refugee family

My grandmother had little patience for anything that reminded her of the war or of her origins. A small grey heirloom box that she gave me contained two things: a notebook in precise handwriting of botanical tags used for making her tinctures, salves and teas and a handful of photographs. Unfortunately, not many of the photographs, visual records of our family history, give any indication of who is doing what or going where. She was like that. She preferred to talk of flowers and herbs.

As a lover of both photography and history, I have photos, old and new, everywhere in my home. Two caught my attention the other day as they suddenly become relevant through the news feed commentary on the current refugee crisis in Europe. The pictures sit imperiously on a high armoire in the living room, a personal reminder of my family’s voyage through time. In one snapshot, mostly faded grays and muted black, a large cruise ship is docked in some unknowable harbor, a few people hurry by. The other black and white is of my great uncles in front of a train. They are wearing long coats and short brimmed fedoras against the bitter winter cold. Next to them are their wives, one of them a dark haired beauty who looks strikingly like my mother. Like in many pictures of my mother in later years, my great aunt stands straight, looking impossibly poised, probably freezing in her thin pale coat and glancing away from the lens, a polite but unwilling subject. The men stare directly at the photographer, unsmilingly protective of their brood. Behind them, already on board, leaning out of opened windows are other people, grouped as families; a mother with two daughters, a husband and wife with a toddler in a hooded jacket. I don’t know who they are. It is sometime in the late 1940’s or early 50’s and at first glance, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that these people are going on holiday. But I know that they are on the second leg of a journey that began far away, a journey that would take them away from everything they loved. On the back of this picture she had written their initials- V.M. and F.M.

I hold this picture dear because it is the only record of that very moment when two grand families were broken apart, at that time seemingly forever. It was taken just before my grandfather said good bye to his brothers as they boarded that train to Hamburg where they would then be transported out of the country to far away Australia, never to meet again. Australia might as well have been the moon.

This picture is of my family, but it is a picture that would be familiar to a thousand daughters and a thousand granddaughters, in every country around the world, each one would have a story just like mine. My pictures, like the pictures in the news today are one and the same. Families of men and women and children displaced through war. I am telling my story through an archetypal snapshot, visually familiar within any refugee story.

Refugees deserve a chance.

To my grandparents, the decision to leave Yugoslavia in 1943 with a few, meager belongings was the most sane option, at that time. The fear of the unknown was more acceptable than the fear of staying with the familiar. On my mother’s side, the linage is part of an ancient stock of Germans, Austrians and Swiss who populated many Slavic countries as a result of Empire expansionism. They had called Bosnia home for generations. During the war they made the choice and left in trains headed to internment camps in Poland, with the vague promise of eventual resettlement in Germany. The others chose the black to ship Australia. At the same time, and for similar reasons, my teenage father was running for his life, away from a German occupied Ukraine. He walked the thousand odd miles into Czechoslovakia and after the liberation was interned at the Valka-Lager refugee camp near Nuremberg, as case number B28502. Three years later, at 18, he was recruited by the Americans as part of a Special Forces group, an offer that came with an American passport and the chance to recreate a broken life.

War displaces people. The unlucky ones die. The lucky, the crafty and the courageous find help any way they can to survive and recreate.

Both my grandparents and parents kept the pain and trauma of their refugee life to themselves, hidden inside their bones, beneath their hearts, quiet inside their minds. They worked so hard to blend into their new cultures that I never knew their full history until adulthood. They paid homage to their new countries by pledging allegiance, paying taxes and being exemplary citizens. I proudly follow in their footsteps, daughter and granddaughter of refugees. I am grateful every day because long ago, some compassionate and visionary person along the road from fleeing death and destruction reached out and accepted them with open heart and mind.

appeared in Medium 9.11.15