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Their War Goes On: Opulence Hides Gray Refugees
Article by Ron Poulton, Telegram Staff Reporter
WESTERN EUROPE. 1964: Across the green and lively face of Germany and Austria, the Rhine and Danube run heavy with barges and busy factories smear the sun.
Along Vienna’s Parkring, the Mercedes Benz slide splendidly. In Munich. Where the Nazi horror all began, the streets are jammed far into the night and noisy revellers wreck the slumber of the more sedate.
South of Rome, in the Liri Valley, verdure hides the marks of war and from Monte Cassino the eye follows new towns to the far mountains.
It seems the same wherever the tourist goes. The sidewalk cafes of every city and town court the weary wanderer and jewelers’ windows gleam with $300 watch bands and the milkiest pearls.
But behind this façade remain untouched by the new prosperity. They are the ones who have waited while the years have leaked from their lives.
They are the last of the unplaced refugees of World War II. And for them the gray days merge into grayer years and nothing seems to change.
Their numbers lessen every year as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the governments of Germany, Austria and Italy combine to clear the camps.
But on March 31 this year they and their dependents still numbered 914 in 22 German camps, 361 in 10 Austrian camps, 1.157 in two Italian camps, and—lest we forget—61 in a camp in Athens.
These are the pathetic residue: “The tired, the poor, the homeless and the tempest-toss’d, the wretched refuse of some teeming shore that no country is eager to take. And there are children being born among them.
They have been picked over, poked, categorized and catalogued, examined and photographed, written about and rejected by so many immigration missions that they are resentful, apathetic, suspicious and occasionally belligerent.
In Muenster, Germany, in an old army barracks, there are 40 refugee families and 60 singles: about 250 Poles, Latvians, Estonians and Yugoslavs. No immigration mission has been near some of them since 1956.
In Capua, Italy, there are 1,131 refugees and their families. They were non-combatants during the war, but they still pay, just the same.
Bitter WraithOutside this dull little town – where Hannibal once quartered his armies and where Spartacus broke from a gladiators’ school to lead the slaves’ revolt – a wraith of a woman named Marta H. wanders through the hit lines.
The social worker (Princess Elena Buoncore) says the woman is a talented painter, “but she spoilers her work by putting a sinister figure in every picture.”
Marta H., Polish Jewess, has lived in refugee camps since 1949. Her parents and brother disappeared when Europe erupted. She spent the war in a cellar in Rome.
In a way, marriage to an Italian count (in 1929) saved her. Technically, she is still a countess, although the last time she saw her husband (in 1931) he set his dogs on her.
Her mind cracked long ago. “But,” I was told, “she’s rather sweet and she looks after our library rather well.”
All she could say to me was: “To live the story is easy. To tell it is not.”
Beyond RecoveryMarta H. is beyond recovery. So she does not qualify for the first part of a statement made to me in Vienna by Dr. Peter Berner, mental health advisor to the UNHCR: “Many get well if they get into a new environment.”
But she does not quality for the second part of Dr. Berner’s statement: “It is certain the longer a refugee remains in a camp the worse he will become.”
Some World War II refugees still in camps are tubercular. Some are maimed. Some are blind. Some are mad. Some drink and some steal. Some are illiterate and some have illegitimate children.
All have mental problems leading to child-like dependency, delusions of persecution and the strange manifestations that boredom and hopelessness and lack of privacy breed.
Dream WorldIn 1960, Dr. H. Strotzka, then a U-N mental health advisor, said their habit of seeking “solace in a dream world” indicated “a typical refugee mentality.”
Later, Dr. F. A. S. Jensen, an Australian psychiatrist loaned to the UNHCR, reported that conditions in some camps “reach a level of frank degradation…ugly and bestial.”
He thought the reason plain: “People suffer from a loss of feeling and personal identity. It is one of the most severe consequences of prolonged camp life.”
It was Jensen who recommended “a kind of therapeutic policeman” to steer such refugees from their frustrating treadmills.
The UNHCR commissioned him to re-examine the pathetic residue left behind after World Refugee Year (1959) when 4,000 handicapped refugees and 3,000 dependents were accepted for emigration.
He set out to prove that “a gross handicap doesn’t mean unemployability, drunken episodes do not mean alcoholism, and a penal record does not mean a chronic offender.”
He was convinced “the reason many selection commissions rejected cases on these generalizations was an unwillingness to give the refugee the benefit of the doubt.
“The tragedy is that the refugee is not a criminal in any psycopathic sense of the world and the resettlement countries have closed their doors to an excellent source of migrant material.”
Jensen’s declaration and his bluntness have prompted several countries to take another look.
Berner, too, helped convince the same countries when he reported: “In spite of his seemingly unbalanced behavior, the refugee is quite often capable of sound adaption once he becomes firmly settled.”
Wills BrokenNo one in UNHCR headquarters in Geneva or in the dozen cities and camps I visited tries to hide the fact, as Berner put it, that some refugees frustrate every offer of help because “they’ve lost their wish and their capacity to return to normal life.”
Some have migrated and then drifted back to the camps because they left too late to adjust.
“There is no guarantee,” says Berner. “But every one of them is entitled to a chance.”
In Austria, a social worker told me: “After the Hungarian revolt and World Refugee Year a lot of countries opened their gates in a fine burst of humaneness. Then some tightened up again.
“It would be interesting to see if they had more luck with the refugees they let in with a rush than they did with the ones they’ve insisted on screening so carefully since.”
Gates OpeningNo such comparison has ever been made. But, at least, the gates of several countries are wider than they used to be.
Canada’s, too, are wider.
But a lot of social workers and camp dwellers sometimes wonder about the red tape pasted across them.
NEXT: Canada’s role.