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

By – March 9, 2020

By ear­ly 1939, half of the Jews in the Third Reich had applied for an Amer­i­can visa…More than half the appli­cants were typ­i­cal­ly reject­ed at the ini­tial screen­ing stage…The wait­ing time for an inter­view with the Amer­i­can con­sul for the remain­ing qual­i­fied’ appli­cants was around three years.”

It was a case of too few visas for too many appli­cants. And it was too lit­tle too late.

To exam­ine what this actu­al­ly meant to Jews seek­ing to leave Ger­many at this time, Michael Dobbs, a for­mer Wash­ing­ton Post cor­re­spon­dent who is on staff at the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton, DC, con­duct­ed a case study of a small Ger­man vil­lage, trac­ing the paths of sev­er­al of its Jew­ish families.

The town of Kip­pen­heim, in south­west­ern Ger­many near the bor­der of France, had a Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion since the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry. In 1933, when Hitler came to pow­er, 144 Jews called the vil­lage home. Twen­ty-one per­cent of them would not sur­vive the war, a fig­ure low­er than for Ger­many as a whole. That fig­ure was around one-third, out of a pop­u­la­tion of over half-a-million.

Dobbs focus­es on the peri­od from Kristall­nacht, the pogroms of Novem­ber 1938 through 1942, by which time the bor­ders of Europe were sealed, the U.S. had fur­ther tight­ened its immi­gra­tion process, Jews were being deport­ed to the east (that is, to con­cen­tra­tion camps) and Jew­ish immi­gra­tion on any sig­nif­i­cant scale was no longer pos­si­ble. An epi­logue brings the sto­ries of the Kip­pen­heim Jews up to date.

In addi­tion to a Ger­man sto­ry, The Unwant­ed is also an Amer­i­can one, about a time when iso­la­tion­ism, anti­semitism and xeno­pho­bia kept Jews trapped in Europe while the Nazis car­ried out their plan of geno­cide against the Jews.

In a lucid, calm and read­able style, Dobbs brings to life the Jew­ish fam­i­lies of Kip­pen­heim who, by the time war broke out in 1939, were increas­ing­ly entan­gled in a bureau­crat­ic morass that pre­vent­ed their immi­gra­tion. Dai­ly per­se­cu­tion meant hard­ship that too often end­ed in death.

For­mer Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt, accord­ing to the author, was sym­pa­thet­ic to the plight of the Jews, express­ing his shock at the vio­lence and destruc­tion of Kristall­nacht. How­ev­er, he felt it would be polit­i­cal sui­cide for him to go against the anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment preva­lent in con­gress. Even plans to bring refugee chil­dren to this coun­try, in the man­ner of the Kinder­trans­ports to Britain, came to noth­ing, although sup­port­ed by Eleanor Roo­sevelt. Then in the spring of 1939, came the infa­mous voy­age of the St. Louis, the lux­u­ry lin­er car­ry­ing some nine hun­dred pas­sen­gers that was turned away from any U.S. port and sent back to Europe. The strength of America’s anti-immi­grant feel­ings was clear.

In Octo­ber 1940, Ger­many expelled its Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion, tak­ing them by train and truck to Vichy, France, where they were housed in refugee camps.

On Decem­ber 7, 1941, the Japan­ese attacked Pearl Har­bor, and Amer­i­ca was drawn into war. Now, more than ever, ene­my aliens” (includ­ing Jews from Ger­many) were to be kept out of the U.S..

As if unaware of the sit­u­a­tion in Europe, U.S. bureau­crats con­tin­ued to process visa appli­ca­tions. In Decem­ber 1944, a hus­band and wife from Kip­pen­heim had their visas approved. It was too late: They had dis­ap­peared into the gas cham­bers and ovens of Auschwitz.”

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Michael Dobbs

  1. The author opens his book with a quote from the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, Dorothy Thomp­son, claim­ing that a piece of paper with a stamp” rep­re­sent­ed the dif­fer­ence between life and death” for peo­ple flee­ing Nazi per­se­cu­tion. Dis­cuss the per­ti­nence of this quote to the sit­u­a­tion con­fronting the Jew­ish fam­i­lies cit­ed in the book.

