Aliens in a Free World
A Czech who settled in the United States in 1938, JOSEPH WECHSBERG became naturalized, served as a technical sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II, and was on duty in Germany when his first book, Looking for a Bluebird, appeared. Most of his writing has been done on and about the Continent; he keeps in close touch with Central Europe — he is revisiting Czechoslovakia as this article goes to press — and in close touch with those Europeans who come to us for sanctuary.
by JOSEPH WECUSBERG
IN APRIL of last year, five refugee Soviet sailors who had been granted political asylum in the United States a few months earlier flew back to the Soviet Union by way of Finland. They took off from Idlewild Airport, to which they had been “escorted" by twenty tough-looking Soviet agents while U.S. officials and welfare workers looked on in dismay, unable to help. The sailors had repeatedly told their friends in America that they were happy here and wanted to stay; one of them was about to get married in New York.
“There is no law authorizing the U.S. government to interfere with the exit of aliens from this country,”an Immigration Service spokesman explained as the plane took off. Americans were shocked to realize that their laws and government cannot guarantee sanctuary to political exiles.
A Senate Internal Security subcommittee subsequently accused the Soviet delegation at the United Nations of “espionage and kidnaping.” The State Department declared two members of the Soviet UN delegation persona non grata and filed a protest against the chief Soviet delegate, Ambassador Arkady A. Sobolev, supposedly the mastermind behind the well-organized kidnaping scheme. A few days later the State Department, demanded that Polish diplomats in the L.S. cease the “objectionable practice" of exerting pressure upon Polish refugees to return home.
According to a recent report of the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) Emergency Commission, headed by General William J. Donovan, wartime OSS chief, Soviet agents made over sixty contacts with refugees during a single month in New York alone. The Committee has documentary evidence of hundreds of cases of refugees — both in America and in Europe — who were hounded for months, blackmailed, terrorized, or simply persuaded to go back — and went back.
“Redefection,” the return of a refugee to his Communist homeland, has been a grave problem in Europe since mid-1954. Now it has become a dramatic issue even in America, Land of Liberty. Naturalized U.S. citizens as well as aliens have been approached by agents — and have gone back.
“To the escapee, America is synonymous with security,”says General Donovan. “A visit or a phone call from a Communist agent strikes with extraordinary shock. . . . Each return is not only of propaganda value to the Communists, but has an unsettling effect among the refugees.”
The fact that even refugees living in America under assumed names at undisclosed addresses were tracked down by Communist agents has had a shattering effect on large refugee communities. Obviously, there exists a well-organized network of Communist, informers in the U.S. who observe all refugees and report their findings to a Communist intelligence center. The refugee, his sense of security badly shaken, doesn’t know where to turn for protection. The local police are unable to handle the delicate problem; officials are baffled; the FBI often has no jurisdiction to interfere.
One night not long ago, a former Hungarian lawyer who had lived in the U.S. since 1946 and had been working in a New Jersey soap factory was awakened by lists banging against his door. Four men stood outside and wanted to talk to him. The man refused to open and the visitors went away. The next day, the Hungarian went into hiding. During the following weeks, he changed his address four times—but to no avail. As soon as he had moved, he would be called on the phone by a mysterious stranger though even his closest friends didn’t know his new address. Twice he was visited by representatives of the Hungarian Consulate in New York City. One day he was gone, leaving a short note: “I am going back to Hungary. I can’t take it any longer.”
Every time a refugee goes back to his homeland, the people behind the Iron Curtain are told that the Western world is on the brink of collapse — and they lose hope for their eventual liberation. In short, the redefection campaign is an important segment of the Communist strategy to weaken and divide the Western world. It has already broken several refugee resistance movements and discredited important refugee leaders.
Why would anyone leave the United States for a dreary, regimented life in, say, Communist Poland or Czechoslovakia today? The answer is: because of fear, nostalgia in moments of depression, economic insecurity in the West, and threats that one’s loved ones back home may become subject to reprisals.
THE methods of the campaign vary from emotional appeals to stark terror. On September 17, 1955, the Soviet Union proclaimed an amnesty for returning refugees. Refugees in Western Europe and in the Americas began to receive well-written, beautifully printed newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets which appealed to their patriotism and told them of “changed” conditions in their homeland. Personal letters from family and friends arrived, describing life back home in glowing terms (and, incidentally, hinting that relatives might get into serious trouble if the refugee did not come home). For some exiles, these letters were the lirst they had received from home in many years. Letters from refugee compatriots who had already gone back proved to be especially damaging. Even stronger were personalized radio appeals. When a man in a West German refugee camp hears the voice of his mother over Radio Prague (or East Berlin, Warsaw, Sofia), imploring him to come back, the effect is shattering.
