Refugees and us

There were always refugees but now there are new ones. Some of them come from Syria where a harsh war is being fought; some come from various places in Africa; some come from other places but always from somewhere in the Middle or Near East (Americans also have Mexicans). Some are escaping harm, others persecution. Some, both. Some neither. Refugees are never popular. England did not want Eastern refugees at the turn of the previous century. America did not want European refugees (mostly Jews) on or before WW2. The list goes on.

Now some of Europe’s people and the new American president (and some Americans) object to refugees. The people and small kids we see on TV in ski jackets in Germany and Canada are the lucky ones. They are also the rich ones who can pay boat smugglers etc. A friend of mine from California who has two young kids, wonders aloud, “How do these people do it? I mean after five minutes on the road, my kids want boxes of apple juice, rollups, crackers you name it. I can’t imagine them on rickety boats or walking for days. And what about a potty?”

We have no options. Though the Syrians are no ones best friends, they have to be helped now. The Africans also have to be helped. Vetting to rule out criminals and crazed nationalists? Okay as long as it doesn’t take years. The big countries obviously have a better chance to help absorb these masses but to ignore the refugees plight is wrong, inhumane, even barbaric.

In 1940, my father, his aging parents, siblings and their spouses and families—which included a newborn— and several friends, walked from Brussels, to northern France, a distance of abut 400 kilometers or 250 miles. They did this because they didn’t want to be around when the Germans invaded Belgium and they (wrongly) thought France might be safer. They were hardly the only ones who did this; lots of ordinary Belgians were also on the move and the roads were clogged. Jews, particularly petrified of Hitler and witness to the terrible stories told to them by refugee German Jews, who made it to Belgium, assumed the worst and led the pack in fleeing.

Along the way, my father writes in his memoir, Dad and his group encountered abandoned farms, homes and hotels. They bathed in cognac and put up with many privations,, so much so, that one of my uncle’s talked of suicide. Getting appropriate milk and diapers for the cranky new baby was a hardship as was the inventory of women’s dresses they shlepped with them, thinking they would sell them on the way for funds. People who could helped with food and beds and blankets. Something!

In the end, they foolishly walked back home because they longed for some normalcy and the Germans weren’t yet murderers, persecutors, and plunderers of Belgian Jews or of Jews who migrated to Belgium out off fear in their home countries, that was yet to come.The end is well known. And yes Belgian Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where some 26,000 were murdered including relatives of mine.
We were once refugees. Remember?

About the Author
Netty C. Gross-Horowitz is a journalist who worked for many years at The Jerusalem Report Together with Susan M. Weiss, she is co-author of "Jewish Marriage and Divorce Israel's Civil War," published by Brandeis University Press and the University Press of New England, December 2012.