On our Facebook pages there has been lots of interest in some lovely photos we found in a donated clothes bag, showing wartime children in Britain – like my own father – being evacuated. This set me thinking.
Earlier this month, during the coldest winter seen in central and southern Europe for years, I was lucky enough to spend a weekend in Budapest, in temperatures down to -17 degrees at night. These temperatures still saw dozens of people sleeping rough, in doorways, metro stations, and under the bridges of the Danube, which over the three nights I spent there, froze over.
I talked about the evacuee pictures to one of our volunteers, mentioning that I had discounted the idea that they pictured the kinder transport of children escaping the Holocaust, which we remember this week. It turned out she was Jewish herself, the child of people who fled the banks of the Danube, from the Holocaust, a few miles further up in Vienna. They were homeless in Britain when they came, then helped by the kindness of the Quakers, and welcomed and integrated into our society with the traditional compassion this country has shown to refugees, either internal, like the evacuated children, or those who had escaped repressive fascist regimes across Europe.
Hope, today, sees a significant number of people from Eastern and central Europe and offers them welcome, shelter and compassion such as was shown to those refugees seventy years ago. Under existing EU law (this has nothing to do with Brexit) as rough sleepers they can be at risk of being deported back to their home countries. If they were homeless at home they would sadly face sleeping under bridges next to the great frozen rivers of Europe, the Danube, the Vistula, the Dnieper, alongside the dozens I saw, and in some cases without care and support within current repressive authoritarian and heartless regimes which even control NGO activity: (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/13/hungary-defends-planned-crackdown-on-foreign-backed-ngos ), albeit some way short of the fascist period.
Being a migrant, a refugee or an evacuee can clearly be a terrifying experience. Being homeless anywhere, but especially in minus 17, is terrifying too. As we remember the Holocaust, and learn afresh, every year, why persecution must never happen again, we must also remember that cruelty and repression are renewed again, every day, somewhere, sometimes only a weekend break away. And that organisations like Hope, across all of Europe, are very often the only thing between life and death, perhaps next to a frozen river, and that we, and our peers, embody, in our values, a living thread of love against loss of home, exclusion and cruelty.
You may like to listen (or not, its not an easy listen) to June Tabor’s ‘A smiling shore’ : https://myspace.com/junetabor/music/song/a-smiling-shore-46885267-50226590