Famous Refugees of Fact and Fiction

Most refugees never become famous at all, seen simply as part of a sea of faces. Very occasionally someone becomes famous for being a refugee. But there are times when someone becomes famous and people simply forget that they ever were a refugee.

I don’t suggest that being a refugee should perpetually define anyone. But it’s as well to remember that refugees aren’t only those people, they’re these people as well.

Take, for example Jesus, Mary & Joseph, who fled Roman-occupied Israel for Egypt when Jesus was only a tiny tot. The wise men from the East having inadvertently outed the baby as “born to be king of the Jews”, he was squarely in the sights of Herod the (so-called) Great – whose paranoia about takeovers was so strong that he had, at various times, had his mother-in-law, wife, and three sons whacked. Just to be on the safe side, Herod issued an order that all the little boys of a likely age in the region where Jesus was born should be exterminated… but Joseph had been warned and so Jesus escaped.

Moving forward with a leap to the twentieth century (hup!) we get to a fictional family (also Jewish) living in Russia. They also fall foul of a powerful ruler – in this case, Tsar Nicholas II – and are driven out amid a backdrop of state-sponsored pogroms. Sounds like a cheery subject for a stage musical, doesn’t it? Tevye and family, from Fiddler on the Roof.

Speaking of stage musicals, the Von Trapp family appear on both fictional and non-fictional lists, The Sound of Music being somewhat fictionalized. Driven from occupied Austria by the Nazis’ plans for Captain Baron Von Trapp, they took refuge in America, but their experiences undeniably left marks on the family. (Have a read about them; theirs is a fascinating story.)

Hopping backward in time slightly – and moving back into the purely fictional realm – we have Monsieur Hercule Poirot. It isn’t often brought up, but he initially comes to England as a refugee during World War I. His first appearance is in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, wherein he investigates the murder of the wealthy woman who has given a home to him and his compatriots. After the war, he stays on… and, of course, thrives.

Alas, the real refugees were not always so lucky. The Frank family fled Germany for the Netherlands when the Nazis came to power, but in due course the Netherlands too were invaded. They tried to escape again, to the USA, but doors closed in their faces: they were Germans, and therefore suspect. After all, the government reasoned, with family still in Nazi Germany, they might be able to be blackmailed into acting as spies. So the Franks remained in the Netherlands, until they were sent away to the concentration camps.

Others were more fortunate. Albert Einstein was already in the USA on academic business when Hitler came to power, and sensibly decided to stay where he was. For a refugee, he was a many-stated man: his citizenship listing on Wikipedia has seven listings (including, admittedly, “stateless” for five years) and he was offered more.

Conrad Veidt 1-M-2579Another who took refuge in the USA was Conrad Veidt. A popular film actor, he was not himself Jewish, but when compelled to state his race for the authorities, he put down “Jew” – because his new wife was Jewish. (Goebbels: He will never act in Germany again.) Veidt and his wife then fled to Britain, and subsequently, when it appeared Britain was in danger of invasion, to the US. He kept busy appearing in anti-Nazi propaganda films, but died suddenly (golfing heart-attack) in 1943.

Peasants, singers, scientist, actor, diarist, detective, Messiah… The next time you see a mention of refugees in the media, try to see past the sea of faces to a single face, and wonder who they are beyond “refugee” – and who they might yet live to be.

Unexpected Fame

Fame is a chancy thing. It is well known for flitting off the second your back is turned (nothing so fickle as fame) but it is also fond of landing on people when they least expect it – or leaping out on them from an unanticipated direction.

the-fame-of-the-arts-830002_640Of course, most of us will never be famous at all (there isn’t room) but some who become famous do so for entirely unanticipated reasons; reasons which sometimes eclipse a fame-worthy effort in another direction.

Take Margaret Mead for example. She is perhaps more widely known for the quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” than for her work as a cultural anthropologist. This is almost painfully ironic, considering that there is no proof that she ever said or wrote it.

To take another example, from The Illustrated History of the Housewife by Una A. Robertson, “Scotland’s Lady Grisell Baillie, of Mellerstain, near Kelso, is now better known through her book of domestic accounts than for her childhood heroism in saving her father’s life.” Thus proving that even the most dramatic of acts can be overlooked in retrospect, particularly if you leave behind solid documentary evidence of something else. (Another good argument for keeping a diary: distracting posterity from those things you’d rather it forgot.) Indeed, it is possible to become famous simply because you kept a diary.

Anne Frank Diary at Anne Frank Museum in BerlinWho knows? Perhaps Richard Dawkins may someday be remembered as the coiner of the word-of-the-age, ‘meme’ – meaning a cultural thing that is copied or transmitted in a similar way to biological data such as genes. He is, after all, a biologist – despite his outspoken opinions on other things, such as reading fairy tales to one’s children.

To be fair, while he initially said it was “pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism,” he then decided that perhaps fairy tales encouraged the “spirit of scepticism” in children and were therefore permissible. This all comes rather oddly from someone who claims that “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Pitiless he may or may not be, but he certainly doesn’t seem indifferent.

Dawkins has had some bad press in the past, so perhaps it would be only kind to begin associating him with that queen of memes, the captioned kitty. Considering his opinions on, for example, Down’s Syndrome, this would seem a good place to start:

Grumpy Cat dislikes your existenceFor another example of unintentional fame, take Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He might have thought he would achieve fame for his political achievements – he was Secretary of State for the Colonies at a time when Britain was by no means short of them – or for turning down the position of King of Greece. He probably dreaded the thought of becoming famous for inspiring Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White, by having his (sane) wife committed to an insane asylum when she campaigned against his election to Parliament. He may have hoped that he would become famous for his novels, but probably not the way it happened: his fame has been almost entirely eclipsed by one of his opening lines.

It was a dark and stormy night… Of course, that isn’t so bad, if you’re the first to write it (which he was). If only he had left it at that, instead of extending the sentence to read It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Ludwig Munthe - Stadttheater und Alleestraße (1891)This subsequently inspired some of the right-thinking sort to start a competition for execrable opening sentences: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This year’s submissions close next week (Thursday June 30th), so why not have a crack at it? If, like Edward B-L, you can become famous for a single line, why bother writing the rest of the novel?

The moral of the story (yes, sorry Mr Dawkins, this is one of those pernicious stories that have morals to them) is that it pays to be careful what you do, or write, or say, because you may become famous for something you didn’t mean to. Or something you didn’t even mean. Or even, like Margaret Mead, something you didn’t even say, but there is (alas!) not much you can do about that.