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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. The Secret Refugee History of Casablanca

    This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Hollywood classic Casablanca. The move has been acclaimed as one of the great films of all time, and in my (correct) opinion, it contains the greatest scene in movie history (more on that later).

    French refugee Madeleine Lebeau: "Vive la France!"

    Probably, you know the basic story. It's 1942. France has fallen to the Nazis, and some French colonies, including the city of Casablanca in Morocco, are under Vichy control (the Vichy government of France collaborated with the Nazis). Refugees, freedom fighters, Nazis, smugglers, and numerous others pass through Rick's Café in Casablanca. Many are seeking papers to escape to Portugal and then to freedom in the New World (the film's technical director, Robert Aisner, actually took this route himself after he escaped from a German prison camp).

    Rick--the owner of the café--is an American ex-patriot (played by Humphrey Bogart) whose loyalties through much of the movie are ambiguous. One day, Rick's former lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) appears with her husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and Rick and Ilsa have to make some relationship decisions ("Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."). If you don't know how the movie ends, I'm not going to tell you here--you should see it for yourself (and you can thank me later).

    What's less well-known about Casablanca is that many of the actors in the film were themselves refugees. Of 75 people who had bit parts and larger roles in Casablanca, almost all were immigrants of one kind or another. And of the 14 who got screen credit, 11 were foreign-born. Here is the story of some of them:

    Conrad Veldt was a well-known German actor who opposed the Nazis and left Germany with his Jewish wife in 1933. Before he departed, he had to complete a questionnaire about his race. Even though he was not Jewish, he listed himself as a Jew. The government offered him an opportunity to divorce his wife and align himself with the Nazis, but he refused. Mr. Veldt moved to Britain where he performed in anti-Nazi films. He eventually came to the United States, where he wanted to help persuade the U.S. to enter the war. Mr. Veldt donated the better part of his personal fortune to Britain to assist with the war effort. He played Major Strasser, the primary bad guy in Casablanca.

    S.Z. Sakall and his wife Anne Kardos became American citizens in 1946: "Mama and I are happy, happy people today."

    Lotte Palfi played a desperate woman selling her jewels to raise money. In her only line in the film, she asks for "just a little more, please?" Ms. Palfi was a leading stage actor in German, but fled in 1934 because she was Jewish. She hoped to find success in America, which she viewed as a "melting pot" where the "great majority of the people... had emigrated from other countries." So she initially thought her German accent "shouldn't be any hindrance to [her] acting career." "Of course," she wrote, "I couldn't have been more wrong." Ms. Palfi married fellow Casablanca actor Wolfgang Zilzer (who grew up in Germany and only learned of his American citizenship when he was trying to secure a visa to escape from Europe). The couple divorced after 50 years when he wanted to return to Germany at the end of his life and she refused to go back.

    S.Z. Sakall played Carl the waiter in Casablanca. He was a Hungarian Jew who worked on stage and screen in his native country, and also in Austria and Germany. He lost three sisters and many other relatives in the Holocaust. Known for his comedic performances and his shaking jowls (one of the Warner brothers made him adopt the nickname "Cuddles"), Mr. Sakall achieved success in Germany using broken German, and in America using broken English. He arrived in the U.S. just before the war, in May 1939, and appeared in 30 movies between 1940 and 1950. Mr. Sakall was immensely proud of his United States citizenship, and kept his naturalization documents on the mantel in his living room.

    Hans Twardowski played a German officer in Casablanca. He began his career as a supporting actor in The Cabinet of Doctor Calgary, but had to flee Germany because he was gay. In the U.S., Mr. Twardowski was type-cast as a Nazi, and never worked as an actor after the war ended, but he always dreamed of returning to the stage.

    Helmut Dantine played a young Bulgarian husband trying to earn travel money at the roulette table. In Austria, he led an anti-Nazi youth movement, and was rounded up after Hitler annexed his country in 1938. Mr. Dantine was only 19 years old. He spent three months in a concentration camp before he managed to get released based on family connections and medical reasons. His parents immediately sent him to Los Angeles, where they had a family friend. In the U.S., he worked as an actor and a producer.

    Peter Lorre, born Laszlo Lowenstein in Hungary in 1904, played Ugarte, a black marketeer who hands Rick the letters of transit that Victor and Ilsa need to escape from Casablanca. Mr. Lorre moved with his family to Austria when he was young, and he began his career there. He eventually migrated to Germany where he acted on stage and screen. His breakout role was as a killer in Fritz Lang's 1931 film M. With Hitler's ascension to power, Mr. Lorre left Germany in 1933, and made his way to France, Britain, and eventually, the U.S., where he settled in Hollywood.

