Picturing refugees

I’m putting together the handouts for one of my classes next term, on the module we use to introduce incoming first-year undergraduates to doing history at university level. I have two groups, and I’m doing a different ‘intensive study topic’ for each of them (so as to avoid fights over scarce library resources…).

Christian refugees from Asia Minor, LoC ggb2006010957

Although I’m a Middle East historian by background, finding topics in Middle East history that have a substantial body of secondary literature is a bit tricky, and finding ones where the literature isn’t highly politicized is even trickier. So I’m turning to my other teaching area, refugee history, instead, with one class on the Greek-Turkish population exchange (admittedly a not unpolarized body of literature, but the worst of it is in Greek and Turkish; in English there’s a fair range of less tendentious material) and another on German Jewish refugees.

Now, one problem with teaching refugee history is the tendency to reduce the people you’re supposedly concerned with—the refugees—to a passive and nameless crowd, huddled in camps or crammed into transit vehicles like the ones above. (That image shows refugees from Samsun, Turkey in train cars at Patras, Greece, after the population exchange; it’s part of the Bain collection at the Library of Congress.) It’s always easier to approach the history of the stateless and uprooted from the perspective of the states that displaced, refused, or assisted them; the international forums where diplomats talked about them; or the NGOs—in my period more usually referred to as private voluntary organizations or PVOs—that tried to keep them alive.

But refugees aren’t a passive mass: we need to get at the experiences of individual refugees, and we need to remember that refugees are active: from the point of view of host states, they have an awkward tendency to want to control their own lives, and their own political destinies. The very image of the passive, destitute refugee is a powerful ideological construct that plays a part in states’ attempts to control refugees—which often involve forcing refugees into a more passive and destitute state. The Spanish Republican refugees who fled into France at the end of the Civil War had to be disarmed as they arrived, to make them easier to control: the picture to the left shows a stack of rifles taken from refugees at Le Perthus. Families were split up, women and children sent to camps of their own, while once the men had been disarmed they were housed in dreadful conditions, in makeshift camps made of little more than barbed wire on the beach. (If being stuck on a Mediterranean beach sounds nice, remember that it was late winter—and that you can’t dig a latrine trench in sand.) Look at this aerial picture of the camp at Argelès-sur-mer and you start to realize that encampment was a preemptive act of violence against the refugees:

14. Argeles(Want to know why states are so scared of refugees? Do my third-year advanced option module on refugee history and you’ll find out.)

So, when I thought about what pictures I could use for the front page of my module handouts, I was trying to find things that would communicate individual experiences, and refugees’ ability to control their own lives.

Markiewicz passport

It didn’t really work. For the class on the Greek-Turkish population exchange I went with the first picture, above. Class handouts are often done in a bit of a hurry, when they’re overdue—mine are, anyway—and finding good images takes a while. Most of the photos I looked at on the Library of Congress website just weren’t very good: this one is, at least, a clear and striking image. It’s a cliched one, but some of the others were worse.

For the class on Jewish refugees, the range of available photos is greater, partly because of an active, ‘collecting’ interest by major museums. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the most important, and that’s where I found the picture to the right: a page from Ellen ‘Sara’ Markiewicz’s child passport, issued by the Berlin chief of police in April 1939. It allowed her to join a Kindertransport to Britain—on another page there’s a stamp from her landing port at Southampton, giving her leave to enter the country ‘on condition that the holder does not enter any employment paid or unpaid while in the United Kingdom’. So she’s not part of a nameless mass any more, even if one of her names was imposed on her by the Nazis. (All Jewish males were given the middle name Israel; all Jewish females, Sara.)

Moritz Schoenberger at Les MillesAlso from the USHMM is this picture of Moritz Schoenberger, in the internment camp at Les Milles, France, in 1941. Schoenberger had already crossed the Atlantic once in flight from the Nazis, unsuccessfully, on the famous refugee ship the MS St. Louis, which was refused entry by Cuba, the US, and Canada before returning to Europe. It docked at Antwerp, from where its 900 or so passengers dispersed to several European countries; about a quarter of them later died in the Holocaust.

Not Schoenberger, though: his wife Helene was already in the USA with their daughter, and successfully managed to get him a visa. But that didn’t come through until November 1941, by which time Schoenberger was interned in a French camp: he had travelled to France from Antwerp, and been interned as an enemy alien. After another eleven months—putting him into a fearful time for foreign Jews in France—the Vichy government allowed him to leave France, and he travelled to the US via Marseille and Lisbon. But here, he’s pictured in front of some of his artwork at Les Milles: Schoenberger, in his mid-50s by this time, was a commercial artist and window-dresser.

And here, seated second from left on the deck of the Lafayette, is Hildegard Wolff, on her way to the USA in September 1937. She looks cheerful—and who wouldn’t, as a Jew escaping Nazi Germany. Her parents weren’t so lucky.

Passengers on the deck of the LafayetteSo not all refugees are nameless and destitute. I hope I manage to communicate some of the variety of their experiences in my classes this term—especially the ones on subjects that aren’t as well served by the scholarship as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

All images: click for source.
Ellen Markiewicz’s passport: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ellen Gerber
Moritz Schoenberger: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Julie Klein
Passengers on the deck of the Lafayette: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ruth Nadelman Lynn
This is ‘fair use’ of these images under the Museum’s policy on terms of use.
Images from the Bain collection at the Library of Congress are not known to be under any copyright restrictions.

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One thought on “Picturing refugees

  1. benjaminthomaswhite says:

    Reblogged this on Saving Humans.

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