Column: I Am the Son of a Refugee

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Today we are faced less with a crisis of immigration than a crisis for immigrants.

The Trump administration continues to aggressively ramp up its war on undocumented immigrants, as it seeks to expand the federal government’s ability to use police as man hunters and to build new detention facilities. Refugees have been repeatedly scapegoated as terrorists as the president and his allies seek to block them from finding asylum in the United States.

Shortly after the election, a Trump surrogate cited America’s Japanese-American internment camps during World War II as precedent for a national registry of Muslim immigrants. At the end of January, President Trump signed an executive order aiming to build more detention centers for arrested immigrants whose deportation is pending. Also at the close of last month, the president signed an order temporarily closing the borders to those from seven mainly Muslim countries, even as he repeatedly made statements that Muslim refugees fleeing extreme violence are not welcome in the United States.

However, he also suggested that the much smaller numbers of Christians from the same regions must be welcomed, given help, and their persecution stopped. This made it very difficult to pretend that America doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion.

Manzanar Relocation Center California Newcomers move into a War Relocation Authoriy center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry 2 April 1942 japanese internment camp camps public domain photograph

Newcomers at a War Relocation Authority Japanese-American detention center [public domain]

As a nation, are we willing to repeat the national embarrassment of the Japanese-American internment camps? Between 1942 and 1946, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated in concentration camps set up by an executive order signed by President Roosevelt. Men, women, and children were seen as threats to national security solely due to their ancestry. They were forbidden to keep any more than they could carry, and many lost their property and businesses. After being released, the former internees faced attacks on their places of worship, defacing of their graves, and vandalism of their homes. We now seem to be rushing headlong into the same horror, with the same actions being taken.

Are we also willing to once again act with the shameful disregard for humanity that led to the St. Louis being turned away from the U.S. shore in 1939? The transatlantic liner carried 937 passengers from Germany, nearly every one a Jew seeking to escape Nazi persecution. American public opinion stood behind immigration restrictions in an era when widespread unemployment led to xenophobia and antisemitism. President Roosevelt bowed to the spirit of the age and took no action as the ship was sent back to Europe. Although some passengers found safety in Great Britain, 532 were trapped in Nazi-controlled Europe, and 254 died during the Holocaust. With a similar national mood prevailing today, we are turning away refugee families fleeing the devastation of Syria.

Given my own family history, I find all of this is especially horrifying and heartbreaking.

A German village far from Germany

My father grew up in Karavukovo, now part of Serbia. The village’s name means “place of the black wolf” in Serbian. It was also known in German as Wolfingen and in Hungarian as Bácsordas. German settlers from Swabia in southwestern Germany had floated down the Danube River in the 1700s to settle the village. They and others like them are known as Donauschwaben (“Danube Swabians”).

In the 1930s, the German villagers still spoke the same dialect they had two centuries earlier. Their contact with Germany was minimal, and teachers were sent down from Austria. A farming community didn’t have much need for advanced education, in any case. My grandmother only attended elementary school.

Older folkways persisted in the Catholic village. Our family had a tradition of women with second sight, and there were incidents of suicide by hanging in the village. Those who know historical heathenry will see something familiar here.

wolfingen karavukovo karboke Bácsordas

The Karavukovo town center as it was [public domain]

Given my father’s later stance against nationalism of any kind, it’s interesting that my great-grandfather was one of the village figures calling for Magyarization – for accepting that, after being in the village for two hundred years, the community was Hungarian and shouldn’t hold on to some notion of eternal German-ness. A tall and imposing one-eyed man, his wandering after the war led him across Europe and the United States to find his final home in Milwaukee. Those who know Norse mythology will also see a parallel here.

When the war started, some villagers supported the German war effort. A local group began to force men to “volunteer” by coercion and shaming, powerful forces in a traditional peasant village. My grandfather would hide out in his fields whenever the gang of thugs went on a recruitment rampage. The third time he did so, his best friend betrayed him and he was forced into the German military.

He was appointed watch over the horses — they still used warhorses in World War II — and was soon captured by the Russians, marched across Europe on foot, and locked up in a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia. He was not reunited with his family until long after the war was over. After the conflict ended, who cared about German prisoners deep in Russian territory? Years later, the Red Cross negotiated their release.

