Refugee Tales: Now and Then

This article accompanies Margaret Reynolds’ piece ‘The Lion, the Children and the Bookcase’ in History Workshop Journal issue 91, where it is currently free access.

In my family we all call it ‘the passport’. As if there were none other in the world. ‘The passport’ was in fact, a permit to nowhere. It bears the insignia of the Third Reich on the cover, a big red J on the first page and a stamp that reads ‘this passport will expire on 27th March 1940 and will not be renewed’.

In ‘The Lion, the Children and the Bookcase’ I tell how this document passed into my hands in the early 1980’s when I came face to face with the long ago efforts of a family friend in assisting many Austrian Jewish families – some sixty or seventy people in all –  to escape from Vienna before and around the time of the Anschluss.

Some of these stories had been a part of my childhood. I was used to hearing tales of refugees and immigrants, to seeing the precious remnants of a life once lived elsewhere treasured in exile, furnishing a home in a place that was foreign. Indeed, I was myself a child migrant. Not by my choice.  But because of a path dictated by a politics not of discrimination and exclusion (as in the case of the owner of ‘the passport’), but of rejection and protest as my parents resisted Australia’s participation in the war in Vietnam.

Once arrived in the UK, my parents trailed us children all over Europe every school holiday every year. Because of their left leaning convictions we visited Eastern bloc countries:  Czechoslovakia (as it then was), Poland and Hungary – where my brother picked up his own personal sample of Hungarian embroidery (as my mother put it) when he stepped on a piece of broken glass in Lake Balaton. We went to Le Corbusier’s chapel Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, a sacred, spiritual place playing with light, colour, shape and shade, created by an agnostic and dedicated to peace. And we visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.

Looking back on this, I realise how privileged we were. The house had only been opened to the public in 1960, and we were there just a few years later. Unlike today, we did not have to queue. Unlike today, where an elaborate museum complex funnels you through the displays housed in adjoining premises, we went in through the front door of 263 Prinsengracht and straight up the stairs to the offices of Opekta, just as Anne herself would have done on that fateful day in July 1942 when the Frank family hastily decamped from their home in Merwedeplein to the makeshift hiding place that was to imprison them – and keep them precariously safe – for the next two and half years.

I was eleven. It made, as you might imagine, a great impression. I am a lot older now, but I still think about displaced persons, about refugees, about immigrants, about those who are persecuted, the exiles, the outsiders, the ones who lose their family, their home, their name, their place in the world. I have a daughter. I adopted her when she was six and I have written about this in The Wild Track.

In a way, she too was thrust out of her own life, not by political pressures, but by circumstances that made her other life unsafe. And one of the first books we read together was C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I gave it to her because her name is Lucy.

And it was Lucy who first saw that there might be a connection between Anne Frank and Lewis’s story. This was, to begin with, in the original idea, a theoretical and literary, metaphoric connection.

But then I wondered if there might be some real life link. Eventually, I discovered that there was. In the early 1940’s Lewis had taught a student at Magdalen College, Oxford who was German Jewish and whose parents lived in hiding – just like the Franks –  in Edam in Holland for the last three years of the war. This student was Karl Leyser and he was to go on to become an eminent historian.

When I approached his family for help, Conrad Leyser, Karl’s son, kindly sent me the draft of an essay he had written for a new book called Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945. This book was published in 2017. In the years around that time refugees were never out of the news: in the UK David Cameron’s government was refusing to accept 3,000 asylum seekers, all unaccompanied minors; in the USA reporters saw children kept in cages at detention centres on the Mexican border; at Chios in Greece there was unrest in the many overcrowded camps as the authorities sought to distinguish between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘asylum seekers’; in Australia the ‘mandatory detention’ policy was rigidly enforced in poorly supported camps; the novelist Zia Haider Rahman, who was born in Bangladesh, but grew up in Britain, wrote ‘As a boy I read about the destruction of millions of Jews and was gripped by fear: If white Europeans could do that to people who looked like them, imagine what they could do to me’. And everywhere, all across the world, many desperate people escaping war and violence and persecution were drowned, in the Bay of Bengal, in the Indian Ocean, in the Mediterranean.

Today, that situation is the same, just differently constituted. Millions still suffer every day and many die, simply in seeking safety. The anxiety, the despair, and the anger that led me to write my piece are still with me, with us all.

By October 2020 my article for HWJ had been copyedited and I had corrected the proofs. Restless, one rainy Friday I woke in the early hours to realise that I should strictly  – out of courtesy – let the Leyser family know that this piece was to be published. So about 7am on that Saturday morning I sent an email to Henrietta Leyser, Karl’s widow, and to Conrad. I had a reply from Henrietta within ten minutes. By some extraordinary coincidence I had managed to send my email to the Leyser family on the very morning of the very day that would have been Karl Leyser’s one hundredth birthday.

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