The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.—Maya Angelou, 1986
Wir schaffen das.
—Angela Merkel, 2015
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
—Emma Lazarus, 1883, engraved on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty in 1903
But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
—Book of Leviticus
Nun sind sie halt da.
—Angela Merkel, 2015
From the moment on August 31, 2015, when Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, said “Wir schaffen das,” I wanted to go immediately to Germany. At the time, what the chancellor meant seemed limited: “We will do it”—meaning Germany would accommodate the 100,000 migrants from the Middle East who had just been stopped at the Hungarian border by a wire fence. But the intention in those words quickly spread throughout the world’s entire liberal humanitarian community. At one point, the European Union was considering whether there should be a “penalty” for any member state that failed to accommodate its assigned share of migrants. Reaction from the political right, and even moderate citizens, caused policies to be modified. The flood of people seeking entry to Europe periodically shifts and abates. But among people of goodwill (and the leadership of most Western countries, including the United States) the question, as formulated by Chancellor Merkel, remains—do we have a responsibility toward people seeking asylum from wars in their own countries, and if so, what are we obliged to do? People have strong, set positions. The situation, even the definition of the problem, seems far from clear. What did seem clear to me, from the day of Merkel’s humane, optimistic declaration, was that the policy, no matter how defined, could not possibly work.
My first language is German. My parents were refugees from Frankfurt who had the prescience and good luck to leave early, in 1933. My father had phoned my mother from his office and told her that they would leave, on the vacation they had planned, at two that afternoon. He would send my grandfather’s car for her. They had planned no vacation. They had at the time two boys—one four years old, the other an infant. In order not to incur suspicion that this departure was in any sense final, they decided to leave the four-year-old behind with his governess, Schwester Fanni, an ardent Nazi. (They knew Schwester Fanni had already denounced several Jews, one of whom had hanged himself, but they had no doubt that she was loyal to the children in her care.) They sent for the governess and her charge from Italy the following week. The family traveled to Switzerland and France, then settled in Milan. My brothers went to Italian schools. In 1937, I was born. In 1939, when their visas for the U.S. arrived, my parents asked Schwester Fanni to come with them. She declined. They embarked from Genoa for New York, first class, having brought virtually all their possessions (carpets, books, furniture, a Steinway grand) and another nanny, Schwester Irma, with them. My parents moved at first to a hotel.
Many of these acts and decisions have always seemed mysterious to me. Not least that they traveled first class, bringing so much with them. The Depression was not over. They did not know what awaited them or what they would do when they arrived. They were certainly middle-class, relatively well-to-do refugees. But that they were refugees in every sense there could be no doubt. They were driven from the country, the society, the language, and the culture to which they had always believed they belonged. If they had not fled, they would have died. In fact, friends and relatives who chose to stay in Germany (my father’s best friend, having reached New York and lived there for two months, actually said, “I am German,” and went back) died in the camps, alongside and as wretchedly as the rest.
Wir schaffen das. We will do it. The words are simple childhood words. Du kannst das schon schaffen is something one might say to a child about any task, from eating whatever is on his plate to tying his shoelaces or learning to ride a bicycle. You can do it. Schaffen is not even a verb for extraordinary efforts or achievements—not for being first in your class, say, or winning a championship—just for doing your homework when you are exhausted or for making an effort to last until the end of football practice. The undertaking Chancellor Merkel was suggesting (on behalf of herself, of Germany, of Europe) was vast, unprecedented. Every analogy was inapposite. There had been nothing like it in the history of the world. At the time Merkel said these simple words, migration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East was already in the millions.
Two weeks after “Wir schaffen das” Merkel appeared in a selfie, smiling, close to a young Syrian migrant, in a group of other migrants, all male. This selfie traveled quickly around the world, especially the Muslim Middle East. Many newspapers questioned its wisdom and propriety. “Wenn wir uns jetzt noch entschuldigen müssen,” Merkel said, “dafür, dass wir in Notsituationen ein freundliches Gesicht zeigen, dann ist das nicht mein Land.” (If we must now begin to apologize for having, in dire circumstances, shown a friendly face, then this is not my country.) Then this is not my country. Strong words in any nation. In German, six monosyllables: Dann ist das nicht mein Land.
The “land” in question was of course Germany, which had—in living, though dwindling, memory—launched by far the worst, most immense, cruel, specific persecution in the history of mankind. One from which there were relatively few refugees fortunate enough to escape. The millions now seeking asylum were not in the old sense “refugees.” Most had fled (in German, they are called Flüchtlinge, people fleeing) from civil wars or in search of a better life. (The Yazidis, in Iraq, and the Tutsi, in Rwanda, would be refugees in the old sense. Their persecutors, eager to exterminate them, would not permit them to escape.) Historically, there has existed no genuine “right” to asylum from war, poverty, oppression, intolerable living conditions in the land from which you came. Even asylum from specific persecutions, extermination, genocide had been denied throughout the world to people trying to escape the Holocaust. Merkel’s invitation was, in part, an attempt—by welcoming all who could assert a claim for asylum—to expiate, atone for, above all to avoid repetition of this vast, unprecedented crime. Throughout human history, there had been migrations, voluntary and involuntary, of all kinds. But the current problem, whatever its moral claims, was vastly different from the Holocaust. It was different as well from every earlier migration. There seemed to exist no way for the more fortunate peoples of the earth to absorb all those less fortunate, even if their cultures were highly compatible. Which, in this case, they were not.
