Tag Archives: Mediterranean crossing

Child refugees and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I offer you child refugees to think about for Refugee Week(18th– 24thJune 2018). I start with a children’s book: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It was first published in 1956, written in his summer holidays by a school teacher in Sussex. It is set in Europe, mostly after the end of the Second World War, when millions were displaced, trying to find a place to live or to return home. The characters are based on real people, who travel through a real landscape. The reader, young and old, understands that the war created a terrible situation for the Balicki family from Poland, and they were fortunate to survive and be reunited.

The Quest of The Silver Sword

I read this children’s book very soon after it was published. It made a lasting impression on me, and I gladly reread it for this post 60 years later. The story follows a family who were separated in Warsaw during the war by the Nazis. The father, a school teacher, was arrested for a small act of disrespect to Hitler, but escaped from the prison camp; the mother was sent as slave labour to Germany, and the three children survived in the cellars and forests of Warsaw until the end of the war. When the city was liberated by the Red Army, the three children made their way from Warsaw to Switzerland, along with another stray child and his animals (at times he has a chicken, dog and chimpanzee from Berlin Zoo). This was the time – after the war – when chaos and devastation was everywhere in Europe and millions of displaced people were trying to get somewhere else. War is terrible and destructive and creates refugees of people of all ages.

The family and Jan are connected by the sword of the title, a paperknife, originally given to Mrs Balicki by her husband. The older daughter, Ruth, a teenager, leads the children. She is a natural teacher, a resourceful problem-solver and able to take command and care of the younger ones. Edek has TB, and for a while had also served as slave labour, but at the end of the war was liberated to a prison camp. Bronia is the youngest and then there is Jan, the wild boy whose fate is tied up with theirs and the silver sword.

This is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are all reunited in Switzerland.

At the time of its publication it was, apparently, suggested that children should not be exposed to the distress in the story. Perhaps the adults had not yet recovered from their distress from the war that had ended only 10 years earlier. Despite this it was soon adapted for a BBC TV series in 1957 and later also for the radio and there have been stage versions too. Puffin Books, the children’s section of Penguin Books, republished it in paperback in 1960. It has remained popular with children.

Child refugees

Ian Serraillier makes much of the sympathy that young people easily evoke, encouraging people to share meagre supplies, or to bend a rule or two, even to provide life-saving footwear, canoes and accommodation. Child refugees should be a phrase we never read. But in Refugee Week we must not ignore them.

Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee was drowned aged 3 on 2ndSeptember 2015. You will remember him and the picture of him washed up on a Turkish beach. Like many thousands of refugees, displaced by war, he drowned crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Greece. The situation briefly became clear – everyone agreed that something had to be done. But it wasn’t and refugees, including children, continue to make the dangerous crossing, to drown, or to find no welcome in Europe, or to face the ‘hostile environment’ in the UK.

Did You See Me? is a short story of 329 words by Kit de Waal. It is dedicated to Alan Kurdi, ‘the boy on the shore’. You can find it in a recently published anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers: A Country to Call Home, edited by Lucy Popescu.

Did you see me in Kobane, running through the square? Did you hear my father’s shout? We were laughing, my brother and I, and my father came lumbering after us, his arms outstretched. ‘You’re too far away! I cannot catch you!’ (43)

Every refugee is an Alan Kurdi, or a child of the Balicki family. You and I and children we know have escaped this fate only by the accident of our births.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960. The edition I read was from Red Fox and includes an afterword by the author’s daughter. 192pp

A Country to Call Home, an anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers edited by Lucy Popescu, published by Unbound in 2018. 241pp

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.

The story of Go, Went, Gone

Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall, May 2014

Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.

Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)

And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.

When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)

Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.

As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.

My reactions

I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …

As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, May 2014

The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.

The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)

Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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