Passing through Nickelsdorf

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In a world where Syrian refugees are bursting through police cordons in Budapest to board trains to Germany, blogging about oneself, and writing, seems oddly trivial and self-centered. But it can also be overwhelming to embrace every tragedy in the world. Somehow to retain a human spirit we have to retain compassion, rage against war and yet still find beauty and courage to live our own individual (albeit by comparison, hugely privileged) lives.

On Facebook, people have been posting pictures of the drowned young boy who has become the poster child for Syria and refugees. And yet as we all know, in recent times the children of Gaza have been dying and left homeless. For decades there have been droughts, and famines in Africa. What is it that makes us in the ‘West’ suddenly galvanized by the sight of the Syrian diaspora? I wonder if it is because we see ourselves for the first time quite clearly.

These refugees are articulate, well educated people, speaking English, sounding like us – maybe for the first time we can image what it might be like to have to abandon hearth and home because of war. In the past, maybe we’ve felt safe, perhaps thinking – well, that’s Africa (and we might have sent money or shed tears) – but perhaps we haven’t truly identified – that’s them, not us. For a short while we were all desperate on behalf of the stolen school girls in Nigeria, but news filtered in that some had been found and that alleviated our concerns. And after all, what could we do, aside from Facebook solidarity postings?

I sense in the recent Syrian influx to Europe, we are confronted with something that disturbs our comfortable lives more tangibly. Europe is our cultural playground, a tourist mecca. Or, as I heard it described today, listening to Emily Perkins talking to Michele de Kretser – a big museum. Michele’s book ‘Questions of Travel’ explores through fiction the idea of travel as something you choose to do, and the travel that refugees undertake to escape war or politics.

Over the years, we’ve watched endless Hitler reruns on the History channel, people on trains fleeing Germany. We identified because our fathers had been in this war. We read about Mao, Pol Pot and Rwanda, but we identify with Europe and the war that has dominated our culture through books, movies and television.

My own father was on a cattle train in Europe heading to Germany in 1941. Four years later he was part of the 600 mile death march across Europe in sub-zero temperatures away from the advancing Russians. Last night on the news, a TVNZ reporter was in Nickelsdorf, Austria where people were handing out food and clothing to the refugees. I’ve never been there but it features large in my childhood memory. In my father’s soldier’s book, is a smutty piece of doggerel that used to amuse us kids, about travelling through Nickelsdorf when all the men were struck with diarrhoea.

I recently railed against Germany’s treatment of the Greeks. But it is Germany now leading the way showing Europe what to do, offering sanctuary, a home to refugees. Instead of trains leaving Germany, once again they are heading towards Germany, but this time it is asylum they are seeking.

My own small world means that I come into contact through my work as a teacher, with local refugees and migrants. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities. As a child of the 50’s and 60’s in small town New Zealand, where life was primarily mono-cultural, I am proud to be part of a more diverse and multi-cultural experience. I know we can easily afford to accommodate more people. But too, it isn’t just as simple as people imagine. We do need an infrastructure to assist people to adjust to a completely different way of life. I imagine many of the refugees now pouring into Europe are looking for a temporary sanctuary and hope one day to return to a peaceful Syria.

And so I began this as the ‘final copy’ believing I would write about the process of writing and working with editors on my third novel. Somehow the triumph of a new novel seems to pale in the face of these much more important issues. But I also believe that it is our responsibility to celebrate our own small lives and cherish our achievements and joys. My third novel is about the Greek Civil War. It is about immigration and the return home. It is about history and now, but a different now from the one I imagined when I began my novel – my story’s ‘now’ is 2007, a time when Greece was full of economic hope and a growing middle-class. How things have changed in a short eight years.

I am posting a copy of the doggerel written by a POW (if you are squeamish about smutty, then do not read on).

Nickelsdorf 002   Nickelsdorf 001

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