We came as refugees

On June 25, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Displaced Persons Act of 1948: “This act helped those individuals who were victims of persecution by the Nazi government or who were fleeing persecution, and someone who could not go back to their country because of fear of persecution based on race, religion or political opinions.” Truman was deeply committed to bringing European refugees both into safety and into the United States. The Displaced Persons Commission ran from June 25, 1948 through August 31, 1952. My parents and I left Europe and came to the United States under the Displaced Persons Act. We came as refugees.

Contrary to today’s rhetoric, my parents did not “love America” before coming, and, frankly, I doubt that they ever loved America. They weren’t nationalists, and so didn’t love any country. They loved their family members, who due to the Holocaust numbered six, and they loved their friends. At some point, they might have said they loved justice or democracy or even the working class, but they actively rejected loving any nation-State.

They came, they made a life, they raised a family, they died and are now buried together. I have to say I am glad they did not live to see the day in which a Muslim ban on refugees and immigrants more generally was announced and implemented. While they did not “love America”, they knew State violence and they despised it. They despised those who promulgated it and they despised those engaged in it. They taught their children to recognize State violence and to oppose it. Their children do, as do their grandchildren.

Any restrictive program that targets a particular population is racist and comes from and intensifies an ongoing history of racist State violence. Some in power will try to finesse this. Don’t let them.

We came as refugees, others among us came as other kinds of immigrants. Racist State violence butchered more than 99 percent of my family. That violence started with “poorly implemented orders”, and then it spread and deepened. Were my parents here today, they would be at the airport, chanting, “No hate no fear immigrants are welcome here.”

#StopTheWall #StopTheBan #StopPresidentBannon #NotMyPresident

(Photo Credit: WNYC)

All that is human drowned in the sea

This year, all that is human drowned in the sea, all that is holy has been profaned, and we are at last compelled to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our relations with our kind. In 2016, at least 5000 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. Last Friday, two boats capsized, and “about 100 people are missing and feared dead.” Who fears them dead? No State and no amalgam of nation-States fears them dead. Rather, in this the deadliest year ever for migrants trying to reach Europe, the year’s epitaph is simple: “2016: The year the world stopped caring about refugees”. We are the world, and we turned the sea into a graveyard. This year, the women, child, man of the year lies on the bottom of the Mediterranean, and we do not know their names, and we do not much care. If we did, they would be alive today. So here is a poem for the unknown refugees who lie in the cemetery that we have made of the Mediterranean. See you next year.

Home
by Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

 

(“Home” by Warsan Shire appeared here.) (Photo Credit: Electronic Intifada /Oren Ziv/Active Stills)

Women, the invisible migrants

While the US election demonstrated that abject racist, anti women, xenophobic speeches lead to power; people continue to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. Last month another 90 people died off the Libyan coast. 3800 persons seeking safe land drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since January 2016. The UN ‘s refugee agency predicts that 2016 will be the deadliest year despite about 700 000 fewer people having made the crossing compared to 2015. The likelihood of dying is one in 88 arrivals in 2016 while last year it was one in 269 arrivals.

The European obsession with stopping the crossing of people escaping war zones – signing shameful agreements with the violent and authoritarian Turkish president, increasing surveillance forcing smugglers to use less detectable rafts – has created more hazards for women, men, and children. The preservation of migrants’ lives come after catering to populist mindsets and vested interests.

This year, the number of women and children migrating for survival has outnumbered the number of men, with 60% of the refugees being women and children while they were about 30 % last year. Women face more hardship and gender-based violence with an increase of war violence committed on women.

None of this is new. In 2010 Smaïn Laarcher looked at the violence, persecution, and death threats that women faced on the road to exile. He described the various agents of violence denouncing the denial of humanity to women, which led to sexual torture committed in total impunity.

Meanwhile, once in Europe they can be stuck in places like Calais in France. In 2002, the UK demanded the closing of the Red Cross camp of Sangatte, on the pretext that the French authorities had been too lenient with the refugees. Then, in 2003, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister of France, signed an agreement to control migration to the United Kingodm. The treaty is both complex and simple; it turns France into a police structure for the UK preventing the English-speaking wretched of the earth with family or friends in the UK from crossing. This treaty has created misery and the camp of Calais also called the “Jungle.” The latter was recently dismantled.

