Inside Story

In no-man’s land

The predicament of refugees at the Polish–Belarusian border evokes deportations to Poland in 1938 and a novel published in 1940

Klaus Neumann 1 October 2021 3893 words

Afghan refugees caught between Polish and Belarusian troops near Usnarz Gorny on the Polish-Belarusian border in August, before journalists and aid workers were excluded from the area. SOPA Images/Alamy

I often pass by an inconspicuous monument — a granite rock with a plaque — a few hundred metres from the Hamburg-Altona railway station. Only up close is it possible to see that it marks the day, 28 October 1938, on which 800 Polish Jews living in Hamburg were deported by train to the German–Polish border. Almost half a century later, the Altona district assembly decided to erect this memorial; now, once a year, it is the focus of a commemorative ceremony.

Hamburg’s Polish Jews were part of a larger group of long-term German residents deported during what was called the Polenaktion. The Nazi authorities were responding to a law passed in Poland in March 1938 — and brought into force in October — that cancelled the citizenship of Polish nationals who had been living abroad continuously for five years or more. While it didn’t specify who those Polish citizens were and where they lived, it was clearly directed at Polish Jews living in Germany and Austria who, the Polish government feared, would move to Poland if their persecution by the Nazis intensified.

About 18,000 Polish Jews were expelled from Germany in late October 1938. Because the German authorities reasoned that the breadwinners’ deportation would compel their families to follow, the majority of them were men. Most deportees were taken to the Neu-Bentschen railway station, a few kilometres from the border, and then forced to walk to the Polish border town of Zbąszyń. “We were warned not to look back, but we heard the rattling of machine guns in the rear. The SS men threatened to shoot if anyone tried to stay behind,” a woman from Hamburg told a New York Times correspondent a couple of days after her deportation.

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, rifle shots broke the silence. The people ran or dropped to the ground, where they were beaten and trod on by guards. Many were injured during the stampede. I lost my baggage, as did many others. There was no time to recover it.

The worst happened when we came to a ditch right on the frontier. There was a barbed-wire fence on the other side. We were pushed across it carrying children and those who could not move.

Far from welcoming its citizens, the Polish government protested against their expulsion and initially refused to accommodate them. Thousands of them, variously referred to as deportees or refugees, remained stuck in Zbąszyń, a town of fewer than 5000 people ill-equipped to handle such a large number of arrivals. Some were put up in barns and stables, others slept in open fields. A month after the expulsions, the New York Times correspondent observed their “strange, comfortless existence at Poland’s front gate and Germany’s back door — unable to move in either direction.”

Polish Jews after their arrival in Zbaszyn on 29 October 1938. Alamy

The Zbąszyń refugee camp stayed open until August 1939. A couple of weeks after that, the German army invaded Poland. Some of those deported in October 1938 were lucky, because they had been able to leave Poland before the war. They included a handful of unaccompanied minors who were allowed to migrate to Australia. Most of the deportees who remained in Poland were murdered during the Holocaust.

The German government of 1938 wasn’t the last to try to inconvenience, if not destabilise, a neighbour by swamping it with refugees. Think, for example, of the incident in 1980 that became known as the Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro’s government encouraged — and in some cases compelled — about 125,000 Cubans unhappy with its rule and their own circumstances to leave for the United States. They included people considered to be socially undesirable —because they were gay, for example, or lived in psychiatric institutions or had been convicted of criminal offences.

The Mariel boatlift was designed to create problems for US president Jimmy Carter, who was committed to rescuing people from the clutches of communism but unprepared to accommodate such a large number of arrivals in a relatively short time and unwilling to resettle people who were considered socially undesirable from a US perspective.

Or think of Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempt in February and March 2020 to put pressure on the European Union by bussing thousands of refugees living in Turkey to the Turkish–Greek border, where border guards told them to cross over into Greece. His ploy largely failed because the Greeks temporarily suspended the country’s asylum regime and deployed their military at the border to prevent refugees from crossing. The Greek government had the backing of the European Union, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen declaring that Greece was Europe’s ασπίδα, or shield, gesturing towards its efforts to resist an Asian invasion of Europe 2500 years earlier.

Erdoğan’s use of irregular migrants to unsettle and blackmail a more powerful opponent — namely the European Union, for Greece was just the incidental target — was soon identified as an instance of “hybrid warfare.” For the US military analyst Frank G. Hoffman, who coined the term in 2007, hybrid warfare means the “blurring of modes of war, the blurring of who fights, and what technologies are brought to bear,” which “produces a wide range of variety and complexity.”

