2005). Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. London: Arrow Books. ISBN 978-0-09-947893-5.
- Des Forges, Alison (1999). Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (Report). New York, NY: Human Rights Watch. ISBN 1-56432-171-1.
- Gourevitch, Philip (2000). We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (Reprint ed.). London; New York, N.Y.: Picador. ISBN 978-0-330-37120-9.
- Melvern, Linda (2000). A people betrayed: the role of the West in Rwanda’s genocide (8, illustrated, reprint ed.). London; New York, N.Y.: Zed Books. ISBN 978-1-85649-831-9.
- Melvern, Linda (2004). Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide. London and New York, NY: Verso. ISBN 978-1-85984-588-2.
- Prunier, Gérard (1998). The Rwanda Crisis, 1959–1994: History of a Genocide (2nd ed.). London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 978-1-85065-372-1.
- Prunier, Gérard (1999). The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (2nd ed.). Kampala: Fountain Publishers Limited. ISBN 978-9970-02-089-8.
The journey that we most associate with the Holocaust is the one that ends at those gates.
Our imagination cannot go beyond that point, no matter how many accounts we read from those who survived. Our imagination baulks at the journey to the gates, not just at its ending – the cattle trucks from all corners of occupied Europe filled with people who not so long before had lives, loves, professions and occupations, and had all of those things gradually stripped from them till all that was left was a name on a list.
But for many of those individuals, the Holocaust journey began long before the cattle truck to Auschwitz. The Plus qu’un nom dans une liste project has put together many stories of individuals and families deported from France, and I’ve selected just a couple, to show what happened to them once their homes were no longer safe for them.
The Taussig family left Vienna in June 1939, having obtained a ‘Reisepass’, and left Reich territory the same month via the frontier post of Arnoldstein in Carinthia, where nowadays the three borders of Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet. Rudolf and his wife Leonie, both 56, and their son Hans, 29, crossed into Italy through the Friuli province.
Italy had stopped allowing foreign Jews into its territory by this time, and the authorities probably escorted the family to the Italian Riviera. On 9 July the Taussigs arrived at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Cote d’Azur. The gendarmes had been alerted by phone that a group of refugees were waiting on the beach for the people to whom they’d paid money for safe passage, and arrested them and took them to Menton.
Those arrested that night were:
- Léonie Taussig, born 29/3/1885 in Vienna; daughter of Joseph Bondy and Bertha Donath
- Rudolf Taussig, born 26/5/1883 in Chrudim, Czechoslovakia, son of Adolf Taussig and Louisette Teveles
- Hans Taussig, born 28/6/1910 in Vienna, son of Rudolf and Léonie
- James Landau, born 21/08/1895 in Breslau, son of Wilhem and Henriette Kehlmann
- Bruno Kulka, born 30/12/1894 in Prerou (Moravia), son of Jean and Emma Herzka.
On 11 July Rudolf and family were transferred to Lyon, where he and Hans were interned. Rudolf was freed in January 1940, and Hans on 21 February. On 23 April 1940 Rudolf obtained a refugee worker permit for work as a metallurgist which was extended till 15 July 1941. However, the tribunal in Nice judged them in their absence for having entered France illegally, and condemned them to a month in prison and a fine of 100 francs. Rudolf and Hans served their sentence at the prison St Paul de Lyon and were freed in September 1941. They requested emigration to the USA, where their daughter Alice had already settled – she and her husband had managed to leave France for Portugal, where they got a visa in Lisbon in March 1940.
The Taussig family were arrested during the round-ups in the southern zone in the summer of 1942, interned at Drancy and all three deported to Auschwitz in September 1942 on convoy 27.
The Taussigs’ journey – Vienna to Arnoldstein to Friuli to Roquebrune Cap Martin to Menton to Lyon to Drancy to Auschwitz
Gisela Spira fled Berlin early in 1939 with her mother and elder sister Toni. The three women arrived in Brussels on 31 January, where father Herzel and brother Siegmund were already waiting for them. The youngest brother, Felix, had already been placed by the Comité d’Assistance at the house of the curate of Wezembeek, east of Brussels.
