Thursday, 21 April 2016

The girl on the dockside

At a time when immigration is such a burning topic again, and immigrants so harshly received – to reverse the Pope’s words, numbers first and humans second – I’m constantly reminded of an image that has been with me for decades, of a three-year old clutching a potty in one hand, and her mother’s hand with the other, while her mother is holding the girl’s baby brother.

They are in a seaport of a deeply unfriendly nation, whose people have on more than one occasion visited deadly violence against their own. They’re about to travel a thousand miles to the west, to a nation they know little about and which speaks a language they have never learned. They are doing so because the husband/father of this little family had written to say “join me”, after having spent the previous year living there and making a life for his family.

Why had he gone? He was both a skilled craftsman and a perceptive observer of the world.

His craft was the design of shoe uppers for misshapen feet. He could take a foot, deformed from birth or by accident, and by feeling it with his hands, learn enough to build the upper to fit it (the soles he would leave to others).

As an observer, he really did watch the whole world, and not just his part of it. He had, in particular, kept a sharp eye on a region many thousands of miles east of where his family would catch their boat: he’d monitored with increasing interest events in a part of north-east China then known as Manchuria.

As the Chinese Empire failed, the Great Powers of the World seized themselves rich and advantageous positions within Chinese territory. The Western nations, and that now included the United States, emerging already as the new and redoubtable military and economic force on the international scene, had grabbed “concessions” and “treaty ports” where they could carry on trade on highly advantageous terms and even impose their own law.

Have you ever enjoyed a Tsingtao beer with a Chinese meal? It’s probably the best-known beer out of China. It resembles a German lager. That’s no coincidence: Tsingtao, on China’s North East coast, was a German holding, and the Germans established the brewery which continues to produce that beer to this day.

Japan had seized Korea, where China had previously held sway. The Northern border of Korea abutted the south of Manchuria. And there the Russians were building themselves what was euphemistically called a ‘sphere of influence.’

For centuries Russian strategy had been to find a warm-sea port. That’s a port which would not be frozen in the winter unlike, say, St Petersburg in the West or Vladivostok in the Far East. Manchuria gave them several such ports, most notably Port Arthur.

The Russians denied any intention to annex the territory – in other words, they ostensibly recognised that it was under Chinese sovereignty. No one was taken in. Least of all the Japanese, who felt sure that the Russian occupation of Manchuria would eventually lead to a threat to their (equally illegitimate) control of Korea.

Japan had deliberately isolated itself from the rest of the world at the start of the seventeenth century. It had only re-emerged as part of the world order some thirty years earlier. It was regarded as a growing power, but still far from one to take seriously. Neither its army nor its navy had proven itself, and their strength was not regarded as impressive.

A mistaken assessment, it would eventually transpire.

Why was this of interest to our orthopaedic shoe maker? Because it seemed to him that the worsening situation on the Manchurian-Korean border would eventually lead to war. Hundreds of thousands would die for a cause in which he felt absolutely no interest. He was, at it happens, a subject of the Russian Tsar, but that was not a matter of choice to him. His home city, indeed, is today the capital of an independent nation, Lithuania.

He had already spent seven years in the Tsar’s army. Why? Because rather like African Americans in the US Army in Vietnam, he belonged to a group regarded as expendable and liable to call up for all the least attractive and most dangerous jobs: the Jews.

He’d done his time in the army, and then some. He had no intention of becoming a soldier again, and certainly no wish to suffer death or injury by doing so. He decided it was time to try his luck in England. By great good fortune, he was allowed to immigrate, no doubt because of his skill. So he went to England ahead of the family, making contact in London with a Jewish agency that supported immigrants, but finding work reasonably quickly, so that he was able to send for his wife and children within a twelvemonth.

Which is why the little girl turned up on a dockside clutching the family potty.

The Russo-Japanese War: well worth avoiding

The following year, war broke out between Russia and Japan. To the world’s astonishment, especially the Russians’, the Japanese turned out to be formidable opponents. They won a string of bloody but decisive battles on land and, when the Russians sent a new fleet around to the Pacific, cut it to pieces too in a comprehensive victory at sea.

But by then, the shoemaker was well out of the way, bringing up his family in London. England, however, was no more generous to immigrants then than today, and that family was one of only few who were allowed in. Ninety of their relatives remained in Vilna, present-day Vilnius. Not one of them made it through the Holocaust. No trace even of their fate survived.

The little girl eventually became my grandmother. Later in her life, she decided to commit some of her memories to paper in the form of short stories. That’s where the image of the three-year old waiting to board her ship first came to me.

I’m grateful to Britain for having taken her in, particularly as my mother and I both still live in that country and are, as my grandmother became, deeply English. It’s only sad that my compatriots today seem as intent as ever on doing the least they possibly can to help today’s fleeing migrants.

Especially given that we now know what happens to the ones left behind.

The little girl, 27 years on


Faith A. Colburn said...

I think, going by the numbers, England--the UK--has been more generous than the U.S. with all our resources. the safest country in the world is still scared of its own tail. I sometimes wonder if this overarching fear isn't about our chickens coming home to roost. We haven't built very good karma during this past century.

David Beeson said...

Oh, I don't think the UK has much to feel superior about, morally, towards the US. But there IS an irony in a country built by immigrants being so afraid of refugees...