Soon after my grandfather was sent off to the war, the Russians came through the village on their way to battle. My father, still a young child, was forced to drive the family’s horse-drawn cart with a heavy machine gun in the back for the Russian soldiers. He escaped from the fighting at the front by riding one of the two horses and fiercely holding on as they careened back to the village.

After the Russians left, Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavian Partisans came to the village. They shot the combat-age men that were left and rounded up the women, children, and elderly. As in so many other places and times, their homes and property was confiscated and they were led off to a camp.

Escape from the extermination camp

Old women died in their own vomit. People were happy to find maggots to eat. Guards beat inmates with rifle butts. Such was the setting where my father spent his later childhood years.

Growing up in this horror show, my father would sneak out of the camp to beg for food from the people who lived nearby. When he was given food by sympathetic people, he would creep back into the compound and bring it back to the prisoners. My father and his younger brother were beaten and tortured when caught.

Once, to have some fun, the guards locked my father in an abandoned Red Cross metal van in the hot sun with a bottle of Slivovitz. Desperately thirsty, he drank the plum brandy and nearly died from alcohol poisoning while they laughed outside.

Increasingly adept at getting into and out of the camp, my father went with older kids who were helping prisoners escape so he could learn the way across Yugoslavia. Before crossing the Hungarian border, the escapees would give the kids some valuable item they had managed to hide, an item that could be traded for food before the kids returned to the camp. He did this over and over again, often narrowly escaping capture and death. Eventually, he knew well which way to go and how to avoid the guard posts along the path.

It's a long walk from Karavukovo (red dot) to Hungary and up to Austria [Google Maps]

It’s a long walk from Karavukovo (red dot) to Hungary and up to Austria [Google Maps]

When he felt the time was right, he led his own family out of the camp, across Yugoslavia, and up to the Hungarian border. After many hours walking with his mother, sister, and two brothers, he told them to wait while he scouted ahead. When he didn’t return, they feared he had been captured or killed.

He had been completely exhausted and fallen asleep on the ground. He woke up as dawn was breaking and saw two soldiers silhouetted against the sky, standing up and stretching directly in front of him. He had nearly tripped over them in the dark before collapsing.

Shaken by the close call, he crawled back to his family and led them over the border. At the first house they found, a friendly woman invited them in and offered them food. They were unaware that she had sent for her husband, a border guard. He arrived and arrested them.

The next morning, the guards took them and others who had been captured trying to escape back to the border. They were told to walk back to where they had come from while the border guards pointed their weapons at them.

My father told his family members to walk a short way then drop down flat in the tall grass. He instructed them to make no sound, even if the other would-be escapees walked over them. The others, he said, would be too scared for themselves give them away. They lay there until nightfall, then recrossed the border, making a wide circle around the house of the seemingly friendly woman.

When they were finally safely across, my father was sent by his mother back down into partisan territory to rescue his grandparents, who had been sent to a work farm. He made the journey one more time.

After rescuing his grandparents, my father led the entire family on the long trek across Hungary and all the way to the British zone of Ally-occupied Austria. There they were welcomed by the British soldiers as refugees, and settled into a displaced persons camp.

My father was 12 years old.

From refugee to philosophy

His youngest brother, after surviving this time of terror and finally escaping to safety, was hit by his grandfather for some childish infraction and hit his head on the edge of an iron bed. He died of the injury in the displaced persons camp. We visited his grave fifty years later, but he was afterwards disinterred. In some parts of the old country, your family pays a fee for your grave spot. When they stop paying, your body is removed to make way for newer dead.

My father started school with much younger children and worked to catch up to where he should have been. After attending Gymnasium (like an American high school), entered the Society of the Divine Word monastery near Vienna. After all he had experienced, he wanted to understand how good Christian people could have committed these atrocities against other good Christian people. Why did civic and religious institutions fail to stand up to the oppression?

He thought that there might be some saving grace in the religious worldview. Although he never desired to do missionary work, the SVD missionary order was the only one that accepted “late vocations:” young men who hadn’t entered a clergy program during their teenage years by attending preparatory Gymnasiums within the orders.


