Desperate for Safety

I started this blog ostensibly to write about my passion which is writing, but I can’t ignore what is happening in the world today, so I want to tell you a story.

Almost 100 years ago, a little Jewish girl with red hair escaped from Stalin’s pogroms in Lithuania and fled with her parents to Berlin. The girl was six years old, her name was Bronia and she was my grandmother.

Bronia was strong-willed. She hated being a Jew, coming as she did from a very orthodox family. She hated the ritual and constraint; she didn’t believe that she was any different from other people.

As soon as she was old enough, she left home and moved in with a Gentile – an unemployed writer and divorcee 20 years her senior, called Kurt.

This was a scandal in the 1930s. Bronia’s mother, Susan, refused to speak to her daughter for many years, until Bronia gave birth to a little girl called Hannah, my mother.

Suddenly Susan became a regular visitor to their home again. She brought Hannah presents and took her for walks and told her stories. Susan and Hannah adored each other. My mother often recalls things her granny said and times they spent together. The small gifts Susan gave her are among her most treasured possessions.

However things were changing in Germany. Hitler was coming to power.

My grandparents invited their artist and writer friends to their home for ‘coffee mornings’, to discuss what to do: it had not escaped Bronia and Kurt’s notice that they had a very unpleasant neighbour. Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the final solution, was living in the same street as them, just a few doors down.

Finally they made a decision: they would put little Hannah on the Lusitania and send her to America. At least there she would be safe.

By the time they got to the ticket office however, all the tickets had been sold. Soon afterwards the ship was torpedoed with the loss of over 1000 lives and Bronia and Kurt made a fresh decision: whatever happened, they must stay together.

Life was becoming increasingly difficult for them. There were restrictions to the occupations and movements of Jews. Growing numbers were being murdered or disappearing, and one morning Bronia woke up and found Juden scrawled on the walls of her house.

Shortly afterwards, on the nights of November 9th and 10th in 1938, rampaging mobs attacked Jews in the streets throughout Germany, smashing their shop windows and burning synagogues down. Over 96 people were killed in what became known as Krystallnacht: ‘the night of broken glass’.

At this time Bronia’s cousin, Beate, was studying to become a doctor in Liverpool. After many desperate enquiries, Beate managed to persuade a businessman to sponsor Bronia, Kurt and Hannah to come to England.

One misty morning with only five pounds between them and a battered suitcase of belongings and no English, the three caught the boat to England, promising Susan that when they arrived, they would find a way for her to join them. My mother was six years old.

They were lucky: they escaped. Every night I turn on the TV and see stories about refugees who have not. Men, women and children are setting out in their thousands across the Mediterranean in battered overcrowded boats; over 4,000 have died already this year trying to make that crossing.

These people don’t have the possibility of sponsorship as a route to a safe haven: most of Europe has turned its back on them. They have nowhere left to turn and only their lives to lose. Last week over 70 suffocated in the back of a lorry as they tried to cross into Austria. Their scratch marks on the walls are the only testimony to their last terrible moments.

One has to assume that remaining at home is a far worse option for these people, or why would they resort to such desperate measures?

As for Susan – Bronia wrote to her regularly, about sponsors she had spoken to who had turned her down, and those whom she still had yet to meet. And Susan wrote back with her hopes and fears – until one day, her letters stopped coming.

No one ever found out what happened to her. Maybe she tried to go back to Marianpole where she had grown up. Or perhaps she perished in one of the concentration camps. We don’t know.

She is one of the disappeared; just a number, like the thousands dying daily as they try to reach safety.

We must open our hearts and doors to these people; they have nowhere else to go.

* Countries much poorer than Britain, take far more refugees. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees alone make up one third of the country’s population

* A recent study found that the trauma to holocaust victims changed their genetic structure and the changes have been passed down to their children and grandchildren. One can perhaps assume therefore that the trauma happening to the refugees now, will also be passed down through their genes to future generations.

7 thoughts on “Desperate for Safety”

  1. What an incredible journey your grandmother made and so refreshing to read a human story about people who are displaced.

    It’s sad to see so much negative feeling towards refugees in general and as someone who regularly hears genuine stories of suffering by asylum seekers and refugees your post really resonated with me.

    Take care and best wishes, Michelle xx

  2. Fascinating story. My great grandfather went down with the Lusitania. I also come from a refugee family: Dutch but originally from Persia. My father escaped to the UK and became a senior member of British Intelligence in WW2- he was eventually amongst the group who liberated Belsen, where many family members had died. Like you I am disgusted by the lack of compassion that the UK is showing to the current refugee crisis. A sense of humanity should come above ALL other factors – economic, pragmatic, political etc. Thanks for caring.

    1. Wow, that’s extraordinary! So many refugees have such harrowing stories. Thank you so much for sharing it with me and for caring too.

  3. Such a moving story, which highlights our moral duty as a nation to treat refugees with compassion and dignity and welcome them to the UK. My mum’s lodger is a 19 year-old Eritrean man who made the crossing across the Sahara and Mediterranean as a child – I can’t even begin to imagine what he must have gone through to get here. Such journeys are only made out of desperation, by people who have no choice. By shutting the door in their faces, we are treating them as less than human. I am truly shocked by the attitude of the UK government, and by the vilification of the refugees by much of the media. Yes, it is imperative to work to improve the situation in the countries the refugees are coming from, but that should not preclude us taking in our fair share of those who need shelter. To do less would be morally reprehensible.

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