On September 22, 2015, Merkel delivered a third simple statement. The waves of migrants had increased. Thousands were arriving daily. Hundreds were drowning, jammed in overloaded boats on the Mediterranean. “Ist mir egal, ob ich schuld am Zustrom der Flüchtlinge bin,” Merkel said. “Nun sind sie halt da.” (I don’t care if I am at fault for the flood of migrants. Now they are just here.) Five monosyllables. Nun sind sie halt da.
Wir schaffen das. Dann ist das nicht mein Land. Nun sind sie halt da. More than a year later, these three sentences, uttered within less than a single month, have become unforgettable, historic. The chancellor herself has had to qualify and limit the scope of the invitation. Even tried to barter with other nations—Turkey, more recently Niger, the poorest country on earth—to take some migrants back. But many are still arriving daily. In Germany nearly two million have already arrived. What is to be done? Nun sind sie halt da.
I arrived in Germany in late April. At the time, German news was coming mainly from large camps in Berlin or the entry point at Passau. I thought I could learn more from a small town that was trying to absorb its consignment of migrants. I decided to go to Bavaria, a part of Germany where I had never been, to Münsing, a suburb of Wolfratshausen, which is in turn a suburb of Munich.
The number of migrants in Münsing seemed to fluctuate but was currently about fifty. The mayor had published in local newspapers a stern warning: citizens should not mistake for flüchtlinge poor-looking foreigners who came to their doors. They were in fact a band of thieves and beggars. The migrants themselves, he said, are well looked after and would never engage in begging. (This turned out to be true.) I thought I would begin by talking with that mayor.
On the bus from Ambach to Münsing, I left my handbag on my seat. I realized this as soon as the driver shut the door and was driving off. So there I stood in the street, just below the town’s little white church with its onion-domed blue steeple. No purse, no money, no identification. Just like a flüchtling, I thought, with nothing—except the cell phone in my pocket. I walked up the hill, past the church, to the town hall. Might as well go ahead and try to interview the mayor. I stood in the corridor looking at photographs of Münsing’s previous mayors, with captions stating the years they served. Between 1933 and 1948, there were no photographs or captions. I was making a note of this on my phone when a woman emerged from one of the offices and asked me what I was doing. I started to explain that I had come to interview the mayor, then gave up and told her I had lost my handbag. The lady promptly phoned the central office of the bus station in Wolfratshausen. The bus driver had found it. I could pick up the handbag, in Wolfratshausen, in six hours, when the driver returned. I walked there, having to ask repeatedly for directions, often receiving wrong, contrary, or unintelligible directions. Pointing. Across the river. Just before you reach the river. Near the Esso station. Left. East. It has been my experience that people one asks for directions often seem to ignore a simple fact: that people who ask for directions are asking because they do not know the way. I did find the bus company’s central office. A receptionist handed me my purse. It occurred to me that if I had, like a flüchtling, not spoken and understood the language, I might be wandering still.
The shelter, the Asyl, for Münsing’s migrants was in a community meeting room on the floor below the mayor’s office. I had arranged to meet Paula Ehrenbach, a local citizen who had taken charge of the migrant program, in the parking lot outside the asyl. Paula was a volunteer, a Hilfsbewerber. Her background consisted of work with senior citizens and other tasks a good soul in a small town might undertake. At the edge of the parking lot, there was a wooden bicycle rack filled with old, much-used bicycles in various sizes. Paula arrived half an hour early, as did I. We spoke German. The connection was instant and warm. Paula was carrying a green woolen bag. She showed me the stitching. “Mein Büro,” she said. My office. The bag, she said, had been created for her by Usman, a recent migrant, who had been a tailor in his native Islamabad. Paula’s group had collected the decrepit bicycles from donors. They had helped flüchtlinge to construct the rack. Paula herself had somehow found an old sewing machine, with a treadle, for Usman.
The German lesson would begin in ten minutes, Paula said. We should go right in. As we entered, Paula introduced me to a man in his thirties who was sweeping the little hall. “Renata,” she said, “Tariq.” We shook hands. I was smiling. Tariq was not. I thought, Oh, my God, I have already offended him, violated his religion by shaking his hand. I said as much to Paula. “No, no,” she said. “We tell the flüchtlinge, ‘You are in Germany now. When you meet a woman, you shake her hand, look her straight in the eyes.’ It is something we practice several times a day.”
I went to the ladies’ room. A young woman was very energetically mopping the floor. The room seemed already immaculate. Above the row of steel sinks I noticed a schedule for cleaning. According to the schedule, the young woman mopping was Fatima. A poster in the stall itself illustrated how to use, and how not to use, a toilet: a drawing, with a diagonal red line through it, of someone standing on the toilet seat; other drawings, of other possibilities, with diagonal red lines. When I mentioned the drawings to Paula, and also the fact that someone was mopping a place that already seemed pristine, she said, Yes, many of the flüchtlinge had never seen or used a toilet, or an outhouse, before. A schedule for cleaning every possible location in the asyl every few hours was amazingly useful. It assured that the place was clean, it raised morale, it gave people something to do, and it provided an excuse for paying a small sum for actual work to everyone who lived in the asyl.