The hardship and suffering of the refugee women has been mostly invisible and ignored. Where are the women who are trying to escape violence in increasing number? According to the NGO France Terre d’Asile, in 2015, in the department of Pas de Calais about 1000 women migrants lived in various camps including in “the jungle”. 120 of those women were minors. Many NGOs have worked to help these women. All the aid workers say the same thing, “We don’t see them.” They only walk in groups at certain times of the day; some have created their own women-only campsite in a field.

There is a place in Calais, the Jules Ferry Center, that receives about 300 women in a safe environment. The doors are locked; only the women can decide to go in and out. Even personnel have to get clearance. A spokeperson for the center explained, “They don’t want journalists in because they don’t want people to look at them like circus freaks.” They are safe in this center; they have access to psychological support as well as medical care and they can stay with their children; but this is not enough. Women can be invisible and attacked in refugee centers that have not been conceived for the safety of women, as it has occured in Germany.

Gynecologie sans frontieres (gynecology without borders), or GSF, is a very active NGO in the camps. They provide care, sexual education and access to reproductive services including abortion, and they treat women with respect. In France, abortion is free for all women.

While women may have been raped and need and demand access to abortion when pregnant after the rape, they also face all kind of issues coming with constant patriarchal violence. They have a chance to talk when they meet these helpers.

Sometimes women sell their bodies for money; a network of pimps prowls the camps. They may be also the smugglers who get paid that way. The clients are not only the migrants but also the local inhabitants.

A world of silence is wrapped around the women’s bodies. The migrant women should be able to find their own words to explain what happened to them. GSF has designed methods to liberate these voices in an attempt to make the invisible migrant women visible. The volunteers of GSF or other NGOs want to help them to reclaim their rights and dignity but it should be again a collective responsibility.

As we have seen with the election of a sexual predator who is ignorant of UN treaties, the western elites are increasingly showing their disdain and disregard for international treaties to protect women, children, civilians, and the environment, in order to galvanize the most racist energies for electoral gain and power. In this period, women are becoming increasingly vulnerable and migrant women are invisibly dehumanized. Once again solidarity is required!

 

(Photo Credit: Gynécologie sans frontières)

Why is the European Union criminalizing and threatening refugees and volunteer helpers?

Lisbeth Zornig and a Syrian family she drove to Copenhagen

Just recently, in Denmark refugee helpers were sentenced for “human trafficking.” Lisbeth Zornig, a novelist, and her husband were fined 3000 Euros each. They could have been sentenced to prison time. Their `crime’ was having driven a Syrian family to Copenhagen, serving them coffee and cookies, and then driving them to the train station. Zornig declared, “I am very angry because the only thing we did was the decent thing, the same that hundreds of others did. They are criminalizing decency.”

Over the past few years, Denmark has changed its asylum laws, and now with their new Alien Act more helpers are being persecuted. While in 2014 about 140 were prosecuted for helping refugees, the number grew to 279 between September 2015 and February 2016.

Zornig’s lawyer, who has defended other Danes in similar cases, declared Denmark is now at the bottom of the table on human rights. However, the anti migrant trend has affected every member state of the European Union. In January, five rescuers from Spanish and Danish NGOs who rushed to help refugees stuck off the coast of Lesbos on a frail craft were arrested and also accused of smuggling migrants.

This criminalization of helpers mirrors the criminalization of refugees. In the age of austerity policies, the European neoliberal leadership is all about fences, walls and barbed wires. They follow the US model closely. On the island of Lesbos in Greece, the police formed a human chain to block volunteers whose goal was to bring emergency support. When the doctor of the group wanted to assist a baby who seemed to be unconscious, the police shouted that these people were prisoners!

The European Commission along with member states continue to bargain with human lives. They barter with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, himself involved in ethnic wars and repressive actions against journalists, activists, and scholars in his own country. Despite the opposition of European deputies and activists, the European Commission signed an agreement with Turkey to relocate refugees stuck in Greece in Turkish camps with no guarantee for safety, rather with more inhumane conditions awaiting them. In so doing, the Commission demonstrates that in this modern time the violence of the exercise of power depends less on its physical brutality than its ability to treat burdensome populations with indifference for their wellbeing.