After May 1940, round-ups of German and Austrians in Belgium as enemy aliens prompted the Spira family to go into exile again, and they crossed clandestinely into France. They were interned there almost immediately, at Bram, in the Aude. They were freed on 30 June, and found somewhere to live in Salleles d’Aude, where Gisela met Bertold Linder, ten years older than her, who she married in January 1942.
On 26 August 1942, the Spira family was arrested, apart from Siegmund and Gisela who had moved to Lamalou les Bains, and then to St Martin Vésubie, near the Italian border. Herzel, Rosa, Toni and Felix were deported on Convoy 31 to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
On 25 December 1942, Gisela gave birth to a son, Roland.
Hundreds of Jewish refugees had been forced to settle in St Martin by the Italian administration. Many tried to cross the mountains, hoping to meet up with the Allied army. In August/September 1943, a new danger appeared, as the Wehrmacht occupied the old Italian zone, and on the 10th, the Gestapo arrived in Nice.
At St Martin, the local refugee organisations told families to pack their suitcases as quickly as possible, and to follow the retreating Italian army. Siegmund, Frieda and Roland, and around 1,200 men, women and children then tried to escape across the Alps, a biblical exodus which took place between 9 and 13 September. 328 people were intercepted and escorted to the Borgo San Dalmazzo camp in Italy, under the guard of Italian soldiers until the SS arrived. Two months later, on 21 November, the camp was evacuated, and its inhabitants transported to Nice, where they were interrogated by the Gestapo.
Gisela, her son, brother and husband were deported from Nice to Drancy. On 7 December 1943, they left Drancy on Convoy 64. On 12 December, 13 days after Roland’s first birthday, on disembarking from the cattle trucks, Gisela and her son were gassed at Auschwitz.
Siegmund alone survived. His journey continued from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated. He settled in the USA.
Gisela’s journey – Berlin to Brussels to Bram to Salleles d’Aude to Lamalou les Bains to Saint Martin Vesubie to Borgo San Dalmazzo to Nice to Drancy to Auschwitz
What’s striking is not just how those journeys ended – it’s that process of seeking safety, finding it illusory, moving on in the hopes that the next place will be different. Taking their old lives with them as they went from one apparent haven to the next. In any of the convoys from Drancy there would be those who had sought refuge in France from persecution over the previous half-century from all over Europe, and those whose families had lived in France for generations. There would be workers and bosses, Communists and conservatives, believers and non-believers. Some of their journeys were long and convoluted, like those outlined above, with many apparent reprieves along the way until that final denial of their right to live. Others had been rounded up on French streets where they had spent all their lives, and like Helene Berr, made only a short journey from Paris to Drancy before the terrible journey from Drancy to annihilation.
Those who destroyed them saw them as one thing only. That’s the nature of genocide, nothing matters except that one defining characteristic – you are a Jew, a Tutsi, and therefore you have to die. That’s why we have to make them, wherever we can, more than a name on a list. Gisela Spira, Rudolf Taussig, Helene Berr, deserve their own stories, so that we glimpse the people they were, the people they might have been.
And if we can enter imaginatively into their journeys, can we not also think of them when we hear of those in our own time who are driven from their homes by war and persecution, seeking safety where they can and often finding further perils instead?
W G Sebald describes, in his extraordinary novel Austerlitz, a recording of a film made at the Terezin concentration camp, as part of the effort to present it as a humane and civilised place to visitors from the Red Cross (overcrowding in the camp was reduced before the visit by wholesale deportations to Auschwitz, and once the visitors had left, remaining inmates were summarily despatched too).
In Austerlitz’s search for a glimpse of his mother, who had been interned there before her death, he slows the film down to give him a greater chance of spotting her fleeting image. This creates many strange effects, the inmates now move wearily, not quite touching the ground, blurring and dissolving. But:
‘Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of sounds in this slow motion version. In a brief sequence at the very beginning, … the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the soundtrack … had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended’. (Austerlitz, pp. 348-9)
The deception that the film sought to achieve is exposed.
