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In Weissensee


weissensee cemetery

Ilya B., my great-grandfather, is buried in the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee in Berlin. He was born around 1880, into a middle-class family in Kiev, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Like many Jews in Kiev at the time, he spoke Russian, not Ukrainian. Russian was the language of power, essential for minorities who wanted access to jobs or education. As in other parts of Europe, at various points in history, Jews were barred from certain occupations and many worked in mercantile professions. Being from a diaspora community and having a tradition of acquiring new languages gave some of them the international connections to pursue their business successfully. Ilya B. traded medical supplies, a job that sometimes took him west, to Germany and elsewhere.

In 1918, he left Kiev for good during the civil war that followed the 1917 Revolution. His office was smashed up by Ukrainian nationalists because it had Russian writing on the door. His family apartment was requisitioned by a communist militia and the next door neighbours were disappeared. Friends and relatives were shot at random in the street. Ilya B. was able to leave because he had the connections to get an exit visa on the pretext of a business trip; his wife and daughter were able to join him later because the family had the money for false permits and identity documents, and because they were lucky enough not to get caught or attacked as they walked across the border with Poland.

In the 1920s they settled in Berlin. Millions of Jews displaced from Eastern Europe made similar journeys west. Most of them were much poorer than my relatives, came from villages rather than cities and spoke Yiddish rather than Russian or German. Their journeys were harder and they had more difficulty finding places to live or ways to earn a living. Many of them followed a more orthodox form of Judaism. Germany was the most popular destination and their arrival generated a lot of hostility, although it wasn’t universal. Some of the hostility came from other Jews. Some of those who had lived in Germany for a long time, and regarded themselves as assimilated, disdained the new arrivals for their poverty, their overcrowded apartments, their foreign ways and their apparent unwillingness to integrate. Among the new arrivals, some of the urban middle-class Russian speakers, like my great-grandfather’s family, disdained the Yiddish-speaking villagers.

Ilya B. died in 1936. Weissensee, where he is buried, tells its own story about Berlin’s Jewish community. It opened in 1880 and there are many grand tombs from the first few decades: family mausoleums and monuments with well-preserved messages carved into heavy stone. The gravestones get smaller and more demure as you enter the plots bought during the 1930s. Some have been added much later and show dates of death in the early 1940s.

The 1930s part of the cemetery is overgrown and little visited, although a few families have come back to restore their relatives’ stones. Ilya B.’s is one of them. The date of death is correct; we still have the certificate, which is stamped with a swastika. The date of birth is wrong, but nobody knew the right one because his identity documents were false. When I was small I remember being taken to the bank by my grandmother, Ilya B.’s daughter. She got all her security questions wrong and then laughed because they were based on false documents, too. She came to Britain in 1939, when the UK was trying to keep its borders closed to refugees.

If some of this sounds similar to what’s happening Europe today, that may be because I’ve chosen to include details that make the similarities apparent. But what’s happening now is often presented as an unprecedented event, and the people arriving as especially foreign. This is heavily exaggerated, in a way that suits people who want authoritarian solutions to the border crisis. They often claim that some kinds of migrant are fine, but these newest arrivals are wrong because they’re too different from ‘us’. There’s always a reasonable-sounding excuse for this kind of thinking, but it’s incredibly destructive if left unchallenged.


  1. Sal Scilicet says:

    By his own admission, including “details that make the similarities apparent”, the author apparently intended this personal anecdote to “sound familiar to what’s happening [in] Europe today”. But does it sound familiar? To whom?

    There is a subversive use of the “them versus us” paradigm being deployed here, viz. the subtle shift between the passive and active voice. Passive: “what’s happening now is often presented …” and “This is heavily exaggerated …” By whom is left conveniently moot. Likewise, in the active voice, the errant protagonists stand anonymously accused: “people who want authoritarian solutions …” and “they often claim …” Meanwhile, whatever is happening is personal – and privately experienced.

    Of course, in order to hold the moral high ground, this instantly recognisable polemic neatly avoids having to declare one’s own hand. The author does not say whether he believes “what’s happening now is an unprecedented event”, only that this is how it’s “often presented”. And presumably also being “heavily exaggerated” by these self-same unidentified ‘persons of interest’. Ergo, “they know not what they do”.

