The Refugees

Roma, with refugee themed advert. Berlin, November 2015.

The case, as the generous American communities have shown they well understand, has had no analogue in the experience of our modern generations, no matter how far back we go; it has been recognised, in surpassing practical ways, as virtually the greatest public horror of our age, or of all the preceding. And one gratefully feels, in presence of so much done in direct mitigation of it, that its appeal to the pity and the indignation of the civilised world anticipated and transcended from the first all superfluity of argument.

We live into—that is, we learn to cultivate—possibilities of sympathy and reaches of beneficence very much as the stricken and suffering themselves live into their dreadful history and explore and reveal its extent; and this admirable truth it is that unceasingly pleads with the intelligent, the fortunate, and the exempt, not to consent in advance to any dull limitation of the helpful idea.

The American people have surely a genius, of the most eminent kind, for withholding any such consent and despising all such limits; and there is doubtless no remarked connection in which they have so shown the sympathetic imagination in free and fearless activity—that is, in high originality—as under the suggestion of the tragedy of Belgium.

The place has formed, then, the headquarters of the Chelsea circle of hospitality to the exiled, the broken, and the bewildered; and if I may speak of having taken home the lesson of their state and the sense of their story, it is by meeting them in the finest club conditions conceivable that I have been able to do so. Hither, month after month and day after day, the unfortunates have flocked, each afternoon; and here the comparatively exempt, almost ashamed of their exemption in presence of so much woe, have made them welcome to every form of succour and reassurance.

Certain afternoons each week have worn the character of the huge comprehensive tea-party, a fresh well-wisher discharging the social and financial cost of the fresh occasion—which has always festally profited, in addition, by the extraordinary command of musical accomplishment, the high standard of execution, that is the mark of the Belgian people.

This exhibition of our splendid local resource has rested, of course, on a multitude of other resources, still local, but of a more intimate hospitality, little by little worked out and applied, and into the details of which I may not here pretend to go beyond noting that they have been accountable for the large housed and fed and clothed and generally protected and administered numbers, all provided for in Chelsea and its outer fringe, on which our scheme of sociability at Crosby Hall itself has up to now been able to draw.

Bundesregiung billboard. Berlin, November 2015.
Bundesregiung billboard. Berlin, November 2015.

To have seen this scheme so long in operation has been to find it suggest many reflections, all of the most poignant and moving order; the foremost of which has, perhaps, had for its subject that never before can the wanton hand of history have descended upon a group of communities less expectant of public violence from without or less prepared for it and attuned to it.

The bewildered and amazed passivity of the Flemish civil population, the state as of people surprised by sudden ruffians, murderers, and thieves in the dead of night and hurled out, terrified and half clad, snatching at the few scant household gods nearest at hand, into a darkness mitigated but by flaring incendiary torches—this has been the experience stamped on our scores and scores of thousands, whose testimony to suffering, dismay, and despoilment silence alone, the silence of vain uncontributive wonderment, has for the most part been able to express.

Never was such a revelation of a deeply domestic, a rootedly domiciled and instinctively and separately clustered people, a mass of communities for which the sight of the home violated, the objects helping to form it profaned, and the cohesive family, the Belgian ideal of the constituted life, dismembered, disembowelled, and shattered, had so supremely to represent the crack of doom and the end of everything.

There have been days and days when under this particular impression the mere aspect and manner of our serried recipients of relief, something vague and inarticulate as in persons who have given up everything but patience and are living, from hour to hour, but in the immediate and the unexplained, has put on such a pathos as to make the heart sick. One has had just to translate any seated row of figures, thankful for warmth and light and covering, for sustenance and human words and human looks, into terms that would exemplify some like exiled and huddled and charity-fed predicament for our superior selves, to feel our exposure to such a fate, our submission to it, our holding in the least together under it, darkly unthinkable.

Dim imaginations would at such moments interpose, a confused theory that even at the worst our adventurous habits, our imperial traditions, our general defiance of the superstition of domesticity, would dash from our lips the cup of bitterness; from these it was at all events impossible not to come back to the consciousness that almost every creature there collected was indebted to our good offices for the means to come at all. I thought of our parents and children, our brothers and sisters, aligned in borrowed.

Refugee discussion flyer. Karl-Marx-Platz, Neukolln.
Refugee discussion flyer (L). Karl-Marx-Platz, Neukolln.

It was in September, in a tiny Sussex town which I had not quitted since the outbreak of the war, and where the advent of our first handful of fugitives before the warning of Louvain and Aerschoot and Termonde and Dinant had just been announced. Our small hill-top city, covering the steep sides of the compact pedestal crowned by its great church, had reserved a refuge at its highest point; and we had waited all day, from occasional train to train, for the moment at which we should attest our hospitality. It came at last, but late in the evening, when a vague outside rumour called me to my doorstep, where the unforgettable impression at once assaulted me.

Up the precipitous little street that led from the station, over the old grass-grown cobbles where vehicles rarely pass, came the panting procession of the homeless and their comforting, their almost clinging entertainers, who seemed to hurry them on as in a sort of overflow of expression of the fever of charity. It was swift and eager, in the autumn darkness and under the flare of a single lamp—with no vociferation and, but for a woman’s voice, scarce a sound save the shuffle of mounting feet and the thick-drawn breath of emotion.

The note I except, however, was that of a young mother carrying her small child and surrounded by those who bore her on and on, almost lifting her as they went together. The resonance through our immemorial old street of her sobbing and sobbing cry was the voice itself of history; it brought home to me more things than I could then quite take the measure of, and these just because it expressed for her not direct anguish, but the incredibility, as who should say, of honest assured protection.

Months have elapsed, and from having been then one of a few hundred she is now one of scores and scores of thousands: yet her cry is still in my ears, whether to speak most of what she had lately or of what she actually felt; and it plays, to my own sense, as a great fitful, tragic light over the dark exposure of her people.

Adapted from the essay Refugees in Chelsea, by Henry James (1918). Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.