The association between Terezin and music has another dimension, however. A remarkable number of inmates were Czech composers, musicians and conductors, and this, combined with the Nazi attempt to make the camp appear to be a model community with a rich cultural life, gave opportunities for music to be created and performed here. There is no easy comfort in this fact, when one knows that most of those who played, composed and conducted died here, or at Auschwitz, and that the moments of escape into this other world were few, and may in some ways have made the contrast with the brutality and barbarism of the regime even harder to bear.
The music of Terezin, however, now reaches new audiences through performance and recordings. Each time we hear the voices of those the Nazis sought to silence, that is a small victory.
Czech conductor Rafael Schachter – transported to Terezin in 1941, organised a performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and finally of Verdi’s Requiem, performed for the last time just a few weeks before his transfer to Auschwitz in October 1944
Jazz musician and arranger Fritz Weiss – arrived in Terezin in 1941, set up a dixieland band called the Ghetto Swingers. Fritz was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, with his father, and was killed there on his 25th birthday.
Viktor Ullmann – Silesian/Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, was transported to Terezin in 1942. He composed many works there, all but thirteen of which have been lost, before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.
Gideon Klein – Czech pianist and composer, who like Ullmann composed many works in the camp as well as performing regularly in recitals. Just after completing his final string trio, he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Furstengrube, where he died during the liquidation of the camp.
Pavel Haas – Czech composer, exponent of Janacek’s school of composition, who used elements of folk and jazz in his work. He was transferred to Auschwitz after the propaganda film was completed, and was murdered there.
Hans Krasa wrote the children’s opera Brundibar in 1938, and it was first performed in the Jewish orphanage in Prague. After Krasa and many of his cast were sent to Terezin, he reconstructed the score from memory, and the opera was performed there regularly, culminating in a performance for the propaganda film. Krasa and his performers were sent to Auschwitz as soon as the filming was finished, and were gassed there.
Not all of the musicians of Terezin were killed. Alice Herz-Sommer survived, along with her son. Now 110, Alice sees life as miraculous and beautiful, she has chosen hope over hate.
“The world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music … It is a miracle.”
Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This event came to be called Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, a reference to the shattered glass from shop windows that carpeted the streets of German towns.
Kristallnacht was a crucial turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, and a significant stage in the evolution of the Holocaust. As Simon Schama crisply put in on BBC radio this week:
It’s incredibly important. You can’t really overstate its importance: not because a thousand synagogues were burned or 90…
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As I only knew Norman Geras – Norm – through his blog, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to him on my own. He was one of the writers who inspired me to use this form to write about whatever mattered to me, and he was kind enough to invite me to complete one of his profiles.
I cannot speak of his life, except as revealed through the many entries on Normblog, and now through the obituaries that have started to appear. A life of conviction and passion, of family and friendship, of music and books and film, of cricket… His very last entry was a list not of books that you must or should read, but of ‘books you might enjoy’ – no browbeating or pressure, just the suggestions of a friend, who wants to share their pleasure with other people.
He also used his blog for a series called Figures from a Dark Time. This was a response to those who argue that we all go on too much about the Holocaust, that it’s all been said often enough. Each entry was composed of testimonies of individuals who were engulfed by that darkness, some who survived, many who did not, and some too who risked everything to help those who needed it. He wrote ‘contre l’oubli’, restoring to some few of those individuals their names and their stories.
atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale
- Norman Geras: 1943-2013 (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- In praise of Norman Geras (1943-2013) (nickcohen.net)
- Norman Geras, 1943-2013 (outsidethebeltway.com)
- RIP Norman Geras (samirchopra.com)
- Bye bye Norm (harrietdevine.typepad.com)
- Pioneering blogger Norman Geras dies of prostate cancer aged 70 (theguardian.com)
- Norman Geras: Rest in peace, comrade (blogs.spectator.co.uk)
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)
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
… and so were an astonishing number of the other great physicists of the first half of the twentieth century.
These famous photographs are from the 1927 and 1933 Solvay Physics Conferences, and given the dates, it is interesting to ponder what became of those gathered there, not in terms of their scientific contribution (about which I am not qualified to speak) but how they fared as Europe was engulfed in barbarism.