Society of the Divine Word mission house St. Gabriel [Courtesy Gutschman]

Studying the history of the church from the inside isn’t necessarily good for one’s faith. Moving on to studying the literary history of the Bible’s construction is even worse. By the time my father moved on to philosophy, that was really it for his belief.

Although it was forbidden for the seminarians to read Nietzsche, he sneaked his texts out of a special section of the library where books had to be handed over by the librarian. He spent many late nights arguing philosophy (and drinking wine) with a close circle of friends, each of whom studied a particular forbidden thinker and adopted his positions.

He and all of his friends eventually left not only the order, but they left the church and religion itself. The order was a missionary one, and most of them went on to became major anthropologists, including Johannes Fabian, author of Time and the Other, the great challenge to the discipline of anthropology itself.

After leaving the monastery, my father went to the University of Bonn to study Germanistik (German language and literature), law, and philosophy. Unlike the American system with its outrageously high education costs, the university is tuition-free, so someone with my father’s violently disrupted upbringing was able to study at the very highest level.

A dedication to human rights

After holding postdoctoral fellowships at Yale University and the University of Texas at Austin, my father joined the philosophy department at Loyola University Chicago.

Even when he became a senior professor, he insisted on teaching the freshman introduction to philosophy course that fulfilled a requirement for all students. Most professors avoided teaching classes like this, preferring to teach small graduate seminars on advanced topics. My father always insisted that he wanted to work with the youngest students and help them to confront their own prejudices and assumptions. By the time they were upperclassmen, he always said, they were set in their ways.


Loyola University Chicago sign on Sheridan Ave [Courtesy Amerique]

Adamantly opposed to nationalism, he spoke of becoming a citizen of the United Nations. During the Reagan years, he finally did become an American citizen, in part so that he could speak freely on political issues without fear of deportation. As part of the process, he was asked if he had ever committed adultery. He answered, “Isn’t that the national pastime? It seems like presidents enjoy practicing it.” Christian moral posturing has always been mixed in with our political system.

He was also told he would have to swear to take up arms and fight to defend the Constitution of the United States. His objection that he would never pick up arms and that he was far too old to be drafted didn’t matter to the administrators and was almost a deal-breaker. When he was finally sworn in, the judge told the group of new citizens they could simply skip that part of the oath. Kudos to the judicial system for respecting individual conscience, at least sometimes.

The administrators had strongly pushed all new citizens to abandon their birth names and to take on fabricated “American” names. In the 1980s, this practice still survived from much earlier waves of immigration, when the surnames of new arrivals were changed to make them sound less foreign. My dad’s response was that he would take on a real American name by adopting the original Nez Perce name of Chief Joseph and become Hans Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it Seigfried. In the end, his feminism won out, and he adopted my mother’s maiden name to become Hans Haddock Seigfried.

Throughout his career, he taught human rights in his courses. As a small child, I learned about the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as he taught it to his college students. The trauma of his childhood experiences was never far from his mind, and it drove him to passionately teach the subject.

He was sometimes a guest speaker at Holocaust Memorial events, and he often shocked audiences with his two main points.

First, he insisted that it is actions that matter, not intentions. He pushed back at the idea that German culture was inherently evil and that the Nazis were deviant monsters who set out to destroy the world. To the contrary, he showed that — in their own minds — they were utopians who believed they were creating a perfect world and just had to get rid of some “undesirables” first. That was the true horror, he argued. Those who insist they are here to help are fully capable of committing the absolutely worst atrocities. Pretty language often covers terrible actions. Heathens will, of course, recognize the principle he was forwarding: we are our deeds.

Second, he argued that memorializing must lead to action. Yes, it is important to understand the causes and uniquely horrific nature of each specific tragedy and to respect the memory of the victims. Yet the study of a specific atrocity in the past must lead to action in the present to fight today’s violence, no matter which peoples it is directed against. We must recognize when similar acts are happening right now, whether they are called by the name of “ethnic cleansing” or any other euphemism. We should not wall off each horror of the past as a museum piece completely divorced from our lives today. We must let the memory drive us to act. Words about the past must lead to deeds in the present.

He was especially adamant on the issue of resisting authority. He strongly believed that we will only be able to escape the horrors of totalitarianism when each person acts out of conviction and does not do things simply because they are told to do so.