    The author’s account concerning his own relatives sounds authentic, but hardly familiar. “What’s happening in Europe” is much too vague. “Europe” is not a concrete, clearly defined object. And whatever “is happening”, in various specific parts of a vast geographical region is impossible to define in terms of a coherent narrative. In spite of himself, the author seems oblivious of setting up clear divisions between the disinterested observer [inviting the polite reader to exclude myself] and the unidentified victims so unfairly condemned for being “too different from us”.

    This is how the indispensable public discourse is always conscripted. The reader is invited unbidden to see “Europe” as a distinct, homogenous, phenomenal entity, somewhere comfortably ‘over there’ – just so long as it’s not too close over here. Likewise, the author appears to be valorously defending an amorphous mob, “the people arriving”, against being unkindly designated as being “especially foreign”.

    While that is then obliquely dismissed as “suiting people who want authoritarian solutions” [citation needed], this rhetoric obviously suits the author’s own, ostensibly admirably humanitarian agenda. But, predictably, the author’s own “kind of thinking” triumphs, as does the accused, in the inevitable, equally sanctimonious, self-congratulating, “reasonable-sounding excuse” – that is likewise, indeed by the very same definition, just as “incredibly destructive if left unchallenged”. Cui bono?

    What is so depressing about such debates is that the moralists are ever-ready to point the self-righteous finger at whatever “they are doing to them – for being too different from us”. This eloquent sophistry merely seeks to confirm the innate xenophobia of the wholly uncommitted ‘general reader’, blithely induced thereby to identify with such unconscionable hypocrisy. Behold the intolerance of intolerance.

    • philip proust says:

      You write: “Of course, in order to hold the moral high ground, this instantly recognisable polemic neatly avoids having to declare one’s own hand.”

      How about declaring your own hand, Sal Scilicet.

      • Alfalfa says:

        The tone of this somewhat overwritten screed suggests that Sal Scilicet isn’t too happy about refugess entering “Europe” (a term he seems to dislike for reasons that are as vague as they are verbosely stated). Aside from that: if he’s going to criticise language, how about: “invite unbidden” – that’s something of a tautology, as is “amorphous mob”. Somewhere, he seems to have taken away the notion that no verb is complete without an adverb, no noun without an adjective. Well, I suppose “windbag” can stand without “pompous”, but why make false economies?

        • Huw Lemmey says:

          ““What’s happening in Europe” is much too vague. “Europe” is not a concrete, clearly defined object.”

          Trying crossing the border from Turkey to Greece this morning, and then tell us again how Europe is not a concrete, clearly defined object.

      • Alan Benfield says:

        Well, Philip, I suspect that Sal is a pseudonym: ‘Sal’ being a Latin abbreviation of salis, meaning salt, or, in the vernacular, wit, and Scilicet meaning “evidently, certainly, of course, no doubt, assuredly”.

        He thus seems to have a high opinion of himself, having chosen a pseudonym meaning, “wit, assuredly”.

        Rather like “Bono Vox”, really…

        • Sal Scilicet says:

          Oh well done. I have a funny name and my English is less than perfect. Gosh, I can sure see how any distressed new arrival is going to feel right at home among you lot. What more proof do we need? This one’s really too different from us. Let’s all unite, for once, in common expressions of outrage and give this arrogant bastard the sort of really warm British welcome s/he will never forget. And let that serve as a lesson to anyone else, who dares to say the wrong thing. Jolly good show chaps, what-what.

          • Alan Benfield says:

            Mmmm, chippy…

            Had no idea (a) your name was real (there are many pseudonyms here) or (b) that you were not a native English speaker (which doesn’t show, by the way, so why go on about it).

            Apologies, just attempting to be amusing at your expense. No offence meant.

            • Alfalfa says:

              As Tony Hancock once said: “I knew she wasn’t English, she spoke it too well.”

              There may be no need for apologies. I think “Mr Scilicet” is having us on; I’m just not sure how.