The refugee’s failure to make a decent living in the West is cleverly exploited, and sentimental appeals are made to his nostalgic feelings. The pull of the fatherland is always strong. Soviet and satellite legation and consular officials visit refugee families and tell them about the “new good life" at home — much better, they say, than the refugee’s present living conditions in the West. The Hungarian Embassy’s “Maison Hongroise" in Paris holds open house every Saturday afternoon, treating 200 Hungarian refugees to Hungarian cakes and wines, barack (apricot) brandy, movies, and propaganda speeches.
Polish agents spend about $8500 a day to “influence” the Polish refugee community in France, according to a recent estimate by French authorities. The Poles have started a long-range campaign to lure back some of the 750,000 Poles livingt in France, half of them already French citizens. Emphasis is placed on Polish nationalism and culture. Exiled Polish writers receive tempting offers to publish their new books in Poland. Children are invited to Spend the summer in camps there, emigre students are promised scholarships at Polish universities. Direct pressure is put on Polish anti-Communist refugee leaders.
The Czechs operate with anonymous, handwritten chain letters, magazines, radio appeals. A wellmade publication, Hlas Domova, “The Voice of Home,” evokes feelings of nostalgia. There has been a large number of Czech redefectors; each of them helps to destroy the image of the “Western paradise.” If it were really a paradise, the Czech propagandists argue, why would the refugees come back?
Among the most recent targets of the campaign are Lithuanian and Latvian refugees who were angered by the pious appeals to return to the “ fatherland.”
“What fatherland?” asked a Baltic refugee, familiar with history. “Siberia ?”
Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and t he Soviet Union have issued amnesty decrees for returnees. Poland has issued no amnesty because “returnees are never subjected to prosecution anyway.”
Despite promises of amnesty, most prospective returnees know that they will be marched through the streets of their native towns wearing rags and carrying posters saying “We Chose Freedom in the West.” ‘They will make Communist-written speeches before factory workers, state farmers, school children, over the radio. Yet, although they will have no guarantee of political amnesty, no guarantee of personal freedom, some of them will he persuaded to return.
As a last resort, there are always blackmail, abduction, and murder. The IRC lists fourteen well-camouflaged cases of kidnaping and “from ten to twenty murders” in the Munich and Berlin areas. Bombs have been mailed to refugee leaders in Munich.
A few months ago, Victor Zaleski, an anli-Communist Polish refugee in Bavaria, was roused out of sleep by several men. Red agents had decoded the carefully kept secret of his changed name and new life. Zaleski managed to get away and asked the German authorities for help. They guarded him at an undisclosed place. A week later, Zaleski disappeared. Recently, Polish refugees in Western Europe have received carefully reproduced letters in Zaleski’s handwriting, denouncing ihe West and urging them to come home to Poland. The handwriting is genuine but the language of the letters indicates that they might have been writlen under duress.
A Czech refugee who had been in one of Germany’s refugee camps, before going back home, promised his fellow inmates to write to them how things were in Czechoslovakia. It was agreed that if his letter was truthful he would sign it “sincerely.” If, however, he was forced to write lies, he would sign the letter “very sincerely.” When the letter arrived weeks later, describing the wonderful life in Czechoslovakia, it was signed, “Yours very, very sincerely.” And a Lithuanian who recently relumed from Buenos Aires to his Baltic homeland wrote to his friends in Argentina, “It’s marvelous here. You should all come back. Don’t forget to buy a good trunk at Lazaro Costa’s store.”The “trunks” which Costa sells are — coffins.
THERE are thousands of people all over Europe who wonder whether they should go back. All of them hate and fear Communism, but their miserable living conditions and their utterly hopeless future make them very vulnerable to Communist pressure.
More than 200,000 refugees in Austria, Germany, France, Italy, the Near East, Greece, and other places have neither homes nor jobs. They are the “hard core” of the refugees — the hopeless cases. Over 75,000 live in crowded squalor in 200 “official” refugee camps (most are in Germany) under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most camps consist of huts of wood or corrugated iron; others have stone barracks with damp rooms and cold concrete floors. Windows are made of cardboard, doors of old blankets. There is the stench of poverty and sickness in the air. Often young married couples are forced to live in one room with old people and small children. Some families have been in these camps ten years!
