(adapted from a paper given at ‘There & Back Again’, a postgraduate conference at the University of Nottingham, organised by the Landscape, Space, Place Research Group. The title is taken from Iain Hacking’s fascinating study of the fugueur phenomenon)
The idea of wandering, of travelling without constraints, without a humdrum practical purpose, is perennially appealing to most of us, even if, for most of us, the drawbacks come to mind pretty speedily if we start to entertain the notion. Some do it anyway – seize the moment when the obstacles are not insuperable – but generally it’s something to enjoy vicariously, or to indulge in short bursts, taking time out of a holiday schedule to just have a stroll around foreign streets.
Throughout myth and literature there are many wanderers who cross seas, continents and centuries. For some it’s a pastime, a means of avoiding commitments or encumbrance:
I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around
I’m never in one place, I roam from town to town
And when I find myself fallin’ for some girl
I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world (Dion, The Wanderer, 1961)
Everyday in the week I’m in a different city
If I stay too long people try to pull me down
Hendrix suggests that the prejudices of the cities in which he finds himself push him to leave, as well as, like Dion, that if he does sometimes feel his heart ‘kinda gettin’ hot’ for some woman, he moves on before he gets caught. For some, wandering is a subversive practice (not using the city streets in the prescribed way), for others it’s a compulsion, even a curse.
The flâneur is one of those archetypal wanderers. This classic definition is by Baudelaire, writing in 1863 in his ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’.
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.
He is a perfect stroller, a passionate spectator, an erudite wanderer. He walks the streets, probably alone, with no map or itinerary, with the confidence that comes from being male, well-educated and wealthy. His milieu is the city, and quintessentially Paris. One might think that the boulevards and arcades of Haussmann’s Paris lent themselves to strolling so much better than the labyrinthine streets of the old city, but it was that old city that defined the flâneur, allowing (in Edmund White’s words) ‘a passive surrender to the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets’.
The flâneur is a prototype detective, his apparent indolence masking intense watchfulness. This recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (which was translated by Baudelaire), in which a man recovering from illness sits in a London coffee shop, watching the passers-by, and engaging in Holmesian deductions about their occupation and character. His attention is drawn by an old man who he is unable to read, and he feels compelled by insatiable curiosity to follow him, for a night and a day, as the man moves unceasingly through the city: he is the man of the crowd – not only hiding within it, but unable to exist outside it.
Walter Benjamin in his 1935 study of Baudelaire suggests that Baudelaire identifies the old man as a flâneur. This must be a misreading on Benjamin’s part, since the old man is as manic as the flâneur is composed. The flâneur may ‘set up house’ in the heart of the crowd, becoming part of ‘the ebb and flow of movement’, but he remains separate, above the mass. He is, like Baudelaire and Benjamin, at the same time engaged with and alienated by the city.
Poe’s story does give us a flâneur, however, in the person of the narrator, who can and does choose to abandon his pursuit, stepping aside to resume his life, and a different kind of wanderer, in the person of the man of the crowd. Steven Fink argues persuasively that the man of the crowd is the mythological figure of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander endlessly as punishment for a terrible crime. (He has a number of counterparts, including, amongst others, Cain, the Flying Dutchman, and the Ancient Mariner.) Certainly this description by Benjamin’s contemporary, Siegfried Krakauer, is remarkably close to Poe’s description of the old man:
‘there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of bloodthirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense – of supreme despair … How wild a history … is written within that bosom!’. (Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’)
Imagine [his face] to be many faces, each reflecting one of the periods which he traversed and all of them combining into ever new patterns as he restlessly and vainly tries on his wanderings to reconstruct out of the times that shaped him the one time he is doomed to incarnate. It is a terrible face, ‘assembled from the many faces of the dead’. (Siegfried Krakauer – History, the Last Things Before the Last (OUP, 1969))
If the man of the crowd is no flâneur, he does bear a stronger resemblance to the fugueur, a lesser-known (and shorter-lived) phenomenon which emerged in the 1880s. Bordeaux medical student Philippe Tissié and neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris documented a number of cases of men undertaking strange and unexpected trips, in states of obscured consciousness. They were subject to hallucinations, and often dominated by ideas of persecution. Their conduct during the episode appeared normal, but they were unconscious of what they were doing, and had no memory of it afterwards – in a state of dissociative fugue. A fugue state is defined as involving selective memory loss, the inability to recall specific – perhaps traumatic – events. This may be accompanied by wandering and travelling, in an attempt to recover memory/identity, or perhaps in a flight from it – the etymological paradox of flight/pursuit.
