Thursday, 18 February 2016

Excerpt on the Plight of Refugees from The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O'Connor

I recently finished reading The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O'Connor. It's a book you can't emerge from without feeling as though you've been giving blood. Just as I'm speechless when a close friend loses a family member, and there are no words with which to face or soothe the shattering grief...I can't summarize the impact of this book....much of the history we think we sort of know already...when really we've never known a great deal of it at all. I tried hard not to sink into depression as I read about so many lives of supreme grace, talent and intelligence, once thriving in a city that was the epicentre of cultural achievement and artistic freedom, being nightmarishly snuffed out or falling to suicide during a time on earth that was consumed by the evil madness of the Nazis. I cried a lot reading this book.

I felt an unsettling unease about the scarce passage of time and the fragile idea that history can't repeat itself in so many different scenarios....because we still see it today, people exhibiting intolerance, fear, entitlement and bigotry. But thank goodness... there are always people who respond with help and have done so in the past. This passage from page 160-162 from The Lady in Gold, recounting the memories of Emile Zuckerkandl in June 1940, reminds us of that:

  'But the Germans were closing in on Mount Pellier, and Emile had already fled, hitch hiking, as his mother, exhausted from surgery and wilting in the heat, sat on their suitcase by the side of the road.
  A train packed with refugees took them south. Emile found a man who took them to Bayonne with his family in exchange for gas money. He dropped them at the harbor.
  It was a sweltering day. Bayonne was crowded with refugees. Parents walked forlornly from boat to boat, holding exhausted, uncomprehending children and whatever possessions they could carry.
  Emile found a place where his pale mother could sit. Then he walked down the docks, begging crews to take them - anywhere. Captain after captain told Emile, no, we're not allowed to take refugees.
  Emile headed to the town square. A maelstrom of sweating people with nowhere to go sat in cafe chairs on the sidewalk, fanning themselves.
  Two familiar faces stepped out of the crowd: Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel! Emile was as shocked as they were, and they embraced warmly. Werfel was Jewish, and he and Alma were escaping too. Emile told them he had lost Berta. Werfel listened, gazing at the thousands of others in the same predicament. Tears filled his eyes. Alma, hot, tired, and irritable, snapped: "Why don't you give up on your Jewish love of the neighbor?"
  Emile felt as if he had been slapped across the face, though Alma's anti-Semitic cracks were well known to all of her friends.
  Werfel glared at Alma, and Emile fled.
  Back at the harbor, a crowd of people milled around a merchant marine ship. The captain was a lean, good looking man in his mid-forties, with arresting blue eyes. He listened, stony-faced, as refugees begged him to take them. Behind him was The Kilissi, a freighter filled with green bananas packed in crates. The captain glanced away impassively. He was under strict orders not to leave the harbor. A German U-boat had just sunk a cargo ship. It wasn't safe.
  Perhaps the refugees sensed hesitation in his refusals. Please, they begged. The Germans are drawing near.
  The captain sighed wearily. He looked up at the ship, and at the faces of his crewmen, who were standing against the guardrails, watching him expectantly.
  "D'Accord " the captain said finally, "I'll take you."
  A roar went through the crowd. The crew jubilantly began to throw the bananas overboard. The refugees pitched in, and a cascade of green bananas splashed into the water. Hundreds of people poured into the boat, with no questions about identity papers or money. Finally the crew raised their hands, shouting, "No more!"
  There was a small cannon on deck, and the men strained to push it into the harbor, to avoid giving German vessels any pretext to attack. It tumbled into the water with a mighty splash, and the crew took their positions.
  The captain headed out of the harbor, going toward the Bay of Biscay. The passengers had no idea where they were going. The deck was covered with people. When Emile told the captain his mother was recovering from an operation, the captain invited her into his cabin, where she lay on the floor, exhausted.
  The freighter hugged the shore to avoid German U-Boats. There was a storm that night, and waves washed across the front deck. The captain ordered the people to crowd inside, where there was barely room to stand. He steered through the pitching sea, his handsome face grave and focused, looking up only to tell Emile where he could find his mother an extra blanket. He let other women join her, until the floor of his cabin was covered. Emile found the captain very chevaleresque - gentlemanly.
  By dawn the storm had abated. A few days later the captain steered into Lisbon. The Kilissi anchored offshore. No one was permitted on land, except the tired, sunburnt captain, who walked off the boat stoically with stern-looking local authorities. The refugees remained onboard, hungry and exhausted. After a few more days, they were ordered to board a much larger French ship that was to take them to Casablanca.
  The refugees filed up to the deck in their filthy, wrinkled clothes, under the gaze of The Kilissi's crew, now in freshly starched uniforms. As Emile walked off The Kilissi, the crew stood at attention and gave a formal respectful salute to them - the weary tattered rejects of Europe. Tears sprung to Emile's eyes at this small show of gallantry. The refugees began to sing "The Marseillaise", and Emile jubilantly added his voice: "The day of glory has arrived!" '

So.... I choose to take from this book strong convictions for myself to move forward with...inspiration, courage, compassion and persistence, and above all, wonder at how art is so intrinsic to our identity throughout our ongoing history on this planet.


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  2. Thank you for your thoughts. This was also one of my favorite episodes in the book. I think it's important to document the cruelty and persecution. I was glad to find instances where someone provided a safe haven, a reprieve, or a way forward. I just wish there had been more of them.