A small group of German women and children arriving in the British sector of Berlin, October 1945 (photo: http://www.kingsacademy.com).
Syrian refugees brave the cold and snow as they walk to a metro station in Istanbul, February 2015 (photo: http://dailyamin.com).
When I was a child I loved reading novels about escape. They were mostly stories of people escaping from areas under Nazi control, being smuggled across borders into neutral countries, or trying to get hold of the right papers, or at least ones convincing enough to allow them to escape from imprisonment, torture and death. Along the way they would meet some people who would help them and some who would betray them — the suspense and drama came from sharing the character’s uncertainty as to whether or not they’d make it, and whether or not the person they’d just met could really be trusted. The escapees, exhibiting bewildering levels of courage and ingenuity, were ocasionally assisted by networks of resistence, anonymous people of staggering bravery who were prepared to face torture and give their lives to save others and to combat injustice. This kind of fiction was everywhere when I was a kid, which was still within the broad cultural aftermath of the excitement and traumas of the war. You could still buy Victor annuals which revelled in imagery of armed conflict — I’m pretty sure the very first phrase I learnt in German was ‘Achtung! Ich bin hit!’. By the time I came into being there had already been a good couple of decades of this stuff. As an adult I read A Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque, a more complex account of the brutalities of the struggle for escape and survival, and also Austerlitz by WG Sebald, which explores the deeper implications of what it is to be rescued and to start a new life elsewhere. They depicted deep, intense psychological and moral battles, in a way conditioned by a profound sense of empathy at suffering and loss.