The fugueur is quite distinct from the flâneur whose journeying is deliberately aimless and random, an end in itself. His itinerary may defy linear logic but nonetheless is purposeful, even if that purpose can be discovered only retrospectively. The flâneur, in his fine clothes, walked the streets as if he owned them because, wealthy and well-educated, he could. The fugueur, in his state of obscured consciousness, was likely to be mistaken, instead, for a vagrant. Albert Dadas, ‘patient zero’ in the mini-epidemic of ‘mad travelling’, was repeatedly arrested for vagabondage. The fugueurs were generally of more modest means than the flâneurs – tradesmen, craftsmen or clerks – and their travels took them much further afield. If someone spoke of a city or a country Albert was seized by the need to go there, and did so, often then finding himself in difficulties due to lack of funds.
One of Charcot’s patients was a young Hungarian Jew named Klein, who was ‘constantly driven by an irresistible need to change his surroundings, to travel, without being able to settle down anywhere’. This particular patient prompted a link with the then prevailing view that Jews were more prone than other races to various forms of neurasthenia and that this particular manifestation was ‘in the character of their race’. Thus the Wandering Jew was, according to Henri Meige’s thesis, ‘only a sort of prototype of neurotic Israelites journeying throughout the world’. Even at the time it was pointed out, fairly acerbically, that if the Jews had a tendency to move from place to place, this was in generally externally rather than internally driven, as persecution and prejudice made it necessary to leave one home in search of another.
Charcot’s diagnosis, and his use of the term ‘hystero-epilepsy’ in particular, fell out of favour, largely due to the failure to identify a common cause that would account for a collection of rather disparate individual cases. In the twentieth century the two types of wanderer seem often to merge, as trauma and exile create a more melancholy and more driven wanderer. One can trace a line from Baudelaire’s flâneur to the Surrealists, via Walter Benjamin’s description of flânerie as a dream state in which ‘The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker [: it] conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history’, to Guy Debord’s dérive as subversive practice, and on to today’s psychogeographers. Rather than being a disaffected and detached observer, the flâneur in the late 20th and 21st century may be in flight from memory, from identity, at home nowhere, an exile who feels no connection, or only a highly problematic one, to homeland or origins.
Michel Butor’s 1956 novel, L’Emploi du temps is set in a northern English industrial city, called Bleston but clearly inspired by Manchester, where Butor had worked a few years earlier. It takes the form of a diary kept by his protagonist, Jacques Revel, in the city for a one-year placement. We know nothing of Revel’s life before his arrival in Bleston, or of what he will do after he leaves. He speaks of his year there as a prison sentence – he is unable to leave the city during that period, and compelled to leave it on a specific date. He is certainly not at home in Bleston, but he seems entirely rootless, without any connection elsewhere. In his restless wanderings through the streets, he seems to be searching – mostly fruitlessly – for lodgings, for someone whose name he does not know who he met on an earlier walk, for the elusive countryside. But ultimately his quest is to master the city by walking its streets, grasping the reality which seems to be changing around him as he walks – it is a phantasmagorical city, whose heavily polluted atmosphere creates a narcotic dream-like state, distorting his perceptions and leaving him disorientated.
