Why couldn’t my parents’ friends go home?
Do you remember what it was like to be four, having to be taken everywhere by your parents, unable to reach things that everyone else could reach from shelves, being ignored because you were small and unimportant, and asking questions because you could not understand so much of what was going on around you? I can’t remember exactly the question I asked but I do remember being told why it was that a couple who had spent a weekend as my parents’ guests were unable to return to their homes.
Somehow I had heard something about this married couple who were staying at my parent’s home. They had no children and were a little younger than my parents. He was not quite as tall as my dad, was slightly built and, like his wife, spoke with an accent. She was a little taller than him, with fair hair tied back in a pony-tail. He wore a suit, like many of the men I saw then, and she wore a dress of some sort.
Mum was able to explain that they came from different countries, he from Czechoslovakia and she from Germany, from the eastern part. I could see that as they were married they would have to find one country in which to make a home. What I really could not understand was that they could not go back to Germany or to Czechoslovakia. What sort of grown-ups were they if they could not return to their homes? Grown-ups could always do whatever they liked, so what stopped this couple doing just that?
It was 1951; I was four and Europe was still trying to find homes for displaced persons, people whose lives had been disrupted by the Second World War. Just as I had specially to ask what a prisoner of war was, something to which reference must have been in a BBC news bulletin about the Korean War, so I wanted to know why these two could not simply choose to go home.
Many displaced persons found themselves in places that were not of their choosing: some did not want to return to countries that had been taken over by communist regimes. Others found themselves settled, with new partners and new families putting roots down in the places where they found themselves at the end of the war. Some prisoners of war chose to stay put, often marrying local girls, relieved perhaps not to have to return to where families no longer existed or to communities that had treated them badly or which they themselves were happy to abandon.
As a small child I was not taken to the cinema, where older audiences watched Pathé news and saw these things unrolling across the world, These days visual news appears everywhere and we can see the real terror in the eyes of children looking for something that they can trust or rely on, something that will not let them down, something that will not be taken away from them. As a child I was very fortunate for once I had listened to my parents’ explanations, whether I understood them or not, I could forget the matter and return to my toys while in the background there was the sound of my parents getting on with the business of making a home.
The friends of the writer’s parents were refugees. What have you learnt about refugees here?
How would you explain to a child what it is like to be a refugee?