Please listen to this story about two little pieces of chocolate in Bergen-Belsen. “We’ll keep this for a day when you… really need help,” Francine’s mother had said to her.
I was flooded with thoughts and feeling watching this, and did actually have a cry at the very end (you might too). Stories like this are embedded in me from a life-time of reading and films, and I know that the tales of moments that never fail to move or touch one’s emotional core, illustrate acts of love.
What’s the point – I mean this literally, not rhetorically – of re-living the Holocaust if it’s not to learn and act upon lessons about the ways people treat each other? I can sit cozily and listen to Francine tell a sad and beautiful tale, and meanwhile human beings fleeing the worst kind of war violence continue to die on boats and face detention in prison-like conditions upon arrival in Europe. But what I can draw from Francine’s story is that taking care of each other is good; sharing, empathy, consideration, and at the most basic level, simple acts of kindness, don’t perhaps solve gigantic problems but do heal small wounds, and are appreciated and remembered. This isn’t enough, obviously, but sometimes it’s the most we can do.
It’s been a long writer’s block of a month that I’ve so far failed to write about my experience in Calais, because I have nothing conclusive to say. I don’t have answers for the large geo-political questions of human migration within the context of a world of borders and economies administered within them. But I was very touched to meet refugees in Calais, small moments which were astounding opportunities to be this kind of human, to represent as an individual the generosity flows from people across the UK responding to the crisis with love and openness in their hearts rather than hatred and fear. They do this through constant personal time and effort to get donations of money and goods which they bring to France (and elsewhere); many more participate in Calais and elsewhere, preparing massive amounts of food (let alone projects that are medical, educational, building, and legal in nature). I really felt how being able to offer a plate of sustenance thus derived was an extreme privilege and precious gift as much as receiving that plate of food might be. This experience felt like a good and right personal response to dire human predicaments, and a community action that will be remembered historically– some people did THIS while governments failed and public xenophobia grew.
Several men in the refugee encampment that was “The Jungle” asked me for chocolate, specifically, such a universal food that certain people desire with a special intensity, for it’s power to comfort, energise and restore – as Francine’s mother knew. I didn’t have any with me and the delicious Refugee Community Kitchen desserts we were serving that day were lovely chewy flapjack-like confections that despite everything they were, were not chocolate. “Sorry, no,” I would respond, trying to convey empathy for that specific need, in itself and for all the needs in the tidal wall beyond that small one.
I keep thinking about those requests, coming from people who’d fled harrowing circumstances, survived insanely rough journeys, now living in existential limbo in the muddy alleyways of a pop-up shantytown suburb … And I wonder about these people now, living who-knows-where, since the virtual clearance of that rough, temporary home in the dunes of a waste-site on the outskirts of Calais… If I return, I will try to have a little chocolate to share.