Butor’s novel had a significant influence on W G Sebald, who came to Manchester about 15 years later. Sebald read L’Emploi du temps when he first arrived, and it inspired a poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, as well as having a wider impact on his work.
In Sebald’s novels, the narrator (who may or may not be, to some extent, Sebald) invariably begins by describing a journey. He is precise about when, and where, although the layering of timeframes and locations means that we can lose these certainties as the narrative progresses, but frequently the ‘why’ is obscure, not just to the reader but to the narrator himself. The narrator and the various protagonists are rarely, if ever, ‘at home’. They are often in transit or in provisional, interim spaces such as waiting rooms, railway stations, and transport cafes. Their journeys often induce episodes of near paralysis, physical or mental, and they end inconclusively, often with a sense that the quest will continue after the final page.
But if the Sebaldian narrator is a contemporary example of the melancholy flâneur, Jacques Austerlitz connects us directly with the fugueur, and with wandering as a response to trauma and loss. As a child, Austerlitz arrived in England on the Kindertransport, where his foster parents gave him a new life, and a new name, telling him nothing of his past, or the fate of his parents, until, as a sixth former, he learns that he is not Dafydd Elias.
For many years he avoids any topic or image which might shed light on or raise questions about his origins. But, increasingly isolated, and with his life ‘clouded by unrelieved despair’, tormented by insomnia, he undertakes nocturnal wanderings through London, alone, outwards into the suburbs, and then back at dawn with the commuters into the city. These excursions begin to trigger hallucinations, visions from the past, for example, the impression that ‘the noises of the city were dying down around me and the traffic was flowing silently down the street, or as if someone had plucked me by the sleeve. And I would hear people behind my back speaking in a foreign tongue …’. He is irresistibly drawn to Liverpool Street Station, a place full of ghosts, built as it is on the remains of Bedlam hospital, and, in the disused Ladies’ Waiting Room, encounters the ghosts of his foster parents and the small boy he once was.
Thus his obsessive wanderings appear to have had a sub-conscious purpose, taking him back to the point of rupture between one life and another. He embarks upon a new phase of wandering, driven by the need to find his home and his parents. Overhearing a radio documentary about the Kindertransport, and the reference to a ship named The Prague, like Albert Dadas, the original fugueur: ‘the mere mention of the city’s name in the present context was enough to convince me that I would have to go there’.
Austerlitz’s quest remains incomplete at the end of the novel. In the course of his wanderings he has, he believes, discovered his former home in Prague and traced his mother to Teresienstadt and his father to the Gurs concentration camp in France in 1942. Beyond that he knows only that his mother ‘was sent east’ in 1944. He does not know where, when, or even whether they died.
His quest, and his confrontation with the losses that defined his life, leads to ‘several fainting fits … temporary but complete loss of memory, a condition described in psychiatric textbooks … as hysterical epilepsy’. He is taken, significantly, to the Salpêtrière, where Charcot established this diagnosis almost a century earlier. This diagnosis would only be included in psychiatric textbooks as a historical footnote – an example of Sebald’s dense or layered time – we know precisely where we are, but the ‘when’ is not so straightforward.
Thus we’ve come full circle. And I want to make another tentative, perhaps fanciful connection. Sebald invites us to make all sorts of links with the name Austerlitz – the battle, the Parisian railway station, even Fred Astaire. And there’s always the echo of another name, the likely final destination of both of his parents, unspoken here except in a reference to the Auschowitz Springs near Marienbad. One more then – Ahasuerus, the name often given to the mythological Wandering Jew.
Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur – ‘être hors de chez soi, et pourtant se sentir partout chez soi (away from home and yet at home everywhere)’ has echoed through the twentieth century and into our own, accumulating more and more melancholy baggage. That this phrase has darker undertones than Baudelaire will have intended is brought home by a speech made by Hitler in 1933, in which he described the Jewish people, the ‘small, rootless international clique’, as ‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere’.
