'H is for Hawk' is the winner of the Samuel Johnson non fiction prize and is apparently a story about a woman coming to terms with a tragic event in her life by working with a hawk. Not sure this method will help me and anyway I am not so sure about
raptors. After all according to Jurassic Park they are the descendants of dinosaurs....
But B is for Beaver has grabbed my attention. Yesterday Natural England gave permission for an immigrant family of Eurasian Beavers to stay in their adopted home
on the River Otter in Devon. I am assuming that the beavers are refugees from some Eurasian beaver cull and were attracted by the name of the River (perhaps hoping to get it changed to River Beaver) and the charmingly named town of 'Ottery St Mary'. Perhaps
these refugees came across from Calais with the other desparate refugees clinging to Eurostar trains and lorries. Whats different of course is that the beavers have been welcomed and are now protected. They will have an impact on their environment like any
immigrant and local anglers are worried about the fish in the river if the beavers start damming, but the local town is looking forward to an influx of beaver enthusiasts (oo er missus!). It all feels very like a metaphor for what's going on here in terms
of the immigration debate. Perhaps if humans grew cute fur and became tourist attractions many in this country would feel more warmly towards them.
My mother's family were immigrants and I don't think we have been too much of a burden on society. Like
the beavers they came here to find a better life - escaping Hilter's 'Lebensraum' greed. But shortly after they arrived they were classed as 'unfriendly aliens' as they heralded from Hungary originally which in 1939 was part of the Axis powers. Luckily they
were not interred like so many Hungarians, Romanians and German refugees who came to England at that time. But when war broke out they couldn't have radios or cameras. Ironically my grandfather had been invited here as a civil engineer to work on a social
housing project in Leeds (only demolished last year). He spoke German, French, Hungarian, English and was a devotee of Esperanto the language invented to be universally spoken so that there could be no more communication problems in the world. There are still
people and scholars today who speak Esperanto - which seems to me to be a mixture of Spanish, Latin and German.
My grandfather wanted to help the Allies and every single week for the entire duration of the war he wrote to the Home Office offering
his skills as an engineer and his language skills. Typically he was never taken up on his offer and I still have some of those letters. They didn't become 'naturalised' Brits until the 50s and when I was thinking about becoming a spy during the dying days
of the Cold War my mother's status as 'naturalised' was an issue. Even some 40 years after the end of WW2 suspicion about people from 'behind the Iron Curtain' was still prevelant.
My mother had two wonderful friends who had been children like her at
the beginning of the war and who had been brought to England on the 'kinder transport' trains. They started new lives, integrated and had families and their stories and experiences like those of so many other refugees and immigrants have contributed ineffably
to the culture of this country.
I mention all of this as it has been a week of memorials - Holocaust Memorial day and also the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I was amazed to hear and read that the survivors were so ashamed of what
had happened to them that many never told their stories for decades. I was also surprised to hear that the actual liberation day was not documented and in fact wasn't ackowledged for days. The Soviet troops exhausted by their time on the gruelling Eastern
front (and conscripted by Stalin) did not seem especially surprised to find a death camp with its emaciated prisoners. Clearly life under Stalin had innured them. But also the Germans had fled with the more able prisoners on the infamous Death March across
Europe. The initial liberation seems to have been fairly low key and it wasn't until the Americans arrived and started documenting what and who was left that the camp's liberation became news. The Americans later liberated Buchenwald and documented the first
person to walk through the open doors.
I was fortunate enough to meet an extraordinary woman called Helen Bamber who only died last year. She spent 3 years of her life working to repatriate prisoners from Buchenwald. She told me that she couldn't
bear the smell of dead Geranium leaves as it reminded her of the smell of Buchenwald. I found that one of the most evocative images as hardly a day passes when I don't see Geraniums and think of it and her. She was in her early twenties when she started her
humanitarian work in Buchenwald and returned to Britain to help set up Amnesty International and continued until the day she died. She established a charity called The Helen Bamber Foundation which works tirelessly to help refugees. Just take a look
at the website. http://www.helenbamber.org
But what also struck me in listening to the Auschwitz survivors whose numbers are dwindling fast as most are in their 80s and 90s was them talking about the importance
of culture. One poet would frequently forgo his meagre meal to watch a sunset that would transport him out of the horror of the camp. Musicians would compose and play so that their souls and cultural identity could not be taken from them. But above all a survivor
who spoke at the celebration this week said something very important - Do not let our pasts become your children's futures.
For me that says it all...oh and the fact the beavers have made Devon their home.