The world, especially Europe, is deeply and justifiably concerned about the refugees fleeing war-torn areas and seeking haven, preferably in a European country.
The European Union border agency reports that some 340,000 migrants crossed its borders in the first half of 2015, the majority Syrian refugees escaping the civil war that has forced half of the country’s population to abandon their homes.
Who can fail to be moved by the sight of the body of a child washed up on a beach instead of finding refuge in a new country? The photo went viral, graphically emphasizing the reality of the risks taken by families wishing to find a safe haven.
Who is not sickened by the horror of decaying bodies found in an abandoned truck in Austria that had been driven over the border from Hungary? It is revealing to note that the country prepared to welcome some 500,000 refugees is the same country that 80 years ago wanted to rid itself of Jews. September 15, 1935, is the date that the Reichstag decreed that Jews in Germany were to be disenfranchised – they could no longer be citizens of Germany. The writing was on the wall for German Jewry from the moment that Hitler took power in 1933.
Whether it was the burning of “Jewish” books, the boycott of Jewish shops and businesses or the removal of professional qualifications, all contributed to a sense of urgency that the time had come for Jews to leave their homeland.
While Hitler’s initial objective was to rid the “fatherland” of Jews, it soon became clear, for those ready and willing to leave, that tragically there was not the same feeling in the world then as now.
Penniless would-be immigrants (Germany would not permit Jews to take possessions with them) were most certainly not the flavor of the month. Britain, according to a 2002 Guardian article, turned away some half-million German Jewish asylum seekers prior to the outbreak of World War II. This , ironically, is the number of refugees that Germany is today prepared to accept.
In the 1930s those countries willing to take in Jews operated strict quota systems. Many required the potential immigrants to obtain special visas and affidavits (proof that someone was financially able to support them in the country where they might be accepted).
The application system for visas presented significant obstacles resulting, too often, in a negative response. Conversely, the potential asylum seeker today does not have to provide an affidavit signed by a would-be sponsor in the country where the migrant is hoping to find refuge, and while there is talk of “quota systems,” so far none seem to have materialized.
MY GERMAN-BORN husband, John Katten, has his own story.
His father, like other Jews, felt that Hitler would not survive politically – after all, Germany was a country of culture, the home of Goethe, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. John’s father was exceedingly loath to leave his elderly mother who had lived with them as part of the family. She was unable to obtain a visa or affidavit; countries simply did not want to admit old people. By the time John’s father recognized the urgency of leaving Germany and was successful in applying for a visa and affidavit for himself, his wife and two children to enter the United States, quota systems were in operation with the date for his admission to the US set for November 1940.
What to do? The clouds were gathering.
Fortunately, through a family connection, the Kattens were able to obtain a temporary visa enabling them to enter the United Kingdom in March 1939 and remain there until they could enter the United States in 1940 (which of course they never did, as war broke out on September 3, 1939). John’s father could not overcome the trauma of having to leave his mother behind. Prior to leaving Germany, he settled her in a retirement home, believing that an old lady would be left in peace. How wrong he was, as she, with many others, ended her days murdered by the Nazis in Terezin.
This family history was brought to life a few weeks ago through a London-based granddaughter endeavoring to obtain a training contract with a law firm. In common with many of today’s graduates, she was finding it challenging to obtain such a contract – too many graduates and not enough places. However, she managed to make it to the last 50 (out of 1,000 applicants) in one particular law company and was invited to an “assessment day.”
The candidates were asked to make a presentation: “The person who inspires me the most.”
Here is an extract of our granddaughter’s remarks.
“The person that inspires me most is my grandpa John Katten. What were you doing when you were 10? What was your biggest concern? Perhaps whether you were going to be invited to a birthday party or be captain the under-11s football team? “Let me tell you what my grandpa was doing aged 10. My grandpa was born in 1928 and grew up in a town called Bamberg in Germany. All was good until 1935 when the Nazis were in power and a series of unpleasant things happened making life very difficult. In 1938 my grandpa was expelled from school – not because he was misbehaving – simply because he was Jewish. He witnessed his town’s beautiful synagogue burnt to the ground. He saw his father escorted from his house by two policemen...
“My grandpa arrived in England with his parents and sister and just 25 shillings between them – they relied on soup kitchens for food and charity for a weekly allowance.
Despite a disjointed education, he became a successful architect.
“What inspires me most about my grandpa is that in spite of his traumatic childhood he is probably the most positive person I know. He loves nature and expresses this through his paintings and poems.
He has taught me the importance of hard work and perseverance and made me extremely grateful for everything I have.”
WHY AM I writing about this now? Because I find it very moving. Moving, because a 22-year-old has absorbed something that is relegated to history as far as her generation is concerned. Moving, because she had the courage to talk about this openly and proudly when others might have wanted to “hide” their background for fear it might rebound against their chances of being a successful candidate.
Moving, because when our generation has gone there will be those like our granddaughter who will be able to tell the tale.
Back to the beginning. As Jews, how can we not identify with those seeking refuge from war-torn areas? Our hearts go out to every mother, father and child who risk their lives to find a new and safe home.
However, I cannot help but wonder if we Jews were the ones seeking refuge today in Europe, would we find doors open to us? Are we not witnessing an unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism? Can we imagine that countries with an increasing number of Muslim voters would want to offer refuge to Jews? Fortunately the above is a hypothetical question. We have Israel as our security and while those of us involved with NGOs like ESRA recognize there is still much to be done to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots, we are working at it.
And how privileged we are to be able to do so! The writer is co-chairperson of ESRA (English Speaking Residents’ Association), which is active in public affairs and promotes integration into Israeli society.