‘I Am A Refugee’ by Camillo Adler, Trans. Michel Adler
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 8, 2013)
I was at a writing event the other week, when one of the ladies there said she was embarking on an account of her mother and aunt’s lives as part of the Kindertransport. She was nervous about writing it, and I sympathised, having written my own mother’s biography with all the details of her life as a ‘hidden child’ in central Europe. These books are very hard to write so long after the event, when memories are fading. Camillo Adler, on the other hand, was writing while everything was happening. His words are immediate. They are raw. They are never filtered through hindsight. His son, Michel Adler, didn’t even know these writings existed until relatively recently, but once he found them, it was clear he would have to translate them into English and get them published. He recognised, as anyone who reads this book will, that these things matter; they matter vitally.
I didn’t realise quite how much until I’d finished the book.
There is much rhetoric being flung about at the moment about ‘the other’; people who are not ‘us’; people who come to be seen as less than human. That dreaded word, ‘Refugees’ and its close cousin ‘asylum seeker’ – both of which are almost becoming pejorative terms these days. These refugees, fleeing death and destruction, are depicted in the mainstream media as a problem for us – we don’t understand why they don’t go back where they came from, we don’t want them to take ‘our’ jobs, we fear many of them are terrorists and will blow us up. We don’t stop to think that the only reason they are refugees is in many instances because we have bankrolled and supported the actions of those who have blown up their homes.
Refugees are ‘wrong’ somehow. They will infect us with their wrongness. We can’t take them in. Send them somewhere else.
But any one of us could become a refugee. Any one of us could become ‘the other’.
Camillo Adler’s book starts off as a straightforward account of what went on, of how he went from being a perfectly valued member of society to being that hated thing, the refugee, the foreigner who isn’t wanted. Add in the problems of anti-Semitism, and he was always going to have a horrendously hard time as WWII approached and then broke out. The book describes his experiences in the Foreign Legion and various internment camps, and makes for a gripping read, especially with the human interest angle of enforced separation from his wife and sons – but then it changes tack, and the last few chapters are, for me, what makes this so much more than simply ‘another’ holocaust memoir.
Camillo Adler is a thinker. A philosopher in all but name. At the end of the book there are a number of essays in which he explores what causes the refugee phenomenon, and what it means to people to be stateless. For you or I, if we get into trouble in a foreign land, we can call on the consulate to help us out. But if you no longer have a state? There is nobody. You are utterly reliant on the goodwill of strangers.
This section of the book is not an easy read, but it is a very important read. I think this should be a taught book in universities, both in history and philosophy faculties.
I only came across this book because Michel Adler, the translator, was looking into the family tree and my name came up. I didn’t even know of his existence, but we discovered we are second cousins, and we got chatting by email, and decided to read each other’s books to learn more about our mutual families.
I’m so glad we did.