Living in Greece, where many folks have become stranded on their way from violence and persecution to the safety of Europe, the topic of refugees is often in the news and on our minds. You hear about the horrors of the journey, the squalor of the camps, the violence inflicted by or upon these marginalized groups. It is hard to know what to think about an issue as challenging as this.
Recently, I came across an essay by Hannah Arendt addressing the vagaries of of Jewish refugees in 1943, when the essay was published. It is “We Refugees” and starts like this:
In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.”
The rest of the essay is as cheerfully contrarian as its opening and remarkably applicable to the refugee crisis facing Europe today – or, one might say, still – especially the foreboding message of its closing sentences:
Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of “indecency,” get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples—if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.
I heard about this essay in the In Our Time podcast, whose episode on Hannah Arendt can serve as a brief introduction to her life and work.