  2. From the evi­dence pre­sent­ed in the book, what were the main fac­tors deter­min­ing whether or not Ger­man Jews flee­ing Hitler were grant­ed Amer­i­can visas? Did luck play a role?

  3. The author jux­ta­pos­es the strug­gles of indi­vid­ual Jew­ish fam­i­lies to escape Nazi per­se­cu­tion with a detailed account of political/​bureaucratic in-fight­ing in Wash­ing­ton over U.S. immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy. Dis­cuss ways in which the twin sto­ry lines are linked.

  4. What role did Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion play in shap­ing the atti­tude of the U.S. gov­ern­ment toward refugees? What about the media?

  5. In ear­ly 1939, Hugo Wachen­heimer com­pared him­self to the cap­tain of a sink­ing ship flash­ing the sig­nal Save our Souls” to the out­side world (Page 115). How did the world respond?

  6. Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt endorsed calls for tighter screen­ing of refugees to pre­vent Fifth colum­nists and Nazi agents from enter­ing the Unit­ed States fol­low­ing the fall of France in June 1940 (page 129). To what extent should nation­al secu­ri­ty con­cerns play a role in the admis­sion of refugees flee­ing per­se­cu­tion, both then and today?

  7. A promi­nent Jew­ish leader, Rab­bi Steven Wise, is quot­ed as say­ing that FDR’s re-elec­tion in Novem­ber 1940 was much more important…than the admis­sion [to the U.S.] of a few peo­ple, how­ev­er immi­nent be their per­il.” (Page 145). See page 38 for a sim­i­lar quote from senior State Depart­ment offi­cial George Messer­smith play­ing down the impor­tance of indi­vid­ual suf­fer­ing” in shap­ing for­eign pol­i­cy. Do you agree or dis­agree with Wise/​Messersmith?

  8. The State Depart­ment advised FDR to reject a French request to facil­i­tate the onward migra­tion of 6,500 Jews deport­ed to France from Ger­many in Octo­ber 1940 on the grounds that such a step would only encour­age the Nazi regime to deport more Jews (Pages 162 – 163). Was the State Depart­ment posi­tion justified?

  9. Were there any scenes in the book that sur­prised you or gave you a deep­er under­stand­ing of the chal­lenges faced by Jew­ish refugees flee­ing Hitler or the dilem­mas con­fronting the FDR administration?

  10. To what extent was Kip­pen­heim rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in (a) oth­er parts of Ger­many and (b) Nazi-occu­pied Europe?

  11. Do you see any par­al­lels between the immigration/​national secu­ri­ty debate dur­ing the peri­od lead­ing up to the Holo­caust and respons­es to more recent refugee crises? Dis­cuss the sim­i­lar­i­ties and differences.

  12. Accord­ing to the Viet­namese author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, all wars are fought twice, the first time on the bat­tle­field, the sec­ond time in mem­o­ry.” To what extent is this true of the Holo­caust and World War II, as reflect­ed in the expe­ri­ences of Kip­pen­heim Jews? (Epi­logue)


Time­ly and com­pelling, The Unwant­ed tells the sto­ry of how the small com­mu­ni­ty of Jews from the Black For­est vil­lage of Kip­pen­heim sought to escape Nazi per­se­cu­tion and flee to safe­ty in the Unit­ed States. Michael Dobbs’s metic­u­lous research into the sto­ries of indi­vid­u­als is an exer­cise in scale, focus­ing on the small sto­ries in order to illu­mi­nate the larg­er pic­ture in a new and more mean­ing­ful way. He recon­structs the immense dif­fi­cul­ties Ger­man Jews faced as they tried — with increas­ing des­per­a­tion — to escape to Amer­i­ca, nav­i­gat­ing a hos­tile and unwel­com­ing bureau­cra­cy with greater and less­er degrees of suc­cess. Telling the sto­ry of U.S. pol­i­cy from the point of view of refugees try­ing to nav­i­gate it allows read­ers to under­stand, on a deep­er lev­el, the very human cost of America’s exclu­sion­ary refugee poli­cies in the 1930s and 40s.