In our time then, rather than someone at ease wherever he finds himself, we are likely to think of the refugee and the exile, adapting without putting down roots, unable to return but unable fully to belong, always sub-consciously ready to move on or even keeping a bag permanently packed, just in case. For the original flâneur this characteristic was an affectation, a chosen detachment and rootlessness. For the fugueur, driven by trauma or crisis of identity, it is a curse, to have to wander, and never to find answers, or find home.
Anderson, George K, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (Hanover/London: Brown UP, 1991)
Benjamin, Walter, ed. Michael W Jennings, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2006)
Brunel, Pierre (ed), translated by Wendy Allatson et al, Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes (NY/London: Routledge, 1996)
Coverley, Merlin, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006)
Fink, Steven, ‘Who is Poe’s Man of the Crowd?’, Poe Studies, 44, 2011 (17-38)
Gilloch, Graeme, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cam.: Polity, 1996)
Goldstein, Jan, ‘The Wandering Jew and the Problem of Psychiatric Anti-Semitism in Fin-de-Siècle France’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 4(October 1985), 521-52
Hacking, Ian, ‘Automatisme Ambulatoire: Fugue, Hysteria and Gender at the Turn of the Century’, Modernism/Modernity, 32 (1996), 31-43
__, ‘Les Alienés voyageurs: How Fugue Became a Medical Entity, History of Psychiatry, 7, 3 (September 1996), 425-49
__, Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (Free Association Books, 1998)
Kuo, Michelle and Albert Wu, ‘Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W G Sebald and the Alienated Cosmopolitan’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 February 2013
Lauster, Martina, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Myth of the Flâneur’, Modern Language Review, 102, 1 (January 2007), 139-56
McDonough, Tom, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22
Micale, Mark S, In the Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology and the Cultural Arts in Europe and American, 1880-1940 (Stanford UP, 2004)
Seal, Bobby, ‘Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur’, Psychogeographic Review, 14 November 2013
White, Edmund, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Reblogged from Gerry’s always excellent ‘That’s How the Light Gets In’ blog – https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/.
Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:
Just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed in Berlin, in cobbled and tree-lined Fasanenstrasse, I found outside number 42 eight small brass plaques embedded in the pavement. They record the deportation from this town house of eight Jewish Berliners to their deaths in the east.
These small brass memorials are called stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) and there are now more than 5000 of them in Berlin (plus another 38,000 in 800 towns and cities across Europe), each one commemorating a victim of the Holocaust: whether Jew or Roma, dissident or homosexual, an individual consigned by the Nazis to prison, concentration camp or extermination camp, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide.
Stolpersteine are the creation of the Berlin artist Gunter Demnig, their name recalling the old custom in Germany for non-Jews to say, when they stumbled over a protruding stone, ‘There must…
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One of the glorious by-products of the movements of peoples around the world, however grim the reasons, is the music. Music can cross any barriers, transcend any divisions, no translation required. People driven from their homes make take very little with them, but the songs they grew up with, the music they danced to or played, those weigh nothing. And they enrich the communities in which those people find new homes – music that moves our hearts, our hips, our feet, that comes from places we’ve never seen, with lyrics in languages we don’t speak. Music is vital.
That’s one of the reasons why watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest film, Timbuktu, is so intense and so harrowing. The ISIL/Taliban group who have taken over Timbuktu spend their evenings listening out for any sounds of music and silencing it. You could say that there are worse things – this regime does those too, stoning to death a couple accused of adultery. But killing music is a way of killing the soul.
The young musicians who make up Songhoy Blues fled their homes in the north of Mali and since then have been taking their desert blues around the world. They’re doing Glasto next week, but last July at Sheffield’s Tramlines festival I saw them play live and they made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.
They won’t go away if we ignore them. They won’t stop taking to the boats or setting off on their desperate, dangerous journeys if we refuse to rescue them or give them shelter. Nor would we.
