In August of 1963 my father and mother, three-year-old sister Sally, and I traveled by train from Greece to Belgium and then by ferry across to England. The journey took three or four days and is all a pleasurable blur in my mind now, from the long bus trip from Athens to Thessaloniki (the first trip by automobile when I did not get car-sick) to the lurching ferry ride across the Channel to Dover, and finally on to London. It was a student train which my thirty-something parents had somehow managed to get on, and the noisy, polyglot young people adopted the nine-year-old me as their mascot, taking me into their compartments as they talked, sang, and laughed all the way across Europe.
I was in a kind of dream throughout, as we rocked our way through the days and nights in the self-contained world of the train. I was aware, though, that we were passing through Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia. From there we crossed into Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and finally, England and the bosom of our mother’s family. I remember riding through long stretches of countryside with the train running parallel to a wide, slow-flowing river (I felt sure that it was the Rhine, but never really knew), and remember pulling into a grand train station at Frankfort. But besides the spectre of Skopje that hovered dimly at the edges of my consciousness, there were the grim, grey overcoated border guards who boarded the train periodically in the night—in what must have been Yugoslavia and again in Hungary. I knew nothing then of the Eastern Bloc or the Cold War, and thankfully there was no need for me to have any dealings with them nor they with me, but I felt the chill of their presence in contrast to the carefree merriment of the students returning from their summer holidays.
That long-ago journey has returned to my mind again and again over the past few weeks, as thousands of displaced families have braved perilous Mediterranean crossings from Turkey to Greece and on foot to Hungary, where they have waited day after day for a train to take them across Europe. The memories of the children in these families will be so different from my sunny recollections of the Sixties youth culture, as I rode through the days and nights in the students’ boisterous embrace, moving from country to country with only the slightly jarring awareness of the border guards to remind me that we were crossing a national border.
In 1963 the European Union (then the European Economic Community (EEC)) included only six countries; Britain was still hemming and hawing over whether or not to join and wouldn’t do so until 1973, ten years later; Greece, not for eight years more, in 1981; Austria, not until 1995; and Hungary still later, in 2004, when the Eurozone swelled to include ten more countries. Yugoslavia was to go through a protracted and bloody breakup in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by economic restructuring, crusading Serbian nationalism (remember Slobodan Milošević?), and violence against ethnic minorities. But back in 1963 Yugoslavia had just been renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito was firmly in power, holding it all together—for a time.
The European Union sought to unite Europe as a regional economic community, doing away with separate passports and working to develop a culture of inclusion. But with politicians and anti-immigrant groups whipping up panic over ‘barbarians at the gates,’ Europe has developed a siege mentality and is shutting down its borders again, fearful of the ‘swarms’, ‘floods’, tide’ of refugees, most of them non-Christians. As writer after writer reminds us in Granta Magazine’s timely special issue, The Refugee Crisis, Europe itself was torn apart by war not so very long ago, thrusting out thousands upon thousands of refugees seeking asylum elsewhere, many of them non-Christians as well.
When I see the heartbreaking images of the child victims of this conflict, I am reminded of how fortunate I was to have been given a warm welcome into Europe. My family was taken up into that train full of returning European holidaymakers and transported readily across its rolling green countryside; many of these families were driven from their homes, herded into camps, fleeced by unscrupulous smugglers, and then denied entry as they arrived sick and bedraggled at the fences of Fortress Europe. Europe and the United States are deeply embroiled in that war in Syria. The more than four million people displaced by it are the responsibility of us all, as the solidarity demonstrations across Europe have affirmed, as ordinary people march under banners urging, “Open the Borders,” shaming their governments, welcoming the refugees. As one homemade placard declared: We are One: there is no “Other.”