We live in a world full of displaced people. War, famine, disease, and economics have forced millions if not billions of people to leave their homes. While some are fortunate enough to be allowed to immigrate to new countries where they have the chance to start over again, others end up in the squalor and helplessness of refugee camps. Trapped in bureaucratic limbo as no country is willing to accept them and unable to go home, they live on hand outs and take shelter in anything from tents to edifices made of scrap.
Limbo or purgatory can’t be any worse than the fate of those doomed to spend their days whiling away the hours awaiting word that they can return to their homes or by some miracle be allowed into another country. If that isn’t a troubling enough fate, what of those who have family and friends to worry about? As long as no word comes saying they have died, they continue to remain alive as long as they are remembered. Those memories are the one thing they retain that assures them their life before this was real, and the people they left behind are all that’s left of whatever it was that once rooted them to their homeland.
In 1940, when most of Europe had fallen under the shadow of Nazi Germany, Portugal remained unoccupied and fiercely neutral. Located at the far end of the Iberian peninsula and buffered from the rest of Europe by Spain, little Portugal became the last place of refuge for people fleeing Nazi Germany hoping to obtain a visa that would take them across the water to the United States, Canada, or South America. Whether living under Nazi rule was unacceptable to them or life threatening made no difference, as the result was the same. Standing on the edge of the continent looking across the ocean towards potential salvation, their only recourse was to wait.
Among those waiting was French aviator and author Antoine De Saint-Exupery who is perhaps best known for his children’s book Le Petite Prince – The Little Prince. After the fall of France he refused to live in Nazi occupied France and made his way to America so he could continue to fight. Like so many others he ended up in Portugal waiting for a visa, and it was during his time in Portugal among fellow refugees that he was inspired to write the essay Letter To A Hostage, which is now being re-issued by Pushkin Press of London, England.
Unlike the refugees of today who are resigned to the hopelessness of their situation, the majority of those waiting in Lisbon acted no differently than they would have if they were on vacation in the south of France or other resort area. On the whole these were people who had the where with all to have bought their way out of whatever troubles they might have experienced in their homeland. Once ensconced in Lisbon they proceeded to live as if their circumstances remained unchanged, dressing up every night and going to the casinos or attending lavish dinner parties. Of course it was all pretence, or as Saint-Exupery puts it: “As Lisbon played at happiness, they (the refugees) played at pretending they would return”(to their homelands).
I suppose a great many of you have read Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, but for those who haven’t, and for those who may not remember some of the key elements, at one point in the book the Little Prince of the title is being taught about love and friendship by a fox whom he meets on our planet. “What is essential is invisible to the eye. It’s only with the heart that one truly sees” says the fox to the Little Prince. In many ways, Letter To A Hostage is an analysis of that sentiment, as Saint-Exupery attempts to define those things that are essential for defining our existence.
Surrounded as he is by those he considers rootless – people who are doomed to be cut off from their previous lives and forced to start over again in a new country – he begins to determine what will enable him to maintain his connection to his native France while he is in exile. What he comes up with is there are people, friends or family, that one can hold onto and carry with you in your heart to act as the ties to your home. Because their existence is threatened, his connection to his home is at risk. In particular, he thinks of an ailing Jewish friend and worries about his chances of survival in occupied France.
Yet, how can something as simple as friendship, or as insignificant as a smile, be so important that it defines our connection to where we come from, who we are, and in fact be an essential aspect of human existence? Well, according to Saint-Exupery it’s because the joy that we are gifted with through friendship, and the way the caring involved in a friendship motivates us to behave, are essential elements of the human spirit. Anybody can prepare a meal for anybody else, but if you or I cook a meal for someone we love, or somebody we care for, it’s different from a meal cooked by a stranger for strangers.
You know the things your friend likes and dislikes, so you will go out of your way to include or exclude them from any dish you prepare. You are making something that’s unique to that person, and in doing so you are recognizing their individuality and respecting it. Seeing the aimless refugees going through the motions of living without any intent behind their actions, without the invisible essential element of hidden joy that denotes a friendship, Saint-Exupery comes to understand why the consideration of an individual, caring or respect, is so important to preserve. Without a respect for our differences, if, as the Nazis desired, we were all the same, where would the conflict of ideas that generate growth and stimulate creativity come from? Uniformity of thought might make for an ordered universe, but it also makes for stagnation.
In a Letter To A Hostage Saint-Exupery follows a stream of thought that takes him from musing on what he finds so unsettling about the refugees he is sharing Lisbon with at the beginning of WW2 to how respect for each other’s individuality is what ensures the continued evolution of humanity. His thoughts on friendship and how that shapes our behaviour towards others act as a natural segue between his contemplation on the nature of the rootless refugee and the deadening effects on human expression brought about by the tyranny of conformity.
Saint-Exupery’s use of anecdotes as examples of his theories might be initially puzzling as the connection between the incidences he describes and his conclusions are not immediately obvious. Yet as you absorb the stories and think about them within the context of the ideas he is expressing, they become clear. Originally published in 1943, Letter To A Hostage, is every bit as applicable today as it was over seventy years ago. Think of how we are constantly being told that different is not only bad, but something to be afraid of, and you can see how important it is to be reminded of the importance of diversity.
Antoine De Saint-Exupery disappeared while flying a mission in 1943, but his works have live on long after his death. Works like The Little Prince have instructed people all over the world about the true nature of friendship and the things that are truly important in life. Letter To A Hostage may not be as accessible as his work for children, but it too details the essential invisible things that make life so special.