“A piece of paper with a stamp on it meant the difference between life and death for thousands and thousands of people,” wrote American journalist Dorothy Thompson after Kristallnacht in late 1938. Truer words were never written. For Jews trying to escape the Nazi terror as the Final Solution approached the only avenue of escape seemed to be emigration from Germany to the United States. But as Michael Dobbs describes in his remarkable new book, THE UNWANTED: AMERICA AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN victims of Nazi deportation policies ran into a stone wall in trying to gain entrance into the United States. Whether it was the stonewalling of the State Department, the leadership, or lack of thereof of Franklin Roosevelt, or plain apathy or anti-Semitism, Washington could have done a great deal more. As Dobbs points out, “the wheels of the U.S. bureaucracy continued to turn, disconnected from the tragic events that had set them in motion.” It seemed obstacle after obstacle was increasingly instituted to make it more and more difficult for Jewish refugees to gain entrance into America and avoid “transport to the east.”
Dobbs’ focus is on the small village of Kippenheim in Baden in western Germany with a population of 144 Jews out of a total population of 1800. The author follows the plight of a number of families who lived through the events of Kristallnacht in November of 1938 and realized that they must try and leave Germany. The families, the Valfers, Wertheimers, and Wachenheimers, among a number that Dobbs concentrates had varied experiences. All are subject to Nazi violence and torture in some measure. All are torn from their homes and deported to camps in France, all make valiant attempts to leave Germany by dealing with the US immigration system, first with the consulate in Stuttgart, and the result is many will escape through Marseilles or other avenues and cross the Atlantic, go to Palestine, while others will perish in Auschwitz. The book focuses on the period of late 1938 to the fall of 1942 when the Final Solution is in full motion. The narrative is poignant and elicits a great deal of anger on the part of this reader as the story of the US State Department’s immigration policy under the aegis of Breckenridge Long the Assistant Secretary of State for immigration becomes crystal clear, and the lack of action and empathy on the part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whose excuses for not acting in any meaningful way is fully described.
(Wachenheimer family photo, circa 1938)
One of the most important questions remaining pertaining to the Holocaust is whether the United States could have done more to save lives be it bombing Auschwitz or allowing increased immigration. In the recent past historian Richard Breitman focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impact and David Wyman zeroed in on the US Department of State. In both instances the president and the bureaucracy were found wanting. In the case of Roosevelt political concerns about Neutrality legislation, fears of anti-Semitic backlash, enforcement of immigration law and isolationist elements in Congress along with his own inherent biases made it difficult for the President to come out in public and act. As far as the State Department is concerned, they would enforce the restrictionist 1924 Johnson Act quotas that legally called for 27,370 Germans to immigrate to the US each year. It is clear that in 1940-41 only 62.1% of the quota was filled, and the 1941-42 only 7.2% was filled – the period of greatest need for victims of the Baden deportations from 1938. According to the historical record, officials in the State Department purposely created roadblocks to deny Jewish refugees admission to the United States, even women and children.
Dobbs empathetically describes in detail the damage, arrests, and fear in Kippenheim during Kristallnacht and uses the residents of the village as a microcosm of the overall crisis that Jews faced as the true intention of the Nazi regime came to the fore. Dobbs explores the violence against the residents of Kippenheim and the attempts by families to try and emigrate to the US and the roadblocks they faced. He delves into the State Department bureaucracy and how certain people created roadblocks to entry into America. At times it seemed that some of these impediments could be overcome, but officials following orders from Washington created even more hoops to go through in order to obtain the necessary visas, or “more stamps” on further documentation which may not have been called for months before. The consulate interview begins the process, but so many Jews wanted to emigrate there was a three year wait to begin the process. The tragedy for many, like the Laflers is that when their numbers finally came up and the process for approval was gain, Freya and Hugo were already victims of the crematoria in Auschwitz.
Dobbs takes the reader through the transport of refugees from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs, through Marseilles and its poor living conditions, the bureaucratic run-a-around, and their final fate. Vichy governmental collaboration with the Nazis led by Prime Minister Pierre Laval and French police is ever present. The trauma of family members is plain as day as they deal with the daily attempts at survival and the highs and lows of believing they have the necessary paperwork to leave, and then have their hopes dashed by bureaucratic stalling, events like Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Russia. Dobbs follows the families in detail based on assiduous research and interviews with survivors like Hedy Wachenheimer who at the age of fourteen became part of the Kindertransport program and left her parents to live with families in London, while eventually her parents would perish.
(Kippenheim, Germany synagoge)
Perhaps the most poignant narrative describes Hedy’s visit to Germany and Kippenheim in particular after the war working for the US military and wearing a uniform, she must face people who harassed and demeaned her as a child. Dobbs goes on to relate how people, both Jewish and non-Jewish worked to rebuild the synagogue in the village as a memorial to what occurred. The process was long and difficult, but because of survivors like Kurt Maier and Mayor Willi Mathis the building was restored to its role as a true house of worship in 2003.
Dodd is to be commended for his effort in bringing to life the fate of the Kippenheim Jews, but more so at a time when immigration is such a hot controversial issue, perhaps politicians should review US immigration policy during WWII and contemplate whether at times history should force us as a people to open up our hearts, and let political partisanship recede into the background, at least for a short time. At the outset of Dobbs ’narrative Hedy Wachenheimer rode from her home on her bicycle to school. Upon arrival and seated in class for her lessons the usually gentle principal pointed at her and yelled, “Get out, you dirty Jew.” This sounds like current political rallies and comments that tell “brown” people who are hear on legal visas and those legally seeking asylum to “get out and go home,” or ”send her home.” Is this who we are as a people?
(Boycott of Jewish Shops, Germany 1930s)