A refugee Christmas


One of the most important controversies reported in the news has to do with Europe’s Syrian refugee problem. It is a complex and agonizing issue, for there are literally thousands fleeing the ravages of war. Most of these refugees are women and children. Some political candidates in our country have been fueling the fear that these refugees may be infiltrated by terrorists. Donald Trump has called for the banning of all Muslims from entering the United States. Listening to this divisive argument led me back to a lasting memory of when I was a small boy living in post-war Europe.

My dad had been stationed with the Seventh Army Corps in Germany after the war. I guess I was a typical “army brat” moving from one military base to another every three or four years. This was my dad’s third tour in Europe. His first had been in combat with the 1st Division in 1944 followed by two other tours in the 1950s.

In those days, most Americans lived in complexes outside the base. Our complex was fairly new and named “Pattonville.” It housed hundreds of families in three-story apartment buildings. I was just 9 years old then and enjoyed living there. I had many friends to play with, and we all had the latest conveniences of the time:  movie theater, commissary, schools, little league and parks. In a way, we lived in a small segregated community among the post-war German populous. I didn’t realize at the time that the Christmas of ’58 would be my last in Germany.

In September of that year, I joined the Cub Scouts, and the boys on the block and I looked forward to our weekly den meetings. We knew little of the politics of the day, let alone world events. We were busy being kids. Yet slowly, we began to notice the increasing number of strange children hanging around our buildings. Little did we know that an emergency Displaced Persons Camp was being erected a few miles away.

By the summer of 1958, hundreds of thousands of East German, Polish, Czech and Hungarian refugees were flooding into Austria and West Germany. The abortive Hungarian Uprising of 1956 resulted in imprisonment or execution of those who participated by the Russian authorities. The myriad number of families fleeing the oppression of Communism was an embarrassment to the Soviet regime, and eventually the Iron Curtain was erected to prevent further emigration. A testimony to the evils of tyranny.

I knew little of all of this, but what we saw were young children going through our garbage cans for bread ends, empty peanut butter jars, scrap clothing and meat rinds. Most of these children were orphans. They would often come early in the morning so as not to be seen, shameful of their plight. On occasion, some kids in the neighborhood would make fun of them, for children can be cruel in their ignorance. Many of us would ask our parents,  “Who are these kids? Where did they come from? Why are they poor?”

Eventually, the American and newly formed Nato governments would bring food, clothing, medical aid and housing to these displaced people. But hungry people cannot wait for bureaucracies. Finally, our community decided to do something, and the Cub Scouts would play an important and unique role.

Our church groups, civic organizations, military, women’s clubs, and Girl and Boy Scouts all mobilized. We packaged goods, gathered clothing, wrapped Christmas presents and shoveled coal. The 10th Transportation Group provided troop trucks, and it was the Cub Scouts who would have the honor of delivering the first gifts of Christmas. There were more than 300 neatly dressed scouts from Troop 110 in that leading convoy.

We sang Christmas carols as we entered the DP camp. GIs helped us pass out gifts, food and clothing. It was four days before Christmas, but you couldn’t tell anyone there that! The joy, tears, hugs, smiles and Slavic thank yous I will always remember with pride. My family  never returned to Europe, but every holiday season I am joyfully reminded of the real meaning of Christmas and what it means to be an American.

– Burt Baldwin