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To Be a Refugee

I was born in London in 1942. My parents were refugees, stateless and penniless. The fact that I was born where and when I was gave me the right to remain in England, and hence also enabled my parents to remain there. It was wartime, London was being bombed, but it was still a safer place than their homeland of Germany, where their parents were being carted off to concentration camps and murdered at that very time. That would have been their fate, too, had they remained there. They had committed the crime of being born Jews.

Watching television today, with its grim images from Ukraine of men, women and children, both old and young, traipsing for hours and days through frozen wastes and towns full of destroyed buildings, in a desperate search for shelter and refuge, brings to life in the most graphic manner the ordeal that throughout the generations my ancestors and those of most other Jews, somewhere along the line, doubtless went through. After all, Jews have not always been made to feel welcome in the places where they may have once settled and, under the circumstances of the time and the whims of whatever ruler or government were current at the time, were forced to uproot themselves over and over again and try to find a new resting place.

This went on for two thousand years until the second half of the twentieth century, when Israel was founded.

It’s true, over the years some Jews found a relatively safe haven in various western countries, America, England, western Europe and the Scandinavian countries first and foremost. But let me remind those who think that the gates of those countries were opened wide for Jews trying to find a new home that in America the quota system introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century restricted entry to Jews from Europe to those who could find a guarantor to put up the fee required by the authorities. Not everyone had relatives there who could and would provide the costly ‘affidavit’ which was the sine quo non for entry into the country.

For every Jewish refugee seeking to enter England a sum of money had to be guaranteed either by persons residing in the country or they had to bring it in themselves. Since the Nazis stripped most Jews of every penny they owned, as well as preventing them from taking money out of the country, this served as an additional obstacle to emigration and absorption in another country. My parents were in the fortunate position of having relatives in England who – albeit reluctantly and belatedly – put up the money to guarantee their entry. This was only after Kristallnacht, the Pogrom action throughout Germany, when synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed and Jewish men arrested and sent to concentration camps. Most Gentiles were not targeted by the Nazis, so there was no need for them to seek refuge elsewhere.

Even for the acclaimed Kindertransport project, when ten thousand unaccompanied Jewish children from Europe were allowed into England, each child had to be guaranteed by a family there that was ready to take them in or, alternatively, by one of the various Jewish or Quaker organisations that undertook to place the children upon arrival. The UK government’s decision to allow the children into England was made contingent upon their not becoming ‘a burden on the British taxpayer.’

And so, although it sounds unpleasant, the demand by the Israeli government for refugees from Ukraine to be guaranteed by relatives in Israel or produce a not inconsiderable sum of money is not so unreasonable, or at least not unprecedented. This has always been the way countries have tried to regulate the influx of others seeking a new home or sanctuary from the horrors that await them if they stay where they are.

The existence of Israel guarantees some form of protection for Jews wherever they might be, and now the country has opened its gates to a limited number of non-Jews too. There is a lot to be said for the magnanimity and generosity of this small country in allowing those in need to gain entry, but the need for a Jewish state remains the ultimate objective that Israel’s leaders should bear in mind.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.
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