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To Deal with the Refugee Crisis, Europe Needs to Confront the Demons from Its History

Paul Mason talks about his new short film Astoria and the parallels between the treatment of refugees and Europe's dark past.

Sonya Cassidy as Elizseva and July Namir as Lilliane in 'Astoria' by Paul Mason. Photo by Leon Puplett

English journalist Paul Mason is probably best known for covering economics and social justice issues as a writer, as former Economics Editor of Channel 4 News and BBC's Newsnight, and an author of numerous books. Now he's created a short film highlighting the parallels between Europe's refugee crisis today and the Nazi treatment of the Jews in the 1940s called Astoria. He explains to VICE how Europe's dark past inspired him to create this film.


In 2012 I flew to Budapest for the BBC to cover the right–wing political car-crash that is Hungary. In the parliament, right by the Danube, I interviewed one of the leaders of Jobbik, a thinly disguised fascist movement that had only just given up having a uniformed militia.

Off camera I asked one member of the party, "What's your attitude to the British National Party?" He answered, "Well, they are against Muslims, whereas the people we have the problem with is Jews."

A few yards down the riverbank is the site where Budapest's Jews were shot and pushed into the river in 1944.

That night we stayed in a charming old hotel called the Astoria where, my producer mentioned, Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann once stayed. Around 2AM, troubled by the historical resonances, I sat in my hotel room and Googled the words "Eichmann" and "Astoria." I found out that he had not just stayed there, but that the place had been a Nazi interrogation center.

At Eichmann's trial in 1961, witness Elisheva Szenes revealed what happened to her in the basement of the Astoria, where she was starved for four days:

"They stood us up against a wall for hours, and they threatened that if we turned our faces they would use their weapons. Every morning we had to rise between 4 and 5 o'clock and to wash ourselves in the corridor while naked, which was exceedingly embarrassing to us… And if anyone did not undress and did not wash herself in a way that was satisfactory in their opinion, they would throw a bucket of water over her."


Szenes was then sent to Auschwitz, pleading with bystanders to save her as she was dragged through the front door of the hotel.

The hotel has produced a two-line acknowledgement that it was once Eichmann's HQ in its official blurb on the wall. To be fair, it has witnessed many other traumas: near destruction during the Soviet liberation of Hungary and then in 1956, Soviet tanks tried to destroy it during an uprising in the Hungarian Revolution. Advertising your hotel as somewhere the Holocaust was perpetrated is not a marketing strategy anybody would advise.

Paul Mason on set. Photo by Leon Puplett

But in 2015 Hungary's conservative nationalist government put the country on the front line in denying the rights of refugees to seek asylum. It built a razor wire fence and Amnesty International alleged its police mistreated and neglected migrants herded into camps. When Hungary's police put refugees onto a train, drove them 30 miles into the countryside, and left them there, the Austrian chancellor compared it to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.

The conservative nationalist government of Hungary, meanwhile, has worked overtime to create the narrative that the country bears no responsibility for the Holocaust. My film, Astoria, is a response to the complexity of the situation—then and now.

As journalists we try to humanize and individualize the refugees whose stories we report. But I've never felt that even the best of the journalism gets to the deep anguish and fear people are suffering. At times the news can just be one person after another telling the same story over again.


So I wrote Astoria. In it a refugee from Aleppo in 2016 gets to meet a Jew from Budapest in 1944 with nowhere else to run. They confront the dilemma of fight versus flight; of hope and memory; despair and political amnesia.

The story of today's refugees belongs to them: European art, cinema, literature, and theater will soon be alive with that story, told by those who lived it. The Young Vic theater in London has been recognized as a "Theatre of Sanctuary" by City of Sanctuary.

But the story of Europe's reaction to their arrival is ours to tell. We have not only the right but the duty to tell the story of Europe's hypocrisy over the current wave of refugees.

We have the duty to warn that, if we don't learn to accept foreigners who need our help, we will define them as a dangerous "other"; the danger is they become a lightning rod for all other failures in our society.

Because the Astoria is a real site of the Holocaust I did not change it to a fictional name—though we filmed somewhere else. Europe is in fact littered with unacknowledged sites of Nazi atrocity: railway stations, hotels, town halls.

We have to confront this. The Holocaust did not only happen at Auschwitz and Treblinka: it happened at the end of your street, and—chillingly—along the very routes the Syrian migrants have taken from Greece to Germany.

The evil of Nazism was banal. Ordinary people committed the Holocaust, not just evil maniacs from central casting. And in the past year we've discovered that perfectly ordinary people across Europe are capable of stigmatizing and persecuting those who've fled here.

Because Elisheva Szenes survived, we have a first hand account of Dr. Mengele dividing arrivals at Auschwitz into "the side of life and the side of the gas chambers." But if you Google the words Eichmann and Szenes, the first thing that comes up is a Holocaust denial website claiming everything she said was fabricated.

As Europe flounders in the face of the refugee influx, and with the racist right growing, memory is our weapon—it has to be accurate, contestable, and well-documented. But sometimes, as in my movie, it has to be thrust into your face.

Paul Mason's Astoria—a Young Vic short film—is available to watch now.

Follow Paul Mason on Twitter.