Using the film Casablanca as a leitmotif, this chapter describes the escape routes of refugees in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and during World War II. The chapter introduces readers to the book's six protagonists, centering on the moments when their lives intersected, the places they coincided, the shared themes in their writing, and their relationship with Mexico as a place of refuge. The displaced coveted a sense of rootedness, even though the world they had escaped (fascist occupied Europe) was one where a belief in fixed, eternal, essential, and rooted national and racial identities was leading to mass death and destruction. The cruel irony here is that deep historical endorsement of collective roots had led to massive displacement, which in turn reinforced the allure of roots.
In 1937 Fritz Freudenheim drew a map depicting his family's escape route from Berlin to Montevideo. Entitled "From the Old Home to the New Home!" the map tells a story of home and loss that sheds light on the relationship between geography and emotions by forgoing scale, making this map as much about "space" as about "place." While maps are not stories and stories are not maps, the history of escape routes from Europe to the Americas in the 1930s and 1940s can be told from the intersections where maps and stories meet. Moving into the contemporary period, the chapter discusses maps and counter-maps of the current refugee crisis.
This chapter reveals the ways in which different histories of violence intersected when refugees crossed the Atlantic in the 1930s and dealt with the colonial and racial hierarchies they encountered along their escape routes. In her memoir Éxodo: Diario de una refugiada Española [Exodus: Diary of a Spanish Refugee], Silvia Mistral chronicles her 1939 crossing aboard the Ipanema, a converted cargo ship that took Spanish refugees from France to Mexico. The ship is forced to stop over in Martinique, and Mistral's own and other refugees' descriptions of this event shows how they reached the Americas with preconceived notions about the worlds they would encounter, notions that many were unwilling to give up or unlearn. Thus, in the story of the Ipanema's stopover in Martinique, some the paradoxes of the refugee experience in the 1930s and 1940s come across vividly.
While many refugees traveled on the Capitaine Paul Lemerle from Marseille to Martinique in 1941, the ship's prominent passengers were what made this journey renowned. Several of them wrote about their journey, creating an archive of transit at the backdrop of colonialism and impending decolonization. Meanwhile, Martinican intellectuals (Aimé Suzanne, Suzanne Césaire, Frantz Fanon) led debates about the intersections among histories of violence: colonialism, the transatlantic slave-trade, and the Holocaust. This chapter narrates the history of the Martinique route through the works of Anna Seghers, photographer Germaine Krull, journalist Kurt Kersten, and artist Wifredo Lam. Transit in Martinique was a harrowing experience for many (Kersten wrote about the agony of his friend Robert Breuer, the "eternal refugee," who died on the island), yet it also fueled the creation of great works of art.
The chapter returns to Casablanca to discuss Max Aub's flight from Europe to the Americas and the works he wrote while detained and shortly after arriving in Mexico. The play El rapto de Europa, o siempre se puede hacer algo [The Rape of Europe; or, Something Can Always Be Done] (1943), highlights the connections between the Spanish Civil War and World War II. One of its characters (modeled on Anna Seghers) states that she no longer feels a solid ground underneath her feet, expressing a sentiment that was common for refugees in the period. Aub also wrote two pieces about his experience in a prison camp in Djelfa (Algeria): a short story set during the Algerian War of Independence and a collection of poems written while he was imprisoned, his Diario de Djelfa. Both reveal the complex and contradictory ways in which European refugees confronted colonial racism in North Africa.
This chapter traces Mexico's role as a site of asylum and as a place where refugees continued fighting against and documenting the crimes of fascism. Some of the earliest depictions of atrocities in Europe appeared in the collection El libro negro del terror nazi [The Black Book of Nazi Terror] (1942), published by the exile press "El Libro Libre." In Anna Seghers's words, a "new chapter of world literature" began in Mexico during World War II, and that chapter represents an unheeded and yet crucial moment in the history of the global awareness of Nazi atrocities. While the "new chapter" is short-lived and often missed by literary scholars, it is exceptionally relevant when considering the ways in which past and present, as well as the familiar and the unfamiliar, come together in the works that visual artists and writers from Mexico, Germany, and elsewhere produced in this period.
Roughly a decade before Mexico became an important part of the lives and works of displaced writers, Ruth Rewald published a book about statelessness with a Mexican protagonist: Janko. Der Junge aus Mexiko [Janko. The Boy from Mexico]. Janko's Mexican nationality is largely symbolic, as the book is more about the situation in Europe than about Mexican history or culture, a trait that this work from 1934 shares with some of the depictions of Mexico that come across in the works of authors who settled there in the early 1940s. These authors produced a rich collection of writing about their country of refuge, but the unsafe world these authors left behind in Europe is a constant, sometimes overwhelming presence that haunts their work. While the experiences that Anna Seghers and Rewald had with Mexico differed fundamentally, their yearning for the country was shared.
Gertrude Duby was one of the few German-speaking exiles who remained in Mexico once the war was over. Before dedicating her life's work to the Lacandón Maya, Duby spent ten months traveling, mainly in the states of Morelos and Guerrero, to research the life stories of women who followed and fought with Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution. Duby's texts about the Zapatista women reveal an intense desire to find a world that was better than the one she had left behind in Europe. In her accounts the idealized and racialized indigenous characters coexist with the need for modernization and reform through education. Duby's creations, the "magical Zapatistas," emerge in an interstitial space, between Europe and Mexico, between a harrowing past and an uncertain future.
This chapter considers remote locations that the violence of World War II and the Holocaust did not reach, but its memory did. One of these locations is the town of Venta Prieta (Hidalgo), a place Kisch visited, intrigued by stories about a Jewish community that he indeed ended up finding there. His chronicles reveal the long reach of the Holocaust across the Atlantic in narratives that in the beginning appear to be rooted in Mexico and in the Mexican landscape, but then unexpectedly return to the places from which the refugees have fled and where their loved ones have vanished. In a twenty-first-century examination of the Holocaust, these and other seemingly distant locations do matter, as they appear in accounts of refugees who were able to survive in unexpected places across the world.
The concluding chapter addresses the ways in which refugee lives can become akin to afterlives, as these are existences located in the interstices between the present an the past, between old and new homes, and even trapped in 'spiderwebs' of suspicion and disbelief. The story of Spanish writer and politician Margarita Nelken (also a Spanish refugee in Mexico) who may or may not have been an FBI informant, charged with spying on Anna Seghers and others, is particularly relevant in this context. About eight decades after this book's protagonists found themselves displaced from their homes and on the run, the numbers of those facing a life that also is an afterlife have increased exponentially.