Much has been made of abstinence during the pandemic. But the virtues of “doing without” have nothing to do with the refugee’s involuntary loss of home and family. For those never forced to flee, this existential experience is almost beyond imagination.
When we leave somewhere, we take the time to say goodbye: to the people, the things, and the places that we’ve loved. I didn’t leave my country, I fled it. The door was wide open behind me as I walked away, without turning back.Gaël Faye, Small Country
In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s German Dictionary, “renunciation” (Verzicht) is understood as something voluntary: you relinquish or renounce something of your own accord. Renunciation is the subjective decision to give up, at least in part, something you love or want to have but have decided, at a certain point, to do without. Being forced to renounce something, without actively choosing to do so, because the decision has been made over your head, is something else entirely. Regulations and official instructions in emergencies, such as a pandemic, demand a renunciation that has not been self-chosen.
But how far are historical and contemporary experiences of the refugee characterized by renunciation? What does renunciation actually mean in this context?
The flight of the refugee is not, as I understand it, migration. Although the boundary can be fluid, not all those who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean, for example, are refugees. The two must be differentiated to protect the refugee against the threat of terminological arbitrariness.
Although, as “forced migrants,” refugees are indisputably part of global migration processes, flight and migration exist on completely different levels of experience. This does not imply any kind of hierarchy or denigration of the sometimes equally dramatic biographies of migrants. The decision to flee may be freely taken, but it is taken because of external circumstances. Not infrequently, it is the last decision that refugees make for themselves. Fear of death is probably the most important reason for deciding to leave behind one’s familiar surroundings.
Displaced persons, in contrast, are forced to leave their homes against their will. They are evicted from their home and soil because of decisions made by others, decisions which they have no control over. Those who do not flee in time risk being left vulnerable to the whims of others. The boundaries are often fluid here, too, and refugees may end up becoming displaced persons.
For that reason, I understand flight as a cipher for a wider process whose definition expands on that of the 1951 Geneva Convention: flight from war and violence, displacements, “ethnic cleansing,” as members of ethnic, national, religious minorities or due to homosexuality.
All refugees and displaced persons know what it is to say goodbye to home, most likely forever, amid violence and war. Then comes the uncertainty of the journey and its goal and, above all, what comes next. Awaiting them on arrival, wherever it may be, are camps and transit centres, ostracism and hostility, and a future life that may mean integration, assimilation or permanent exile. Ultimately, what unites them all is the memory of what they have lost, even across generations. Their loss of home is an existential experience, a radical break in their life story. Those in similar situations around the world all know what it is to remember what you no longer have. First of all, then, we must discuss loss.
The monstrous nature of flight means it is usually beyond our power of imagination to measure this loss. In her novel Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck gets to the heart of this: “with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads.”
In the end, refugees save their lives, leaving everything else behind. I am reminded of the story of Noh Cho-Heon, who appeared in a video made by the South Korean Red Cross. She was looking for her family, whom she had not seen since her flight from the North in 1950. She had never heard from them again and was never able to find out if they were alive.
“I am looking for my grandfather Noh Jong-Soeb,” she says softly. “My father is called Noh Gi-Hun. My uncles are called Noh Gi-Hwan, Noh Gi-Ryong, my aunts are called Noh Gap-Seon, Noh Oh-Seon, and my brother is called Noh Chun-Heon. I am looking for them.” The old women looks awkwardly into the camera in October 2014, reading her words from a sheet of paper. She was entrusting her story to the Red Cross because she hoped to be considered for inclusion in the recently established scheme for reuniting people with family members in North Korea. “I would like to see my brothers and sisters in the north again before I die.”
Noh Cho-Heon’s story is that of millions of Koreans. In December 1950, aged fourteen, she fled with her mother from her hometown to the south to escape the Chinese troops. Her wish to find out what had become of her brother, her father, her grandparents and other relations in North Korea never came true. Until the end of her life, she remained connected to the traditions and dialect of her home in the north. A few months after the Red Cross recorded her video message, she died in Seoul.
