“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.”