The living quarters for the migrants consisted of a cluster of cubicles separated by bedsheets, placed in the middle of a room, approximately the size of a school gymnasium. Each cubicle held four cots. The bedsheet walls left no question of privacy. In one corner of the room, fairly far from the cubicles, Usman sat, grinning and toothless, at his sewing machine. In another corner was a large television set. Off. At a round wooden table between the entrance and the cubicles the German lesson began. The students were adult migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Congo. None from Syria or Iraq. Under the rules, as they were then evolving, only migrants from countries actually war-torn could expect fairly permanent asylum. All of these people might have to leave Germany. No one, flüchtling or official, knew for sure how, when, whether, and at whose expense this Abschiebung (literally “pushing away,” technically deportation) would take place. Meanwhile, Monika Rheingold, a high school teacher long retired from the school system, welcomed me as someone from the world outside, ready to engage in ordinary conversation, in German, with her students. Monika asked me to tell them my name, age, nationality, something of my story; members of the class would tell me these things in return.
A young man from Pakistan asked me something in English. I started to answer. Monika shook her finger. “Nein, nein,” she said. “Hier wird nur Deutsch gesprochen.” And of course, as I knew from having once taken a “total immersion” class in Spanish at Berlitz, Monika was right. If you do not immerse yourself completely in a foreign language, if you open what Monika called “other drawers” in your mind, you will never learn that foreign language. The conversation lapsed. Monika passed out copies of a classic poem by Johann Gottfried Herder, “Die Sonne und der Wind.” A dialogue between the sun and the wind. Not easy. Monika also passed out colored pencils for us to illustrate the poem. Not easy either. It was clear that some of the class had not seen colored pencils, or tried to draw anything, before. We spoke of the poem for a while. Monika was inventive, patient, respectful, not an instant of condescension. Within what seemed a very short time, class was over.
The use of first names—Monika, Paula, Tariq, Renata, Usman—which eliminated all questions of status, was the only practical way to handle these encounters. After class, it occurred to me that throughout Germany (apart from two close friendships and the flüchtling situation) I was being addressed as Frau Adler or even Frau Doktor Adler. Each time, for an instant, I didn’t know who was meant. At the only previous stage in my life when I spoke German, I was not Frau, let alone Frau Doktor. My mother was. I was Renata, or “die Renata,” like “the Donald” (in many languages, people are referred to by their names, first or last, preceded by the definite article), or any of the German diminutives of my name. The use of first names, by Paula and her flüchtlinge, added to my sense that I had come, in some uncanny way, home.
John D. Rockefeller’s residence, Forest Hill, Cleveland, c. 1908. © The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, the New York Public Library.
Among the people I met on that first afternoon was Ali, a radiant six-year-old boy from Eritrea, just returning from his day at the local school. After three months Ali’s German was fluent. He and Paula showed me a bulletin board covered with Ali’s drawings. Colorful dinosaurs with a very convincing large dragon (ein Drache) with a knight in armor on its back. The knight carries in his arms a little white dog. Lola, Ali said. A real dog named Lola lives not far from the asyl. In the second-to-last drawing, the dragon, riderless, lies on his back surrounded by bones. He has eaten the dinosaurs. In the last drawing, so far, of this series, there are little bones, as well. The drache, Ali said, has eaten Lola. I thought this might be a sad thing, but Ali was cheerful about it. He led me by the hand to the cubicle he shared with his mother, Mouna. Mouna speaks no German. A note in firm, tidy, adult Gothic script was pinned to the entrance bedsheet. An invitation for Ali to a birthday party on Saturday. The tone of the invitation was exuberant, the address carefully laid out, along with directions for getting to it. What was not clear was which Saturday was meant. Next Saturday or the Saturday after? Last Saturday? I could not (any more than Mouna) help Ali with this.
The next day, Paula told me that one member of the German class, Solange, from Congo, had vanished. Vanished? I could not imagine how Solange, a tall, strikingly beautiful young black woman, who spoke no German at all, could have disappeared from Münsing, a small town in Bavaria. Paula said she did not know. This sort of thing happened. Solange might have left to join friends elsewhere in Germany, with whom she was in contact by cellphone. She might have been kidnapped and trafficked as a prostitute. Might be dead, murdered. There was no way to know. How could that be? I wondered. In this country, on this continent, where every last Jew, no matter how well concealed by address and appearance, had been found. How could someone so conspicuous “vanish”? I did not ask this question of Paula, who was concerned enough about Solange, and who had many other serious responsibilities.
My first discovery in Germany sounds minor. Nearly every migrant I met owned a smartphone, which Germans call a handy. Not only did every adult migrant have one, it was the primary means of communication and source of news, gossip, advice, misinformation, vital fact, rumor, threats, promise—from and to home, family, other migrants. A genuine revelation was that the cell phone was often the closest connection a migrant had to anyone, anywhere. Many migrants were not, as I had expected, from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, any Arabic-, Urdu-, or Farsi-speaking country, but from other countries thousands of miles apart. As a result migrants assigned for months, even years, to a given location often did not have a language in common with other migrants in their own asyl. The only people with whom they did share a language were their cell phone contacts, at home, arrived, en route. It was the cell phone that spread the word that you could get to Germany, and how, by what routes, who the smugglers were, what the destination was like.
