“The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between” by Michael Hobbs— Families Seeking Escape

Dobbs, Michael. “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between”, Knopf, 2019.

Families Seeking Escape

Amos Lassen

“Michael Dobbs’ “The Unwanted” is published in cooperation and association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is a riveting story of Jewish families seeking to escape Nazi Germany.

Our story opens in 1938 right before World War II broke out. American journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote “a piece of paper with a stamp on it” was “the difference between life and death.” People did not comprehend the seriousness of what Thompson wrote. “The Unwanted reflects the seriousness of that statement and is the intimate account of a small village on the edge of the Black Forest whose Jewish families desperately pursued American visas to flee the Nazis. They had to deal with formidable bureaucratic obstacles and  some were able to make it to the United States while others were unable to obtain the necessary documents in order to get the piece of paper with a stamp on it and others were murdered in Auschwitz, their applications for American visas were still “pending.”

Writer Dobbs had access to previously unpublished letters, diaries, interviews, and visa records and is able to give us an  illuminating account of America’s response to the refugee crisis of the 1930s and 1940s. He describes the deportation of German Jews to France in October 1940, along with their continuing quest for American visas. He re-creates the heated debates among U.S. officials over whether or not to admit refugees amid growing concerns about “fifth columnists,” at a time when the American public was deeply isolationist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic.

This is a Holocaust story that is both German and American that brilliantly captures the experiences of a small community struggling to survive as the world was going mad around it. We read of the fight to get Jewish refugees into the United States in the years right before the War and extending into 1941 through using the plight of Jews from the small German village of Kippenheim in the German area of Baden as they realized what was happening to them. (Is it even possible to imagine something like this?.

Kippenheim is not far from the French/German border of the Rhine River. (Dobbs helpfully puts maps of both the village and its location in Germany). Jews and Christians had lived peacefully with each other for generations. The town’s synagogue was right down the street from the Catholic Church. However, by the mid-1930’s, as the Nazis consolidated their hold on the government and the people, Kippenheim’s Jews began to feel the regime’s oppression. Some residents left Kippenheim for safer places. But by 1938 and the Kristallnacht pogrom, Jews all over Germany woke up to the deep and very real threat of the Nazis. Plans were made to leave Germany, but those plans involved getting approvals from nations to emigrate to and approvals to leave Germany. (It was still, at that time,  the official German policy to encourage Jewish emigration rather than extermination which came later.)

Dobbs focuses on a few families from the village and the attempts they made to “get out”. Many were successful and were able to leave before and slightly after the breakout of war on September 3, 1939. But most of the remaining Jews were sent to Gurs – a holding camp in the southwest part of France (This is the same camp to which philosopher Hannah Arendt was sent). From there, attempts by United States charities and government entities to save these few thousands of German Jews ( including Kippenheim’s contingent) and send them to safety in the US or Mexico or Martinique.

By concentrating on the fates of a hundred or so German Jews in Gurs and Marseilles, and interspersing the activities being carried on by the United States to both save them from being “sent East” or disrupt that attempt because of prejudice by some American officials, Michael Dobbs brings us quite a read. He includes maps and pictures and charts so that we know exactly where we are and his story of the village of Kippenheim is complete when he looks at the village today. The story is captivating and well-documented book and is probably one we would never have known otherwise. Here we have German Jews deported by Nazis to unoccupied France in October 1940. Shuttled from one terrible camp to another, they desperately sought American visas to avoid deportation to the East. We are kept on the edge of our seats as we read the history of U.S. diplomacy toward the Jews of the Third Reich. 

Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt tells us, “Too often when we speak of atrocities, mass murder, crimes against humanity, or genocide we think in terms of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. “The Unwanted” reminds us that the victims of each atrocity are individuals with their own story and their own particular tragedy. Michael Dobbs has written a compelling history of the Jewish community of one town. We come to know these individuals in a deeply personal way. He brings us into their lives and we experience their desperate struggle to survive at a time when they were abandoned by the world.”

As we today deal with immigration policy once gain in this country it is important to. Be reminded of one small town and the human price paid because of antisemitism and the tragic consequences of an unresponsive refugee policy.

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