Hannah Arendt was an assimilated Jew who managed to escape Hitler’s regime and move to the United States, in order to find shelter and become an American citizen. Her essay, We refugees (read online) was published in a small Jewish periodical in 1943. In her essay, Arendt deals with the problems of identity and imposed identity, and shows us what it means to be called a refugee. It is actually a great psychological portrait of a very particular collective, as it depicts what it means to be a wanderer and forced to leave one’s home.
The propaganda that was spread at gunpoint by Hitler was so horrifying that we needed a new word for it, in order to mark its meaning properly. Today, we are witnessing a raging war, although it’s not declared and its use of violence is unauthorized. Therefore, we call it terrorism. In the end, it doesn’t matter what we call it, violence is occurring and it’s creating severe consequences. It’s forcing thousands of innocent people to leave their homes and seek refuge somewhere else.
In her essay, Arendt speaks about how difficult it was for her and other Jews to find peace and shelter, since it usually meant dealing with others who were not that friendly to newcomers, or it meant assimilating with the majority and losing oneself in the process. The experience of the concentration camps was still very much alive and vivid in their memories, and that searching for a new home was actually a form of denial. Even talking about what they had been through was considered a taboo:
Even among ourselves we don’t speak about this past.
Still, there was this strong optimism that pushed people forward, and the belief that there was something better waiting for them. Of course, there was another side of this coin: fighting and choosing to survive wasn’t everybody’s decision. Some chose death and committed suicide, not being strong enough to carry on. Committing suicide gave the illusion of liberty, the only thing people could control:
Perhaps the philosophers are right who teach that suicide is the last and supreme guarantee of human freedom: not being free to create our lives or the world in which we live, we nevertheless are free to throw life away and to leave the world.
All the Jewish people wanted was to live their lives just like anybody else, but for the most absurd reasons – they were denied that right. That right was denied to them by a sick man, drunk with power, who was supported by millions. Arendt writes about the primal force that drives a human being: that is the will to survive. But, for Jews, it meant stripping themselves of their identities:
Very few individuals have the strenght to conserve their own integrity if their social, political and legal status is completely confused. Lacking the courage to fight for a change of our social and legal status, we have decided instead, so many of us, to try a change of identity. […] Whatever we do, whatever we pretend to be, we reveal nothing but our insane desire to be changed, not to be Jews.
Arendt shows the true face of a refugee, and she tries to stress that people showed little empathy towards the less fortunate:
The natives, confronted with such strange beings as we are, become suspicious.
Even receiving help is hard for the ones seeking asylum:
If we are saved, we feel humiliated, and if we are helped, we feel degraded.
Today, people don’t really think about the mental state of the ones who are escaping war and leaving everything behind. This humbling of the Jews and their feeling of lost dignity can’t be far from what refugees today feel. But, it happens too often that they knock on closed doors that will never open; they are rejected, and they are left to their own destiny. The global media covers the everyday tragedies that happen in these great migrations. People respond by shaking their heads, disapproving, but not really doing anything. They are in fear themselves. It seems as if we have forgotten to be humans.
Hannah Arendt’s essay is a complex story, it is like a brief history of one soul within one collective. It does have the problem of identity in its focus, as well as the relevant semantics: what it means to be called a refugee or an immigrant. This problem is highlighted by the specific status of Jews, who were once called stateless. Jews formally founded Israel in 1948, but this essay was written five years before that. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot about power and the need of others to impose their power, the need to dominate and control, to rule and play God. And we owe it to ourselves and to the idea of humanity to rethink the position of today’s refugees, put our fears aside and help the ones who truly need it. We must not forget the horrible experience of wars through history. We must not forget that we are all human beings.