In its latest report on the refugee crisis the Commission set the priorities for 2016. The Commission pleas for an “asylum system based on solidarity and fair sharing responsibilities,” but this self-serving language cannot conceal the constant breach of human rights occurring at the borders of Europe. In fact, the European Union has increased the power of FRONTEX, a heavily repressive mechanism that replaced Mare Nuestro. NGOs and volunteers have become wary of FRONTEX, which has forcibly controlled helpers and threatened them with fines. Volunteers explain that Frontex has called into question the status quo that allowed every one to help in good intelligence, as if the authorities’ goal was to bring down the humanitarian response. Member states and the European Commission have already brought down the humanitarian response to the organized murder of populations.

Dehumanization and deterritorialization are effectively the core values of the elites of our time.

Petitions are circulating to denounce the inhuman face of Europe, which we should understand as the inhuman politics of austerity as well. These inhuman measures and agreements are only possible with a racist eye that separates those who may live from those who must die for the advance of a dramatic political economic system.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Mikael Lindholm / The Guardian) (Photo Credit 2: WeMove.EU)

Immemorial Day and the unbroken surface of the Mediterranean

“Fear not suffering’s gravity.
Return to earth its weighty share;
heavy are its mountains, heavy the sea.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus

Last week at least 700 people – refugees and asylum seekers – drowned in the Mediterranean. That raises this year’s known death toll to 2000. Italy plans to build a cemetery, a memorial of sorts, to those who die at sea. It would be located next the remains of the country’s largest fascist concentration camp. While the cemetery is the least Italy, or any country, can do, that cemetery is not a “final resting place”. There is no final resting place for those refugees and asylum seekers. This weekend is filled with images of cemeteries and those who come to the cemeteries: families, dignitaries, people. But there is no picture of the surface of the Mediterranean, and there should be. As we stare at the photographs of cemeteries, we should be made to stare at the unbroken surface of the Mediterranean. We should remember all who have perished in the name of war.

One day, impossibly, we will come to the water’s edge and grasp one another’s hands. We will encircle the Mediterranean and we will say the names of every child, woman, and man who drowned in the heavy sea while trying to find haven. Amen.

(Photo Credit: Miriadna.com)

The Unwanted Afghan Immigrants In Pursuit of Golden Pavements

Accomplishing the twelve labours of Hercules, Afghan refugees get to Europe. They risk their lives, leaving everything and everyone they love behind. All this time, knowing that they might forever be branded as unwanted refugees and immigrants and might never recover from the nostalgia for “home”. For a better life.

According to Reuters, Afghans are widely viewed as unwanted migrants that form the sixth largest group of asylum seekers in Europe’s economic powerhouse in the first 10 months of this year. Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere had previously said that Afghan should “stay in their country”.

On Wednesday speaking a joint conference with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in Berlin, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened that Afghans who arrive in Germany in pursuit of better financial circumstances will be deported back home, “But where refugees come hoping for a better life – and I know that this hope is big for many – that is no reason to get asylum status or residency status here”. She further stated that “protected zones” should be created within Afghanistan, so that people living in unsafe areas move to protected and safe regions of their own country, instead of heading to Europe.

However, what caused a major backlash in the Afghan social media was the way the Afghan president responded. Concurring with Merkel that false information regarding immigration to Germany has been circulating which should be cleared; Ghani said, “We need to…make sure that everybody understands the streets are not paved with gold”.

With the exodus of Afghans, Afghan leaders have been concerned about the “brain drain”- the departure of some of the best minds of its young generation. Ghani’s government has launched a slick social-media campaign to dissuade Afghans from migrating to Europe urging the people that “our dignity, our respect is in Afghanistan”. “Don’t go. Stay with me. There might be no return,” or “Afghanistan needs you!” are messages Kabul is sending to its citizens who contemplate leaving.

In a recent interview, Ghani was asked if he can’t guarantee people safety and an economy that works, what should they stay for? He was also asked that while the families of the privileged elite – the vice presidents, cabinet ministers, his chief executive – all live outside and their children study, live and have fun in Europe and the United States, how can he ask the ordinary people to stay?