Flight invalidates existing rules and assumptions. Things that seemed true yesterday are no longer true today. Fleeing, going on the run, being driven out: none of it is an adventure. What you leave behind is lost forever. But at that moment, most people do not realize that flight might end up being a permanent parting. Noh Cho-Heon has lost everything, a fragment of the unending story of flight, but she gives millions of people a name and a face.
After arriving in their new life, refugees carry an infinitely heavy burden, which includes an endless list of losses: intimate connections with family, friends and neighbors, familiar scents and sounds, food, dialect, language, landscapes—and above all an environment where they knew how to read all the codes. They felt at home there; they just belonged. Noh Cho-Heon also left behind a lived life without being able to say goodbye. Like other refugees, she had to do without everything on this list of loss. Flight can offer salvation and freedom, but coping with this total loss remains a life-changing challenge.
Although the reasons and circumstances that drive people to flee can be very different, the concrete experiences of refugees, displaced people and exiles are similar. All must decide: what do I take with me? How much can I carry when on foot? Should I pack valuables, photos, jewelry and documents or better food for the days to come? Flight is a caesura, the termination of an unwritten agreement with one’s ancestors that has been valid for generations. Everything based on inheritance law suddenly no longer counts. Wills and investments in the future, land, savings accounts–at the moment of flight everything sinks into meaninglessness.
Alongside their properties and almost all their material possessions, those who flee must also leave behind the dead. Cemeteries are abandoned, graves grow over. Fleeing means cutting ancient ties to ancestors, which are important in all cultures and world religions. “The old Armenians of my childhood never had any graves at which they could weep for their parents. They carried their graves with them wherever they wandered,” writes Varujan Vosganian in his autobiographical novel The Book of Whispers, about the Armenian exile community in Romania, survivors of flight, deportation and genocide.
Those who have not fled their homes can hardly begin to imagine this loss. It is overwhelming even thinking about what we would take with us if we only had five minutes. When we forget something at home, we go back. This certainty is excluded in the case of flight: there is no going back. In Judith Kerr’s autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, the child Anna and her mother and brother must hastily escape from Nazi thugs in February 1933. There is not much room in their luggage, so Anna must choose just one soft toy. With a heavy heart she decides against her beloved pink rabbit. The loss of her home forces Anna to renounce something specific.
Uncertainty also accompanies refugees and displaced people on their journey. “I am a prisoner of a route I didn’t choose,” wrote Léon Werth in his account of fleeing from the Germans to southern France. I am reminded of Anna Sudyn, who was driven out of southeast Poland in 1947 along with her Ukrainian family. She had survived Nazi terror, a concentration camp and forced labor. After she was freed, she returned to Poland. When, after all that, the Polish army set fire to her village, the family had to leave once again. This time they were to be deported to the areas previously inhabited by Germans.
They hurriedly packed a few belongings, including a stone. Anna’s father believed it was essential for their survival because stones were so scarce in their sandy homeland. They could not do without this stone. Farming families had always used such stones to weigh down the cabbage barrel and so ensure the supply of sauerkraut and its essential vitamins for the winter. At last they reached Masuria, where they were to be settled. “When we arrived, dear God! So many stones! Wherever you bent down there was a stone.”
Ultimately, all refugees and displaced people arrive somewhere. They must hold their own against reserved or openly hostile host societies, whether in reception and transit procedures, camp hierarchies, temporary shelters and new linguistic and cultural environments. This is an emotional exertion, since their flight and what they have left behind remain with them even as they try to build a new life.
Historically, refugees mostly experienced forced migration collectively, in groups. Now, however, it is much more an individual decision, at least when it involves the journey to Europe. Thanks to the internet, there is more information available about the countries people would like to reach. This is a significant difference. Memories are often stored in mobile phones, which form bridges to relatives left behind.
