How to be a Refugee

7 May

Simon May’s appearance at Swindon’s Festival of Literature on the 6th May posed some interesting questions to those of us watching on our comfortable sofa at home.

Simon’s book, How to be a Refugee – one family’s story of exile and belonging, told an extraordinary story of survival in the days of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and beyond.  He pointed out that in today’s world of migration, although a refugee could, on the surface, integrate into a new country through social adaptation, did they actually assimilate, adapt their soul, shed who they really are?

In the book, Simon looked at his own family who had Jewish ancestry and lived in Germany, and wanted to portray an unknown side of life there.  Even before Nazi Germany they had changed their religion to fit in with German culture and think themselves German first and Jews second.  His grandfather converted from Judaism to Protestantism and Simon’s great uncle was a Catholic priest.  This integration was of no avail when the Nazi Party looked at race not religion.  Simon’s grandfather in 1933 was expelled from his profession as a lawyer because of his ancestry and died of a broken heart.  His mother, Marianne, arrived in the UK in 1934 but later in England from 1938 to 1948, found being German was now a problem to be hidden.  She was deemed a stateless enemy alien and subject to a night time curfew.  This indeed saved her life when one evening she broke her curfew, was put into custody and later that night her home, where she should have been, was destroyed by a bomb.

Watch Simon’s talk

Ursel, Simon’s aunt, an actor, became a Catholic and managed to become a non Jew with the help of Hans Hinkel, who was a senior officer in Hitler’s regime and involved in the purge of Jews.  Simon thinks his aunt got access to Hinkel via an actor friend who was married to the heir of a German manufacturing company.  The company gave money to the Nazi regime and used forced labour to provide products to assist in the purge of Jews.  Eventually Ursel was expelled from the theatre in 1941 as the regime wished to rid German culture of people like her. However Ursel (when to lie would lead to death) lied about her ethnic heritage.  She got married but her cover was blown and Ursel and her husband fled to Holland and hid for the rest of the war.

Another aunt, Isle, continued to live in Germany unharmed throughout the war.  She took photographs of many leading Nazi and was engaged to Harald Bohmelt, a Nazi Party member and composer. Isle even went to Hitler’s official residence, meanwhile hiding Jews in her cellar when discovery would lead to certain death for both her and them. Isle showed brazen impunity and indeed was more frightened of Russian forces when they arrived.

Simon did not want to criticize his own family where they denied their ethnicity, it was a strategy to survive.  He was himself raised a Catholic and told not to identify as Jewish, not to speak German or even think of himself as British. He was not allowed to be anything he was.  Simon had to live in a pre-war culture his mother never accepted was lost. He had to think he was a refugee, a heredity refugee, despite being born and raised in England.

In answer to a question from interviewer Matt Holland, Simon originally intended in his book to portray one family and their love of their original culture.  He felt however that there is something to be learnt from the intense pressure to appear acceptable to your host country if you are a refugee in today’s world. No matter how welcoming the host country is, adapting is hard and goes on long after the first generation.

Simon wrote his book over a period of ten years and told it as accurately as he could, although it is difficult to recount the stories of others.  He did not want their story to be lost in the mist of time.

Looking back at his own family and their extraordinary experiences and indeed today’s refugees, Simon wondered how many generations it takes before a refugee feels happy and at home in the safe country they have adopted as their own.

Words by Anne Ryder

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