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Meet the Austrian Shepherd Who Sings Yiddish as he Drives Refugees to Safety

Said Hans Breuer, ‘There is too much similarity between these two situations–one 70 years ago, and one now.’

Jonathan Zalman
November 25, 2015

Hans Breuer, a Jewish Austrian shepherd, recalls hearing stories about “friends of [his] mother,” who would attempt to escape the Nazis by presenting to be members of the SS. “Friends of my parents, Jewish people, tried to emigrate to Switzerland [before World War II], but the Swiss put them back to the Nazis at the frontier,” he told The Guardian. “Hearing this story all my life is what has prepared me for this situation.”

The present-day situation Breuer speaks of is the plight of refugees–thousands of Syrians, specifically–who seek shelter by crossing over the now-closed Hungarian border, and driving them through dirt-paved roads to his home in Austria, a remote cabin in the woods without running water. Here’s a scene from one recent trip during which Breuer was providing help to a Kurdish family from Syria:

Amid gentle chides from the satnav, the 61-year-old switched off his headlights, so that no one would see where he’d gone. Then he bumped and veered through unmarked farm trails and shepherd paths that led eventually westwards, but away from the main roads. After 20 minutes, he stopped in a field, and turned to a blanket on the backseat. “OK,” said Breuer to the blanket. “You can come out now.” From under the fabric, three heads emerged – a Syrian Kurd, Galbari al-Hussein, and her two children, Hussein and Shahed.

Breuer’s risks could land in him in jail, but he clearly believes it’s worth the reward. It’s personal. His Jewish father fled to Britain before World War II, escaping persecution. He draws comparisons between his father’s plight, like the plight of so many Jews during Nazi rule in Europe. “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.

At times, Breuer tries to lighten these trips, despite the danger they carry for everyone involved. He does so by singing Yiddish. Here’s one video in which he sings “Oyfn Veg, Shteyt a Boym,” which translates to “On the Road Stands a Tree,” in with a group of Syrian-Palestinian refugees

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.