Flight From the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933 – 1946

Debórah Dwork, Robert Jan Van Pelt
  • Review
By – January 6, 2012

Flight From the Reich is an impor­tant book that chron­i­cles the dif­fi­cult, often tor­tured paths the Jews took in their efforts to escape from Nazi-occu­pied Europe. It pro­vides much-need­ed con­text and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion to the oft-expressed ques­tion of why more Jews didn’t flee from the per­se­cu­tion and geno­cide that sav­aged their com­mu­ni­ties. Not only was there a twist­ed road to Auschwitz,” but there was also a twist­ed road to escape with many obsta­cles and road­blocks. Some had to wait in painful sus­pense for the right moment; some had to lie and use clan­des­tine routes; many made it out by sheer pluck, or by unex­plained luck.”

In order to tell this remark­able sto­ry with the rich­ness and com­pre­hen­sive depth it deserves, the authors, rec­og­nized and cel­e­brat­ed Holo­caust schol­ars, uti­lize an uncon­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive tech­nique. Because this his­to­ry has many start­ing points and even more end dates and because the sub­jects, as refugees, scat­tered around the world, they devised a grid to cap­ture piv­otal moments and core issues. Focus­ing on four turn­ing points in a repeat pat­tern of peo­ple, places, doc­u­ments, and chal­lenges allowed them to empha­size the geo­graph­ic reach of the migra­tion, the gov­ern­men­tal and orga­ni­za­tion­al poli­cies that were cru­cial in effect­ing out­comes, the cen­tral­i­ty of indi­vid­ual ini­tia­tive and agency, and the for­mi­da­ble obsta­cles the refugees faced. The nar­ra­tive is at times frac­tured, but it mir­rors the unpre­dictable lives of those they studied. 

There are many impor­tant themes exam­ined includ­ing the chal­lenges faced by Nazism’s first vic­tims, the Ger­man Jews; the behav­ior of the Swiss gov­ern­ment and oth­er neu­tral coun­tries; the role of Pales­tine as a haven of refuge; the chal­lenges of adjust­ment and the trau­ma of becom­ing a refugee; and the cre­ation and oper­a­tion of the dis­placed per­son camps. These and oth­er aspects of the his­to­ry of flight are ground­ed in sol­id archival research, hun­dreds of oral his­to­ries and new­ly dis­cov­ered let­ters. This is an impres­sive and rich book that pro­vides much-need­ed atten­tion to Hitler’s oth­er vic­tims — those who man­aged to escape before being swept into the geno­ci­dal maelstrom.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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