    Anti-Nazi actor Conrad Veidt played a Nazi in Casablanca.

    Marcel Dalio
    , who played Emil the croupier, had been a star in French cinema (Rules of the Game and La Grande Illusion), but fled the country ahead of the Nazi invasion (he was Jewish and feared persecution). The Vichy government used Mr. Dalio's image to depict the stereotypical Jew on propaganda posters, but in the U.S., he was reduced to playing minor roles. Upon learning of the posters, he quipped, "At least I had star billing on the poster." Mr. Dalio was promoted to playing Renaud (in the movie, this character was Renault) on the short-lived and largely forgotten Casablanca television serious (1955-56). Mr. Dalio's mother and sisters were murdered at Auschwitz.

    Madeleine Lebeau was the French woman seen crying (real tears) and shouting "Vive la France" during the greatest scene in movie history. In real life, she was a citizen of France who married Marcel Dalio when she was 16, and then fled the country with him after the German invasion. Their marriage was short-lived, and Ms. Lebeau returned to Europe after the war, where she continued to act in France, Britain, and Spain. She died last year at age 92--the last surviving named cast member in Casablanca.

    Seventy-five years after its release, Casablanca is recognized as one of the great films of all time. The emotion brought to the movie by so many real-life refugees from Nazism certainly contributes to the film's power. Indeed, refugees helped shape the movie, and the movie helped shape our vision for the war (critic Pauline Kael once opined, "Our image of the Nazi was formed by the Jewish refugees").

    Finally, the undisputed greatest scene in movie history: A group of Nazi officers is singing a patriotic German song at Rick's café. They are--they believe--the masters here. Resistance leader Victor Laszlo notices the men and marches over to the house band. He tells them to play le Marseille, the anthem of free France. The band looks to Rick, and he has another decision to make--keep out of it, or get involved. See what happens here.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
    Tags: history, movies Add / Edit Tags
  2. The Ancient Origins of Asylum: Part II

    In the last post, I wrote about the mythical origins of asylum and about the cities of refugee of the ancient Israelites.

    The Classical Greeks had a different concept of asylum than the Israelites. The Greeks recognized holy places—temples, alters, statues—as protected. To rob from a sacred place was to rob from the gods. This protection included the property of the sacred place and also people—including fugitives—who were found in that place. Runaway slaves, debtors, warriors vanquished in battle, and criminals would not be harmed in the sanctuaries and could find refuge there. The most well-known place of asylum was the Temple of Theseus in Athens (this temple is still standing; today, it is usually called the Temple of Hephaestus). Runaway slaves who fled their abusive masters could find refuge in the temple, and then compel their masters to sell them to someone else.

    You do NOT want to make this guy angry.
    Places of asylum were generally respected in the ancient Greek world, but sometimes the respect accorded to the sacred space was interpreted narrowly. For example, the historian Thucydides writes about the case of the Spartan general Pausanias, who had defeated the Persians at the Battle of Platea in 479 BC. In the years following the battle, Pausanias came under increasing suspicion as a traitor to the Persian side. Finally, at the moment when he was about to be arrested, Pausanias ran away to the Temple of Athena in Sparta, where he sought sanctuary. The leaders of Sparta who had sought Pausanias’s arrest barricaded him inside the temple and starved him out. Rather than violate the sanctity of the temple, they removed Pausanias from the place in the moments before his death. Thucydides writes that as soon as he was removed from the temple, Pausanias died. It’s hard to see how the temple offered him much protection, but the concept of the inviolability of the holy place was—technically—maintained.

    Echoing a much more modern complaint, the concept of asylum in ancient Greece was often abused by people seeking protection. Nevertheless, throughout the Greek period, asylum was generally respected, if only because violators feared divine wrath.

    The concept of asylum was also important to the Romans, albeit for a different reason. Legend has it that Rome was founded by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. After a dispute about where to establish the city, Romulus killed his brother and named the city after himself. Roman historians date the founding of their city to the seventh century BC.

    Romulus wanted to increase the population of his new city, and so he designated one area as a sacred “Asylum.” This is where newcomers entered the city. According to the Roman historian Livy (59 BC – 17 AD), the Asylum was crucial to Rome’s advancement and eventual greatness because it symbolized the Empire’s ability to enfranchise people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.

    During the second and first centuries BC, Rome asserted control over Macedonia and eventually (in 27 BC) all of Greece. Rome was heavily influenced by Greek culture (the Roman poet Horace said, “Greece, though captive, has taken its wild conqueror captive”), including in the area of asylum. However, the idea of asylum as a “right” soon became inconvenient for the Romans. How could they allow rebels and criminals to avoid the power of the Empire by hiding in temples?