A serious misimpression spread by handy (and of course by smugglers) was that Germany was paved with gold. Arrival there was worth the journey, the price of smuggling, the vast effort, and the risk of life. Arrival meant luxury, great wealth. Not, apparently, work or jobs. Simply arriving at the destination would bring all those things. Illusions of that kind have not been uncommon in the history of migration. Many immigrants to the U.S. believed that streets in the New World were paved with gold—and many successful immigrants, who could afford to visit or retire to their native countries, naturally reinforced that impression. They were wealthy enough to send money to their families, even to return from time to time. Immigrants to the U.S., however—from Ireland, Italy, Russia, Poland, China, England, Hungary, Japan, the Scandinavian countries, wherever—expected to work, to be assimilated to some degree into the culture, to speak the language, perhaps to intermarry. The work and the cultural contribution of those immigrants in every sort of enterprise (from building the Transcontinental Railroad to inventions at the highest level of science and technology) became indispensable to the creation and development of the country. And the U.S. was, after all, the Melting Pot. Germany, though it had often absorbed migrants, never was.
Chancellor Merkel’s smiling, close selfie with the young migrant may have reinforced a more serious misapprehension: that in Germany’s (and Europe’s) permissive culture, women were available. Muslims already regarded much of Western culture as decadent and infidel. Wealth and women. Other expectations held by virtually all flüchtlinge were disappointed almost from the moment of arrival. As soon as they caught sight of the asyl, Paula said, many of the migrants burst into tears. They had traveled thousands of miles. Nearly all of them were seriously ill. (Germany was generous in providing them with medical attention.) Only to find this. No wealth. No women. No welcome, really. Apart from the extraordinary warmth, dedication, humanity, patience, understanding, inventiveness of the Asylbehilfer, the asylum helpers, in almost every community, German citizens did not welcome what they regarded as, at best, a ragged, at times highly violent, foreign invasion—at taxpayers’ expense.
More widely, and not without reason, the German attitude toward flüchtlinge was fear. If there had been no terrorists among these millions of foreigners when they arrived, there was more than a slight possibility that the host country itself was creating terrorists. The disappointed expectations of the migrants, especially the idle young men among them, were likely to find role models far from what the host governments had in mind. Germany had few jobs available at the entry level officials had envisioned. Two generations of immigrants from Turkey already held those jobs. As for the hundreds of thousands arriving, they seemed to have hardly any skill sets, not many signs of a work ethic. There were only those expectations. And the bitterness of disappointment.
There existed also the overriding problem of language. Almost every asyl had wonderful teachers giving German lessons. In one of Monika’s classes, I met a doctor from Afghanistan who was very eager to learn German. But German is hard. For a middle-aged adult to study among other adults who do not speak his language, most of whom have no experience of study, is very nearly impossible. Outside the classroom there was virtually no opportunity to practice. Citizens in the streets were reluctant to talk to these foreigners at all.
Meanwhile, by cell phone, migrants were receiving messages from home such as this: We know that you have arrived. We do not believe that you have no money. You are rich. Our cousin says that if you do not immediately send money to us, he will kill your sister. Or, from migrants still en route, traversing great distances, news such as this: Your brother and his children drowned yesterday.
Of course, I could not be sure that the gentleman from Afghanistan really was a doctor. Nor could the asylbehilfer. The bureaucracy in charge of flüchtlinge, insistent as it is on its own jurisdiction, is almost incredibly feckless and incompetent in matters of documentation, dossiers, train schedules, arrivals, departures, whereabouts. One does not want to stress the irony of this, in contrast to the 1930s and 1940s. If it were not for the local asylbehilfer, no one would have the slightest idea who or where these people are. Another factor that introduces uncertainty into questions of identity, national origin, even date of birth, is an instinct, perhaps common to all refugees from dangerous situations, to lie. In general, most factual inquiry can seem to refugees threatening. They are, after all, fleeing from something.
Through Paula, for example, I met a well-mannered young man who seemed certain to fit in and succeed. This young man, however, had told an official interviewer that he is eighteen years old. He thought this was a better answer than the fact: he is sixteen. As it happened, his being only sixteen would have entitled him to schooling and benefits for which his being eighteen made him ineligible. Paula did not tell him either that she knew he had lied or that the lie had probably cost him the chance to stay in Germany. She is very fond of him, of all the migrants in her care. What use would it have been to tell him now?