In addition, tens of thousands lead a dreary life in “unofficial” camps and settlements, or in the attics and cellars of war-damaged houses. Many of them are so sick and old that they belong in a hospital or old people’s home.
“We were fools to seek refuge in a free country,” one refugee said to me. “We live like pigs. Is it any wonder that we’ll all become Communists?”
The future holds little hope for these people. The immigration laws of most countries are strict, often merciless. Some bar widows with small children. Others refuse anyone over forty-five. Most countries exclude applicants whose X-ray pictures show the slightest symptoms of tuberculosis. (In the U.S., which on immigration matters often sets the tone of action by other nations, special legislation should at long last change the wording in the Immigration Law dealing with t.b. “in any form” to “contagious” t.b., which would bring the legal definition abreast of present medical advance. And t.b. cures should be given to persons otherwise eligible for immigration.)
Consular officials sometimes literally feel an applicant’s muscles. White-collar people and university graduates are often told to learn bricklaying, plumbing, house carpentry — and to “try again in a year.” The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on May 14, admitted that there was “no hope for resettling 80 per cent of the refugees living in camps.” Both Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America have stopped encouraging people to escape from Iron Curtain countries.
It is astonishing that so many of the refugees stay in the free world, no matter how bad their life is. At Camp Yalka, West Germany’s reception camp for foreign refugees, I saw a written sign over the door to a barrack: “We Chose Freedom. Step In and See What We Got.”
They got paper-thin walls, primitive outdoor latrines, no running water. They got 1500 calories of food per day, a lunch consisting of a rancid, watery gruel with a few noodles and a piece of bread. (The camp administration does its best to stretch the daily food allowance of 30 cents per person.)
The bona fide refugee at Yalka often has trouble proving his identity and good intentions. He is questioned by German and American security agencies, sometimes for months, and his answers must check with cross-references in voluminous files. He must explain his whereabouts in the past years and produce significant detail. (When you crawl through the barbed-wire fences of the Iron Curtain, you don’t carry many papers.) On top of this, he must be processed by the Bonn government’s Federal Screening Commission, which takes many more months. In the meantime, he is not allowed to seek or accept work.
Every Iron Curtain refugee must produce proof, in accordance with the Geneva Convention of July 28, 1951, that he came to the West “out of wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion and nationality,” or that he was in “immediate danger” because of his political convictions or actions. Decision is made by the Screening Commission. If a man is cleared, he gets political asylum and a “traveling paper” recognized by all countries that ratified the Geneva Convention.
Such a refugee has the rights and duties of a German citizen, except the right to vote and the duty to serve in the army. He is allocated to one of the Laender (political subdivisions) of Western Germany, where he may settle and work. If he does not find employment, he is eligible for relief payment. An unemployed refugee in the Munich area receives 43 cents a day and tiny payments for his family. If he meets immigration-law requirements, he may eventually go abroad.
It’s a different story, though, for the refugee who is rejected by the Screening Commission because he was not “persecuted” by a Communist regime. Such a man is forbidden to move around, work, or marry. He may not hit the road and look for a job as migrants in the U.S. have always done. He is stuck. He gets no internationally recognized personal document, no relief money. If he crosses Germany’s western border, he is arrested, goes to prison, and is ultimately sent back to Germany. There he serves a second prison sentence. Some people have been in various prisons for years for illegal border-crossing. The rejected refugee is told to stay in a camp, where he gets a little food, shelter, and $3.27 pocket money per month.
“The Western governments have no interest in these people and feel no responsibility for them,” a high-ranking Lniled Nations official said to me. “And the Germans do everything within the law to get rid of their burden. The West German government makes no effort to dissuade anyone from going home. A notice on the bulletin board in every refugee compound explains the routine to be followed by anyone desiring repatriation.”
The West German law on political asylum has been called a model of legal protection. In Berlin especially the treatment of refugees from Soviet Germany has been sympathetic and effective. But the fact remains that Western Germany has a difficult refugee problem of its own. In addition to 220,000 homeless foreigners in the Federal Republic who have no hope of finding work or emigrating, there are hundreds of thousands of non-ethnic German refugees residing in Western Germany. Only 12,000 of them fall within the framework of the escapee program. All others need financial assistance, month after month, and the money must be raised by German taxpayers. Hundreds of German refugees arrive every month from Eastern Germany and must be taken care of. Last year, the Federal Republic spent over 10 million dollars on care and relief of refugees. Naturally, the Germans are not overjoyed at having to accept foreign escapees as well. “ Why should we be stuck with them just because we happen to hav e an Iron Curtain border?” a Bonn official said to me, with characteristic candor.
