At a time when people are ruled by animals, and perhaps in an effort to ingratiate themselves, band together to form animal protection societies, there is perhaps not a lot of sense in talking about children, much less the children of refugees. But it still seems to me there’s a slight chance that a few people, even if they’d rather hear about parrots and sheepdogs than refugees, can’t quite bring themselves to be indifferent to the plight of children who were driven from their cradles as their elders were from their homes. Perhaps it may not be an entirely futile undertaking to show that not all children have the traditional look of so-called “childish innocence”; their early encounters with the Medusa have given them a different look.
There are many occasions in my life–too many–when I get to meet refugee children. Sometimes I meet them in the waiting room of the police prefecture, where, after having walked so far, they get a chance to wait: wait for instructions, restrictions, objections, rejections, evictions. I have to say I like spending time in waiting rooms. Partly on account of the children, of course, but partly on account of the suffering I encounter here. The accumulation of so much grief makes it, so I’ve found, a little more bearable.
In the beginning, as I was first making myself acquainted with the sufferings brought on by our hospitality, I supposed that children would know little or nothing about the misfortunes visited upon their parents. And it was on account of their ignorance and their unawareness that I felt sorrier for them than for their parents. It’s a fairly easy matter to believe that an ignorant human creature, a child, in fact, with that fabled expression of “childish innocence” in its eyes, would suffer more than a grownup who sees and who knows. Them imagine my surprise when I came to understand that the children knew more than their parents! And then, imagine what pain I felt on their behalf! Because–is there anything more painful than seeing knowing children? They know more than their parents. They see so clearly and pitilessly, that in fact it’s the parents who seem to have a look of childish innocence about them. That should tell you something about the times we’re living in! The children know–and their elders beside them seem to have no idea. No idea how they fell into the clutches of their terrible destiny, and there beside them are their knowing children, whose disillusioned eyes seem past the point of expressing accusation, and are already offering them forgiveness.
From The white cities: reports from France 1925-39 by Joseph Roth (b. 2nd September 1894, d. 27th May 1939), translated by Michael Hoffman.