“Refugee Blues” is a poem written by the U.S-British poet W. H. Auden in March 1939. This poem is set in 1930′s when Nazi people were prosecuted the Jewish people. Refugees were people who were driven out of their home or country because of war. Blues is a slow, sad, rhythmic music developed by black Americans. The poem dramatizes the condition of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the years before World War II, especially the indifference and antagonism they faced when seeking asylum in the democracies of the period.
The poem starts with a narrator, who is later revealed to be a German Jew, describing a large city, which is home to ten million people some of whom are well off and live in luxurious large houses while others make do in slums and shabby houses. The narrator tells the person with him, presumably a woman, that there is no place for them there.
He remembers that they once had a country long ago, speaking of Palestine, and they thought the world of it. But now their own country is so distant to them that to see it they have to browse through an atlas and he knows that they can’t go there either. The speaker is talking to someone “My dear”, the language and tone is very conversational. Each stanza intensifies the situation in the poem. The first stanza brings out that the refugees are homeless. Though there are millions in the city all of whom have some kind of home but the refugees have nowhere to go. The narrator then remarks on how every spring the flowers grow anew on the old tree that grows in the village churchyard, and mourns to his companion that old passports can’t renew themselves, remembering how the country where they wanted to go had rejected them saying that they were as good as dead if they didn’t have updated passports.
It seems that it is their misfortune that they are still among the living, considering his dejected tone as he addresses his companion. “Officially dead” means you cannot make passport. This section tells us how the refugees are trying to get help. The refugees cannot leave the country due to lack of passport and hence they are described as officially dead, though they are indeed alive. He remembers how when he had gone to the people who had been made responsible for providing the war refugees homes, they had been polite to him, yet hadn’t been able to help him, having their hands tied because of the politics and had told him to return next year. Recalling a public meeting that he had attended, he remembers that a person had accused them of trying to steal away the livelihood of the occupants of the city by barging in, and informs his companion that that man had been talking of them. He thinks that he heard the rumbling of an imminent storm, but it turned out to be Hitler sentencing them all to death.
He sees a dog securely wrapped in a warm jacket, and a cat get inside a car, the door of which had been held open for it and thinks that they are lucky that they aren’t German Jews. He notices the fish swimming freely in the water at the harbor and the birds flying wherever they want in the skies when he goes to the woods and marvels at them not having any politicians and wars, as they were not human beings. He then tells his companion that he had had a dream in which he saw a magnificent building which could accommodate a thousand people yet there was no place for them in it anywhere.
He remembers how when he stood on the plains and looked through the falling snow, he could see a thousand soldiers marching towards them, looking for them, to put them away, to kill them. The language used in the poem is as simple as the message behind it is complex. Auden uses the refrain at the end of each stanza, customary for a blues song, each a dejected realization in its own by the narrator of his and every other refugee sorry plight. Hitler’s command for all Jews to be killed is personified as the rumbling of thunder, which can be heard just before lightning strikes and the world, descends into the chaos of a political storm.
Simple analogies have been used such as that of the birds and fish flying and swimming freely and pets being treated better than the Jews have been used to convey the low position these rejected people, in terms that they understand. Conveying the utter lost and pathetic states of the German Jewish refugees who had been forced to leave their homes and find sanctuary in other countries. For a few years these people had been welcomed into other countries and given meager yet sustainable jobs and accommodations. But then as war threatened to break out and Hitler’s word became law in Germany, these people were no longer allowed entry into other countries, and were persecuted in their own.
They were called sub-humans, a term which Auden explores by making the narrator realize that the animals he sees are treated better than them because they aren’t German Jews. The sense of being hunted, of being sought out, persecuted is apparent throughout the poem, as one by one all the doors to a better future are shut on the narrator’s face and it reaches its climax in the last stanza when the narrator witnesses the thousands of people who are raging war against his people, imprisoning them and killing them.
The inhumanity with which Jews were treated during those times and the Holocaust and its terrible tales which few lived to tell are already well known today, but this poem highlights what these people must have felt, when they had no place to call home, nowhere to go and no one to turn to. It is a chilling and depressing poem which reminds one of the extents to which humanity can fall, becoming beasts, thirsty for each other’s blood and lives. Many poets have tried to capture the anguish and cruelty of war, some have succeeded, but only a handful have mastered it to the extent that there words are forever reminders to mankind; reminders which, with the increasing religious intolerance and biased prejudices have become all the more important in today’s world.