Looking for My Grandfather Among the Refugees in Europe

Comparisons between today’s refugees fleeing war and and those who fled the Nazis 70 years ago are wrong, but also inevitable.

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Children sit under covers as they wait with migrants and refugees near the registration camp in the town of Presevo after their arrival in Serbia, on September 10, 2015. Credit: AFP

On the dusty roads and crowded train carriages crossing central Europe on the way to the promised land of Germany, I was looking this week for my grandfather. I know it may sound a bit self-indulgent that a reporter surrounded with so much immediate misery and tasked with bringing that story to his readers, should be searching for his own family history at the same time, but I couldn’t help myself. Driving and then riding the rails through Austria, the country where he spent the last year of the Second World War in the worst camps he had been incarcerated in during the six years of the Holocaust, I asked myself if 70 years ago, he was waiting for a ride, just like those Syrian refugees at the crossroads. Had police herded him on to a train in the same way, keeping him and his unwashed friends in a separate compartment, apart from the “normal” genteel passengers. Was he as clueless as to where he was going and whether he would ever get there?

Every journalist will tell you that there are few assignments more guilt-inducing than reporting on war refugees. You finish your interview with mother and fathers who have lost their homes and countries, and are now in the middle of a field with their children. Then you get in your car and speed off to file your story from a nearby restaurant or cafe, and drive to the nearest city, your job done, to sleep in a hotel. Even if you rough it a bit for a couple of days, sleep out and skip a meal or two, you know where you’re going back to at the end of the week. Perhaps I was dwelling on my grandfather as a way of assuaging that guilt. Like on seder night, when we are supposed to consider ourselves as also having come out of Egypt, I wanted to feel that I was also a refugee in Europe, only removed two generations by my good fortune.

A German-Jewish friend told me here in Munich that he was watching the news with his mother, a survivor. It was showing the refugees on the roads, traversing Hungary between the Serbian and Austrian borders. Suddenly she said “I know that place.” It was on the route the Germans had taken her and thousands of others from the ghetto in Budapest to the camps. He’s disturbed by the comparison that many have been making between the Syrians seeking refuge and the Jews 70 years ago. The last thing he thought was to hear it from his own mother. But nevertheless, he said, it was wrong to compare because the Syrian refugees are now escaping their own countrymen and fellow Muslims. Jews were fleeing countries where they had been born but which had revoked their citizenship and identity and tried to rob them of their lives. He’s right — it is a shoddy historical comparison. But the comparisons are inevitable.

As I saw Hungarian riot police near the Serbian border, tussling with refugees who refused to enter a makeshift camp for registration, I remembered something my grandfather had said in his interview with the Spielberg Foundation (which is also the only full account we have of his history, as 70 years later, he still prefers not to talk with his family about such depressing matters). I had brought a copy with me in my bag and later I looked it up. His camp had been liberated by the U.S. Army after which he was smuggled to Italy by Jewish soldiers from Palestine, men of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade. There he was picked up by a UN refugee agency. “Suddenly large trucks came, not the ones we had arrived in. The people in the trucks wanted us to get in but we ran away. They chased us and loaded us onto the trucks like animals. They took us to the military academy in Modena. We were supposed to go inside to register, but we refused. We were afraid because there were no Americans or Jews there and we didn’t know who they were. Finally, an American officer speaking Yiddish came and told us to go in and that we have nothing to be afraid of and it would all be fine. We didn’t believe him, so we made a deal that two people could go in and check and then come out and tell us to go in.”

That innate wariness refugees have, a suspicion bred of living your life on the line for so long and knowing that now is your chance to get out and not willing to allow anything, not even police in riot gear and people wielding authority to jeopardize that chance. I sensed it there outside the camp in Hungary, as the police prepared to charge at the refugees, though I have never experienced that emotion myself.

Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe arriving in Haifa, in 1946.Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO

I know, we should never compare contemporary events to the Holocaust and Godwin’s Law dictates that the moment we use a Nazi-era analogy we have rendered ourselves ridiculous and lost the debate, but I see so many analogies to the Syrian situation and the Second World War. Not only in the hundreds of thousands refugees now trudging across Europe to a better life and the mixed reactions of Europeans. It was clear, even though it wasn’t said in so many words, that all those Germans, from Chancellor Angela Merkel downwards, and the Austrians as well, who were intent on welcoming the refugees once they crossed over from Hungary, felt they were expiating the sins of a previous generation. Personally I don’t feel we should begrudge them this opportunity, but it’s not my privilege to grant them this anyway.

While no historical event is quite comparable to the planned genocide of our parents and grandparents, a plan which was designed to prevent our own births, there are lessons for Israelis and Jews from the refugee crisis engulfing Europe. We may have wandered Europe and other continents for so long in search of a safe haven, but that isn’t a unique predicament. We now have a duty to be on the side of today’s refugees fleeing warfare and persecution, starting with the 45,000 Africans, still shamelessly stuck in Israel without any formal status, subject to threat of deportation. It’s our duty to the refugees we once were.