Some of them have never known safety, stability, a home and a job and a school for the kids. Others had all of these things until something changed – a war, a change of government, a new ideology, an earthquake or a flood – and then had to leave them all behind. This is a humanitarian crisis but as Richard Branson said this week, it’s also a moral one. It needs political will, financial aid, but also human empathy and generosity, the instinct for fairness and hospitality. The answers aren’t easy but we have to find them, collectively.
Fifteen years into a millennium that many of us hoped would see an end to war, a spreading global violence has come to threaten the very foundations of our international system.
More people fled last year than at any other time in our records. Around the world, almost 60 million have been displaced by conflict and persecution. Nearly 20 million of them are refugees, and more than half are children. Their numbers are growing and accelerating, every single day, on every continent. In 2014, an average of 42,500 people became refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced persons, every single day – that is four times more than just 4 years ago.
These people rely on us for their survival and hope. They will remember what we do.”
– António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, World Refugee Day, June 20th 2015.
Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest.
Ordinary people, in extraordinary situations. Ordinary people driven from home, by war, persecution, poverty, natural disasters.
Greeks fleeing the destruction of Psara in 1824, Armenians in 1899, Spanish Civil War (1936-9), Czechs from the Sudetenland in 1938, Russian refugees near Stalingrad 1942, Partition of India 1947, Palestinians from Galilee 1948, Hungarians in 1956, Tibetan exodus 1959, Igbo refugees in Nigeria in 1966, Bangladesh in 1971, Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, Cyprus in 1974, Salvadorean Civil War ( 1975-82), Afghanis from 1979 onwards, Mariel boatlift ofCuban refugees in 1980, Vietnamese boat people in 1984, Rohingya people from Burma 1991 onwards, Bosnian refugees in 1993, Rwandans in 1994… And so many more, before and since.
A new art exhibition ‘Back Where You Came From’ examines how ancient stories about migration preserved in the biblical book of Genesis are helpful in considering the current migration crisis. The project seeks to promote open dialogue about migration through reading ancient sacred texts about migration in groups that include people from different faiths and cultures. Sanctuary seekers in the city have reflected on their movement, transience, and migration from their homes by responding to stories about the figures of Abraham, Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob from the book of Genesis.’
‘Back Where You Come From’ will run from 15 to 26 June at The Gallery @ 35 Chapel Walk, in the centre of Sheffield, from 10am to 6pm. Download the exhibition brochure.
Women become refugees for most of the same reasons that men do. They experience most of the same terrors, dangers and indignities along the way. But there are also particular threats that may drive them to leave everything behind and seek safety somewhere else. The fear or immediate threat of forced marriage or genital mutilation, for them or their daughters. The use of rape as a weapon of war, or as a routine way of punishing women for resistance, or for their sexual orientation.
And leaving home, the perils of the journey, the insecurities of their place of arrival expose them even more to the threat of sexual violence, as destitution may lead to their exploitation by traffickers and pimps. In detention, women who have been raped or sexually abused, or whose culture imposes a duty of modesty, may find themselves being searched, or watched whilst dressing or washing, by male guards. Some have been sexually assaulted by their guards.
Lengthy indefinite detention is inherently unjust. It is inherently damaging to refugees who are already traumatised by their experiences. There must be some alternative to treating people who have sought sanctuary here more harshly than those who have been convicted of a crime. There must be some recognition that the women in Yarls Wood, if they must be detained, need to be safe from harm, treated with kindness, their privacy respected. Pregnant women, and anyone who is sick, physically or mentally, should not be there.
Refugee women can and do contribute. A A Gill, who wrote a series of articles on refugees in DRC, Jordan and Lampedusa published in The Sunday Times Magazine, said: ‘In Congo I realised a truth I’ve known all my life. Whilst women are often victims, they are also often the catalyst for making things better.’ The Refugee Council has for the last few years celebrated these contributions, and here are a few of the recipients of their awards.
