The heartrending pictures and accounts of the rivers of men, women and terrified children who survived the rickety boats of the Aegean and treks through the Balkans to reach the portals of Western Europe brought back old but equally poignant images of the sufferings of war.
They also brought back the conflicted feelings and politics of Europe and America — even way down here in the heart of obscurity — that followed the great refugee flights from war. We are feeling and seeing those again, as Europe and now the United States argue over who should succor the civilian refuse of wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in which all of us, to a lesser or greater degree, are invested.
Leland Duvall, whose World War II letters to his girlfriend back at Pottsville, Ark., I compiled a few years ago for a book by the University of Arkansas Press, described the hordes of bedraggled people carrying their belongings on their backs or in toy wagons or wheelbarrows trudging aimlessly across the Rhineland and Belgium at the war's end.
V Day on May 8, 1945, had liberated the migrant-farm-worker-turned-gunnery-sergeant from the charming banter about soldiering that he had used in some 300 letters to keep Letty Jones from worrying about him. But at war's end came elegiac descriptions of battle and suffering, images that Duvall expected to banish from his consciousness once he was back on the mountain with her. He would forget the sting of shrapnel in the buttocks and "the sharp crack in the wind that a bullet makes when it passes overhead."
"Today," he wrote, "the air is heavy with the scent of lilacs and apple blossoms. Strange how soon the smell of powder and burning flesh can be filtered out by growing shrubs." He spotted wildflowers and blades of grass peeping through the rusting tracks of tanks and he knew now, he told her, that "not all the world is tired and hungry and looking for a place to spend the night under a shed before moving out on a road that leads into the unknown."
Then he would write about the blank faces and crying children that lined the roadsides on a vague westward journey or a village park he had just visited. "It is a sort of small-town Bowery or flophouse where the lost people can sleep and spend the night before pushing on to a destination that is unknown to them."
But Sgt. Duvall confessed to an awful ambivalence that tempered his pity. He suspected that many of them had once stood in the squares and roared "Sig Heil" at the Fuhrer and might have little sympathy for a GI if the Third Reich had turned out differently. Today's ambivalence about the largely Muslim exodus from south of the Bosporus rises from perhaps different fears.
Many who fled their homes at the end of the war and then the Soviet-occupied eastern territories found their way to the United States and to Arkansas and occasionally to residual hostility. Wladimir Naleszkiewicz was tortured and crippled in a Nazi concentration camp after the Warsaw uprising and later made his way out of Soviet Poland and to Arkansas, where in September 1957, in spite of a thick accent, he landed a job teaching economics to a handful of South Arkansas rubes at Henderson State Teachers College. (I'm still inordinately proud of two semesters of A's.)
But the next spring the Arkansas legislature passed laws to shut down the NAACP and other "subversive" groups that supported integration. They included Act 10, which required teachers in schools and colleges to file sworn affidavits with the state every year listing all the organizations to which they had belonged or contributed during the past five years, and Act 115, which barred NAACP members from holding any government job, including teaching.
Naleszkiewicz, who had come to America to escape the tyranny of the evil eye, refused to submit the affidavit, lost his job and repaired to free Kansas to teach. The U.S. Supreme Court later declared both acts to be unconstitutional limits on freedom of association.
A year earlier, in December 1956, President Eisenhower had offered asylum to 15,000 refugees from Hungary who had flooded into Vienna after the Soviet army brutally suppressed a revolt against the communist government in Budapest. The first to arrive in four silver planes in New Jersey were greeted by a message from Ike: "You have come among friends."
A few went to Arkansas, including young Garrick Feldman, who followed his wounded father across the Danube and became a courageous community newspaper editor.
Twice, under President Ford in 1975 and President Carter in 1980, the government designated Fort Chaffee as a resettlement center for refugees fleeing Vietnam and then Cuba. When the first of 50,000 Vietnamese arrived at Fort Chaffee (700,000 in all came to the U.S.), protesters met them at the gate with signs saying "Vietnamese Go Home!" Frank White, the Republican candidate for governor, blamed the Cubans' airlift to Fort Chaffee in 1980 on Gov. Bill Clinton's friendship with President Carter and invited people to blame Clinton when the Cubans took their jobs. White won.
Now, Europeans quarrel over who should pay for humanitarian care for the refugees from the Middle East and who should host them. The United States is far and away the biggest donor and the Obama administration said the country would raise the number of refugees it would accept, after background checks, to 100,000 in 2017.
The political phase begins. Echoing Eastern Europeans and getting the jump on all the other presidential candidates except one, Sen. Ted Cruz warned that none but Christians should set foot on U.S. soil. The one, of course, was our man Mike Huckabee, who said all those refugees washing up at Lesbos or crashing the gates in Hungary were not fleeing tyranny and hardship but merely wanting to go somewhere they could get the Disney Channel.