Hannah Arendt on Refugeedom

This is one of the crucial excerpts from Hannah Arendt’s essay “We Refugees” that she published in 1943 shortly after arriving in New York.

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.”

In the excerpt from her essay “We Refugees”, Hannah Arendt describes the loss that for her and other refugees constitutes the “collapse of our private world”: The German language, indispensable for her as a German-speaking publicist, also plays a major role in her professional life. She also mentions the loss of friends and family due to the National Socialist persecution. Arendt’s remarks evoke the lack of prospects that many Jewish refugees faced on the run and in their host countries as they lost their language, profession and social environment.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a Jewish German-American political theorist and writer.

After being detained by the Gestapo for several days in 1933, she fled to France and worked there, among other things, in Zionist organizations that helped Jews to escape. In 1937 she was deprived of German citizenship, which made her a stateless person for almost 14 years. After she was imprisoned for a few weeks in the French internment camp Gurs, she managed to escape from there as well. In 1941 Arendt came to the USA, where she spent the rest of her life and was granted US citizenship in 1951. In her first years in New York she worked as a publicist, editor and contributor to several Jewish magazines (including “Der Aufbau”) and organizations (including the Commission on Jewish Cultural Reconstruction). Under the impression of the experience of flight and arrival that she and other European Jews had had, she also wrote the essay “We Refugees” in the Menorah Journal in 1943. From 1953 to 1967 Arendt taught as a professor at Brooklyn College in New York, at the University of Chicago and at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Arendt, Hannah, 1943: We Refugees, Menorah Journal.