P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr;
I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Skłodowska-Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch.-E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson
Erwin Schrodinger left Germany in 1933 to work, in the UK, but took up a post in Austria. In 1939, after the Anschluss, Schrödinger was dismissed from the University and fled to Italy. Wolfgang Pauli fled to the United States in 1940. Leon Brillouin resigned from his post in France after the Occupation, and went to the United States. Peter Debye left Germany in early 1940, and became a professor at Cornell. Max Born was suspended from his post in 1933 – he emigrated to Britain, where he took a job at St John’s College, Cambridge.
Niels Bohr gave refugees from Nazism temporary jobs at the Institute, provided them with financial support, arranged for them to be awarded fellowships or found them places at various institutions around the world. Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and in 1943, fearing arrest, he fled to Sweden, where he persuaded the King to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide asylum, helping to effect the rescue of many Danish Jews.
Albert Einstein was visiting the US when Hitler came to power in 1933 and did not go back to Germany. He spoke at the inaugural public meeting of the Academic Assistance Committee (later CARA).
The seventh Conference, in 1933: Seated (left to right): Erwin Schrödinger, Irène Joliot, Niels Henrik David Bohr, Abram Ioffe, Marie Curie, Paul Langevin, Owen Willans Richardson, Lord Ernest Rutherford, Théophile de Donder, Maurice de Broglie, Louis de Broglie, Lise Meitner, James Chadwick. Standing (left to right): Émile Henriot, Francis Perrin, Frédéric Joliot, Werner Heisenberg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, E. Stahel, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Paul Dirac, Peter Joseph William Debye, Nevill Francis Mott, Blas Cabrera, George Gamow, Walther Bothe, Patrick Blackett, M.S. Rosenblum, Jacques Errera, Ed. Bauer, Wolfgang Pauli, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, M. Cosyns, E. Herzen, John Douglas Cockcroft, Charles Drummond Ellis, Rudolf Peierls, Auguste Piccard, Ernest O. Lawrence, Léon Rosenfeld.
Max Cosyns, from Belgium, joined the Resistance and was imprisoned in Dachau. Enrico Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape Mussolini’s racial laws that affected his Jewish wife, and emigrated to the United States. Rudolf Peierls
was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came
to power – he was granted leave to remain in Britain, and worked in Manchester
under a fund set up for refugees.
Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew, escaped to the Netherlands, with help from Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border, where Coster persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands. She later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse. From the Netherlands she went on to Stockholm, and worked with Niels Bohr.
George Gamow worked at a number of Soviet establishments before deciding to flee Russia because of increased oppression. In 1933 he was suddenly granted permission to attend the Solvay Conference. He attended, with his wife, and arranged to extend their stay. Over the next year, Gamow obtained temporary work at the Curie Institute, University of London and University of Michigan.
In addition -
Ugo Fano left Italy for the US in 1939 because of anti-Semitism. Liviu Librescu was born in 1930 to a Romanian Jewish family, and was deported first to a labour camp and then a ghetto in Focsani. Walter Kohn came to England with the Kindertransport after the annexation of Austria. Both of his parents were killed in the Holocaust. Svein Rosseland fled Norway after the German occupation and went to the US. Otto Stern resigned his post at the University of Hamburg in 1933 and became Professor of Physics at the Carnegie Institute. Guido Beck studied physics in Vienna. Jewish born, he travelled in the 1930s to avoid persecution in Germany, but was imprisoned in France in 1937 at the start of the war – in 1941 he fled to Portugal and then in 1943 to Argentina. Felix Bloch left Germany immediately after Hitler came to power, and emigrated to work at Stanford University. James Franck left his post in Germany and continued his research in the United States. Otto Robert Frisch left Vienna for London to work at Birkbeck College. Hilde Levi fled Denmark when the round-ups of Jews began, moving to Sweden, where she worked at the Wenner-Gren Institute for Experimental Biology in Stockholm. Edward Teller left Göttingen in 1933 through the aid of the International Rescue Committee, worked in the UK and then in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, before being invited to the United States in 1935. Arthur von Hippel left Germany in 1933, mainly because his wife was Jewish, but due also to his political stance against the new regime – he was able to secure a position in Turkey, then spent a year in Denmark before moving to the US to work at MIT. Viki Weisskopf was born in Vienna, and worked with Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen – Bohr then helped him find a position in the US.