Vladimir Putin is a master of hybrid warfare. Employing mercenaries in one conflict, unleashing hackers or spreading fake news in another, the Russian government has become expert in using an array of non-conventional means to make life difficult for its adversaries. It, too, has used irregular migrants to put pressure on the West: in 2015 and early 2016 it encouraged refugees to enter the European Union via the Russian–Norwegian and Russian–Finnish borders, prompting US general Philip Breedlove, supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe, to tell the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee: “Together Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

The Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, a Russian vassal, has emulated some of Putin’s tactics. Responding to sanctions imposed on members of his regime by the European Union, his government has opened up a route for irregular migrants to enter the EU via Belarus. Iraqis who had arrived in Minsk by plane from Baghdad began turning up at the Lithuanian border in June, ferried there by Belarusian authorities. By early August, some 4000 refugees had crossed the border. In mid August, Lithuanian border guards caught red-handed twelve members of the Belarusian security forces in riot gear who had crossed over into Lithuanian territory while they were pushing migrants across the border. When Lithuania fortified the crossing, Belarus began targeting Latvia and Poland.

People smugglers were quick to see the business opportunities created by the Belarusian government, and offered their services to desperate people hoping to be able to seek protection in the European Union. Those entering the EU via Belarus now include irregular migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, the Republic of Congo and other refugee-producing countries.

Passing by the memorial for Hamburg’s Polish Jews a couple of days ago, I was reminded that Lukashenko’s hybrid warfare hasn’t just had geopolitical repercussions but has also had an impact on the migrants he has “weaponised,” just as Germany’s actions had on the migrants forced to live in squalid conditions in Zbąszyń in 1938 and 1939. “The situation is undoubtedly complex, but it is hard to forget about the group of human beings stuck in no-man’s land,” Justyna Kajta wrote recently about the situation at the Polish–Belarusian border. “The unanswered question is: what will happen to them, and when?”

Hamburg’s monument to the 800 Polish Jews deported on 28 October 1938. Klaus Neumann

Much like Poland in 1938, the three EU member states that share a border with Belarus have resisted admitting people pushed across the border by the Belarusian authorities. All three have declared states of emergency, erected fences and deployed additional security forces at the border. Lithuanian and Polish border guards have also been accused of forcing irregular migrants back to Belarus before they can make asylum claims.

The focus in recent weeks has been on the border between Poland and Belarus. With police and border guards from both countries stopping people from leaving the immediate area, groups of migrants have been stuck in no-man’s land, without access to shelter, food, clean water or medical aid. At least four people have died, presumably from hypothermia.

In 1938 the world soon found out what was going on at Zbąszyń; in 2021, although we live in the age of mobile phones and citizen journalists, we know little about what’s happening at the Polish border. That’s because Poland has declared a three-kilometre exclusion zone around its border with Belarus, preventing journalists, lawyers and the representatives of refugee advocacy groups from talking to the people stuck there. We have only a sketchy impression of how many people have managed to slip into Poland, the circumstances of those caught between Poland and Belarus, and the means used by the security forces of the two countries to stop migrants crossing into Poland or going back to Belarus.

On 30 September, Amnesty International said that it had used “spatial reconstruction techniques” to track a group of thirty-two people from Afghanistan — twenty-seven men, four women and a fifteen-year-old girl — who crossed the Polish border on 8 August. Its analysis suggests that the group had camped on the Polish side of the border but been illegally pushed back to the Belarusian side. In each case, while they were technically in Poland or Belarus, they remained in no-man’s land.

The case of the thirty-two Afghan nationals had been brought to the attention of the European Court of Human Rights on 20 August. Five days later, in an exceptional interim ruling, the court told the Polish government to provide them with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter. But although the court told the Polish government that failure to comply with its interim measures might constitute a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, Poland has so far stuck to its guns, quite literally.

Poland has just extended its state of emergency — the first since the end of state socialism — for another sixty days. Defending the decision, the Polish government claimed that it had evidence of terrorists masquerading as refugees and had found a video stored on a migrant’s phone that depicted a sexual act involving a naked man and a cow. It subsequently transpired that the video has been circulating online for years.

The governments of all three EU member states have boasted of their ability to keep out potential asylum seekers. The Latvian authorities claim that they have turned back some 1400 migrants since 10 August and allowed only thirty-eight to enter. The Lithuanian authorities pride themselves on having repelled twice as many. On 28 and 29 September alone, Poland recorded 786 attempts to enter the country from Belarus, all of them unsuccessful.

The term “no-man’s land” acquired its prominence and much of its present-day meaning during the first world war, when it denoted the stretch of land between enemy trench lines. Having been shelled repeatedly, it was devoid of trees and buildings, making attempts to cross it hazardous. But it could also be a space where the war was temporarily suspended; at night, the warring sides occasionally allowed each other to retrieve the bodies of the wounded and dead. It could even, as in Victor Trivas’s 1931 film Niemandsland, be imagined as a utopian space where peace becomes possible.