When it is the result of a conscious decision to is a conscious decision to escape an authoritarian regime, flight can be the beginning of a new life. The psychological strain becomes too great to bear, even though it might seem from the outside that it possible to continue living there. This individual decision is often preceded by a long period of deliberation: to stay or go?
Arrival is always an ongoing process. But it is telling how materialistic our idea of a new life is. When people flee, they mostly save nothing more than their lives and their bodily integrity. That is already a lot, but it comes at a high price. Many arrive in countries where they remain permanently unwelcome, living as second-class citizens or sometimes not even that. In such cases, their future involves statelessness and camp life, often over generations.
For that reason, their loss cannot be called a renunciation, which always brings to mind a voluntary action and conscious decision. Renunciation also implies that there was an alternative. That may be true in individual cases, and there are countless stories of successful arrival. But in the historical perspective, renunciation can never fully describe the dimensions of what has been lost.
Loss is a very personal experience for all refugees. The same is not true for retrospective renunciation, which can be a conscious and very political act for refugees and displaced people. An incident from post-war Germany history exemplifies the ambivalence of loss and renunciation. In 1963, Willy Brandt addressed a meeting of displaced Silesians with the words “renunciation is betrayal, who can deny it?” His comment was directed in the name of the party to the millions of displaced people who remained hopeful of returning home. Many West German politicians found it convenient to fuel such hopes.
But gradually times changed. It became increasingly clear that only a definitive renunciation of their claim could bring about a new beginning. Change through rapprochement became the new motto. The Polish bishops led the way in 1965 when they extended a hand to the Germans: “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.” This was followed by a change of course in the Federal Republic. Displaced persons had been coddled as potential voters for decades and many struggled to accept the change. Holding on to the political promises, they felt betrayed. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people demonstrated against the treaties with Eastern Bloc states and the CDU/CSU even lodged a constitutional appeal.
But it was impossible to turn back the clock. Brandt’s genuflection before the memorial in the former Warsaw Ghetto in December 1970 resonated around the world. The long-standing editor of Die Zeit, Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, supported this new Ostpolitik even though she had lost her own East Prussian home only twenty-five years before—a short time in historical terms. Dönhoff, the intellectual, understood the necessity of renouncing what has been irretrievably lost.
Not all were able to comprehend this political turn. Many found it hard to be asked to renounce their hopes by people who had lost nothing themselves. As much as Dönhoff understood the significance of that political gesture, her pain did not ease. She rejected Brandt’s invitation to travel to Warsaw in December 1970 with the German Federal delegation. She could not, as she later explained, raise a toast to the final renunciation of her homeland.
“The exile may succeed in sprouting anew, flourishing, finding a favorable climate in the place they end up,” says the Turkish journalist Can Dündar, who fled to Germany, “but as with any plant that has been broken at the root, torn from its soil and its natural flora, it is uncertain whether they will be able to put down roots in the earth where they have settled.”
Whether we endorse the root metaphor or not, Dündar gets to the heart of the ambivalence familiar to every refugee. No new life, no matter how hopeful, can disguise that fact. The future remains unknown. Home, or whatever we understand by it, remains a blank space for refugees for the rest of their lives. Against their will, they gave up its warming familiarity.
Ultimately, renunciation and flight are incompatible. Renunciation is imposed upon refugees by their loss. This requires endless strength. After arrival, many need to draw strength from their old identity before they can begin to be able to master the new challenges. Perhaps some would like to let go, even to renounce, but that is a feat of strength. They often carry their heavy burden—their existential loss—throughout their entire life, and sometimes even beyond.
First published by Wespennest 181 (2021), and reprinted by Eurozine. Translated by Isabelle Chaize.
Andreas Kossert is a German historian of Eastern Europe at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw and author of the prizewinning book Flucht: Eine Menschheitsgeschichte (2020), about the refugee in world history.