Dignity and the Refugee Crises — Then and Now: New Materials from Israel

In the discussion of dignity as a historical category, it is critically important to include the challenges to the evolving understanding of dignity and the human condition during the past and current refugee crises. While the public discourse often focuses on the military campaigns, it is equally worthwhile to consider the aftermath of such conflicts and specifically the human dimensions of the post-conflict periods. Much insight into the current European refugee crisis can be gained from the new testimonials of the Jewish refugees from the Western territories of the Soviet Union during World War II. Collected through an outstanding effort of a Russian-Israeli grass-roots organization, Chazit Ha-Kavod (Движение «За достойное будущее»), the testimonials of Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors currently residing in Israel who were children-refugees represent a treasure trove of extensive narratives covering (1) the evacuation to Central Asia or Siberia from Western USSR and the Baltic States, (2) the extreme hardships of refugee experience, including starvation, homelessness, and violence, and (3) the return home from evacuation to face local hostility as well as the aftermath of the German atrocities, to find entire families lost to the Holocaust, and to deal with severe social, political, and economic consequences of the war.

In its pursuit to assure a dignified future, i.e. a financially secure retirement in Israel, to these former children refugees, Chazit Ha-Kavod has persistently lobbied the Knesset for the recognition of these refugees as victims of the Holocaust and has consequently succeeded in gaining new financial allocations from German restitution funds in 2014. Aiming to increase the dignity of old age of those affected by the evacuation, Chazit Ha-Kavod effectively positioned that increasing their quality of life in the present would alleviate some of the hardships and privations they suffered in the past. Indeed, by recognizing the hardships suffered by the Russian-Jewish refugees during and after World War II and by changing their legal status in Israel, the Israeli government expanded the pool of persons considered victims of Nazi persecution. Their collected testimonials (thus far not translated into English) were used as evidence for challenging the definition of victimhood and the understanding of dignity while foregrounding the role of the state in deciding what does or does not constitute a dignified treatment of refugees. These narratives shed considerable new light on the permutations of our understanding of such concepts as migration, evacuation, displacement, and dislocation, and offer a unique opportunity for new historical research on the subject of dignity. My presentation will provide an overview of the testimonials and the main narrative themes related to the refugee experience and the ways it comes to bear on the decisions made by two states: by the USSR during 1941–1945 and by Israel in the last decade.