My Grandmother was a Refugee

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My Grandmother, the wonderful, wise woman who raised me, was a refugee. She left her home town right at the end of WWI in 1918, when she was 17 years old.

Both of her parents had been killed during the war and there was no place to call home anymore. She left town with her sister Emma, who was just 2 years older.

I didn’t know about that, until I was 15 or 16 years old. I asked why they left their hometown and so she told me her story.

I was only a year younger than she had been back then and I just couldn’t comprehend. That was the night, when I learned about our family secret, the untold story, at least part of it. I although learned that I am part Jewish.

She and her sister left the German city of Breslau (now called Wroclaw/Poland) in the middle of the night. The plan was to reach Berlin, where Emma knew a family and they hoped they could stay. The little bit of money they had and all the family jewelries were sewn into the hems of their skirts; they left town with only a small suitcase and the clothes that they wore. Small and valuable things were hidden in between; everything else they still owned was left behind. They joined a group of people, who were all fleeing and their journey begun.

Berlin is about 350 kilometers further north-west and it was wintertime. Snow and ice didn’t make the walk any easier and it took them a few weeks to get there. The war was almost over but still, they had to be careful. They often walked in the night and stayed hidden during the day. I asked her once “What happened to the jewelry?” and she told me that all of it got traded…one by one. A ring for a few potatoes, a cameo for some meat or bread.

They arrived in Berlin, right at the end of the war and stayed a few days with the family they knew. Emma was smitten with the boy there and they offered her a job. My Grandmother was welcome, but didn’t feel welcome. She stayed there for a few weeks, but decided then to go further south. The sisters separated and my Grandmother walked for months, until she ended up in Munich 750 kilometers south. She was hired as a maid and there she met my Grandfather, who proposed after just a few days and so she came to live with him, on the farm between Austria and Italy, where I grew up.

The bold move, to leave Berlin and walk on her own half across Germany, might have saved my Grandmother’s life. My Grandmother spent part of WWII hidden in the mountains in Italy, while her sister ended up in the Russian sector of Berlin and she spent the rest of her life behind a wall. The sisters could only meet once, in 1973, when Emma was allowed to leave the eastern part of Germany for 4 days. She died behind the Berlin wall, separated from the rest of the world and far away from her sister.

The family resemblance between my Grandmother and me is undeniable. We have the same eyes, the same facial features and it seems we both knew rather quickly, who we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with. I too fell head over heels in love with my husband, we married after just a few weeks and I moved over 3000 miles away and started my new life far away from where I was born. That was a while back in the 80’s but it seems like only yesterday.

My Grandmother was a refugee, while I am a first generation immigrant…a love immigrant and that might explain, why I am so furious with the humanitarian crisis, we all are watching right now.

Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing their homes, their cities, their countries in the hope for a better future; in the hope for survival.

Can we really blame them? My heart goes out to all of them, the ones that sit right now in the camps all over the world; the ones who will be freezing in the wintertime, the ones that will be forgotten over the weeks and month to come. Once in a while there is a picture of a dead refugee child or a rescued toddler and we hear the uproar all over the world. Then, just a few days later, the silence comes back. The people in the camps still hope to be welcomed somewhere…anywhere.

We Refugees
I come from a musical place
Where they shoot me for my song
And my brother has been tortured
By my brother in my land.
***
I come from a beautiful place
Where they hate my shade of skin
They don’t like the way I pray
And they ban free poetry.
***
I come from a beautiful place
Where girls cannot go to school
There you are told what to believe
And even young boys must grow beards.
***
I come from a great old forest
I think it is now a field
And the people I once knew
Are not there now.
***
We can all be refugees
Nobody is safe,
All it takes is a mad leader
Or no rain to bring forth food.
***
We can all be refugees
We can all be told to go,
We can be hated by someone
For being someone.
***
I come from a beautiful place
Where the valley floods each year
And each year the hurricane tells us
That we must keep moving on.
***
I come from an ancient place
All my family were born there
And I would like to go there
But I really want to live.
***
I come from a sunny, sandy place
Where tourists go to darken skin
And dealers like to sell guns there
I just can’t tell you what the price is.
***
I am told I have no country now
I am told I am a lie
I am told that modern history books
May forget my name.
***
We can all be refugees
Sometimes it only takes a day,
Sometimes it only takes a handshake
Or a paper that is signed.
***
We all came from refugees
Nobody simply just appeared,
Nobody’s here without a struggle,
And why should we live in fear
***
Of the weather or the troubles?
We all came here from somewhere.
Benjamin Zephaniah

In memoriam of my Grandmother.

