2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the start of World War Two. The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day (held every year on 27 January) is ‘Torn from Home’. Jason Hewitt considers these two facts, and why we must not forget them, for Historia.
Reflections on the holocaust seem particularly relevant in today’s troubled times, with the systematic attacks on the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military and civilian militias widely acknowledged now to be ethnic cleansing; and the known antecedents to genocide or mass political killings in countries such as Syria, Somalia and Sudan.
Even closer to us, the theme of ‘Torn from Home’ is alive with images of the ongoing arrival of migrants on UK shores, taking their lives into their hands in the hope of finding some peace and safety. In an article I wrote in 2017 for Time I quoted the latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency that had stated there were over 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world, more than ‘the entire current population of the UK’. That figure has now risen to 68.5 million – over 25 million of them refugees. It seems that our disregard for humanity knows no end.
In 1944, as a result of the Second World War, there were 11.5 million displaced people in Europe alone. The Third Reich and its compatriots were endeavouring to systematically slaughter those considered ethnically or physically inferior. Most notably, their focus was the Jews, but Roma, disabled people, and other minorities were also targeted. Many were taken from their homes and put in to work camps to feed Germany’s military machine, others ending up in concentration camps, their fate all too well known to us now.
Those more fortunate were simply driven out from their homelands. Whether fleeing out of fear or forced, they found themselves hitting the roads, taking nothing with them but what they could carry – in carts, in wheelbarrows, on their backs.
When you wrench someone from their country, you are not just inflicting them with the physical trauma, the loss of worldly goods or contact with friends and family; you wrench from them part of their very sense of belonging. With the destruction of close-knit communities, the links that socially bind us severed, we can lose some of the notion of who we are.
It’s a theme that I investigated in my novel Devastation Road. Whether home is a physical place, a village, a homeland, or where loved ones reside, when you destroy that or uproot us from it, we become lost, ungrounded. Some notion of our own identity, too, is destroyed.
This was not a one-sided tactic though. We sometimes forget that in this period evicting people from their homeland was a strategy employed by both sides. Following the post-war Potsdam conference, over 10 million German civilians who had lived in the ancient German provinces of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia found that the German border had been redrawn hundreds of kilometres to the west. They were to be forced out, their lands now the home instead for Poles and Russians. It was known then as a ‘population transfer’. Today we would more accurately call it ‘ethnic cleansing’.
As for those who, though forced out by the Nazis, managed to return to their homelands once peace was declared, what they came back to was little more than the remnants of their past lives. Buildings gone. Jobs gone. Family, friends, neighbours… In some territories they found themselves under new rule, but one that was equally oppressive – the tightening fist of the Soviet Union. Many decided that there was nothing to return to or found themselves forcefully repatriated to set up lives anew elsewhere.
Between 1940 and 1951 over one million left their homelands in Europe, spent years waiting in displaced persons camps as nations decided their future, and then were resettled overseas. Jewish DPs who went primarily to Israel and the United States were given practical help in setting themselves up with new homes, but they were offered little psychological support. They were expected to put their pasts behind them and get on with their lives – something that was no doubt easier said than done.
It is perhaps in these newly-established ethnic communities that the sense of history and the legacy of their homeland becomes more concentrated. Not through choice, but psychological need. The sense of what has been lost – or could have been lost – is felt all the stronger. It is here, perhaps, that old cultures thrive. They are carefully nurtured to keep their links with their original homelands alive.
But what brought them there – against their will – can never be forgotten. Because with loss of memory, we lose the fear: the fear that atrocities like those that drove them and their ancestors out of their homes in the first place could happen again.
Jason Hewitt is a writer, playwright and actor. He also has many years’ experience as a bookseller and as a marketing manager in the publishing industry. His debut novel, The Dynamite Room, was longlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize for New Writing in 2014 and for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.