It’s Holocaust Memorial Day. I’m thinking about how we can build bridges between past and present, by telling individual stories, by giving back to the people who were swallowed up in that terror their names, their faces, their uniqueness.
Frieda Linder-Kornweitz, from Vienna, died aged 31 with her daughter Karin (aged 7) at Auschwitz, December 1943 (http://jewishtraces.org/plus-quun-nom-dans-une-liste-frieda-linder-kornweitz/)
Sulamite-Solange Ast, age 18, died with her younger brother Marc and their mother, at Auschwitz in 1943. Their father survived.
Sometimes we just have a name, sometimes a photograph and fragments of a life. And sometimes from the darkness a voice emerges that is so vivid that as you read you hear it, you hear the urgency, the passion, the despair and you want to reach out. Helene Berr’s is such a voice.
Her diary describes her life in Paris between 1942 and 1944. It wasn’t published till 2008, but since then it has become an essential document of the Holocaust and specifically of the Occupation of France. After the Liberation, her fiance and surviving family members circulated the manuscript amongst themselves, but eventually it was offered to the Shoah Memorial, published to great acclaim, and since then has been translated into 26 languages. It’s inspired an exhibition at the Shoah Memorial , which uses Helene’s story and her words to illuminate some of the darkest corners of those dark years.
Hélène has been called the French Anne Frank, but whilst both kept journals which have become key documents of the Holocaust, and both died in the last weeks before Liberation, they’re very different. Others have noted the parallels between the publication of her journal, and the discovery of the manuscript of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise.
However, these comparisons don’t do justice to the remarkable and unique qualities of this diary. Hélène lived in the heart of Occupied Paris, walked its streets wearing the yellow star, worked with Jewish orphans, played music, fell in love. And she wrote this poignant, vivid and impassioned account of the events she witnessed, ‘pour ne pas les oublier, parce qu’il ne faut pas oublier’, setting herself the task of recording everything, giving the unfolding tragedy its full weight, showing it raw, naked, without distortion.
16 April 1942
S said ‘The Germans are going to win the war’. I said ‘No!’. But I didn’t know what else to say. I was conscious of my cowardice – the cowardice of not standing up in front of him for what I believed – so I shook myself – I exclaimed ‘But what will become of us if the Germans win?’. He shrugged: ‘Bah! Nothing will change ‘. I knew what he would say. ‘There will always be the sun and the water’. I was all the more irritated because deep down, at that moment, I felt the supreme pointlessness of all these arguments, in the face of beauty. And yet I knew that I was falling under a malign spell. … I forced myself to say: ‘but they won’t let everyone enjoy the light and the water’. Happily, this phrase saved me. I don’t want to be a coward.
8 June 1942
My God, I had no idea it would be so hard. I was so brave all day. I held my head high, and looked people straight in the face, when they averted their eyes. But it’s hard. …. This morning I went out with Mother. Two kids in the street pointed at us, saying ‘Hey, have you seen? Jews’. But otherwise things seemed normal. … A young couple were waiting, I saw the woman point me out to her companion. I heard her say. ‘It’s heartbreaking’. On the bus there was a woman, probably a domestic servant, who had already smiled at me before getting on board, and who turned serveral times to smile; a smart gentleman stared at me: I couldn’t interpret the stare, but I looked back proudly.
18 July 1942
I felt guilty, that there was something I hadn’t seen, this reality. This woman, her sister who has four children has been taken. The evening of the round-up, she hid, but unluckily went back up to the concierge just as they came to find her. Mme Bieder is like a hunted animal. She’s not afraid for herself. but she’s terrified that they’ll take her children from her. …. At Montmartre, there were so many arrests that the streets were blocked. The faubourg Saint Denis is almost deserted. They’re separating mothers from their children. I’m recording the facts hastily, so as not to forget, because we musn’t forget.
