W. H. Auden’s poem of despair, misery, and isolation, “Refugee Blues”, describes the hardships faced by two German Jewish refugees attempting to escape Hitler’s Germany. Published in autumn, 1939, Auden is surrounded by the anti-Sematic hatred that is growing in Germany six months prior to the outbreak of World War II. Auden utilizes this environment and the experiences of German Jews to express the abuse of human rights and the sentiments of refugees.
For the near two thousand years that the Jewish people have lived in Europe, they have constantly battled anti-Semitism, having to defend themselves, physically and emotionally, time and time again. In 1920, Jewish people encountered anti-Semitism from the Nationalist Socialist Political Party, the Nazis, lead by Adolf Hitler. As Hitler came to power in 1933, he slowly made laws depriving Jewish people of their human rights. After 1939, the Nazis furthered their restriction of the rights of Jewish people, this time denying their right to live. Death squads and death camps were spread throughout Europe, particularly Poland and Russia, to hunt and kill Jewish people. With war approaching different countries in Europe, German Jewish people faced countless rejections looking for refuge abroad.
Despite the various interpretations poems may include, Auden’s “Refugee Blues”, has a clear main theme, the abuse of human rights experienced by refugees. In the first stanza, Auden explores the displaced and isolated existence of refugees. He expresses this in, “Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes, yet there’s no place for us, my dear” (2-3). This is directly contrasted with the rest of the population, who are living in the filthiest “holes” (1-2), disclosing that refugees are below the poverty line. Moreover, Auden uses an old yew (7) as symbolism in the second stanza. He contrasts the renewable life of a tree with man-made documents that, once lost, can never be recovered: “Old passports can’t do that, my dear” (9). Auden then describes the lack of political aid the German Jewish refugees encounter, further exposing their isolation and helplessness. Stanza seven focuses on Hitler’s horrific regime, expressed metaphorically. His command for all Jews to be killed is personified as the rumbling of thunder that can be heard just before lightning strikes, and the world descends into the chaos of a political storm. The last stanza of the poem describes Jewish people being hunted, either by death squads or by soldiers looking to put them into labor camps.
Throughout the poem, Auden uses contrast to demonstrate the struggle of the inequality of Jewish people. He juxtaposes Jewish people with animals, displaying the disdainful perception of German Jewish refugees through the lines, “Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin. Saw a door opened and a cat let in, but they weren’t German Jews my dear” (22-23). The speaker reflects that cats were welcomed into open doors, yet they were not. Additionally, the refugee speaks of how he, “Saw the fish swimming as if they were free” (26), and how the fish in the quay are free, yet they were not. Auden shows that animals were treated with more compassion than Jewish refugees. Also, Auden considers one of the most prominent contrasting parts of the poem – the Jews’ condition of hanging between legal and biological death. The legal death that Auden refers to is depicted throughout the poem; describing loss of home (3), country (4), and documentation.
In the fourth stanza he describes a consul, violently banging the table and claiming that, “If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead” (11). Thus, furthering the refugees’ deprivation from the loss of their home and hope to their loss of the right to live. Despite the meagre political aid available, refugees still remain lost in the commotion of diplomatic chaos. Additionally, an angry resistance was growing, and with a shortage of food due to the total war , many are against the idea proclaiming, “If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread” (17). Conversely, the biological death that Auden illustrates is clear, uncovering the isolation imposed by the Silent Majority (17), Hitler’s regime exterminating all Jewish people (19-21), and death squads sent to hunt down all Jews (34-36). As a poem, “Refugee Blues” captures the true feelings of refugees, through the plight of German Jews escaping Hitler’s Germany, reminding one of the extent to which humanity can fall.
The title “Refugee Blues” presents more than the melancholy, blue, mood associated with the story of German Jewish refugees escaping Hitler’s reign; it mirrors the form and essence of a musical ‘blues’ composition. Technically, the poem echoes that of a ‘blues’ piece, a literary melancholic ‘ballad’. Having three-line stanzas, similar to traditional blues, Auden does what most blues writers do – take a single main theme and make variations on it, leading to a powerful finale. Auden consistently takes from the main idea of abuse of human rights, and transforms it; with each variation, the desolation increases, amplifying in power, finally ending with the refugees being pursued, and having no place to go. Historically, the refugees in the poem suffer the same isolation, manipulation, and racial acceptance as the African American slaves underwent during the time of Colonial America . As a matter of fact, blues’ origin resides with the African American people as an expression of melancholy and pain experienced in slave plantations in southern United States of America.
On the whole, W. H. Auden expresses the exploitation of human rights and sentiments of refugees through the poem “Refugee Blues”, using the growing animosity towards German Jewish emigrants as a vessel. Utilizing a resigned, desolate tone, Auden captures the feelings of the refugees, and this allows the reader to experience the distress and fear refugees experienced. The refugee speaks in a common, colloquial language, showing that he is a regular person, enabling the reader to connect on a personal level. Auden encapsulates the exploitations of minorities and their human rights by higher powers, throughout history.