A refugee’s escape, 80 years ago

André Schiffrin escaped France to New York in 1941, just like some of the New Zealand dead were refugees themselves. 
André Schiffrin escaped France to New York in 1941, just like some of the New Zealand dead were refugees themselves.  Photo Credit: Courtesy of the NYSNA

André Schiffrin, who became a media titan and publisher of Pantheon Books, came to New York City in 1941. At 6 years old, he was young enough to be upset he’d lost his Donald Duck toy on the trans-Atlantic crossing, old enough to remember seeing swastika-stamped passports on the way out of Marseille.

I happened to start reading Schiffrin’s book “A Political Education” this weekend, while some of the 50 dead were still unburied after a white supremacist mass shooting in New Zealand. The book is about Schiffrin’s political development, but first it details how his family fled Paris and sought a safe haven here. The journey wasn’t straightforward and the haven ended up being complicated. Eighty years have passed and the refugees were then Jewish and now Muslim, but it’s hard to see how much else has changed.  

There were the visa difficulties, the countries not exactly opening their arms. During the German occupation of France, Schiffrin’s father was fired from his job for being Jewish, and the family began searching for a boat to America.

“Since arriving in Marseille, we have undergone a new kind of torture,” writes Schiffrin’s father in a letter to a friend included in the book. “Arrangements are made and then unmade in the same day. That is, once we have gotten all the necessary papers, visas, ticket, passports, etc., the next step fails and all is lost.”

There were other false starts and stops and a delay in Casablanca and the horrendous cramped quarters of the boat that Schiffrin hardly finds it in him to describe, harrowing as it must have been: “Basically, each crossing had the same story. The refugees were deprived even of the originality of their suffering.”

But they were the lucky ones, they made it out, escaped the concentration camps and bombings. And when they arrived in New York, they found some of the same prejudice and dangers that had threatened them back home. Schiffrin writes of getting beat up by Christian classmates at Robert F. Wagner Public School in Manhattan, “for having killed their Christ.” And there was the barbed wire fence he and his parents encountered near Ocean Beach on Long Island, beyond which, he says they were told, Jews were not welcome.

The victims at Al Noor Mosque and elsewhere in New Zealand faced far worse, as a killer focused on whiteness and addled by the internet killed worshipers on Friday. Many were immigrants, from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, some fleeing violence of one sort or another, then finding it again in a peaceful place.

The killer left a manifesto referencing American murders and the American president, Donald Trump, whom he called “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

Trump denied any philosophical link to the killer, and again downplayed the dangers of white supremacy. It was yet another moment when Trump tapped into a long tradition of American bias: his court-challenged policy that banned entry of most citizens from various Muslim-majority countries. A tendency to say things like this: “I think Islam hates us.”

And policies that in various ways have limited the number of refugees and immigrants allowed to escape to American shores.

So there are others who have something like Schiffrin’s story today, years formative or otherwise of travel, uncertainty, and flight even while attempting to live life as usual. Schiffrin, who died in 2013, wrote that even once settled in New York, his refugee mindset remained: “When some friends of my parents asked if I wanted a bicycle, I told them it would have to be a foldable one so that I could take it with me when next we had to move."