The interviewer astutely did not mention that the President’s own children live in the United States. Ghani condescendingly continued his line of reasoning saying, “If they live abroad, they become dishwashers. They don’t become part of the middle class”. Ghani was widely criticized for this statement in Afghan social media, which prompted a clarification by his spokesperson a few days later. On Sunday, his deputy spokesperson stated that, “what the president meant by that statement was that well educated and experienced Afghans who travel abroad don’t get that many employment opportunities”.

Mass unemployment, prevalent violence and the rise of the Taliban and ISIS as a result of the security vacuum created by the withdrawal of the foreign troops are some of the main factors that have contributed to mass immigrations. And the current government has proved its incompetency over and over in dealing with these issues.

So, Mr. President! As a young Afghan woman living in the diaspora who has washed dishes, I can assure you that it’s much more dignifying than being lynched or stoned a few blocks down your street. Or getting shattered into pieces next to a suicide bomber on the route to the non-existent job that you encourage me to stay for.

 

(Photo Credit: Reuters / Alkis Konstantinidis)

Australia is “shocked” by the routine torture of women and children asylum seekers

Australia routinely throws asylum seekers into prisons, mostly in remote areas or, even better, on islands, “an enforcement archipelago of detention … an archipelago of exclusion.” The gulag archipelago didn’t end; it became the intended end-of-the-road universe for asylum seekers and refugees. Last year, Australia was “shocked” by reports that children represent the greatest percentage of self-harm and suicidal behavior. Now, Australia is “shocked” once again to find that sexual violence against women asylum seekers and refugees occurs. Australia is shocked … but not shamed.

The incidents this time involve three women, two Somali and one Iranian woman. The Iranian is in hospital. One of the Somali women is pregnant as a result of the rape. It took the police four hours to arrive, and then … pretty much nothing happened. None of this is new or surprising. In July, the Immigration Department heard again of rampant violence against women and children, and then … pretty much nothing happened. Advocates Pamela Curr and Daniel Webster know that these three women are “the tip of the iceberg.” Despite the State trying to keep the media away from its penal colonies, none of this is secret or surprising. A week ago, the mother of the Iranian woman, despondent at the entirety of the situation, attempted suicide. Apart from placing under surveillance, under the guise of a suicide watch, nothing changed.

Pediatricians in Melbourne are organizing, refusing to send children back to detention centers, because the situation is so dire. The situation was always dire. It was meant to be. Study after study suggests that the problem of health care for asylum seekers in detention is not inadequate health care. The problem is detention. Study after study shows that children in detention breathe sadness and fear, trauma, that will stay with them, for many forever.

The news this weekend is that the Somali woman may be brought to the mainland to receive an abortion … and then what? Nauru said it would process everyone within a week and now backtracks on that. Australia is planning on moving some or all of the asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island to the Philippines, and none of the refugees or asylum seekers has a heard a word about this from the State. Across Australia, many marched this weekend to protest the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

This is democracy in the current world order. To ask for help is to give up citizenship. If you are a woman and you ask for help, you give up your humanity. The gulag archipelago never left. It became the democratically elected global archipelago.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian)

Canada’s meager response to the current refugee crisis

Palestinians pay tribute to to Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi

Palestinians pay tribute to to Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi

“The true measure of the moral level of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable people,” –Noam Chomsky

As the woefully unprepared Europe struggles to handle the overwhelming influx of migrants who have endured perilous crossings arriving at its borders, Canada’s response has been terribly disappointing for a country that is proud of its record of compassion.

A week ago, the photograph of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, which woke up the world to the refugee crisis, also awakened the Canadian election campaigns. While the Canadian public ‘decisively and suddenly’ wants the government to start accepting more refugees, Canada’s federal leaders are still contemplating what Ottawa can do to help. The conservative Ottawa dithers, as Harper tries to approach this issue with the same unsentimental approach he brings to governing. As he stated in 2006, “My strengths are not spin or passion, you know that.”

The Liberal and NDP leaders who have also recognized this issue as a game changer in the upcoming October elections are trying to offer few specifics on how Canada could contribute as they still haven’t formulated any solid strategy.

