Rarely has there been such an interaction of cultural, historical, and human factors as there was in this funny and emotional video which went viral across Europe this past week.
Shot from the passenger seat of 61-year-old Austrian Hans Breuer’s car, the video shows Breuer merrily singing the Yiddish folk song “Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym” (“A Tree Stands Off a Road”) by Itsik Manger.
Then the camera pans sideways to reveal a scene both humorous and touching: the car is full of Palestinian-Syrian refugees for whom Breuer is giving a lift, happily joining him on the song’s wordless chorus.
“Ay Bitty Bitty Boym!“ the group intones while a jaunty Breuer happily waves his finger in the air like a conductor’s wand.
While the video is touching enough in its own right, it’s the remarkable context that surrounds the clip which has made it a viral sensation and elevated it into the greater discussion about the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.
That’s because Breuer – a Vienna resident and shepherd by trade – is Jewish, the son of parents who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and became homeless refugees themselves.
“It makes me cry again and again if I think of my father, of his situation, and of other immigrants – and I put it together with these people,” Breuer told The Guardian. “Friends of my parents, Jewish people, tried to immigrate to Switzerland [before WWII], but the Swiss put them back to the Nazis at the frontier.”
“There is too much similarity between these two situations – one 70 years ago, and one now.”
In a separate interview, he says he decided to act when he saw a news report on the conditions at the government-run refugee camp in Traiskirchen, which is filled to over double its intended capacity.
“I was sick of this crime, I asked my wife whether we should do something, and that’s how it began,” Breuer told JTA last week.
So he decided to head down to the camp last August with food and water for the refugees encamped there. Having seen their living conditions first hand, he says he decided to start assisting them in their journey across Europe – one car load at a time.
Austrian police say about 1,000 new arrivals are expected soon at the main border crossing point with Hungary, after nearly 10,000 migrants trekked into the country.
Police spokesman Helmut Marban said Tuesday that most of Monday’s arrivals at the Nickelsdorf crossing east of Vienna had already been brought to emergency shelters elsewhere in the country.
He said Hungary is bringing the 1,000 people expected Tuesday to its side of the border by train.
From there, the migrants usually walk into Austria.
This isn’t the first time Breuer has found himself in something of an international spotlight. He was the subject of the 2005 book Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd” , which told of his life as a roving shepherd, folk singer, and somewhat unique curator of Austrian culture.
Now he says he uses his life experience as a “wandering shepherd” to navigate the little known back roads of Austria and Hungary when ferrying refugees on one of his expeditions.
That and sing them some Yiddish folks songs as well, a genre of music he says he came to only later in life.
“This music, written by refugees for other refugees like themselves, somehow makes me think of home,” Breuer said. “It is also my hope for the refugees I help: That they find a home.”
–With files from the Associated Press
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