This was sent to me by Daniel Weichman. Please read it, and you will understand the force of the final paragraph “When people bother to ask me why I support refugees, I tell them …”
My name is Daniel Weichman, and I am the grandson of a refugee.
He wasn’t a boat person, certainly. This was back in the days when a major humanitarian crisis prompted countries to organise mass refugee intakes. In this particular case, the crisis of the day was the aftermath of World War II.
My grandfather grew up in Demblin, Poland, a small town notable only for its air force base. This, of course, made it a primary target when war was declared. Of my grandfather’s six siblings, four of them were home when the attack by air began. The four siblings fled into the woods, to find a place less likely to be subject to bombing. In the process of fleeing, they had to cross a (for the time) major road. They crossed one at a time, the others keeping watch.
The last sibling to cross was the youngest sister, by my grandfather’s account a treasure. Bright, beautiful, and universally loved and loving. And as she bolted across the road to her waiting, watching family, a passing aircraft of the Luftwaffe spotted movement and, thinking it a fleeing soldier, strafed the road with fire.
The likely aircraft to be in the air at the time were either the Ju 87 “Stuka” or the Messerschmitt Bf 110. This means that she was subject to fire from either four 7.92mm machine guns (the Stuka) or four machine guns and two 20mm anti armour cannons (the Messerschmitt). I, living in a relatively peaceful first world country, have never seen firsthand what that amount of gunfire does to any human body, let alone that of a child approaching puberty. But her siblings not only watched it happen, but had to pick up what was left and bury it in the woods as one of the most violent and destructive conflicts of our age erupted around them.
If I recall the rest of the tale correctly, every member of that sad funeral would join her in the ground by 1945. And my grandfather, leaving the ruins of Europe and the corpses of his family behind, accepted passage and refugee status from the Australian government and found himself in Sydney, Australia.
My grandfather’s name was Jakob Weichman, and though he is now passed away, his story is on record at the Jewish Holocaust Center in Elternwick. By all accounts, the horrors of World War II were not atypical of humanity then or now. Through Africa and the Middle East, and many other places around the world, people live daily through circumstances very similar. And then we, in our comfortable and safe and by all accounts privileged country, demand that they prove that they have less than 50-50 odds of torture or death if we return them to the hell they flee before we will consider their plea. We hear the stories of war and mass murder and we shake our heads and then go back to our comfortable lives, safely protected from acting on our purported compassion by three word slogans and detention camps so terrible that a five year old girl would rather attempt suicide than go back.
When people bother to ask me why I support refugees, I tell them that I remember the bullet-riddled and mangled corpse of the eleven year old girl who would have someday been my great aunt but for the cruelty of conflicts and circumstances beyond her control. And that my grandfather, standing in the ashes of his country and on the graves of his siblings was invited to build a new home here in Australia.