What the Holocaust can teach us about the migrant crisis

A Kindertransport refugee reflects on genocide, and what it means in a Europe dealing with advancing Islamophobia and a 'refugee crisis'.

Ruth Barnett
13 November 2015
 Demotix/Gail Orenstein.

Child migrants arrive on the Greek island of Kos, from Turkey. Credit: Demotix/Gail Orenstein.

I came to England from Berlin on the Kindertransport in 1939. I was a four year old refugee. Suddenly everything in my old world was gone. Nothing made sense, everything was strange and alarming, even the London buses were red - the colour of blood!

At 14, I was repatriated to Germany against my will; this was even worse. Once again, everything I knew had been taken from me, replaced by a fearful wartime existence. Migration can invoke terrifying feelings.

76 years later, and I am speaking at a Never Again Ever! event to reflect on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. On November 10, speakers such as Dr. Zoe Marriage and the Media Diversity Institute discussed what Kristallnacht means in a Europe dealing with advancing Islamophobia and a ‘refugee crisis’.

It was during Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’, that Nazi policies broke into explicit violence against Jewish people in Germany. Kristallnacht was a series of coordinated deadly attacks and smashing of Jewish-owned business' throughout Nazi Germany. It was carried out by paramilitary forces and German civilians whilst German authorities looked on, without intervening. 

Kristallnacht was the writing on the wall, the point at which genocide became inevitable for all groups that didn't fit into the Nazi Aryan ideal. We need to learn about and commemorate the Holocaust until we have learnt its two major lessons: to intervene early enough to prevent escalation of violence until it is out of control; and secondly to treat all people as equal human beings - no superior groups and no inferior groups. 

Holocaust learning and commemoration has been unnaturally restricted to focus mainly on the Jewish aspect, insinuating that all else is of less importance. The Nazis intended to cleanse occupied Europe of numerous groups, Jews as much as those who weren’t heterosexual, or politically amenable to the right of the ‘master-race’ to rule. 

It is time to face the whole depth and breadth of the horror of the Holocaust, in its context as genocide. It was the the ultimate crime against humanity, which – due to its European context and disastrous worldwide consequences – have shaped Europeans’ entire notion of the concept. The Holocaust emerged from the Nazi obsession with creating a race of pure Ayrans, claiming the right to decide who deserved to live and who was 'unworthy of life’.

We must remember this in light of the warm reception that most of the Kindertransport refugees received, for example, in contrast to the treatment currently faced by the millions of people migrating from home countries where their lives are in danger. Volunteers in migrant camps in Calais are frequently overwhelmed at the level of French police harassment, which has included detaining refugees in southern France so that they must fly back. 

Reflecting on Kristallnacht, one troubling comparison arises: we repeatedly insist that scapegoated human beings should be processed. Applications can be processed, but not human beings. If we forget this lesson, then we are simply engaging in a form of denial, and are traumatising populations as they flee from suffering. 

Psychology has developed our understanding of the importance of attachment to a loving carer in our early infant years. Without this attachment, a person grows up vulnerable and ill equipped to face the difficulties of life. Too many children are learning to hate through their parents’ conflicts and aggression, missing out on a secure loving experience. They become vulnerable to abuse or exploitation. 

A person who has not experienced love as a child may be overwhelmed by hate. In response to this the person may turn outwards and become aggressive and violent, or turn inwards into depression and become an easy target for scapegoating. This applies both to individuals and groups, and shapes the political consequences of the current European migration problem. It causes xenophobia as much as it does despair and frustration against the European framework. 

Learning and commemoration are important for personal transformation, but not sufficient for social change. Action is necessary: every citizen taking part in the civic process of democracy, every person doing at least a small something to counter injustice, rage, aggression and violence. This can be as simple as taking steps to calm down a national atmosphere of mass panic, as we attempted to do through our event, or even protesting to their MP or starting a petition online.

Since 1945, countries have developed a legal international justice framework which aims to prevent crimes against humanity - the ultimate of which is genocide. 

We are hardly able to use this basic framework and develop it to achieve real justice and respect for human rights while sovereign immunity exists and protects brutal dictators from being brought to the international court of justice. This pernicious form of protectionism affects every human being, not only those groups that are currently being scapegoated.

There is a proverb: "unless the scapegoated can sleep safe in their beds - neither can we.” Security must include everyone, otherwise, we are betraying the ethical demands of our society, and creating the seeds of future repression. 

Europeans with citizenship and residency rights should have responded to the refugee crisis warning signs much earlier, and acted sensibly, rather than out of cynical self-interest. Instead, the overall regional situation developed into formal military occupations, bombing campaigns, and the crude pursuit of militarism that recalls the worst years of European empire.

Asylum seekers should not have needed to come to Europe in the first place, however, they are now here. Our event was designed to raise awareness of some of the injustices that we tend to close our eyes and mind to, hoping that they will go away.

You cannot make people disappear by ignoring their needs, disregarding injustice, and driving them to the edges of society. They are equal human beings, they are here and they could be us in the future.

Apathy and indifference is often a more difficult problem than ignorance, prejudice and racism. Denial is the 'comfort zone' of people who cushioned themselves in indifference until it was too late. Such people fail to realise that they are actually denying the need for their personal response and input into society.

The very least we can and should do is to treat migrants decently as human beings equal to ourselves, and provide what we can for them in terms of basic necessities like food, education, and medical care while pressing our governments to create a sustainable European framework for supporting people trying to find better lives.

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