by Michael Dobbs
Reviewed by Anna Altman, in the New York Times Book Review, on May 5, 2019
On the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, Hedy Wachenheimer rode her bike from her small village of Kippenheim to school in the next village. A Jewish girl of 14, Wachenheimer was accustomed to being ostracized. But that day felt different. On her way to school, she saw that the windows of Jewish businesses had been smashed. As she waited for lessons to begin, the usually gentle principal pointed at her and yelled, “Get out, you dirty Jew!”
Kristallnacht was a turning point for the tightknit community of Jewish families who had lived in Kippenheim for five generations. Over the next four years, its 144 Jewish residents suffered dispossession, and the indignities and crimes of their Nazi overlords.
In “The Unwanted,” Michael Dobbs, a former reporter at The Washington Post, tells the story of the town’s Jews as they desperately sought a path to a new life elsewhere. Most hoped to find refuge in the United States. Dobbs weaves the tales of their declining fortunes with a carefully researched account of American attitudes and policies toward Europe’s Jewish refugees. American diplomats in Europe tried to grant as many visas as possible while State Department officials threw up roadblocks. As Eleanor Roosevelt tried to influence her wary husband, and humanitarian workers from Jewish organizations attempted to reason with recalcitrant officials, potential escape paths closed off one by one.
Relative wealth and connections abroad meant that many Jews from Kippenheim were able to escape to Britain, Canada and the United States. Hedy was sent to Britain on a Kindertransport in May 1940. But the bureaucratic churn of long lines, rerouted ships and missed connections left many stranded. In October 1940, Jews in the southwest German region of Baden, which included Kippenheim, were deported to Vichy France, where they were interned in a muddy, typhous wasteland at Gurs. Of the 6,500 Jews deported, roughly one in four died in French camps; four out of 10 were sent to Auschwitz. Still, several Kippenheimers made it to Marseille and then on to the United States via Morocco.
Dobbs never says why he chose Kippenheim as the focus for his investigation, but the town’s survivors and their descendants have guarded a trove of documents that allowed him to render their stories in remarkable and poignant detail. Max and Fanny Valfer, for example, had a consular appointment in Marseille scheduled for Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but now Washington considered Kippenheim Jews like the Valfers to be “enemy aliens.” Had their appointment been one day earlier, they might have been able to travel from France to Portugal, where they were booked to sail from Lisbon to America. The Valfers were finally granted visas in August 1942, just weeks after the Germans shifted their policy toward Jews within their sphere from expulsion to extermination. The Valfers were never able to book passage on another ship; instead, they were deported “to the east” in the fall of 1942, and murdered at Auschwitz.
Hedy’s parents, Hugo and Bella, met the same end. In her final letter to Hedy, Bella wrote: “Continue to be always good and honest, carry your head high and never lose your courage. Don’t forget your dear parents.”
What’s most chilling about Dobbs’s book is how his account of the early years of World War II echoes our politics today. Xenophobia, isolationism, a fear of destructive infiltrators and an aversion to more war all conspired to keep refugee quotas low, when they were filled at all. Robert Reynolds, a Democratic senator from North Carolina, thundered in a Senate speech that “if I had my way I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of the earth could possibly scale or ascend it.” It was sentiments like his that may have kept Franklin Roosevelt from raising immigration quotas and accounted for obstructionist (and anti-Semitic) State Department policies.
Until recently, it was considered a truism that American policy toward Europe’s Jews constituted an enormous moral failure. Today, as our politicians quibble and send refugees back in the direction they came, one can only wonder what misery awaits the displaced. When current policies and opinions so closely resemble those held during Hitler’s early days, one wonders, too, if the moral clarity of “never again” may have been fleeting. In raising those questions, Dobbs’s book provides a glimpse of how we may be judged by future generations.