His sentiment was echoed by officials in Austria, France, Italy, Greece, and other countries with sizable refugee populations.
SINCE the dissolution of the International Refugee Organization in 1952, no international agency has looked after the rejected, stateless human wrecks. The United States Escapee Program normally cares only for those who are already being processed and expect to emigrate in the near future, provided they escaped after January 1, 1948. (Vast numbers of refugees escaped between 1945 and 1948, however.) Voluntary agencies often work mainly for “accepted” refugees and pass up the “rejected,” who need help most of all.
Neutral observers and UN officials blame the great powers. They point out, for instance, that Austria (population 7 million) last year spent over 5 million dollars on refugees, twice as much as the United States (population 165 million). They point out that since the end of IRO in 1952, when the U.S. Escapee Program started work, only 21,000 persons have been settled abroad — 10,000 in the United States, the rest in Australia, Canada, South America.
Hope rose when President Eisenhower signed the Refugee Relief Act on August 7, 1953, saying, “We are giving a new chance in life to 214,000 fellow humans.” But the final version of the Act turned out to be a hard-to-administer instrument, full of delaying provisions. It demands, for instance, that “complete information” must be established about the exile’s past two years. Sometimes this can be done only by letting the exile wait for years in demoralizing places like Camp Valka. Each prospective immigrant must have a sponsor’s assurance of a home and a job in the United States, approved by the government ‘s housing and employment agencies. This means a lot of red tape and discourages many potential sponsors. The largest number of visas is reserved for escapees in Western Germany and Austria, and those unused must not be transferred to escapees in other free countries. State Department officials have notified Congress that urgent, action on the escapee provision is needed; otherwise the whole program will be severely hurt. There has been no action. In countries other than the United States the situation is almost as bad.
The refugee problem is international and should be solved by international coöperation. But the UN approach has been slow, vague, and bureaucratic. On October 21, 1954, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Dr. G. J. van Heuven Goedhart of the Netherlands, drew up a four-year program “for permanent solutions” which was approved by the UN General Assembly. A new United Nations Refugee Fund of 16 million dollars was to be made up by contributions of the various governments, “to promote integration and resettlement.” But contributions have come in at a snail’s pace; besides, the UN cannot start positive action; it merely hopes to initiate a series of “chain reactions” among governments, voluntary agencies, and private citizens that will promote the permanent establishment of 177,000 refugees within the next four years. It looks like another case of “too little and too late.”
One of the few effective countermeasures was the “crash program” of the U.S. Escapee Program. USEP staff members visit Soviet refugees in Germany to discuss their situation and to give them personal advice. They are authorized to spend small funds for the refugees’ immediate personal needs. The program has had a calming effect on the disturbed Soviet refugee community in Western Germany.
Another encouraging step was the airlift set up in November to take Hungarian refugees to the Western democracies.
There are other steps that we should take immediately (some are based on recommendations submitted by the Donovan Committee) to stop the world-wide Communist redefection campaign: —
1. A major effort should be made to arouse the free world to the real dangers of the campaign.
2. In the United States, various government departments (Health, Welfare and Education, Interior, Justice, State) should offer the refugee assistance and advice, even before he gets into trouble with Communist agents.
3. In Europe, processing and screening methods should be speeded up. The United States, as leader of the free Western world, should show the way by effective administration of its own Refugee Relief Act.
4. Everywhere, a program is needed to strengthen the morale of the refugees and to provide follow-up counseling for at least one year after they are settled. In the U.S., various cultural centers for refugees should be established. In Europe, all refugees— those rejected as well as those waiting for visas — should be permitted lo work.
5. The executive branch of the U.S. government, under the direct encouragement of President Eisenhower, should give a deeper meaning to America’s traditional sanctuary for political refugees and give stronger assurance to all escapees.
We must remember that there are still tens of thousands like Antonin, a young mechanic from Prague, who had a good job there but ran away from Communism “because I couldn’t take it.” He was rejected as a political refugee and thus is excluded from emigration. He isn’t allowed to work, to move around, or to marry.
“Still, someday, somehow, I know I’ll be able to go abroad and start a new life,” he says.
There must be hope for people like Antonin. We can’t afford to let them down.