But the no-man’s land occupied by the thirty-two migrants from Afghanistan tracked by Amnesty International has little in common with the space between the trenches in wartime:

In peace, No-man’s Lands are strips of field between the frontiers of the European countries, haunted by the living. No one crawls to the barbed wire at night, to fetch a dead comrade back. There is no comradeship among the survivors of this peace.

In this peace, Europe traces its lines of barbed wire through fields and hearts. Into this land between the frontiers the continent pushes the men it has no use for.

These are lines from Renée Brand’s novel Niemandsland, published in the original German in Switzerland in 1940 and then, a year later, as Short Days Ago in New York. Brand acknowledges no-man’s land’s connotations at the time while highlighting how different her Niemandsland — a literal rendering of “no-man’s land” — is from the wasteland between the trenches of the first world war.

Brand’s novel is set in the late 1930s, not long before the outbreak of the second world war. It features a motley group of people — “ministers and physicians, teachers and engineers, painters, writers, mothers, people in love, children” — stranded on a field between Germany and an unnamed European country. “This field is No-man’s Land,” the narrator explains; it is “outside.” The people inhabiting the Niemandsland are referred to as Niemandsleute — “No-man’s people” in the published English translation.

The group includes seven men, four women and eight children, one of them born in the no-man’s land. Some of them have been deported to this piece of land, others have made their own way there. Some have been persecuted as Jews, others have left or been deported from Germany for other reasons. Some were “simply men with some responsibility, the kind of men who were what we had always thought men should be.” They have in common that the unnamed European country outside whose borders they are camped refuses to admit them, and that they can’t or don’t want to return to Germany.

While Niemandsland’s protagonists don’t yearn for a lost home, they are not projecting all their hopes onto life in a country of refuge either. They simply want to be somewhere (rather than in the nowhere of no-man’s land), and don’t harbour any particular expectations about life on the other side of the border.

Brand drew on her own experience of being a refugee. Born in 1900 in Berlin, she studied in that city and in Freiburg but quit her studies when she married in 1922. When the Nazi party assumed power in Germany, Brand and her seven-year-old son emigrated to France. They moved to Switzerland in 1934, and from there, in 1941, to the United States. While in Switzerland, Brand returned to university, and completed a doctorate in German literature. In the United States, she reinvented herself, studying psychology and eventually practising as a Jungian psychoanalyst.

Niemandsland is Brand’s only published work of fiction. Its Swiss publisher thought the novel’s literary qualities raised it above most of the literature produced by émigré writers at the time, and it was well received when it first appeared in 1940. But in the mid 1940 the Swiss censorship authorities banned any displaying, advertising or reviewing of the book, presumably out of concern that Germany might consider it provocative. The ban was only lifted in August 1945. The novel’s English-language edition attracted favourable reviews — a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times marvelled that “Wonder is aroused that such lyrical intensity, such universal passion and pity and beauty could be encompassed in so brief a tale” — but has long since been forgotten.

The widely reported deportation of Polish Jews in late October 1938 may well have informed Brand’s narrative, if not prompted her fiction. But other groups of Jews, expelled from one country but unable to enter the country they were deported to, also found themselves stuck in no-man’s land. In late 1938, about 2000 Jews expelled from Slovakia to Hungary became marooned at the Slovakian–Hungarian border for several months. Earlier in 1938, sixty-eight Jews expelled from Austria’s Burgenland to Czechoslovakia had been confined for several months on a tugboat on the Hungarian side of the Danube River — an episode that inspired the 1938 play Das Schiff auf der Donau by the German writer Friedrich Wolf, who at the time was living in exile in France.

Both because of its literary qualities and because it hasn’t dated, Brand’s novel is in a different league from Wolf’s rather didactic play. It also brilliantly analyses the essential qualities of the kind of no-man’s land inhabited by forced migrants: it is no terra nullius, it isn’t fiercely contested (as in war) and its status is not fixed. It is a no-man’s land only for the Niemandsleute: only they are confined there.

As three examples show, refugees and stateless people are often stuck in no-man’s land. In an infamous case in 1992, Israel deported 415 Palestinians from the Occupied Territories to a no-man’s land at the Israeli–Lebanese border. In 2001, authorities in Uzbekistan deported more than one hundred ethnic Uzbeks who had fled their native Tajikistan in the course of that country’s 1992 civil war; when Tajikistan refused to admit them, in the words of reporter Bruce Pannier, they became “trapped in a small stretch of land between the two countries.” In 2016, Amnesty International drew attention to the plight of 75,000 Syrians who were said to be stranded at the Syrian–Jordanian border.

The space that housed Palestinian deportees at the border between Israel and Lebanon, or the ships adrift in the Andaman Sea in 2015 because no country wanted to accommodate their Rohingya passengers became no-man’s land because their inhabitants had been deprived of rights. No-man’s land isn’t sitting waiting: it only comes into being once people are abandoned to it and enclosed on it.

