The Refugees Of Capitol Hill: ‘Here We Go Again’
An 81-year-old survivor of World War II says that D.C. drama in the time of Nixon was small potatoes compared to now
In January, President Trump sat at his desk in the Oval Office and signed an executive order attempting to curb the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States. Yet displaced people have long woven themselves into the very fabric of the neighborhoods surrounding the White House and Capitol Hill.* In this series, “The Refugees of Capitol Hill,” we share the stories, in their own words, of some of the refugees who have lived and experienced Washington, D.C., before and after the 2016 election, including the son of a Laotian refugee who has established a food delivery service featuring refugee chefs, a recent Afghan refugee fleeing the Taliban, and, below, an 81-year-old German refugee from World War II.
I’ve come to the realization that if you’re a refugee, you’re a refugee all your life. When you’re young, you are busy learning things and going on with your life. You don’t really think about it, or reflect on who you’re supposed to be. But now I see how I impacted people’s lives in a way that would not have happened if nothing had happened to me.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]If you didn’t get out, you got it in the neck.[/quote]
I was a German born in Yugoslavia because the Germans had been forced to flee from Alsace-Lorraine. Some went to America. After the Turks had been thrown out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my family went to Serbia. Then the Nazis came and claimed us as their own. It was a politically very unstable and confusing and dangerous time. My father was sent to prison, where he perished. The Russians were coming closer. If you didn’t get out, you got it in the neck. I had an uncle and his son who were shot to death. My poor aunt was in a concentration camp being eaten up by lice.
My mother was clever enough for us to get out, my grandmother, aunt, and me. I was 8 years old and I had to leave my home and my dog. I never saw either again. We got out just before things fell apart. It took us three weeks to get to Austria, with many different kinds of transport. We ended up near Vienna, where we stayed for several months. But the Russians were coming closer. So my mother decided we couldn’t stay there and again we got under way. It took us five weeks to go to Salzburg thanks to daily air raids and things like that. At the end of the war, we ended up in a little village called Wals, on the border of Bavaria.
Some friends came over a few weeks ago for hot dogs. They asked me how did we live once we were in Austria. “Did you have a house?” they asked. A house! We were lucky to have one room! I realized there’s no way to convey how it was. I told them, “You have no idea. And I’m glad you have no idea.”
My aunt became ill. She had leukemia and died. And then my mother died from leukemia as well. Because I was an orphan, because I could not return to where I came from, I was considered a person without a country. In 1948, I was sent to a refugee camp for six weeks in Munich. The camp was full of orphans, a lot of us, all nationalities. Certainly Jewish children who had survived. It was quite a scene. Then relatives in Pennsylvania said I could live with them. Catholic Charities helped with my airfare. I flew on Scandinavian Airlines. It was so glamorous. The stewardesses looked like movie stars.
I came to the Bronx and couldn’t get over the fact they had lights, street lights and other lights. Neon lights! My relatives came to get me and took me to Reading, Pennsylvania. I attended a parochial school so there were some nuns who still spoke German. Everyone was incredibly nice and supportive. But I didn’t have anyone to talk to who was like me. And that was pretty much the case my whole life.
I came to Washington, D.C., with my husband, who I’d met in Chicago when I worked at the First National Bank of Chicago after my foster dad had died. He was in the Army and was sent here to D.C. We stayed here and he died 10 years ago. I live here with my dog, Sam.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I flew on Scandinavian Airlines. It was so glamorous. The stewardesses looked like movie stars.[/quote]
Americans were so wonderful, positive, and kind. Here, people didn’t point at you and say you’re a stranger. You had a problem, you did something about it. There was no despair here. Other places weren’t cheerful—they didn’t have the wonderful American ideal of being positive and helpful. It was so much easier here.
I live near the National Cathedral and sometimes participate in evening classes. There was one man leading the group who said he always thought he could protect his children until 9/11. And it scared the daylights out of him. I knew since I was 8 years old that no one could be protected. Except in America you could. I was so happy that those things didn’t happen here. Until 9/11. The man was right.
And now. I don’t know why those people voted for him. It’s the strangest thing, like a movie. A big mistake. I think about it all the time. What’s going on in the world? It’s happening again.
We went through hard times before here with Nixon. It was a scary time in Washington, with protesters attacking police cars and breaking windows. Bloodshed everywhere. But compared to what’s going on now, that was small potatoes.
Two years ago, I saw photos of those columns of refugees walking through the fields in Europe. I felt dread and sorrow for them, as well as for those who will be dealing with their problems. I realized what an impact it must have been when we came through; what did the natives think? “Here they come. What are we going to do with them?” Nobody would choose to be a refugee. Here we go again.