At the age of ten I went to live with my grandmother in Switzerland for a year. I can still remember handing over to her my shiny new stiff covered blue and gold British passport for safekeeping. She took it and held it, stroked its cover and opened it to the page which informed the world that Her Britannic Majesty requested my safe passage in the world. She told me how lucky I was to possess such a wonderful document and how I must never do anything to lose it.
I remember the scene vividly. We were standing together in her bedroom by the elegant Venetian writing desk she kept there. I remember her voice, the urgency of her words, and something else: something that communicated itself to me and resonates within me almost fifty years later.
At the time it seemed an important conversation and one I should pay attention to but I didn’t really understand why or what it was she was trying to communicate.
Now I do. My grandmother, the pampered only child of wealthy Berlin parents who grew up with all the advantages that money could buy in that cultured elegant world of the late 1800’s fell in love with and married a Jewish lawyer from Hannover in late 1922. With a young son, my father, born in 1924 they should have been set to live a comfortable and happy life together. My grandfather rose in the ranks of the legal system and was becoming a respected Judge, but within ten years of their marriage their idyll was ended as the political situation in Germany worsened and the Nazis, having come to power in January 1933 began to implement their policy of removing all Jews from public office and public service. My grandfather had no job, no position, and life became intolerable. They moved within Germany to another family home in Baden-Baden, suffering a kind of internal exile. My father was sent away to school first in Switzerland and then in the UK and on 9th November 1938 as the synagogue was destroyed by fire on Kristallnacht, and the men of the community humiliated in public, my grandfather was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp.
The story continues – of my grandparents fruitless attempts to protect extended family from being transported to the gas chambers. Of my grandmother’s extraordinary efforts to protect her husband and bring him to a family home in Switzerland which she achieved in 1939.Because of this they were stripped of their German nationality and became officially stateless. There are intrigues and horrors galore in the family archives, but the upshot was this. They left Germany having bribed and paid heaven knows what kinds of fines in money and kind, my grandfather desperately ill after the various arrests and incarcerations and beatings, my grandmother frantically learning how to deal with a world she had not been brought up to even imagine, and they ended up in French Switzerland living on favours from friends and from various refugee agencies, moving to ever cheaper accommodation, often with barely enough to eat or to warm themselves with, let alone pay the necessary medical bills. All the time they were uncertain as to how long they could take shelter in Switzerland, their papers were endlessly circulated among bureaucrats, their permissions to stay always temporary and for short periods. The last letter refusing any more extension of permission to stay arrived only two or so days before my grandfather died in 1950. His death certificate describes him as “sans papiers” – a man without papers, with no nationality or right to stay as citizen or even as refugee. His grave, provided by the Jewish community of Lausanne, is so modest that currently even his name is worn away.
My grandmother eventually took Swiss nationality, helped by the fact of a family home and presence in the country. She was grateful to Switzerland for giving her this eventual security. She was desperately grateful that her son had settled in England, been given British nationality and that his children too were under the protection of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government. She wanted me to know, without telling me any details of the story which we only fully uncovered years after her death, that the most basic security that had been denied to her and my grandfather was beyond precious. To be a refugee, a seeker of asylum running from a chaotic government that seeks your destruction is to have nothing and nowhere. It is destabilising, it prevents any normal development or relationship in life, it causes your family to scatter or worse, it means you scream in your sleep as you remember what your waking mind suppresses. To be a refugee and seeker of asylum is to be the most vulnerable kind of human being it is possible to be. Just holding onto identity, to remember the person inside you, not to fall apart into a dislocated existence takes all the energy and resilience one has.
Yesterday I took part in a day of study and prayer with imams and rabbis and priests, in a tent close to Harmondsworth detention centre. We called in Abraham’s Tent. We looked at the texts of our tradition that speak of caring for the vulnerable, the stranger, the one whose world has fallen apart and who looks for help from others. Yesterday we fasted, the coincidence of both Muslim and Jewish fast days with the concomitant introspection they call for gave us yet another dimension in common. I was proud to join with the others to draw attention to the conditions facing many of those who seek asylum in the UK and who find they can be detained indefinitely in what is essentially a high security prison, while the process to accept or reject their application grinds on. They are there not because of any criminal activity or intent, but because they have fled their own country, requested asylum in the UK, and their papers are not in order. We are the only country in Europe with no time limit on how long someone can be kept in detention while the process takes place. The treatment of vulnerable people, many of whom are already traumatised by earlier experiences that caused them to flee their own countries, is against the British values my grandmother so idolised. Tens of thousands of people are put into detention each year, with 30,902 entering detention in 2014 and the rate is increasing.
I am proud to hold a British Passport, and I am grateful. My grandfather died without any passport at all, despite having been an upholder of Justice all his life. I understand what my grandmother wanted me to know – to be stateless and without official identity or secure place to live is to truly have nothing, to be at the mercy of everyone and to feel no mercy at all. Surely in the UK it is time to treat all people with dignity and respect whether they ultimately receive the right to remain or not. It is time to limit indefinite detention to the all-party parliamentary group recommendation of 28 days and to remember that everyone in this system is a fellow human being.