    To mitigate this problem and assert their authority, the Romans severely restricted asylum in the Greek temples. Temples in the non-Greek areas of the Roman Empire fared little better. Throughout the Empire, Roman Law superseded religious sentiment. The places of asylum tended to be statues of the Caesars, not temples, and the sanctuary was only temporary. Those fleeing Roman “Justice” (such as it was) could not escape for long by claiming asylum.

    As the power of Rome declined, the power of the new Christian Church began to grow. Like its predecessors, the Church had its own version of asylum, but that’s a story for another day...

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
    Tags: asylum, history Add / Edit Tags
  3. The Ancient Origins of Asylum: Part 1

    Since it is the beginning of the year, I thought I might go back--way back--to explore the ancient origins of asylum. As you may know, the word “asylum” comes from the Greek asylos, meaning that which is inviolable or that which cannot be robbed: “a” (without) + “syle” (the right of seizure). The word originally referred to a sacred place where fugitives could find protection from their pursuers.

    Even today, some refugees still seek protection from statues.

    The origins of asylum are probably more myth than history. One candidate for the creator of asylum is the ancient Egyptian King Assyrophernes, who supposedly erected a statue in honor of his dead son (King Assyrophernes does not appear on the Egyptian King Lists, and at least one scholar claims that the whole story was made up by an historian in the early 18th century). The son's statue later became a place of worship for the king’s servants and eventually a place where people could seek asylum. Under this theory, the concept was transferred from the Egyptians to the Hebrews, who developed and codified the idea.

    Another candidate for the originator of asylum is King Ninus of Assyria, the legendary founder of Nineveh who ruled a vast Middle Eastern empire during the 21st century BC. Whether King Ninus actually existed is also an open question--the oldest written record of the king is found in a fifth century BC account by the badly-named Greek historian and physician Ctesias of Cnidus, who supposedly learned about Ninus from ancient Persian records. In this story, Ninus built a statue to commemorate his father, Belus, which served as an asylum for people fleeing harm.

    A third possibility is that asylum was created by the Persians. In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Tiberius commissioned an inquiry into the origin of asylum in Greece. At the time, the Romans had conquered Greece and the Greek system of temple asylum--which allowed for the protection of fugitives who reached a temple--was a thorn in the side of Rome. In response to Tiberius's inquiry, two Greek cities reported that their sanctuaries were founded by the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius (fourth and fifth centuries BC) during the Persian occupation. More likely, the right to asylum existed in other Greek communities at the time, and so the two cities in question petitioned the Persians for a right already found in other parts of Greece.

    In each of these stories, the refugee obtains asylum by going to a particular place where he is protected. Whether any of these stories is true is an open question, but I suppose they demonstrate that human beings have been dealing with the issue of whether to protect strangers fleeing persecution for a long time.

    The earliest written record of asylum in the ancient world comes from the Hebrews. These ancient rules for asylum were created at a time when family, friends or clansman of a murder victim would revenge the death by killing the murderer (or members of his clan). Revenge killings might take place even where the initial death was inadvertent.

    To regulate this problem, the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) designates six divinely-designated “cities of refuge” to protect “one who has killed another unwittingly.” The purpose of the cities is to prevent unjustified revenge killings in cases of involuntary manslaughter: “Thus the blood of the innocent shall not be shed, bringing blood-guilt upon you in the land that the Lord has allotted you.” Interestingly, the cities would “serve the Israelites and the resident aliens among them for refuge, so that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.”

    The Torah also created a method for adjudicating the manslayer’s intent. The cities of refuge were run by Levites (priests), and an assembly of such men would decide the case. The system of proof might seem a bit primitive by today’s standards. For example, if the manslayer used an “iron object,” he is a murderer and should be put to death. Ditto for stone or wood tools that “could cause death” (this one seems a bit tautological).

    Even if the death was ruled inadvertent and the manslayer received protection in the city of refuge, that was not the end of the matter. If he left the city, and the “blood-avenger comes upon him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood-avenger kills the manslayer, there is not bloodguilt on his account.” The punishment would remain in effect until the high priest died (the death of the high priest, like the death of the sovereign in other societies, signified a new era where prior legal obligations ended). Only then could the manslayer return to his home.

    Although the Israelite system was primitive and somewhat arbitrary, it was better than nothing. It also marked the first historically documented system of asylum.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
    Tags: asylum, history Add / Edit Tags
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