Harper states that he has a target of settling 10,000 Syrian migrants over the next three years and 23,000 Iraqis by the end of this year. However, while pressing the necessity of ‘taking the military fight to Islamic militants responsible for the carnage’ to deal with the root of the problem, Harper said “We have plans to do more, but I would say repeatedly that as we are doing more, we can’t lose sight of the fact that refugee resettlement alone cannot, in any part of the world, solve this problem.”

Harper is concerned about security issues that could follow accepting refugees from the world’s current epicenter of ethno-religious violence. He suggests that these refugees require proper screening. But proper screening takes time and is a long bureaucratic process. As the NDP leader Mulclair said on Tuesday: “You shouldn’t have people in this desperate situation falling into a bureaucratic trap, where they’re being asked to produce identity papers as if you had time to renew your driver’s license when you were walking across the desert with your family”. He suggested that officials should be sent to the refugees in the camps and the Canadian military could help bring the refugees to Canada.

Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party, has pledged to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees if the party wins in October and has pushed the Liberals into the middle ground suggesting that Canada needs to keep in mind the importance of training the Iraqi fighters to stand up against ISIS, along with helping to ease the suffering of refugees. “We have a federal government right now that thinks military action is the only solution to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East,” Trudeau said in Vancouver. “And we have an opposition party that takes the opposite extreme position that there is never a military role to play in solving challenges like the crisis in the Middle East.”

Recently it came to light that Aylan Kurdi’s family’s refugee application had been rejected in June by the Canadian Immigration Department, which allegedly drove the family to attempt their fatal voyage to Europe. Canada’s immigration minister, Chris Alexander, suspended his re-election campaign to investigate why the Kurdi family’s refugee application was rejected. Alexander claimed that “Canada has one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programs in the world”, saying that “the government was planning to accept 23,000 Iraqi refugees and 11,300 Syrians”.

In the wake of elections, the refugee crisis can become yet another rhetorical device to win the electorate, and then be shelved in the forgotten land of election promises. It is up to the public to remind the Canadian government of its moral responsibility following the election and pressure it to live up to its international image of an inclusive, peaceful, and immigrant-friendly society.

 

 

(Photo Credit: aboutpathankot.com)

When does Rosie the refugee become South African? Never?

Rosie” was born in 1987 in Angola, during the civil war. In 1997, her father brought her and her three siblings to Cape Town, where he dumped them in a shelter and disappeared. At the time, Rosie’s siblings’ ages ranged from five to eight years old. Rosie has lived in South Africa ever since. She spent ten years in Angola, eighteen years in South Africa, but she’s still a `refugee.’ The war has ended, and so Rosie and her siblings are now liable for deportation, or not. “We don’t know Angola as ‘home’. We want to get student visas so we can stay here. We don’t have anything to go back to,” Rosie explains.

Last Friday, various reports circulated claiming that the South African government was set to deport as many as 2000 Angolan refugees, as well as a smaller number of refugees from Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone. Over the weekend, the State leapt into action, explaining that it “is firmly committed to ensuring the fulfilment of its international obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers in terms of its ratification of the relevant international protocols.” Which means less than nothing.

Angolan community leader Jao Kaputo has been in South Africa since 1994. He explains the difficulties many Angolans face in the various registration processes, “Our homes were bombed. We lost everything, including documents. We are dispersed; our mothers went their own directions, and our fathers the other direction. As a result some of us are not documented, including children born here, and cannot apply for birth certificates.”

Pedro Nzazi” has been a refugee in South Africa for 20 consecutive years: “Starting over in Angola after 20 years of staying here will be very difficult. I have children at university and others still going to school. If I relocate to Angola, what will happen to them? Many Angolans, whose permits expired already are illegal, may be deported and they cannot access their bank accounts. I know five people who gave up and went back to Angola. They intend to apply for permits from there, but I am worried they might not be successful because of the strict immigration regulations gazetted on 22 May 2014.”

In 1989, Jesus Espirito Do Santos was born in Angola to a Congolese woman, Suzan Ntoto, and her Angolan husband. In 1992, Suzan Ntoto brought her three-year-old Jesus Espirito Do Santos to South Africa and applied for refugee status. In 2009, Ntoto died, and her South African employer offered to adopt Do Santos, but couldn’t because Do Santos couldn’t produce his birth certificate. In 2013, Do Santos, who speaks only English and Afrikaans, and not a word of Portuguese, faced “repatriation.”

