Migrant crisis - In Europe

Echoes of how Nazis treated Jews in WWII

Migrants struggle to enter a bus which takes them further into Austria at the Hungarian-Austrian border in Nickelsdorf, eastern Austria, on Sept 5, 2015.
Migrants struggle to enter a bus which takes them further into Austria at the Hungarian-Austrian border in Nickelsdorf, eastern Austria, on Sept 5, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

BUDAPEST • In Hungary, hundreds of migrants surrounded by armed police officers were tricked into boarding a train with promises of freedom, only to be taken to a "reception" camp.

In the Czech Republic, police

hustled more than 200 migrants off a train and wrote identification numbers on their hands with indelible markers, stopping only when someone pointed out that this was more than a little like the tattoos the Nazis put on concentration camp inmates. Razor-wire fences rise along national borders in Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary and France. Many political leaders stoke rising nationalism by portraying the migrants as dangerous outsiders whose foreign cultures and Muslim religion could overwhelm cherished traditional ways.

"It was horrifying when I saw those images of police putting numbers on people's arms," said Chief Rabbi Robert Frolich of Hungary. "It reminded me of Auschwitz. And then putting people on a train with armed guards to take them to a camp... There are echoes of the Holocaust."

Europeans are facing one of the continent's worst humanitarian crises since World War II, yet many seem blind to images that recall that blackest time in their history. This migrant crisis is no genocide. The issue is how to register, house, resettle or repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees, a daunting logistical challenge.

But perhaps not since Jews were rounded up by Nazi Germany have there been as many images of people locked into trains, babies handed over barbed wire, and men in military gear herding large crowds of men, women and children.

At the same time, the images may reveal a deeper truth about Europe: While extolling the virtues of human rights and humanism, it remains, in many parts, a place resistant to immigration and diversity.

"They must be oblivious because who would do that if they had any historical memory whatsoever," said Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth.

The historical parallels are sometimes inescapable.

The migrant-crowded train station in Szeged, the southern Hungarian city nearest to the Serbian border, contains a decades-old memorial to the victims of World War II. It shows a series of railroad carriages with pleading arms protruding from the windows. In Budapest, at the Keleti train station, whose periphery has been turned into a squalid migrant camp, the first train that came to take away desperate migrants last Thursday - ostensibly for the Austrian border, actually for a detention camp - chugged into the station behind a locomotive bearing the slogan "1989 Europe Without Borders".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'Echoes of how Nazis treated Jews in WWII'. Print Edition | Subscribe