Münsing (population scarcely 4,200) is among the towns that lie along the Starnberger See, a large lake where, in 1886, King Ludwig II of Bavaria was found dead, strangled, together with his doctor. Most of the area is still farmland with fields, barns, silos, herds of dairy cows. But the most prosperous towns around the lake are resort towns, some for tourists, others, very elegant, for summer people. The crown prince of Thailand was living (until very recently, when his father died) in one of the lakeside towns. I walked one day along the lake from Ammerland to Ambach and Münsing. The houses were huge, elaborate, turreted, old, something like houses on Fisher’s Island or Mount Desert. It turned out that an unlikely set of refugees had built some of those houses and moved into them—citizens of Munich, fleeing from bombing by the Allies in World War II. Along the entire roadside, an eight-kilometer stretch, the only refuse or litter I saw was a single Kleenex, fluttering slightly, unused. I have always wondered what impulse causes people to throw their pizza boxes, beer cans, cigarettes, whiskey bottles, shoes, toys every few yards along country roads in Connecticut, where I live. It seemed that Germans have no such impulse or that the owners of houses along the Starnberger See are very careful to tidy up. The view from the houses over the vast lake to mountains beyond is lovely but, even in sunny weather, brooding. (T.S. Eliot mentions the Starnberger See in the eighth line of The Waste Land. The poem is much preoccupied with the lake’s dark history.) There seemed to be no activity in any of the houses. On the road there were people on bicycles, people with their walking sticks. All German. Certainly no people of color. Paula had tried very hard to find employment for her migrants. She had found a job for one of them in the kitchen of the most expensive hotel in Ober Ambach. She urged me to look him up. He was still there, a waiter told me, working as a dishwasher. It was hard to imagine that the owner of any of the houses by the lake would risk having a migrant on his staff. It was hard to imagine a migrant risking a walk along that road.
When I got back to the asyl, there had been two crises: one known only to the migrants, the other only to Paula. The first was that someone had thrown an electronic device into the washing machine while it was running. I had never heard the word they used for the device. It sounded to me like plastique. I took it to be some sort of bomb. The device was actually the remote for the TV. Without it, the TV would not work. Paula was telling Ali that until the perpetrator was found, and had paid to replace the device, there would be no more television at the asyl. When Ali went outdoors for a minute, Paula told me that all the migrants, including Ali, knew very well who had thrown the remote into the washing machine. It was Usman. He had a crazy streak. Sometimes this streak was mild. When he had arrived (at night, by taxi, along with five other migrants, a journey arranged by a bureaucrat somewhere), he had received proper medical attention; but he had, with real fury, refused dentures. He has consistently demanded implants, therefore remained toothless. Sometimes he has a physical seizure of rage bordering on violence. Until Usman confessed, or until some other migrant told on him, Paula could not let it pass. If the migrants joined a conspiracy of silence about an act of destruction by one of them, it would imperil the safety of all.
In the matter of furnishing, I find a certain absence of ugliness far worse than ugliness.—Colette, 1944
The secret that only Paula knew was that the bureaucracy had decided (without warning to her, to the migrants, to the school, or to any local hilfsbewerber) to disperse the Münsing flüchtlinge into other towns. Only this morning, Tuesday, Ali, on the basis of a rumor or intuition of some sort, had asked his teacher whether it was true that he would soon be taken out of the school and sent elsewhere. The teacher had assured him that it was not, that he would be staying in her class. Paula had tried, and failed, to persuade the central bureaucrats in Munich or Berlin that this dispersion would be disastrous. She was trying to remain calm and to think of strategies for keeping the migrants, particularly Ali and his mother, in her care.
The next day Paula took me to see the Kartoffelfeld, a small tract of land that a farmer had loaned to her, and plowed, so that she and some migrant children could plant potatoes there. Paula had grown up on a farm. There is nothing more important to the mind and health of a small child, she said, than to plant food, tend it, and see it grow. But the child has to be very young. If you wait even a year, it may be too late. So there were these orderly rows, with little signs revealing the name of the child and the species of potato. We walked around the plot. Then Paula looked at her watch. She was due at a “shop” she had established. The shop, which collected clothes, shoes, pots, dishes, any other items of possible use to the migrants, consisted of a room in the hayloft of an abandoned barn. Rickety stairs led to the loft. Paula said people were generous with their donations but that there was a difference between what she called the Gutmenschen, people who are willing to give something of value as long as they have to think no more about it, and people who genuinely care, give their attention, time, and energy to help. None of it is easy. Apart from the endless struggles with the feckless, uncomprehending bureaucrats, the daily problems of the flüchtlinge consumed—apparently without the flüchtlinge themselves being aware of it—all of one’s life, one’s relations with one’s husband, family, friends. Paula told me that the teacher Monika, a widow, would like to spend time with her daughter and grandchildren. In addition to her classes at the asyl, however, Monika had for months been tutoring a single flüchtling. For what? To pass the written portion of the test for a German driver’s license. He said that in Pakistan he had been a truck driver. He had expected to become wealthy in Germany. But he was content to become a truck driver again. Only he could not be troubled to study for the written test. Sometimes he did not show up for the test. At other times, he failed it. He had a small allowance; Germany would not let him starve. Monika could not, in good conscience, give up on him.
Paula herself counted on the understanding of her husband. He mostly did understand. But her mother had just been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer and was determined to fight it. Her father was in a nursing home. Paula found time for all of them—not, obviously, enough time. Paula picked up a porcelain teapot, a donation from the attic of one of the gutmenschen—in the age of the electric dishwasher, no longer practical for the local family that consigned it to the attic. What possible use could the migrants have for an antique teapot and the whole porcelain tea set that went with it? Paula nearly dropped the teapot. “Vorsicht,” she said (be careful), and then we completed an old German proverb together, “ist die Mutter der Porzellankiste.” (Caution is the mother of the crate of porcelain.) A trivial, perhaps superstitious, proverb. But all Germans say it. Paula told me that she secretly passes on to some of the poorer citizens of Münsing some of the more elegant clothes gutmenschen have donated. Unlike the migrants, these local people might have some use for them. I said I hadn’t been aware that Münsing had any poor citizens. Paula said she also passes on some of the donated items to the local home for battered women. It had not occurred to me that a town like Münsing had, or would need, a shelter for battered women. Paula said that the women there were so fearful of being found by their abusers that not even she was allowed to know where the shelter was. They used intermediaries.