The torture memo

Less than four years before he died, my father was horrified by the revelation of the George W. Bush administration’s torture memos.

My father had always told me that he came to this country because “in Europe, you can’t take a step without tripping over history. In America, you can write your own.”

Now, he saw that the country he loved — his home for forty years — willfully choose to violate human rights and embrace torture. He saw basic rights suspended for the prisoners held in the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay. He saw the disgusting photographs of American soldiers gleefully grinning as they tortured Muslim prisoners in Iraq.


U.S. Army’s Sabrina Harman gloats over corpse of Iraqi prisoner Manadel al-Jamadi, tortured to death while in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib in 2003 [public domain]

For someone who had survived the extermination camp and experienced repeated torture by laughing guards, for someone who — with full understanding of its own faults and dark history — had chosen to live in the United States as a place where such horrors could be openly confronted and denounced, this evil turn by postmodern America was more than heartbreaking. I wonder how much witnessing this public replaying of his childhood horrors contributed to the growth of his stomach cancer.

I do believe that, if he had survived another decade, witnessing what is happening now would have killed him. He would have viewed everyone in the Trump administration as “belligerent know-nothings,” as people who embrace their own ignorance and see it as a virtue. The presence of a radical racist and anti-Semite like Bannon behind the throne would have made him absolutely sick. The continuing Trump rallies with their maniacal leader and fanatical crowds would have convinced him that many Americans deeply embrace fascist dictatorship. The headlong charge to destroy American schools, to trash the environment, and to provoke hate crimes would have deeply shaken his faith in any sort of human progress.

However, he would have celebrated the journalists who have finally stood up to fight. He would have loved that The Washington Post has changed its official slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” He would have celebrated and joined the academics who have stepped down from their ivory towers to speak out against the Muslim ban and other atrocities promoted by the administration. He would have denounced Bannon and Miller and stripped away their rhetoric to show the racist hearts beating beneath.

We are always our deeds

But he’s not here.

However, his life shows us the reality of refugees and immigrants. When we welcome those who come to us in need, they celebrate our commitment to human rights. When we practice the ancient virtue of hospitality, we build allies and citizens who will work for positive change and bring out the best in American culture.

Refugees seek to escape the violence of their homelands. They leave the lands they love, the places in which they grew up, the cities where their children were born, the homes they built, all to travel great and difficult distances to find safety for themselves and their loved ones.

My father sometimes joked that if the war hadn’t happened, he would have long ago have been a grandfather with an elementary school education, smoking a clay pipe on a chair by the front door of a thatch-roofed house, watching the carts drive to and from the fields. Life often takes us far away from where we expect to be, but for refugees from war and destruction, the choice is made for them under terrifying circumstances.


Karavukovo church where my father was an altar boy in the 1930s, as it was in 2006 [public domain]

Immigrants come to America because they believe there is a better life here. They believe the American myths of making one’s own way, of liberty and justice for all.

Of course, the United States has never lived up to its own ideals. The nation’s treatment of Native Americans, African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Jews, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and many other demographics has produced a long history of shame. Yet the dream is alive.

Or is it?

How long can the Trump-Bannon project continue before we have surpassed the past atrocities of the United States? How long before we commit acts that future presidents will have to formally apologize for while paying restitution to the victims? I’m pretty sure we’re already there, and it’s only been five weeks.

For my entire life, I’ve heard loudmouth Americans talk about what they would have done if they had been citizens in Nazi Germany, how they would have fought the Nazis, how they would never have let themselves be taken to the camps.

Of course, this is nonsense.

We now see firsthand how citizens act under a racist and xenophobic government consolidating power and eliminating racial and religious minorities that they resolutely scapegoat. How many of the former loudmouths who grew up watching Nazi documentaries on the History Channel are taking action? How many of those obsessed with Nazi Germany as the Great Evil are cheering for Trump?

What will you tell your grandchildren you did when action was needed? Will you take action, or will you be interviewed in twenty years by some historian trying to understand why the average person let it all happen?

Now’s the time. We are our deeds.

I would like to thank my mother, the philosopher Charlene Haddock Seigfried, for helping me with the facts of my father’s story for this article.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.