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Generations of asylum seekers

Like many people of Jewish ancestry of my age, I’m descended from three generations of asylum seekers. My maternal grandfather, George Polakoff, was born, according to family legend, in Brick Lane in London’s East End. His parents had fled the pogroms in Poland in the late 1800s. He married my grandmother Betty (Rivkah) Yauner, who claimed she was born on the ship coming to England but in fact was born in what is now the Ukraine, her family also leaving in flight from persecution.

My father, Herbert Wolff, came to England at the age of 8, with his older sister, on the Kindertransport, as a refugee from Nazi Germany. His parents disappeared not long after. Passenger lists show that they were put on a train from Frankfurt to Lodz, but there are no further records. It was not uncommon for the Jews in the transport to be murdered on route rather than taken to the ghetto and then to the camps. Perhaps a preferable fate.

With this family history behind me, questions of immigration are never far from my mind. I owe my existence to the generosity of the UK in taking in generations of refugees, as well as the kindness shown by one person – a wealthy unmarried Christian woman – who agreed to foster my father for a few months until his parents arrived, but as that never happened, becoming his guardian until adulthood.

I cannot know exactly why my grandparents didn’t leave Germany, unlike other family members who got out. They were not wealthy, although not poor either. My grandfather was a haberdasher’s merchant, dealing in buttons and ribbons. My grandmother had been a commercial artist. They had been loyal citizens. My grandfather fought for the Germans in the First World War, just as many members of my maternal family fought (and died) for the British. Probably they left it too late. By the time they were put on the transport to Poland they had lost everything. My grandfather could not trade, and they had moved in with another family in smaller accommodation.

Children of the "kindertransport", statue at Liverpool Street Station, London. Image by Loco Steve. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Children of the “kindertransport”, statue at Liverpool Street Station, London. Image by Loco Steve. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Possibly the key moment in their lives was something for which they were not present, and of which possibly were never aware: the Evian Conference on 1938, to consider the situation of 400,000 Jews in Germany and 200,000 Jews in Austria who were being ‘cruelly oppressed’. The German government announced that the Jews were free to leave, and mocked other countries for their criticism of Germany’s treatment of the Jews but their refusal to offer help. A British civil servant’s report that I read in 1998, when papers were released under the 60 years rule, which unfortunately I cannot trace now, said something like: “Everyone is desperately saddened by the plight of the Jews. But the fact is that Canada is full, Australia is full, the United States has room only for a few thousand and the UK for a few hundred.” Just as now, sympathy was tempered by concern for the effects of immigration; a concern exceptionally well assessed by an editorial in the New Republic:

“[Nations] seem to believe that [immigrants] represent a net burden—as if their competition for jobs were certain to throw native citizens out of work, or as if they would otherwise have to be fed at public expense. There is a good deal of stubborn truth, under present circumstances, in this view, since the nations in question cannot keep their existing populations fully employed. Nevertheless there is no really good reason why it should be so. The worker who fears immigration because of the immigrant’s competition for jobs ought to be reassured by the reflection that for every new pair of hands to work there is at least one new mouth to feed and body to clothe, which should provide a market demand for the equivalent of what the hands can produce.”

But what should the UK and the Unites States have done in 1938? Could they really have opened their borders to a million refugees? Possibly, for that seems to be what Germany is doing now. But it may have seemed unthinkable at the time, and when persecuted gypsies and East European Jews are added in the number of potential immigrants becomes mind-boggling.

Philosophical theories can help us think about these questions, even if, in themselves, they cannot solve them. The “cosmopolitan” position argues that we are all equally citizens of the world, and political boundaries have no moral force. Therefore, morally, anyone has the right to reside anywhere in the world. Opening borders at a time of crisis is not merely a matter of humanitarian sentiment, but of strict moral duty. On this cosmopolitan view moving from country to country should be like moving from state to state in the United States.

By contrast, the “nationalist” position regards the political community as having the right to control its own territory, including who may reside within it. After all the citizens of a country have built up the infrastructure through their efforts and taxes. Letting people in is an act of charity, and charity has its limits, tragic though the consequences of these limits may be.

In practice, ‘fear of the other’ draws many people to the nationalist view, but it can be criticised: why should the accident of where you happen to be born be so fateful for your prospects in life? But even if this argument is convincing on a moral level, in practice should we open our borders? Should the UK and United States have done so in 1938, even if, as feared, it would have led to economic chaos?

No position is easy to defend. And when the problem is created by the evils of the Nazis or the horrors of Syrian civil war, it is no surprise that we struggle to find an acceptable solution. We may say that a balance must be struck. But that is to condemn hundreds of thousands of people to an uncertain fate.

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