Immigration crisis: Up close and personal, A letter from Germany

In September, Syrian refugees waited to cross the Hungarian and Austrian borders to reach safety in Germany. photo: Mstyslav Chernov

I do not know how much the American news has to say about it, but there is much going on with refugees here in Germany at the moment; tens of thousands crossing from Austria and Hungary seeking asylum from war in a devastated Syria and elsewhere. My wife and I with a small delegation from our City Theater went to visit an old furniture warehouse here in Fuerth — a huge city block square concrete thing donated by the owner — where 800 of the most recent arrivals are being temporarily housed. We had intended some sort of participatory theater activity, but we quickly agreed that it would be frivolous in the face of what they had gone through to get here and what they had yet in front of them. In spite of the continuous news coverage of every aspect of this extraordinary surge in immigration, our group from the theater was surprised at what we saw.

The cavernous concrete warehouse partitioned with temporary chain-link fences hung with cloth for privacy, container-toilets outside, adequate for perhaps half the number — all of Europe has run out of portable toilets because of the momentary exploded demand — the lines for food and people looking and waiting, waiting, waiting. Yet life goes on. The children play in the courtyard, families gather outside in the sun. Volunteers take small groups for city walks to help orient them. There are games for the youths, German classes for any who wish them; and the sound of gunfire, at least for these few who have reached the promised land — “Alemania,” they call it — has ended. When you first enter the area, you see fences festooned with drying laundry, but the area is clean, unlike many displaced-person camps, and also unlike others, I must say, under the truly benign administration of private charities with a government desk working feverishly to provide papers and places to go to the seemingly never-ending flow of traumatized, exhausted human beings. Who and what they have left behind them is another story. Many families have sent only one member ahead to establish a foothold for the rest. Few families can afford to pay for more than one person the mad prices for human traffickers to spirit them across borders.

Finally, for me, it was the waiting that they must endure that was so saddening. Waiting to know their fate, waiting to know the fate of those left behind, and in spite of Frau Merkel’s astoundingly generous and seemingly limitless welcome, waiting to know if these foreigners were really going to take them up or, perhaps, tire of them or be overwhelmed by their numbers and send them back (as has happened elsewhere in Europe); in short, waiting for the charity of others.

I said we were surprised but, in truth, I myself was not. These people, or people like them, have occupied my dreams all my life. We are all Jews or Armenians or Tutsis to someone, often someone who is armed and living across the road. Do I need to say: The safety and extraordinary privilege you and I enjoy and have enjoyed all our lives are liable to be taken from us at any moment.

When I visited Aleppo 20 years ago, it was a paradise, even under the old dictator. Peace among the nationalities prevailed. Family life, street life, night life, and business were conducted freely, and for the Armenians, after the horrors of the Turkish massacres, it had been a haven and remained one for almost a century.

Witness that that world is gone now. Its inhabitants have emptied into the diaspora, those who escaped with their lives, to once again live among strangers.

Or is it that “home” (“Heimat” in German) is an illusion? For me, Heimat is a dinner table, in a New York apartment, 70 years ago. Around this table my parents, aunts, and uncles and a few friends are seen in animated conversation. And I, in my mother’s lap, trying to keep my eyes open not to miss the grownup’s wonderful talk. For my father, Heimat was the schoolhouse in the village where his father was the sole schoolmaster. There my father studied, there he played when school was out, and there he was allowed to sit in on all the classes, to be close to his father. That was a village of Armenians; they are all long, long gone. And the village is gone, long ago swallowed by a suburb of Istanbul. Oh, and the dinner table in New York is gone and the apartment building, replaced by one much larger and finer — but without the aroma of my family’s cooking.

Where is home, then? What shall one call home? And these new immigrants, pity them, swept into the wide world in a flood of suffering humanity; however are they to take root in this land of polite strangers?

A footnote: An old lady, the Lebanese grandmother of friends, had been brought to America in the 1980s by her children when the civil war there began to encroach dangerously upon Beirut. She lived with her children and grandchildren in what can only be called luxury in a suburb of New York. They did everything for her. They loved her and the little ones doted on her. She lived with them for some years, but it finally came out that she was miserable. What were the endless modern house, the manicured lawns, pool, and the country roads leading into the picturesque town, to the bustle and density of street life of her old Al Hamra neighborhood in Beirut? There you knew your neighbors, there you were woven into the life. In America you waved across an expanse of lawn to someone you had seen a few times but couldn’t name. Eventually, in a moment of relative peace in Lebanon, they took her back, reopened the boarded up flat, installed her as best they could and left her there, tearfully, to spend her last days among her own people.

There are very few old people among the new immigrants to Germany. As a practical matter, they are the least able to withstand the journey but, in a greater sense, they are the least willing to take up their roots.

I could ask, what shall become of them? Or even, what shall become of us? But I already know the answer.

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