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Once They Had a Country

Two Teenage Refugees in the Second World War

Written by Muriel R. Gillick

Publication Year: 2010

Muriel Gillick draws from a remarkable set of primary source materials, including letters, telegrams, and police records to relate the story of two teenage refugees during World War II. Once They Had a Country conveys well what it was like to establish a new life in a foreign country—over and over again and in constant fear for one’s life. The work tells of the extraordinary experiences of the author’s parents in Europe and demonstrates how citizens and the governments of Belgium, France, Switzerland, Brazil, America, China, and postwar Germany treated refugees. This story also reveals the origins of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the basis of contemporary international law affecting refugees in many countries today.


In addition to the dramatic human story it tells, this work brings the plight of refugees home to the reader—and with over 8 million refugees worldwide today, the subject of how individuals and nation states respond to these individuals is indeed timely.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-7

January 30, 1939, was bitter cold in Cologne, Germany, but that did not deter thousands from marching in a parade celebrating the sixth anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s accession to power. Thousands more lined the streets to cheer on the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung (SA) and the black-uniformed Schutzstaffel (SS) as they goose-stepped through the streets, playing martial music, carry-...

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1. Becoming Refugees

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pp. 8-17

The train station in Cologne was a noisy, chaotic place, filled with Germans fleeing the country and with Gestapo trying to prevent them from taking anything of value with them. On that momentous day in January 1939 when thirteen-year-old Ilse and fourteen-year-old Hans left their homeland for-...

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2. The Alarm Sounds

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pp. 18-36

On her way to school on the morning of November 10, 1938, Ilse was shocked by the many shattered store windows and the piles of glass on the streets. The atmosphere was strangely quiet, ominous and oppressive. She sensed some-thing was terribly wrong. She could never have imagined what lay in store for Shortly after classes began, SS storm troopers...

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3. From B

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pp. 37-50

In January 1939 Ilse’s life had revolved around school, home, and a small circle of friends—that dwindled as, one by one, her classmates left the country. She was seldom allowed to go out on her own: it was too dangerous, with the Hitler Jugend on the prowl, looking for easy targets for their venom. ...

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4. Refugees in the Free Zone

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pp. 51-64

The dazed, dirty, and hungry children who emerged from the bus into the french sunlight were so glad to have arrived somewhere, anywhere, that the youngest ones forgot to cry and the oldest ones forgot to worry. ...

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5. Lord of the Flies in Reverse

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pp. 65-83

The refugee children’s new home, situated at the foot of the Pyrenees, was an imposing structure surrounded by ivy-covered stone walls. A massive door led to a courtyard, framed by towers on both sides. Green hills surrounded the castle, with groves of cypresses and chestnut trees nearby. ...

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6. “The Lifeboat Is Full” [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 84-109

by December 1942 the children and the director of La Hille realized they no longer had any legal means of leaving France. In desperation, and without the authorization of the Swiss Red Cross, Rösli näf mapped out an escape route to Switzerland for the older teenagers, those at greatest risk of arrest and...

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7. What They Were Running From

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pp. 110-119

When Julius Garfunkel moved his family from the oppressive confines of Osterode to the comparative freedom of Berlin, he left all his furniture behind. In a bold testment to his belief in a prosperous future, he spent a fortune on a plush new sofa, a majestic dining room table of fine German wood,...

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8. Transmigrants

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pp. 120-135

In the fall of 1943, Hans finally had a lucky break. He received permission to be a full-time high school student, to leave the work camp, and to live with a family in Zurich. This change reflected a moderation in the policy of...

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9. Refuge in Shanghai

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pp. 136-147

In April 1939 Lotte and Hermann Wulff set sail for Shanghai, the “city above the sea,” as the two Chinese characters spelling its name denote. The port stands on mudflats, barely above sea level. Known variously as the Paris of the far East and the opium capital of the world, Shanghai in the 1930s had...

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10. Post- Traumatic Stress

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pp. 148-162

A week after pleading with the authorities to release him from the work camp, Hans woke up to find that he could not get out of bed. He was unable to walk. The camp staff carried Hans down the mountain on a stretcher to the town of Brig. ...

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11. Brazilian Detour

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pp. 163-173

Hans’s tickets arrived in the mail in September 1946. The distance from Bern, Switzerland, to Sao Paulo, Brazil, is six thousand miles as the crow flies, but given the need to refuel and the limited demand for international travel, airplanes followed a more circuitous route than the hypothetical crow. ...

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12. “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor”

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pp. 174-186

The SS A. Mitchell Palmer arrived from Brazil at the pier in Staten Island October 10, 1947, two days before Columbus Day. Waiting for Hans were Hanni Schlimmer (now married and going by the name Hannah Schild) and Herbert Strauss. ...

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pp. 187-200

It has been over sixty years since my parents arrived in the United States to start new lives: sixty years since Ilse stood on the deck of the SS America while her fellow refugees sang and cried as they passed the Statute of liberty steadfastly holding the torch of freedom high above her head; sixty years...


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pp. 201-213

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A Note on Sources

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pp. 215-217

Literature on the period 1933 to 1945, which has ballooned into mammoth proportions, includes comprehensive histories, excursions into narrow historical realms, and assorted memoirs. For me, the first two volumes in Richard Evans’s trilogy, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2001) and...


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pp. 219-224

E-ISBN-13: 9780817383992
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817356200

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2010