First Published September 8th 2015 on richardopenshaw.org.uk
“Miss Adams [headmistress of Croydon High School] told me that for several years a Croydon family whose mother and three daughters were all ‘old girls’ had harboured Nazi refugee pupils of the school. This family was eager to take another and would like to meet me. So began my long-lasting relationship with a fascinating family, the Crags, whose charitable impulses and quirky dry sense of humour were a constant source of surprise and inspiration. The parents, Chris and Iris, owned a large three-story detached house not far from where my mother now resided with the Gunns in South Croydon.”
The above is an extract from Between Worlds: in Czechoslovakia, England and America, the memoir of refugee, and subsequently women’s historian, Susan Groag Bell. The family that she is describing is that of my great grandparents the Faggs, known as Crags in the book due to some objections to her later reference to my Great Grandfather urinating in the scullery sink. Susan was one of several Jewish refugees that they took in, though she had arrived in this country a few years earlier. Her book gives me a fascinating insight into my great grandparents, and my grandmother as a young woman, and I’m incredibly proud of what they did for her and others.
Despite the impression that we have today, acceptance of Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis wasn’t unanimous in Britain. Somewhat predictably perhaps, The Daily Mail was particularly concerned about their arrival. My great grandparents had space, which helped, but above all they had compassion which was lacking in many and is clearly still scarce today.
In order to show compassion, one first has to have empathy. Empathy should be one of the qualities that sets humans apart. Without it, there is no humanity. This current “migrant crisis” has shown that empathy is in short supply. We have an apparent total inability to imagine ourselves in the position of others. This emanates in part from the likes of the Mail and their tabloid chums (in fact, I’m not sure it’s restricted to the tabloids). Just as they struggle with the concept that most people claiming some form of benefit do so out of need rather than greed, so they have the same problem with people who risk their lives to cross dangerous seas in woefully inadequate vessels. Sadly, it took horrific images of a dead child for the message to finally start seeping through. It still hasn’t reached some, such as former UKIP parliamentary candidate Peter Bucklitsch.
Many people would no doubt argue that what is happening in Syria, and elsewhere, is not akin to the Nazis treatment of Jews across Europe. Maybe not, but it’s worth noting that at the time many people didn’t think Jewish persecution was a big problem. It is only subsequently that we came to recognise the full horror of what they went through. It’s also irrelevant; this is not a competition to decide which group of people have been treated the worst. As far as individuals are concerned, the effect is the same; they have been put in an intolerable position in the place they call home. To turn our back on these people on the basis that they are from a different patch of the earth’s surface cannot be justified to me.
Of course, the issue of refugees is often conflated in the public sphere with economic migration. Susie Groag arrived in Britain as a refugee, fleeing the horrendous treatment from which so many Jews suffered and from which her father did not escape. She later went to the USA as an economic migrant, became an academic and made a significant contribution to society. Most migrants do. That’s something else we’d do well to remember.
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