              • Sal Scilicet says:

                Mister? Did you say Miss-stir? Now really, Miss Alfa. Or is it Alpha Betty? When in doubt, ask a really tender, slender gender bender. Having us on? On what authority, pray? Just where have I granted you licence to address me as Mister? What’s sex got to do with it? Besides, why resort to the ubiquitous ad hominem, if not to cast oblique aspersions? With the sadly impotent aim to belittle, denigrate and humiliate? In short, wherefore renderest my garment thus, thou rectangular saxonerous Jute?

                Mind you, my dear chap, even if I do lack the globules specific, I’m still good on the balls of my feet, to lead you a merry dance, I’ll be bound. Just don’t Mister me, OK. On which note, of course, you do see what you’re doing here, don’t you, Alfie. Seeing as how we’re in the business of earnestly discussing the vexed vagaries inherent to the mass trans-national migrations currently afoot. “S/he is having us on.” With just such a snide dictum, you’re talking about, rather than to, the stranger in our midst. For such as you, either the extraneous, discordant newcomer speaks too well, is far too demure, or just plain not black enough. Where exactly does one’s run-of-the-mill self esteem mysteriously transmogrify into this infuriating, foreign hauteur?

                As has been well said, “Wenn jemand eine Reise tut, so kann er was verzählen”. [The archaic spelling is late C18.] As they say, travel broadens the mind. But the prosperous tourist cannot hope to attain the rudely enriched sensibilities of the indispensably humble refugee. There’s always this perfunctory, irresolute fear, isn’t there. This vague discomfiture. As we know, without putting a finger on it, blatant cultural non-compliance does evince such intuitive, inconvenient tendencies.

                Frankly, I hold out little optimism for the well-lubricated assimilation of the olive-complexioned in these green and pleasant Isles, given the abysmal ignorance demonstrated in the comments hereabouts. The glass is never half full. I have seen too many eloquent, highly qualified professionals, sounding perfectly stupid in broken English, obliged to sit first-degree trade tests within the bizarre, horribly incongruous context of an alien, ill-fitting adoptive ethos. Where to see a floor swept or a public toilet effectively sanitised with customary pride is quite simply altogether beyond the comprehension of the local establishment. Too many heart-rending cases to mention, of clearly non-congenital, purely circumstantially-induced manic depression.

  2. Simon Wood says:

    I hesitate to enter this area of moral and political philosophy, but I did want to visit that cemetery some years ago, while it was still in East Germany. However, the guards wouldn’t let me take my bicycle through Checkpoint Charlie. I’d got the bike all that way east to Berlin, but fell at the last fence.

    It was a sort of rebellious thing to want to do, I suppose. I’m not Jewish – though I think my mother is – but it would have been fascinating to see what had survived.

    The flora of that part of Europe is not exceptional – birches come to mind and not much else on the unrelenting plain – but the cemetery would have been very overgrown in those days and it would have been interesting to see such signs of life.

  3. Graucho says:

    The elephant in the room of the current immigration crisis in Europe is Islam. Nations, like people go through terrible events which leave a ‘never again’ fear in their culture. Germans fear inflation, Russians fear invasion, Chinese fear chaos, Americans fear the racial divide, Israelis fear genocide and the British fear sectarianism. This was the pivotal country in the protestant versus catholic struggle and the bloodshed ran right through the Tudors, the civil war on to the end of the Stuarts. We have only to look across the Irish sea to know that this poison has lost non of its virulence. When Salman Rushdie’s publisher is murdered, when Danish cartoonists are attacked and French ones murdered, when secularists in Pakistan and Bangladesh are butchered it touches a very raw nerve in the British psyche. I state all this as a personal observation of an important trait in the British character. If I am right you will see the out campaign mine it to its full in the coming months.

  4. Sal Scilicet says:

    This will fall on deaf ears, I’m sure. It’s not going to happen, I know. But …

    You – huddled altogether so pathetically on what little moral high ground there is to be had – you will always have refugees, asylum seekers and destitute, displaced persons worldwide … unless and until all the nations of the OECD – together with all those hereabouts quite comfortable enough thank you to find the time to be regularly commenting on the Internet – join hands … in the sort of unprecedented “consensus” that is so often confidently proclaimed on behalf of “the scientific community”, instead of sanctimoniously bleating about climate change and/or colonising the rest of the Milky Way … start making some really intelligent noises about finally seeing to it, in a genuine, internationally united kind of effort, that every child born on this truly pitiful, tiny little planet shall at last have access to clean drinking water … and, while “we’re” at it, move heaven and earth to ensure that such defenceless little ones as these – the Earth’s most valuable natural resource, by the way – be assured of proper sanitation, adequate shelter, sufficient nutrition, safety and security, a half-way decent education and all the sorts of attendant opportunities that your own kids have with their breakfast.