I had to leave Münsing on a Wednesday, two days before the flüchtlinge were going to be dispersed. I wanted to see what happened to them, and to the town, at least in the short term. But I had to be back at home, in Newtown, Connecticut, for at least a week. I left for home. It felt as though I were on another planet. Calling Paula from Newtown, or exchanging emails, seemed wrong. I had been there to observe, not to interview. And Paula was too busy attending to flüchtlinge and her family to deal with whatever questions I might ask. I needed to be there. A series of medical tests, moreover, had diagnosed her mother’s cancer as more serious than expected. The doctors had told Paula and her mother that they considered the case nearly hopeless. Paula’s mother believed she was too young to die. She decided to undergo every form of treatment, to fight on. Paula’s father-in-law, on the other hand, was sick, lonely, and longing to die. Paula had a lot on her mind and every reason to dread phone calls. We both did want to resume our conversation. So I went back, in late June—car Newtown to JFK, plane JFK to Munich, train Munich to Wolfratshausen, taxi Wolfratshausen to Ambach, bus to Münsing. Paula said that she would meet me the day after I arrived at 9:00 a.m. in the parking lot outside the community center. The asyl was empty now. I arrived by bus at 8:10. Ten minutes later Paula drove into the parking lot. When she got out of her car, we met as though we had known each other forever. Perhaps we had. I said that since she was so early, there was obviously something she needed to attend to, she should just go and do whatever it was she needed to do. I would wait. Paula said that her father had died that morning. Her father? Yes, she had just come from his bedside in the hospital. I started to say that, surely, we should meet at some other time, under other circumstances. Paula said no; she had said her farewell to her dead father, who seemed at peace. But she had told no one, not even her sisters, that he was dead. What point was there to spending the day in her room crying? We would go back to the migrants.
In the course of that day, we went to visit Ali and his mother. Paula had somehow found or wangled an apartment for them; she was delivering clothes from the shop for Ali. His mother already had, and was very pleased with, the teapot and the whole tea set. There was no dishwasher in the apartment; she would wash them safely by hand. Ali had not left off painting. Now (perhaps naturally for his age, but to my disappointment) his subject was no longer dinosaurs or dragons. He was painting flags—flags of Eritrea.
Paula and I drove to other apartments. Paula had found rooms in somebody’s house for six young migrants. Two middle-aged men from Münsing, Johann and Willy, were helping the migrants repair things around the house. During a quiet moment in the kitchen, Johann told Paula that one of the young migrants had confided in him that morning: the young man was romantically attracted to a young woman. He wondered whether kissing her would make her pregnant. Paula said she was glad that Johann had earned enough trust for such a conversation. I said what a good thing that, among the helpers, the migrants should have a man to talk to. Then it dawned on me. These young men had traveled thousands of miles, along dangerous routes, in groups in which sexual incidents, especially rapes, were extremely common. Paula had told me that when the migrants arrived many of the women were not only very ill but pregnant. Some became pregnant in the asyl. (“In the asyl?” I asked. Paula said, Yes, we have to realize that in some cultures having many children is invaluable.) The young man had been mocking Johann, putting him on. There would be laughter that night among those young migrants about this middle-aged citizen of Münsing. For a moment, my whole perception of things tilted.
As our last stop of the day we drove to a factory. A whole floor had been transformed into a “container” shelter. The cubicles were separated not by sheets but by thin walls of plastic. No more private than the bedsheets but somehow more depressing. We were looking for Usman. We asked several people, some of whom did not know who he was. Others directed us to a small room. And there, in a tiny office, were two Germans, a young man and a young woman. They were sitting on desks. Holding guitars. This was not an illusion. What they were doing was giving guitar lessons. As surely as Monika was teaching German, these young people were helping in the way that they could. And Usman? Yes, they knew him well. He showed up so regularly for guitar lessons that he was becoming really good at it. Others were not regular in their attendance. Usman was. He was old, perhaps in his fifties. They were worried that he had not showed up today. They hoped he was not ill.
After dark Paula drove me to my hotel. We would meet again later in the week, she said. Perhaps even tomorrow. She did have a lot to attend to. Telling her sisters. Writing the obituary. Arranging the funeral. Telling her mother. Telling her father-in-law, telling a friend at the nursing home with whom her father had shared the daily newspaper. We would, however, go back to work in a day or so. The next afternoon I received an email in German from Paula. “Liebe Renata,” she wrote, “I am very busy with arrangements for my father’s funeral. There is much more to do than I imagined. I also have to vacate his room at the nursing home, because another tenant is waiting for it. So we won’t be able to see each other. I am very sorry, but I just can’t do it.” (Ich kann es nicht schaffen.) There was this, as well: “I also want expressly to thank you. For having spent one of the hardest days of my life with me.”
