This week has been a kind of Hannah Arendt refresher. In preparation for Wednesday’s VIFF screening of Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt (Ada Ushpiz, 2015), I watched again excerpts of Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2013) and brushed up on some of the Arendt texts that sit on my shelf and speak down at me from time to time.
Vita Activa quoted from the essay “We Refugees” which Arendt wrote to fellow exiled Jews in 1943. A 34 year old, she had been in the US for 3 years when it was published. Her statelessness in the US (it took more than 10 years for her to become naturalized) came after experiencing the refugee condition outside of Germany in France before her internment at Camp Gurs as an “enemy alien.” Although philosophy, thinking, and writing are widely celebrated as the Arendt legacies, she was also directly involved in assisting European refugees other than herself, especially Jewish children who were relocated through the organization Youth Aliya. This text offers a link between her refugee condition and experiences and her theories.
In “We Refugees” Arendt calls out a trend that she was noticing of Jews assimilating into American society with a kind of forced optimism. Her essay pointedly sought an explanation for the rash of suicides she was witnessing among non-religious Jewish refugees and émigrés, despite outward positivity and denial of Jewishness. Arendt was a secular Jew who challenged Zionist nationalism. In her involvement n the Zionist movement, she had lobbied for a Jewish-Arab Palestine rather than a Jewish state, specifically in resistance to the pitfalls of nationalism. It is from this perspective that she is writing about herself and her exiled people as “We Refugees.” Nationalism from Arendt’s perspective produced the holocaust and would do so again if people forgot its tendency to eliminate history and difference. In this essay she writes, “Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.” So the memories of the refugee, found throughout Jewish history, are in fact a weapon against nationalism and totalitarianism. To identify as a refugee, as shameful as that would have been in the middle of the 20th century, is to gain a history that has not been whitewashed or forgotten –one that refuses a xenophobic future. She ends the essay this way, “Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of ‘indecency,’ get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles.”
I am entering this text into the Migration Library because of this video from the 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival. In it Hannah Arendt’s “We Refugees” is spoken in public by actor Mechelle Moe. Following her reading, the dramaturg Maren Robinson and Moe invite the audience to respond. In the discussion from the floor a Mexican immigrant brings this text into the present with her stories of attending immigration offices, where each appointment and interview was preceded with the question, “What is your alien number?” The woman, a university professor who attends these appointments (medical and bureaucratic) with her daughter, describes the chilling effect of being de-personalized in this way on her child, her Jewish husband, as well as herself.
This audience member’s telling of her experience in public, reminds me of another contribution that Arendt made to the subject of public agency and the role of story. From The Human Condition (in the “Action” chapter), Arendt describes the active element of story telling, “Action reveals itself fully to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants.” It is a provocative challenge to the truth of the past that is characteristic of Arendt’s theorizing. Arendt’s provocation is for the voices of those who experienced trauma in the past to be ever-present, and for those of us who witness the telling to let the stories take action –let them actively challenge how politics are practiced in the present.