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28 thoughts on “My Grandmother was a Refugee

  1. Your story pays great tribute to your grandmother.

    Like you, I can’t begin to wrap my head around the hardships and survival that occurred with my grandparents in WWI and parents in WWII … at such a young age. I am humbled by their courage.

  2. Love your story! Such strong people! They had to build their lives from zero, and they succeeded. Today’s people think they are entitled to everything. They move to a different country and walk straight to the Social Welfare Office. I never blame people for wanting a better life, but people very seldom value things they haven’t earned, and very seldom value those who give them these things. It is a sad truth. My ancestors too were moving from place to place. Tough times make strong people. Glad you keep your family history alive to pass it on.

    • I think the biggest difference is, that many countries -us included- don’t allow them to work. Instead of being allowed to earn their living they sit in ghettos and are bored. I wish this would change.

      • We don’t have any extra jobs too, except the farm jobs that no one likes, but they can start some classes, get education, and compete for a job as everybody else. It just takes time. Government subsidizes “back to work” education. I see many former refugees whom I know get jobs after a couple of years. I would say that after you learn the language, opportunities become equal.

  3. What an amazing story of courage and resilience of the part of these two sisters. As someone else said, I also felt it was gutsy going TO Berlin at that time, or even walking into the NAZI stronghold in Munich, but it worked out. Such a shame the sisters did not see the wall come down. I doubt that I would have survived those trying times. Coincidentally, some parts of my family come from the same area of Poland, but years before WWII and went via Denmark, to Australia. I think they received better treatment even back then, than the refugees receive today. I

    • It was the end of WWI the Nazi regime came later, with Hitler and started WWII.
      You are so right, they received better treatment then, than they do today. Maybe because people could relate and cared.
      The Berlin wall, that’s another story, it destroyed many families and took many life’s.

      I

      • Oh my mistake. I initially thought you had written WWII. Silly me! Even so, the seeds of national socialism were starting in Germany.

  4. Moving story that shoul make us think…..
    I have the impression that very few people want to know their own origins and what motivates the refugees to flee from their homes……
    This post is a good reminder for everybody!

    • I am very glad that she was around when I was a child, or I would have ended up in an orphanage.

      I was young when I heard all the stories and some of them still floor me to this day. I think our generation can’t comprehend with the horrors of world wars.

  5. What a heart-stopping story. Thank God the war was nearly ended by the time they went to Berlin. Their lives could have even have been in more danger. I do know the Jewish people weren’t welcomed in most towns after the war. It must have been a heavy trial for your grandmother. I suspect you have a lot of her in you. {{{Bridget}}}

  6. My parents with 6 kids in tow migrated to Australia in 1956. They left all friends and family behind in Holland. I can hardly comprehend how difficult that must have been. In 1974 they decided to go back to spend their retirement back with relatives and friends in Holland. My eldest brother was also living in Holland . In the meantime travel had become affordable and much quicker so we all could go and visit each other at various times.
    I am now baffled how Australia has turned around on the refugee problems, incarcerating them on Nauru and Manus Islands, seemingly for the rest of their lives. It makes me mad.

    • Her name was Maria and her father, my great grandfather was Jewish.

      You know, I always think the same, we have it so much easier, we get everything served on a silver platter compared to the generations before us.

      As summerstommy2 said, we should never forget our humbled beginnings.

  7. This is an excellent post….it made me remember that my grandparents were boat people, forced out of Ireland because of the potato famine in the 1880’s and sailed across the world to settle in Australia.
    Sometimes its humbling to learn of our humble beginnings. Enjoyed reading your grandmothers tale….

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