Well, then what? Before I went to Germany, the experiment with the migrants seemed to me doomed. I saw it as a vast, well-intentioned, irreversible mistake. Europe could not possibly accommodate millions of foreigners from places that were, in every conceivable sense, far away. There were certainly countries nearer geographically and culturally to the migrants’ places of origin. From time to time, German newspapers raise the question why it is Europe, rather than, say, Saudi Arabia, that feels a responsibility to take on this problem of largely Muslim refugees from the Middle East. And why do flüchtlinge journey thousands of dangerous miles to Europe instead of looking for asylum in any of the rich countries on their own continent? Saudi Arabia has enormous wealth and vast, uninhabited spaces. The Saudis have, for decades, sponsored Wahhabi mosques all over Europe and elsewhere in the world. Wahhabism is one of the most widely proselytizing, fiercely radical branches of Islam. When migrants began to arrive in Germany, Saudi spokesmen offered to build and sponsor two hundred more mosques for them. This project was not well received. No European leader has suggested trying to negotiate with Saudi Arabia as a possible destination for migrants whom Germany cannot absorb.
In postwar Germany and Europe, part of the model for welcoming migrants had been the United States. The U.S. model has, in recent decades, faltered. For many reasons, we are not the model now. The enormous respect and affection I felt for Paula, all the hilfsbewerber, and Merkel caused me, for a lot of the time I spent in Germany, to share some of their optimism. But there were, there remain, great mysteries. What were the migrants thinking, what were they saying to one another on their handys? How did they pay for those cell phones, the journey, provisions, the smugglers? How did the children manage to cross seas and continents? Given deadlines, reporters might accompany migrants for days, months. (Anemona Hartocollis and the New York Times have done a remarkable service in reporting, in terms as real as the detailed truths of fiction, the day-to-day stories of migrant families.) But the nature of journalism makes it difficult to convey, even to learn, some of the key, underlying facts of the story. Arrangements, unspoken agreements, understandings, betrayals, the broad under-facts, which only participants (smugglers, for example) can know. Press interviews about the costs and circumstances of individual journeys are presumably no more reliable than inquiries by German officials. What were the Germans who were not hilfsbewerber, who were opposed to the whole idea of flüchtlinge, thinking? What will happen now?
As a matter of policy, it seemed at first to make sense that Germany would allow migrants from Syria and Iraq, in preference to others, to stay because there were wars—genuine, vicious civil wars—in their home countries. Nationalism had, in any event, virtually dissolved in those countries, replaced by religious affiliation, ethnicity, alliances, tribes. When, as in Syria, the wars were mainly internal but entailed atrocities (barrel bombings by cruel leaders, murders, torture, beheadings by various rebel groups), it seemed hard to see by what right or logic foreign nations began, directly, at immeasurable cost in local civilian lives, to intervene. Many migrants from Syria and Iraq, for example, surely fled to escape incessant bombings. But the planes, the bombings were largely by foreign governments, “coalitions” and antagonists, including European nations, Russia, the U.S. It became paradoxically the humanitarian West, which, by intervening in distant civil wars, and bombing their populations, created a great part of the problem. Whatever any local peoples may have felt before (and there was no indication, even in relative peacetime, that the Sunni or Shia populations of the Middle East felt much affinity for the West), civilians on the ground anywhere are certain to regard as enemies, and to hate, other people who are dropping bombs on them. That hatred is bound to be lasting and deep. Hatred, disappointed expectations, idleness—a religion that, in its extreme form, despises the infidel hosts. An incendiary combination.
Nonchaloir (Repose), by John Singer Sargent, 1911. © National Gallery of Art; gift of Curt H. Reisinger.
When I was young, in the 1960s, I wrote an essay deploring the “apocalyptic sensibility,” which foresaw, in every essentially political disagreement, the end of the world. I still deplore it. But I now have something very like that sense. It has been obvious for decades, at least since the year 2000, that Western civilization, perhaps mankind itself, is in jeopardy from various problems and directions. People tend to adopt one or more of these problems as political causes: pollution, energy consumption, inequality, nuclear war, racism, terrorism, global warming. As though any or all of them were within our capacity to resolve and bore the prospect of human extinction. In Germany, it began to seem that another, highly imminent serious threat, intended as a humane solution, has become the attempt to absorb distant, often hostile, foreign multitudes into what had been fairly homogenous and stable cultures.
For months I have been looking, again and again, at a single video. On July 15, 2015, Chancellor Merkel visited the Paul Friedrich Scheel school in Rostock. The visit is famous for a conversation the chancellor had with a fourteen-year-old girl, Reem Sahwil, whose family migrated, in 2011, from Lebanon. Reem’s first language is Arabic. Her German is fluent. At a certain point, the girl, who has been living in Germany for four years, begins to cry. She has always felt welcome in Rostock, she says, but she cannot feel certain of her future. She wants to stay, like her classmates and friends, in Germany. “I understand that,” Merkel says. The chancellor goes on, to a careful, gentle, serious, explanation of what must be considered. Not everyone can stay, she says. Germany cannot accommodate all the people in the world who are in the direst straits. There are many problems. Between six thousand and seven thousand children have arrived, for instance, unaccompanied by family. Decisions will have to be made. Suddenly, the chancellor stops—interrupting herself in midsentence. “Ach, Gott,” she says. (Or “Ach, komm.” The sound is not that clear.) Then the camera, which has been on Merkel, follows her as she walks straight to the girl and leans over her to comfort her. Discussion in the classroom resumes.