Irene Kainda’s story is the same. She came to South Africa as a child refugee, grew up in Cape Town. She and her brother, Felipe, thrived, despite having been abandoned by their mother. And now she faces “repatriation” to a country she does not know that speaks a language she does not speak.

Everything about this is predictably wrong. One could argue that, while the civil war has ended, peace in Angola is still aspirational. For example, the past three months saw activists imprisoned for membership in a book club, and then their mothers were arrested. One could point to the gross injustice of Operation Fiela – Reclaim, an anti-immigrant sweep designed to “restore order” after the March – April Afrophobic, xenophobic pogroms in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. South Africa’s firm commitment to the strangers in its midst under brutal attack has been to brutally attack those strangers. While the courts have temporarily stopped many of the deportations, the arrests continue, and the brutality intensifies in the Lindela Repatriation Centre. Here’s Fiela: a mountain of warrantless searches and improper arrests, deployment of the military as police, overly long stays in detention, evisceration of due process rights, intensification of xenophobia and Afrophobia. This does not restore or reclaim anything good. It merely terrorizes any South African-based, low to moderate income African born outside of South Africa.

The worst, though, is the willful imposition of inhumanity, the broad-brush practice of State terrorism and violence against those who came seeking succor and have actually thrived. The State will clothe its terrorism in legal language, but it remains terrorism. In South Africa today, what are the borders of being-a-refugee? When does one stop being a stranger and become simply a neighbor? Irene Kainda, Jesus Espirito Do Santos, “Pedro Nzazi”, Jao Kaputo, “Rosie”, and thousands of others want to know.

 

 

(Photo Credit: GroundUp)

On BBC News, amnesia passes for history, and the refugees are doomed

Young girl returning from the store with a pot of soup and a bottle of milk, Lodz

On BBC News today, Dariusz Rosiak from Polish National Radio concludes an interview with an afterthought, “You also have to understand that there is a cultural gap which is important and it has to be taken into consideration … Poland is a one-religion, one-ethnic country, and has been like that for the last 50 years. People, they have to understand the necessity to accept people of different color, of different creed, of different culture. You can’t expect them to be able to do it just like that.” And the interview ends.

For the last 50 years.

My father’s family came from Piotrków Trybunalski, near Łódź, and, apart from my father, they were all killed during the German occupation. My father, Charles Moshenberg, was born in 1926, in the midst of the Second Polish Republic, which ended with the September 1939 invasion of Poland. My own family’s history and that of Second Polish Republic haunt Rosiak’s comments as well as his historical amnesia.

When the Germans and their Soviet allies invaded Poland, the country was a patchwork of national minorities. While the 1921 Polish census listed 30.8 percent of the population as “national minorities”, the 1931 Polish census put that figure at 31.1 percent. During this period, Poland was also undergoing intense urbanization.

Who were the national minorities? Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians, Germans followed by much smaller communities of Lithuanians, Czechs, Armenians, Russians, and Roma. Along with Jews, Poland also boasted, or not, an array of religions, from Roman Catholics to Greek Orthodox to Protestant.

By 1931, Poland had the second largest national Jewish population in the world: “At the time of the population census of December 9, 1931, there were about 3,136,000 Jews in Poland, i.e. 9.8% of the population, making them the second largest Jewish community in the world. In 1931 more than a fifth of all Jews lived in Poland.” At the time of the 1939 invasion, the number of Jews who claimed Polish as their first language was rising, as it had been for the past decade.

And then they were gone: the Jews, the Roma, the “national minorities”, the others, dead in the ghettoes and camps or fled.

Fairly quickly, Poland became used to the story of being one religion, one ethne. By letting the story stand, unquestioned, the BBC colluded in this myth making. Interwar Poland was not a model of diversity, but it was a thriving, growing multinational, multiethnic, multi-religious nation-State. The loss of that multi haunts more than Poland. Now more than ever, that history should be invoked. Rather than circulating naturalizing alibis for murderous inaction, open the doors to the refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, around the world.

 

 

(Photo Credit: Roman Vishniac Collection, International Center of Photography)