    • Harry Stopes says:

      Would you be prepared to answer some direct questions in simple sentences?

      • Sal Scilicet says:

        Oh God, here it’s nearly midnight and, sure enough, there’s the dreaded knock at the door. Would I be prepared to accompany you to the station? Is that the sort of “direct question” you have in mind? No double meanings? No ambiguity? No subtext?

        But, my dear Harry, “this isn’t Spain, this is England”. [A Man For All Seasons.]

        Tell you what, I’ll do. I promise, right now, on this here soap box, that I’ll do whatever it takes to convince you of the inconceivable, if you would but be prepared to hold up just one incontrovertible example of what you would be proud to declare, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, a “simple sentence”.

        While you’re busy with that, let me ask you a direct question. Do you love me?

        Your time starts now.

        • Harry Stopes says:

          Do you accept the relevance of a comparison between Jewish refugees of pogroms, or of the Nazis, and people fleeing violence and state oppression in Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, or Afghanistan? If not, what are the differences between the refugees of the 30s and the refugees of now?

          • stettiner says:

            The difference is spelled OIC, the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations.

          • Sal Scilicet says:

            But Harry, you completely neglected to answer my question. And yet you expect me to obediently submit to your openly subversive agenda? I’ve heard of these notorious immigrant competency tests.There is this pernicious problem endemic to the English-speaking peoples worldwide, isn’t there. This blithe expectation, that all non-English speakers shall bloody-well accommodate asap to the New World Order. And adapt to all the underlying assumptions inherent to the ruling lingua franca.

            Meanwhile, your lordship will studiously ignore whatever you don’t wish to hear. And simply keep insisting that I respond, front and centre and forthwith, to your “direct questions”. Do you know, it’s really quite uncanny. A couple comments further back, your likewise empirically-minded compatriots, Alan Benfield and sweet Miss Alfalfa, even tried on the villainous ‘good cop – bad cop’ routine. Nice. Makes for riveting television. Not unlike bear-baiting.

            Mind you, I am actually doing you the inestimable honour of engaging with you, by sincerely and respectfully replying to you at all. As you telegraphed to me yesterday, you had a direct question for me. But, good lord young Harry, I think this question of yours consists of as many as thirty-one words. Requiring fully six commas, just to keep things in order. So preposterous, the thing frankly beggars belief.

            Say what you will, but this is not, by any stretch my dear Harry, a direct question. No. It’s rather more akin to a loaded, but lethal, incendiary device. Come on now, be honest. This is not a pipe and it’s not a drill. But it’s definitely not an innocent, direct question either, is it. No. This is an unmitigated interrogation. Tell me Harry, do you do stand-up? Pillory anyone lately? Water-boarding in your line? Kids’ birthdays?

            Look, why not just ask me whether I have stopped beating my dead horse, yes or no? Now, of course, I don’t know, neither do I really much care to know, whether or not and/or where you did occasionally attend school. Nor, indeed, for how long. But I must say, I am kinda sorely tempted to simply assume that you do in fact understand perfectly well, that it obviously does not really matter one whit, whatever my response should be. Notwithstanding the which, speaking of Nazis asking the questions and all, from there it only gets unbelievably worse.

            Poor old Harry. In your arduous, self-satisfied zeal, you’ve shot yourself point-blank, in your own foot. How embarrassing for you. Nothing left to stand on. Terrible, that must really hurt. Don’t you get it? You categorically demean yourself by peremptorily demanding, if I refuse to accept the relevance of making any comparison, I should nevertheless explain, “in simple sentences”, what those irrelevant differences are.

            OK, wait. Here’s a real direct question for you. Ready? Is this your idea of a joke?

