"Refugee Blues" by W.H. Auden is a powerful, poignant poem that captures the despair, suffering, and resilience of refugees. This verse is set against the backdrop of the oppression and displacement faced by the Jews in Nazi-ruled Germany during the Second World War.
The poem opens with a vivid contrast between the wealthy and impoverished inhabitants of a city, highlighting the harsh reality that, despite the vast population, there's no place for the refugees. The narrator hints at a cherished homeland, which they cannot return to.
The poem then delves into the bureaucratic hardheartedness faced by the refugees - their old passports are treated as invalid, their pleas fall on deaf ears at a committee, and they face public discrimination, painted as a threat to the locals' livelihoods.
The onset of war and Hitler's ominous intent to exterminate the Jews is hinted through the metaphor of thunder rumbling. The poem observes the stark discrimination wherein domestic pets are given shelter but human beings of a certain ethnicity are not.
The poem then presents two symbols of freedom—the swimming fish and the birds, both able to live in harmony with nature, free from the political and racial discrimination that torments the refugees.
The building with a thousand doors and windows underlines the inaccessibility to safety for refugees. Auden concludes this despairing narrative by painting a chilling image of search parties on a snowy plain hunting for the displaced refugees.
Despite the heavy context, "Refugee Blues" is a tale of endurance and survival, offering a personal perspective into the universal story of displacement and the longing for a safe harbour.