Palestinian Refugees and German Expellees

The atmosphere could not have been more tranquil: a former royal castle in the rolling hills of the Taunus region near Frankfurt, where statesmen and politicians held an annual meeting dealing with the Middle East. Europeans and Americans, Israelis and Iranians, Egyptians and Turks, Palestinians and Tunisians rubbed shoulders. The novelty this year was the presence of representatives from post-Saddam Iraq, among them an official from the Kurdish Regional Government, as well as a high ranking Shi'a representative.

The new situation in Iraq, along with the Middle East road map, were at the center of attention. On the opening night, a senior German government minister, himself deeply involved in Middle Eastern affairs, addressed both subjects, displaying great sensitivity both to Israeli and Palestinian concerns. The evening proceeded along the expected anodyne trajectory until a Lebanese academic raised the issue of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

The senior German minister listened attentively, and then said: ``This is an issue with which we in Germany are familiar; may I ask my German colleagues in the audience to raise their hand if they, or their families, have been refugees from Eastern Europe?''

There was a moment of silence. The issue is embarrassing in Germany, fraught with political and moral landmines. Slowly, hands were raised: by my count, more than half of the Germans present (government officials, journalists, businessmen) raised a hand: they, or their families, had been Vertriebene --expelled from their ancestral homes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia after World War II. It is estimated that up to 10 million were expelled, and with their descendants they make up today almost double that number--almost one in four Germans.