This year’s Special Jury Award went to Asma Mohamed Ali. Asma was born on the Brava Coast in Somalia and came to the UK in 1992 having spent much of her childhood in Kenyan refugee camps. Now working in Barnet at the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association, Asma has built a thriving centre and education programme that supports 200 students and their families.
In 2014 Lilian Seenoi, a refugee from Kenya, was recognised as Woman of the Year for her work setting up North-West Migrants Forum – the only migrant forum in Derry/Londonderry, from her kitchen table. Lilian sought asylum in the UK after her work rescuing young girls from early marriage put her life in danger. Her work in Northern Ireland now brings together diverse migrant groups and local communities who have suffered years of tension. Lilian quoted from the Migrant Manifesto: ‘I have witnessed how fear creates boundaries, how boundaries create hate and how hate only serves the oppressors. I do understand that migrants and non-migrants are interconnected. When the rights of migrants are denied, the rights of citizens are at risk. Dignity has no nationality.’
Constance Nzeneu, who received an award in 2014, fled to the UK in 2005 from the threat of a forced marriage in Cameroon where she had trained as a lawyer. After she applied for protection, she was dispersed to Cardiff whilst her asylum claim was being processed. Like thousands of asylum seekers, Constance had no choice over where she would live and had no right to work, but she did not stand still, with the help of a training she became involved in advocacy and community work, This is how she describes those early days:
“I was refused asylum and I realized that there were so many people out there with similar or worse experiences than mine. There was no project led by women seeking sanctuary and I think you can’t really understand this situation – being destitute, being homeless and thinking what am I going to eat tonight, and I don’t want to be a burden to anyone, and how long am I going to be allowed to stay, and I’m about to be deported, what should I do…unless you’ve been through it yourself.”
She now leads Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group Wales (WSSAG), which she set up to support other women to cope with exile, and to raise awareness within Wales about why women seek sanctuary. The group is now 40 strong.
Community work comes naturally to Nazek Ramadan, who received an award in 2012. In the 1980s she opened her home in Beirut to refugees, and when she and her family had to flee Lebanon for the UK in 1986, she began volunteering soon after she arrived in London, initially at an Arabic speaking supplementary school. Her first challenge was to learn English, which she did by watching children’s TV (advice she still gives to others), going to classes and joining in any activity she could. The early years in London were not easy and Nazek experienced racial abuse. She discovered that learning English and getting a job were not enough to be accepted. When a fellow migrant said to her ‘how can they hate us so much, when they don’t even know us’ she replied by saying, ‘you’ve answered your own question, they don’t know us’. She realised that ‘everyone was talking about migrants except migrants’ and so set out to remedy this. In 2007 she launched the New Londoners newspaper which, modelled on London’s freesheets, succeeded in getting migrant and asylum issues in front of London commuters and won two awards from the Mayor of London. And in 2010 she founded Migrant Voice, an organisation dedicated to addressing the lack of representation of migrants in the mainstream media.
These women left their homes and loved ones, fleeing war and persecution, and managed not only to build a new life for themselves and their families, but also to support and inspire people and communities across the UK.
Decades before the refugees from Vietnam were given the name of ‘boat people’, and before the more recent tragedies in the Med, a group of refugees were desperately hoping for a ship to take them away from Europe, to the US, the UK, anywhere. They went through official channels, or at least they tried, applying for visas and waiting, waiting. Russian author Victor Serge described the temporary community gathered in Marseille:
Here is a beggar’s alley gathering the remnants of revolutions, democracies and crushed intellects… In our ranks are enough doctors, psychologists, engineers, educationalists, poets, painters, writers, musicians, economists and public men to vitalize a whole great country.
Many of them had already fled across Europe. Some made it to safety in another continent. Others didn’t – they left it just a little too late.
Many of those who did make it owed their survival to the work of American journalist Varian Fry, and Harry Bingham IV, the US Vice-Consul in Marseille, who provided forged visas particularly to artists at risk in Occupied France, Mary Jayne Gold , a Chicago heiress who helped to fund the operation, Albert O Hirschmann and Miriam Davenport, along with Robert Dexter , the founder of the Unitarian Service Committee.
