Americans by and large do not deny that the Holocaust happened. They just are frighteningly fuzzy on the details. A national poll conducted last year found that nearly one-third of the respondents believed that 2 million or fewer Jews had died during the Nazi genocide, when the actual number is closer to 6 million.
Millennials display an even more shocking ignorance. Two-thirds could not identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp or an extermination camp; 22 percent had not heard of or weren’t sure they had heard of the Holocaust at all.
Most Americans (80 percent) said they had not visited a Holocaust museum, even though there are nearly 70 such museums and monuments in states across the country.
I don’t fit into those categories. I belong to that sliver of American Jews who could be criticized as too preoccupied with the Holocaust, periodically anxious that Germany 1938 could be just around the corner instead of a tragic moment consigned to history.
I’ve read numerous accounts of the Nazis’ attempts to exterminate European Jews, with the vicious acquiescence of their neighbors. I’ve watched cinematic treatments of the Holocaust and listened to survivors’ stories. I have visited the haunting remains of Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt, and seen the displays of human hair at Auschwitz, and trudged along the grim paths that led so many to their deaths.
But even for someone immersed in the catastrophe of what happened to the Jews in World War II, Michael Dobbs’ new book, “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between,” will still be a heartbreaking and timely read.
With a reporter’s eye for narrative and a historian’s attention to detail and context, Dobbs re-creates Jewish life in Kippenheim, a German village near the French border, on the eve of the Nazi onslaught. Then, thanks to a trove of carefully assembled archival material, photographs and oral histories, he follows these Jewish families through harrowing cycles of deportation and desperation as they attempt to flee to safety.
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That is only part of the story, however. An equally important - and infuriating - narrative unfolds in the halls of American power, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt is presented again and again with the opportunity to take in these Jewish refugees but, more often than not, accedes to political expediency and public pressure by doing nothing. Even first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s valiant efforts to persuade her husband to sign a refugee bill for children alone were rebuffed. And this was before the full horrors of the Holocaust began.
Dobbs opens his story in November 1938 as 14-year-old Hedy Wachenheimer cycles to school in a nearby village on a day that would change her life forever. Caught in an avalanche of anti-Jewish violence, she is finally able to return to Kippenheim only to find her parents gone, as Nazi thugs ravaged Jewish homes and businesses. Her father and other men were arrested and sent to Dachau. She is eventually reunited with her mother and an aunt, who wait in fear for the violence to subside and her father to be released.
Though Jews had lived in Kippenheim peacefully with their neighbors for centuries, from then on, Hedy wanted only to leave Germany. “Tens of thousands of Jews squeezed into cupboards in attics and basements, or cowering under beds and bathtubs, in villages and towns across the Third Reich had precisely the same thought,” Dobbs writes. “Any doubts about what they should do were swept away in an instant. A single hope remained: emigration.”
That hope would be dashed as often as it was realized. “There were simply not enough visas available to satisfy the overwhelming demand,” Dobbs writes. “By early 1939, half the Jews in the Third Reich had applied for an American visa.”
Some Kippenheimers believed they had found salvation on a ship, St. Louis, which ended up sailing across the Atlantic and then back to Germany, as Cuba and the United States refused to accept the heartbroken refugees. A few, like Hedy, were able to escape to Britain through the Kindertransport program, which allowed persecuted children to enter on temporary visas.
Then, in October 1940, Hedy’s parents and the other remaining Jews in Kippenheim were abruptly herded onto police trucks and driven across the border to Gurs, France, to a muddy, isolated encampment crammed with more than 10,000 dispossessed Germans. We often think of Nazi concentration camps in Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. Here was a concentration camp in what was supposedly “free” France, with conditions so dehumanizing that every day, 20 inmates died of disease and malnutrition.
Still, the Jews could not leave. Dobbs skillfully shows the dignity with which they confronted the mind-numbing bureaucracy and arbitrary cruelty of the French and German authorities. “However desperate their circumstances, the asylum seekers always took care to arrive for their long-awaited appointments in their best clothes,” he writes.
There are times when Dobbs’ precise recounting of the byzantine immigration process becomes tedious - but, of course, that was the point. As the world went to war and Western nations shut their doors, this is what the trapped Jews of Kippenheim faced, until the Nazis decided to exterminate them. In the end, Hedy’s parents, Hugo and Bella Wachenheimer, and others from their village died in Auschwitz in 1942.
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It’s not possible to read “The Unwanted” without hearing its echoes today. So afraid were Americans of a “fifth column” of Nazi and communist refugees infiltrating our shores that an anti-immigrant U.S. senator said: “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!”
I hear its echoes, too, in the troubling resurgence of violent anti-Semitism in France, where its roots are so evidently deep and virulent. When I learn of how ignorant some Americans are about the Holocaust, I want them to read the story of Kippenheim’s Jews, to confront the fact that a supposedly civilized nation can commit acts of genocide.
Some of the Jews of Kippenheim survived by pure luck. Others survived because of the moral courage of those who risked all to help them. And that is why their story must be remembered - and repeated - today.
At the end of his historical account, Dobbs returns to the village with one of those survivors and sees, on the street across from the synagogue, the home of the Valfers, another Jewish couple who were deported to Gurs and died in Auschwitz. It turns out that their house now belongs to a family of Kurdish refugees from Syria, who had fled their homeland during the brutal civil war. The story continues.