Ilya B., my great-grandfather, is buried in the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee in Berlin. He was born around 1880, into a middle-class family in Kiev, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Likemany Jews in Kiev at the time, he spoke Russian, not Ukrainian. Russian was the language of power, essential for minorities who wanted access to jobs or education. As in other parts of Europe, at various points in history, Jews were barred from certain occupations and many worked in mercantile professions. Being from a diaspora community and having a tradition of acquiring new languages gave some of them the international connections to pursue their business successfully. Ilya B. traded medical supplies, a job that sometimes took him west, to Germany and elsewhere.
In 1918, he left Kiev for good during the civil war that followed the 1917 Revolution. His office was smashed up by Ukrainian nationalists because it had Russian writing on the door. His family apartment was requisitioned by a communist militia and the next door neighbours were disappeared. Friends and relatives were shot at random in the street. Ilya B. was able to leave because he had the connections to get an exit visa on the pretext of a business trip; his wife and daughter were able to join him later because the family had the money for false permits and identity documents, and because they were lucky enough not to get caught or attacked as they walked across the border with Poland.
In the 1920s they settled in Berlin. Millions of Jews displaced from Eastern Europe made similar journeys west. Most of them were much poorer than my relatives, came from villages rather thancities and spoke Yiddish rather than Russian or German. Their journeys were harder and they had more difficulty finding places to live or ways to earn a living. Many of them followed a more orthodox form of Judaism. Germany was the most popular destination and their arrival generated a lot of hostility, although it wasn't universal. Some of the hostility came from other Jews. Some of those who had lived in Germany for a long time, and regarded themselves as assimilated, disdained the new arrivals for their poverty, their overcrowded apartments, their foreign ways and their apparent unwillingness to integrate. Among the new arrivals, some of the urban middle-class Russian speakers, like my great-grandfather's family, disdained the Yiddish-speaking villagers.
Ilya B. died in 1936. Weissensee, where he is buried, tells its own story about Berlin's Jewish community. It opened in 1880 and there are many grand tombs from the first few decades: family mausoleums and monuments with well-preserved messages carved into heavy stone. The gravestones get smaller and more demure as you enter the plots bought during the 1930s. Some have been added much later and show dates of death in the early 1940s.
The 1930s part of the cemetery is overgrown and little visited, although a few families have come back to restore their relatives' stones. Ilya B.'s is one of them. The date of death is correct; we still have the certificate, which is stamped with a swastika. The date of birth is wrong, but nobody knew the right one because his identity documents were false. When I was small I remember being taken to the bank by my grandmother, Ilya B.'s daughter. She got all her security questions wrong and then laughed because they were based on false documents, too. She came to Britain in 1939, when the UK was trying to keep its borders closed to refugees.
If some of this sounds similar to what's happening Europe today, that may be because I've chosen to include details that make the similarities apparent. But what's happening now is often presented as an unprecedented event, and the people arriving as especially foreign. This is heavily exaggerated, in a way that suits people who want authoritarian solutions to the border crisis. They often claim that some kinds of migrant are fine, but these newest arrivals are wrong because they're too different from 'us'. There's always a reasonable-sounding excuse for this kind of thinking, but it's incredibly destructive if left unchallenged.