'The Unwanted': How the story of Germany's Jews compares to the current refugee crisis

Michael Dobbs draws stark parallels between the Jews who fled the Nazis and people seeking sanctuary in Europe today

Refugees arrive in Antwerp on the MS St. Louis after over a month at sea, during which they were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada, 17th June 1939. The St. Louis had originally sailed from Hamburg to Cuba, carrying over 937 mainly German-Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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In The Unwanted, Michael Dobbs, a British-American veteran journalist and a fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, has written an engrossing and shattering piece of non-fiction.

Against the backdrop of the current refugee crises, the story of Europe's Jewish refugees and their struggles to flee Nazi Germany take on a contemporary relevance and is profoundly unsettling. While Dobbs doesn't necessarily break new ground – historians have covered the territory extensively already – his lucid chronicle of the plight of German Jews trying at all costs to emigrate in the late 1930s and early 1940s brings much of that scholarship together and transforms it into a page-­turner. More than once, we wanted to put the tome aside but couldn't, even though we knew all too well where it would end. 

The Unwanted tells the story of Nazi Germany's refugees through the experiences of several families from the small Black Forest town of Kippenheim. The fine-grained picture that Dobbs draws of their lives there, the persecution and their travails in the prison camps of Vichy, France, is one the book's strongest aspects. The reader is drawn into the families' lives through the vivid descriptions that Dobbs has collated from historical works, diaries, memoirs, photographs and media archives.

The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between

The horror of the Nazi's takeover of Kippenheim is told through the lives of its Jewish community. Examples of Dobbs's prodigious powers of historical narrative, combined with his journalist's knack for description, include accounts of the Kristallnacht in November 1938 (also known as the Night of Broken Glass). In one scene, Hedy Wachenheimer, 11, goes to school as she has done every other day, but is threatened and pushed out of the classroom by the school's principal, who is wearing an SS uniform.

At the family home, her father and brother have been arrested and marched to the town's synagogue, which the local Nazis ransack. Hedy's mother cowers in the house, listening to a hailstorm of stones striking the windows. She wonders how long it will take for the looters to "break the door down and kill us".

Dobbs underscores beyond doubt that US officials knew in detail about the conditions in which Jews lived in Nazi Germany and later in the camps abroad. President Franklin D Roosevelt, initially sympathetic to their plight, strives to have as many admitted to the US as the restrictive immigration code permitted. Both the president and his wife Eleanor bumped up against fierce opposition in Congress and in his own administration.

As Jewish families are sent to a camp in Vichy in 1940, the debate rages in the US among the warring factions in the Roosevelt administration, which includes the first lady, a staunch advocate for the German Jews even after her husband gives up the cause.

One of our few criticisms of Dobbs's otherwise excellent description of the wrangle in the US over the Jewish refugees is his thin treatment of American anti-Semitism. The grounds for not admitting more refugees was primarily nativist, but how potent was American anti-Semitism at the time and to what degree did it motivate the anti-­immigration factions?

The parallels with today's refugee crises are so vivid that Dobbs doesn't need to mention them

Whatever the exact motive, the opposition was stark and FDR caved in all too easily, which culminated in the internment of German Jews and American Japanese in the US after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By then, with the Nazi death camps in operation, almost no European refugees were accepted by the US. Those who hadn't escaped the French camps were moved to Auschwitz and murdered.

Another episode that Dobbs relates masterfully is the voyage of the St Louis, a passenger ship carrying 900 refugees. It was first turned away by Cuba, then the US and Canada, before the captain gave up and sailed back to Europe. Historians estimate that a third of the St Louis's passengers died in concentration camps.

The parallels with today's refugee crises are so vivid that Dobbs doesn't need to mention them. On an almost weekly basis, ships of humanitarian NGOs fish refugees out of the Mediterranean, who are then refused entry into the EU. Those fleeing war and persecution in North Africa and the Middle East deserve temporary shelter or political asylum, but Europe has closed its doors.

Those advocates of Fortress Europe would do well to read this book. They would recognise themselves at once.