‘We must take control of our borders, we must build the wall’, cry our leaders, and then they carry out their promises. The rich may fly overhead freely, because you are always welcome if you are packing a wad of cash, however dark the secrets in your heart. If you are a young mother with a pure heart carrying your babe through the mud and nothing but fear at your back and hope to sustain you, all you will find is the wall.
We will not let you in.
There are good people, of course, who protest, who write excellent letters to their newspapers, who even to go to help, and the radio and TV journalists and experts debate the matter wisely.
Here though is a personal reflection on why borders across Europe do not turn me on.
I begin with an obscure village in Transylvania. War had swept over the continent and mothers feared for their children. Agnes decided to send her little twin boys to the haven of her parents’ farm. Her parents were well loved in their village, her father’s best friend was the pastor, they would be very far from harm.
And then the border changed.
The Nazis gifted Transylvania to their Hungarian fascist friends. Romania under King Michael was left with the rump.
Then the Hungarians started systematically hunting down the Jews.
They found every single one. No little village was safe.
The farmer hitched his best horses to the cart when the gendarmes came to take him and his wife away, and the twins were excited to be going on a trip. The villagers wept and protested but to no avail.
And then they were gone, and never came back. Later, their mother and father were taken too. They never came back. Agnes died in Auschwitz and he, on the long march of hunger homewards.
Across the border, in the Romanian part, the rest of the family survived. The royal family resisted deportations. Agnes’ sisters lived. One of them was my grandmother. That border was a line which determined fates, a line between death and life.
After the war the Iron Curtain was raised across Europe, and in some places even a Wall was built to divide family from family: more borders. A young man, my father, dreamed of freedom but the only way over the border was dangerous. He tried once, swimming out to a ship anchored off the coast. The alarm sounded and the captain would not grant him refuge.
He swam back, the guards shot, and as a child I always asked him to show me the mark of the bullet wound on his leg.
That scar is faint now but it is line marked in flesh, another border.
Love saved my father, and he managed to get out. With my mother they sailed off on their boat to travel the world. We didn’t have money and the boat’s engine broke down in Corsica. We went back to England for the winter and in the spring returned. We took the cheapest ferry in the middle of the night, my brother and I perched on the back seat above all the gear and the new self-steering equipment. In the dark middle of the night as we arrived in France we were stopped by customs and everything in the car turned out. They made us pay 800 francs duty, money my parents did not have. England had not joined the common market yet.
I was seven years old and I remember so well the unfriendly French customs and the dark night of the border at the Channel. I wonder who of those people now wanting us to leave the EU and get our borders back remembers that? Remembers long dark nights in the company of suspicious officials. Those are just memories now as those borders are gone: by the Channel, and where my father tried his luck and was shot for his troubles, we now have free movement. Freedom is precious and not to be given away lightly.
These personal memories, and the blood history of my family, I offer to you so you understand why Borders Do Not Turn Me On.
My grandmother never left Transylvania, even while her son was sailing the seven seas. Every three years she was allowed a passport to come visit us. By the time I was a teenager in the 1980s it was very bad in Romania. Food was rationed and the family sent us lists of groceries to buy and bring over the border.
Several times I took the long train ride from Germany with a laden rucksack I could barely lift. Coffee beans, sugar, chocolate…
The train always arrived at the Hungarian-Romanian border in that part of the night sailors on watch call the graveyard shift. In the stillness that settled over us as the train ceased to move, we would wait for hours in our crowded compartment and the blood would drain from the faces of my fellow passengers as we heard the voices of the officials coming along the corridor. Their faces were hard and cold and the passengers were cowed and submissive. I wondered what illicit goods they had in their bags. I worried too that they would confiscate my food but after a cursory glance and a few questions they passed on. The tension drained out of the compartment.
That border has gone now.
But will it come back? Is it not already there, the hard-faced officials in the night?
There are some who are shouting now for control of our borders, for wire fences, for more lines to be drawn, and this sort of talk no doubt makes them feel better, and maybe even turns them on.
But those borders I hit up against in my childhood and youth, and the borders which sliced my family in two, are all gone now, and I do not mourn their passing.