Thanks to their collective effort, Marc Chagall (originally from what is now Belarus) and his wife Bella sailed in May 1941. Their daughter Ida and her husband left on another ship, the SS Navemar, chartered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The refugees who managed to get to Seville found themselves taking bunks in its filthy cargo holds (unless they had the funds to pay the captain for more salubrious quarters) – many passengers contracted typhus en route, and six died.
Even on the Navemar the conditions and the dangers faced by these ‘boat people’ were very different to those encountered by today’s boat people. But some similarities remain – a number of such ships were turned away, and had to return to Europe, a terrible prospect for their passengers. In February 1942, the Turkish police cut the anchor of the SS Struma, carrying 767 Jews, and towed it into the Black Sea, where it was set adrift without a working engine. People ashore could make out a large banner that read, “Save us.” A torpedo from a Russian submarine sank the vessel six miles from shore early the next morning. There was one survivor.
Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins wrote this haunting passage about the Struma in their book Death on the Black Sea:
Standing on the polished deck of a British Royal Navy cruiser in January 1942, Olivia Manning experienced a moment of utter confusion. She and her husband, a British journalist, had joined a party of diplomats and officials for an evening’s pleasure cruise along the Bosporus and around Istanbul harbor. The city lights sparkled in the chill air, and the ship’s forward searchlight played across the night water. The guests danced and sipped martinis and gin and tonics. The festivities stopped abruptly when the searchlight paused on what appeared to be a derelict ship, illuminating rows of faces, white and unsmiling, as they stared back at the partygoers. “Who are they?” asked one of the shocked guests. “What are they doing there?” asked another. Someone suggested it was a prison ship. “The light shifted and the party forgot its grim audience hidden in the dark,” Manning, a novelist who had lived in Romania briefly before the war, later wrote in a newspaper article. “The ship was the Struma.” The images of gaunt, ghostlike men and women from the Nazi death camps were not yet stamped on the world’s consciousness: The hair-raising atrocities were proceeding largely behind closed gates at the end of 1941. In the harbor of one of the world’s largest cities, though, a place teeming with diplomats and journalists, the panorama of Jewish suffering was visible to anyone who cared or dared to look.
As grim and hazardous as the voyages were, for those who didn’t get visas (real or forged) the alternative was clear. Walter Benjamin committed suicide at Portbou in Catalonia, having heard that his application had been refused and that he would be deported back to France. He was not the only one to make such a choice, though the bitter irony is that had he not done so, or had he, like his friend Arthur Koestler, survived the attempt, the following day he could have got the papers he needed.
Varian Fry found himself in a bizarre position. He wrote home:
‘Among the people who have come into my office, or with whom I am in constant correspondence, are not only some of the greatest living authors, painters, sculptors of Europe . . . but also former cabinet ministers and even prime ministers of half a dozen countries. What a strange place Europe is when men like this are reduced to waiting patiently in the anteroom of a young American of no importance whatever.’
This young American of no importance whatever helped Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich and son Golo, Claude Levi-Strauss, Alma Mahler, Arthur Koestler, amongst many others who were and remain significant cultural figures – and many whose names are unfamiliar, but who nevertheless got their chance to contribute in less public ways.
For Fry this contribution was far from enough. He said “In all we saved some two thousand human beings. We ought to have saved many times that number. But we did what we could.” And he continued to make impassioned pleas to the US government, to anyone who might listen, to do more, to do everything they could in the face of ‘systematic extermination’. In an article in the New Republic, entitled ‘The Massacre of the Jews in Europe’ in December 1942 he said:
There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them. The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order… we can offer asylum now, without delay or red tape, to those few fortunate enough to escape from the Aryan paradise. There have been bureaucratic delays in visa procedure which have literally condemned to death many stalwart democrats… This is a challenge which we cannot, must not, ignore.