31 January 1944
I used to quote, not long ago, a phrase from a Russian play: ‘We shall rest, Uncle Vanya, we shall rest’. It meant the sleep of the tomb. But more and more I say to myself that only the dead escape this persecution; when I hear of the death of a Jew now, I think, ‘they’re out of the reach of the Germans’. Isn’t that horrible? We hardly weep for the dead any more.
15 February 1944
Why then does the German soldier who I pass in the street not attack or bother me? Why does he often hold the train door for me, or say ‘Excuse me’ if he blocks my way? Why? Becuase people don’t know – or rather they don’t think any more, they’re just about whatever they’ve been ordered to do right now. But they don’t even see the incomprehensible illogic of holding the door open for me, when tomorrow they may send me to be deported, and yet I will be the same unique person. … Also no doubt they don’t know everything – one atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They don’t know all of the horrible details of the persecutions, because there’s only a small group of torturers, and of Gestapo who are implicated in it. Would they feel it, if they knew? Would they feel the suffering of these people dragged from their homes, these women separated from their flesh and blood? They’re too brutalised for that. And then they don’t think – I always come back to that – I believe it’s the source of evil and the thing on which this regime bases its power. Annihilate personal thoughts, the reaction of the individual conscience, that’s the first step to Nazism’.
Cultured and intelligent, a student at the Sorbonne until the anti-semitic laws prevented her from continuing her studies, 21 year old Hélène begins her journal in 1942 with an account of her visit to the home of poet Paul Valéry, who’s signed a copy of a book for her. She is ‘overwhelmed with joy’. At this stage, the war is, in a sense, just background noise. Even so, even this early on, she senses a chasm opening up between her life, and that of her non-Jewish friends. Little by little she is overwhelmed as she grasps the reality of what is happening around her, and the last words of her journal are a quotation from Macbeth ‘Horror! Horror! Horror!’
Hélène constantly questions herself. Should she try to get away, or stay in Paris? She asks herself why, knowing what her fate is likely to be, she’s done nothing to avoid it. She understands that the danger is increasing: ‘There aren’t many Jews left in Paris, and it’s the Germans who are arresting people now [rather than the French police], so there is less chance of escaping, because we won’t be warned.’ She believes, nonetheless, that to flee would be a defection, an act of bad faith.
In January 1944, Hélène writes ‘Will I make it to the end?’. After several months of moving around each day and staying with different friends, she and her parents went home, for just one night. That’s where they were arrested, on 8 March.
They were taken to the Drancy transit camp, and then deported, on Convoy 70 to Auschwitz, where Antoinette Berr was gassed on 30 April, and Raymond Berr was murdered in September. Hélène survived for more than a year. She was moved to Bergen-Belsen in November, where she was killed, just five days before the camp was liberated.
She so nearly did make it to the end.
- Berr, Hélène, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Tallandier, 2008)
- Bracher, Nathan, ‘Des Considérations inactuelles au cœur de l’Occupation: Le Cogito à rebours d’Hélène Berr’, Modern & Contemporary France, 18, 1 (2010), 17-32
- Bracher, Nathan, ‘Éthique et esthétique dans le Journal d’Hélène Berr’, L’Esprit Créateur, 50, 4 (2010), 150–63
- Jaillant, Lise, ‘A Masterpiece Ripped from Oblivion: Rediscovered Manuscripts and the Memory of the Holocaust in Contemporary France’, Clio, 39, 3 (2010), 359-79
- Kelly, Debra, ‘From Cultural Amnesia to “Anamnesia”’, Synthesis, 2 (2010), 48-61
- Sinder, Henri, ‘Lights and Shades of Jewish Life in France, 1940-2’, Jewish Social Studies, 5 (1943), 367
- Classe de 1° ES2, Lycée Pierre Bourdieu-Fronton, ‘Helene Berr, une jeune étoile dans le Paris de l’Occupation’, 2008-9