Brand puts it like this: “Between [Germany’s] far-flung frontiers it has become narrow, so that one has had to invent a No-man’s Land for those who have no room in there.” She highlights the transformation of refugees and deportees into Niemandsleute. “Only former people here,” one of her characters says, “Former ministerial counsellor, former judge. Former mothers, fiancées, sweethearts. And look: our former children are running along to get their soup. Former all of them. Former human beings.”

Brand’s novel was directed at a specific audience: “Americans and Europeans of the twentieth century.” She suggests that the book’s readers have been compromised, if only because they are unable to imagine what is happening to those banished from Germany, and are unwilling to raise their voices. Addressing the reader directly, she writes: “This face at the window, behind the curtain, doesn’t it strike you as familiar? Do you not recognise your own face, well hidden behind curtains, prying through panes as yet unbroken?”

Brand doesn’t allow her readers to be distant observers. Instead she implicates them in the novel’s events and thereby encourages them to take sides. As soon as they identify the predicament of the novel’s characters with that faced by forcibly displaced people today, today’s readers are similarly called to account. They too are prompted to ask themselves: am I not hiding behind my curtain, witnessing injustices without intervening? And if so, is it not my responsibility to act?

At the Belarusian–Polish border, some bystanders have been quick to lambast the Lukashenko regime for ferrying refugees to that no-man’s land. Individual European governments and the European Commission blame the government in Minsk for the migrants’ plight. On 29 September, the commission published a communication about a “renewed EU action plan against migrant smuggling,” and used it to condemn the role of “State actors in artificially creating and facilitating irregular migration, using migratory flows as a tool for political purposes.”

But there is little the European Commission can do to stop Belarus’s weaponisation of irregular migration. On 30 September, the EU partially suspended the visa facilitation agreement with Belarus, yet it’s doubtful that this will hurt a regime whose key members are already barred from entering the European Union.

Rather than demonstrating their outrage at Lukashenko’s hybrid warfare, the European Commission ought to concern itself with the illegal practices of its member states, including Poland. Von der Leyen and her fellow commissioners may be reluctant to do so not because of a likely backlash from the Polish government but, first, because other EU members have not done nearly enough to provide credible assurances to Lithuania, Latvia and Poland that the three countries won’t be left alone to deal with any migrants seeking asylum, and, second, because Poland is by no means the only EU member state accused of pushing back irregular migrants and violating human rights.

EU member countries that don’t share a land border with a non-EU country and can’t be easily accessed by sea from outside the EU have shown no sign of being prepared to accommodate people entering Lithuania, Latvia or Poland in search of protection. If they had, then those three Eastern European countries would have had little incentive to violate international and EU law and force migrants back across the Belarusian border, confine them in no-man’s land at the border, and restrict access to them.

Any condemnation of Polish practices would be hypocritical if it did not imply a condemnation of such practices in principle. Other EU member states too have been guilty of pushbacks and of violating the human rights of people trying to seek asylum. They include Croatia, Greece and Italy, not to mention the sordid saga of the EU’s collaboration with the Libyan “coast guard” to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.

It’s little wonder that the European Commission has reserved its outrage for Lukashenko and approached the governments in Warsaw and Vilnius with kid gloves. Asked repeatedly during a press conference on 29 September how the commission viewed Poland’s pushbacks, EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson was only prepared to say that “the commission has several question marks.”

The following day, Johansson met with Polish foreign minister Mariusz Kamiński. If her tweets after the meeting are any guide, then the two sides agreed to disagree. He did not seem to be troubled by whatever question the commissioner put to him. “We agreed that Belarus’s actions must meet with a firm response from the member states,” he tweeted after the meeting. He assured Johansson that “Poland grants international protection to people whose life and health are at risk.”

“Europe… is this field here Europe? Or what continent is it?” asks one of Renée Brand’s protagonists, whereupon another responds: “There is no Europe any more. It has become a lie. Could it be true that men live as we live in the heart of Europe?”

No matter how you look at the Niemandsland, it is outside, Brand explains in the opening pages of her book. “Outside of moon and earth: in the sphere of total indifference.” Later, she seemingly allows her readers to object to the charges of indifference, of hiding their face behind the curtains, only to expose their hypocrisy:

You protest. No, you say, this is not your face. You intervened wherever it was possible. How did you intervene?

With both hands you have reinforced the boundaries against which the waves of despair were surging. You appointed committees to confer on how to relieve the stricken. Honorable men and women exerted themselves. Conferences were in session for days and days. Misery is in session for nights and nights.

And maybe fifty years from now, there’ll be a memorial for those who froze to death at the European Union’s eastern border. •