        • Alan Benfield says:

          Good point, Harry: Daniel is writing about events in Ukraine around the Russian revolution, after all. At that time there was virtual civil war between Bolsheviks and Ukrainian nationalists – with ordinary people (and especially Jews) caught in the middle. Many fled, if they could get across the borders to the West. That is why there is such a large Ukrainian diaspora, particularly in the US and Canada. I think there are large parallels to be drawn.

          An eminently readable and well-researched history of this era is to be found in Anna Reid’s book on the history of Ukraine,’Borderland’, which was recently updated and republished. (ISBN-10: 1780229275 ISBN-13: 978-1780229270)

        • Geoff Roberts says:

          Good afternoon, Sal
          it’s a different thread but here we are again, discussing the topic of refugees in Europe, then and now. If you want to irritate readers, I think that you have developed the right approach: style as a weapon, Swift, maybe, or Dickens, Orwell perhaps – you need a very sharp pencil to write a good polemic. My reception of your argument is that you believe that we, “we” in the sense of the readers of this estimable organ, are too liberal by half. That sympathy for refugees is condescending or hypocritical, after all, what are “we” doing to alleviate the problems of those refugees, standing in line in Greece while politicians spout on…. (you know what I mean.) But as we don’t walk about with badges saying “I am a paid-up radical”, or wear yellow stars for that metter, it is difficult to recognise us or place us in a convenient category. Your irony has got a little rusty (it was midnight though) so why not tell us what has irritated you so much that you spend half the night declaring your position.

          • Sal Scilicet says:

            Hey Geoff, how’s it hanging? [Don’t answer that, it’s just one of those convenient pocket Kleenex, disposable rhetorical devices.] But, my dear chap, you will pose these damnable philosophical conundrums. Are we here again, or are we there yet? [No comment.] But how positively and so significantly parochial of you to assume, sight unseen, that I actually live right next door. Bless you, my child, for you will be comforted.

            Mind you, I do know, but of course, that the Sun never ever rises on the Empire – well it wouldn’t, would it, if it neither ever sets? But this is the Internet, after all. You know, the Global Village. In which the shock of the new has already spun out to the yawn of ennui. You’re not supposed to know, or care, let alone take at face value, whatever anyone here may solemnly declare and aver. Best not to enquire, methinks. Ask no questions … and all that. But, I’m here to tell you that, in my neck of the woods, when your Sun is on the other side of day, it’s fairly blazing on mine.

            That aside. Do I want to irritate readers? [No comment.] Do you want to place me on the horns of an intractable dilemma? [No comment.] Do I believe that the readers hereabouts “are too liberal by half”? [Ditto.] What’s going on here? [No comment.]

            I’m sorry, mate. I just dislike, with a passion, didactic evangelism. To answer any of your questions would require that I launch into a typically vehement sermon, replete with the usual fire and brimstone for effect. [Much like the Primaries, only louder.] Notice how, in order to respectfully address someone you have never met, you are ineluctably obliged to employ the second person pronoun. As am I. Can’t be avoided.

            But, according to my thesis, that will never do. The pernicious ad hominem fallacy is implicit in every statement commencing with “you”. What I’m getting here is repeated references to “we” and “us”. That last question of yours, for example. Makes me wonder whether you assiduously compose and edit elsewhere, then copy and paste, as I do. Or do you simply let fly, off the cuff, as it were. That “why not tell us …” Icily dripping with saccharine condescension, enough to turn the strongest constitution.

            I do that too, to be sure, as I deem appropriate. My aim, however, is not to educate, not to cajole, to correct and reprove, or preach to the gallery. “My style”, if you will, is in pursuit of poetically abstruse prose. By which I emphatically renounce, under the Internationally ratified Conventions of Poetic Licence, all ownership of whatever the other manages to read into my text. Because I believe there is no “communication” possible, in the sense as that is most commonly and erroneously understood. There is no exchange of unmistakable meaning by means of semantics. None whatsoever.

            Instead, there is the endless, intuitive, inescapable and frankly indispensable production of raw text, wrapped in all sorts of abstract, perfectly arbitrary semantic codes. Not unlike the highly excitable, consistently regular blips coming from somewhere “Out There”. [You must remember this … “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma …”] But what does any of this verbal, gestural, intentional, incidental, subliminal, theatrical, intellectually lazy chatter mean? [No comment?] Your guess is as indifferent to mine.

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