The next day, the newspapers carried headlines like “Merkel Makes a Girl Cry.” The press called Merkel “coldhearted,” “merciless,” her physical contact with the girl “awkward.” Comments online were exceptionally vicious and sarcastic. There were many of them. What had happened was apparently this: the chancellor’s insistence on austerity for the debt-ridden members of the European Union had created not just bitterness in those countries but, in Germany, a particularly stern impression of Merkel. So it was assumed, in the press and by citizens, that the chancellor had been frosty and unkind to Reem. That was the news story. Short. The chancellor’s visit, however, lasted eighty-eight minutes. It was part of Merkel’s tour through Germany to hold dialogues on the subject “Good Life in Germany: What Is Important to Us.” From the first moment, it is obvious that the chancellor’s words are serious, sincere, intelligent, spontaneous. The whole eighty-eight minutes in that Rostock classroom is interesting. The children’s questions begin, oddly enough, with cruelty to farm animals, particularly chickens, and what to do about it. “I am not a vegetarian,” Merkel says, “but we must remember that animals, too, are creatures.” The children go on to ask why homosexuals in Germany are not permitted to adopt children. What to do about bullying, discrimination at work and in the classroom, people who stare at, or avert their eyes from, the handicapped. (Paul Friedrich Scheel, though this is not mentioned on the video, is a school for the disabled.)
Suddenly, Merkel mentions that at some schools in Berlin the ratio of migrant children, who do not speak German at all, to German children is 95 to 5. “This can be difficult,” she says, “for teachers.” She also raises questions of civics, such as what the ideal distance between public garbage pails would be. If they are conveniently near, the expense of garbage collection rises. If they are far apart, people will have to be tidier. (I thought of the single Kleenex on the road to Ambach.) To a boy in a wheelchair who suggests that all buildings ought to have ramps instead of stairs, Merkel replies from her own experience on crutches, when she had a broken pelvis. Ramps can be impossible. Stairs are required as well.
Every question or comment from any of the children receives the chancellor’s serious attention. (“Oh, did you forget something you wanted to say?” she asks a student. He did, and he says it.) As for Reem Sahwil, though it is not apparent on the video, she too has various disabilities and needs a wheelchair. Reem does not mention, nor does the press, that among the things in Germany she is happy about is the medical attention, including surgery, she has received. Every time Reem speaks, Merkel is clearly and genuinely moved. (“See, here you are before me, talented, so uncannily sympathetic,” she says.) Reem has made it clear that what she wants is to stay in Germany. She would like to visit her oma and her aunt in Lebanon; she misses them. But what she wants most is to stay.
Within days, an unexpected headline appears: “Reem Says Israel Should Cease to Exist.” The flüchtling from Lebanon explains that she wants to go home to her country, Palestine. Reem has never been in Palestine. Her grandparents were (or perhaps were not) born there. Her family has always lived in Lebanon. Perhaps a Palestinian political group got to her. She has certainly said, emotionally, repeatedly, persuasively, how much she wants to stay in Germany. At the same time, or now, Israel should cease to exist and Palestine is home. I thought of Ali and his painting of the Eritrean flag.
The home is a human institution. All human institutions are open to improvement.—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1903
I have changed the names of the migrants in this essay to spare them any danger from officials, terrorists, family. I also asked Paula, admirable, warm, saintly person that she is, whether I could use her real name. Paula replied by email. “Liebe Renata,” she wrote. “I was thinking a lot and talking with my family about publishing my name. Finally, I decided that I do not want my name in your article. The political scene changes, and I do not want my name to occur in context with refugees, especially not in the U.S.” All of the flüchtlinge in Paula’s care, she writes, have recently been interviewed by the government. She thinks none of them has permission to stay much longer and that they must at some point go back. I notice that Paula now refers to them not as flüchtlinge but as Schützlinge, a sort of affectionate near-diminutive for people who need protection. I wonder why she is now worried about being associated, in anyone’s mind, with refugees at all. Paula’s life, for more than two years, has been publicly devoted to refugees. Paula assures me that whenever flüchtlinge are deported, Germany will pay for their transportation. No smugglers. Home. Not to Turkey. Home. Another vast undertaking, perhaps too late. Perhaps impossible. Meanwhile, migrants, in the millions, sind still da.
One morning at the Münsing bus stop, I met an elderly man, a farmer. I asked him what he thought of the migrant shelter and the flüchtling problem. He seemed to think I meant any strangers, people who were not native to Münsing, weekend visitors, tourists, summer people. “I am a farmer,” he said. “I don’t like any of them.” I said I meant the migrants from the Middle East and Africa. “Oh, I expected that,” he said. “We all did.” He went on, very calmly, about fire and other dramatic phenomena. He mentioned the church, horses. It took me a while to realize that what he was talking about were not local farm animals or conditions. He was talking about the Four Horsemen, quoting from the Book of Revelation. The arrival of the migrants had caused him to expect, very soon, the Apocalypse.
This essay appears, in somewhat different form, in Home, the Winter 2017 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. Explore the issue here.