Compared to the destruction of six million European Jews in the Holocaust, the fate of the few hundred thousand Jews who fled Germany in the years before World War II can seem like a footnote. In the introduction to Flight From the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946, their important and wide-ranging new history, Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt recall that they once gave a presentation on their work at a conference about the Holocaust, only to be asked, “What does the history of Jewish refugees have to do with the Holocaust?”
It is, they acknowledge, “not a foolish question. If the Holocaust is the history of people murdered by the Germans and their allies, the refugees hold a very minor role.” It was not until 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR and conquered the Jewish heartland of Eastern Europe, that Hitler was able to turn his longstanding persecution of Jews into a full-fledged genocide. Not Germany itself but Nazi-occupied Poland, Ukraine, and Belorussia, and Nazi-allied states like Romania and Hungary, provided the vast majority of the Holocaust’s victims. By the time the World War II broke out, in fact, most German Jews had already fled Hitler’s rule—though many of them would be brought back under it, thanks to the rapid German conquest of former safe havens like France and the Netherlands.
Yet in a deeper sense, Dwork and van Pelt show, the story of the refugees—the Jews who fled Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1939, for destinations as close as Belgium and as far away as the Dominican Republic and Shanghai—is crucial to any understanding of the Nazi war against the Jews. They were Hitler’s first victims, driven from a country most of them loved by a series of blows: the Nuremberg Laws against race mixing, the boycotts of Jewish businesses, the purging of Jews from the universities and professions, the confiscation of Jewish wealth, and constant harassment and violence against individual Jews, culminating in the nationwide pogrom of Kristallnacht in November 1938.
In fact, to an American Jewish reader, the tales told in Flight from the Reich—and the book is built around individual refugees’ stories—are likely to hit home in a particularly intimate way. It is very difficult to imagine one’s way into the Holocaust, which may explain why writers and filmmakers never stop trying: the mind shuts down in the face of mass shootings, gas chambers, the murder of children. The refugees Dwork and van Pelt write about, on the other hand, were largely assimilated Jews in an advanced, urban society, and their stories offer the all-too-imaginable scenario of law-abiding citizens whose government turns, gradually but inexorably, into their enemy.
Take Thea Scholl, a 22-year-old Jewish woman from Vienna, who was desperate to get to Britain after the Anschluss brought Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. Most categories of workers were denied entry into Britain, which feared competition for jobs during the Depression—Dwork and van Pelt quote the official instructions to British consulates, which barred “small shopkeepers, retail traders, artisans … agents and middlemen … lawyers, doctors and dentists.” The one type of worker Great Britain needed was domestic servants, so Thea Scholl applied to be a servant, even though she was from a prosperous family and “had never done any housework,” as she later recalled. When she showed up at the British consulate in Vienna, she was given an impromptu test: “I had to show my hands at the consulate, probably to prove that they were not manicured and that I was able to work …. Then I had to clean a bathroom, to show that I could do so.” Her scrubbing was convincing enough, and Scholl was able to leave Austria the day before Christmas, leaving her parents behind.
This was a trivial humiliation, of course, but it brings home just what it meant to become a refugee. A Jew’s sense of herself—her history, resources, relationships, desires, expectations—all vanished. She became a supplicant, forced to do and say anything that might convince an indifferent official to give her a lifesaving visa. Nothing about a human being mattered except his or her passport, as the crusading American journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1938: “It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times that for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death, and that scores of people have blown their brains out because they could not get it.” Dwork and van Pelt might also have quoted W.H. Auden’s poem “Refugee Blues”:
The consul banged the table and said:
“If you’ve got no passport, you’re officially dead”;
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive….
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.
The determined refusal of the democracies to open their doors to German Jews is notorious. Hitler himself jeered at the West’s hypocrisy: “It is truly a shaming display when we see today the entire democratic world filled with tears of pity at the plight of the poor, tortured Jewish people, while remaining hardhearted and obstinate in view of what is therefore its obvious duty: to help.” Dwork and van Pelt choose not to retell the famous story of the St. Louis, the ship carrying a thousand Jewish refugees that was refused permission to dock in the United States in 1939. But Flight from the Reich is full of similar nightmares.
On December 19, 1938, for instance, a party of five Viennese Jewish refugees was arrested in Switzerland and handed over to German border guards. Using the Yad Vashem database, Dwork and van Pelt report on their fates: two were killed in the Minsk ghetto, two were killed in Yugoslavia, and the fifth was killed in Lvov. Simply by following standard protocol—the same protocol that leads the U.S. to deport illegal immigrants every day—the Swiss became accomplices to genocide. This was the diabolical, and completely deliberate, result of Nazi policy towards the Jews. As Hannah Arendt, herself a refugee from Hitler, pointed out long ago in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the best way to stigmatize a group of people is to put them outside the protection of the law. By stripping German Jews of citizenship, Hitler put them into a legal limbo, where neither their own government nor any other was responsible for their welfare.
There were individuals and groups that tried to help, and much of Flight from the Reich is devoted to their heroic efforts. Thousands of ordinary British people agreed to take in Jewish children they had never seen as part of the kindertransport program; isolated consuls and police chiefs from France to Lithuania took it on themselves to issue visas to desperate refugees; Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Army became de facto advocates for Jews in postwar Displaced Persons camps. But these were all small, local efforts, and the big, international efforts—like the Evian conference of 1938, convened by FDR to deal with refugee issues—only proved the impotence and indifference of the world’s governments.
The Jewish refugees’ central problem was that, instead of asserting their legal rights, they had to depend on the world’s charity and goodwill, which are never enough—as the people of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur can testify today. That is why one of the major lessons of Flight from the Reich is that the existence of a Jewish state is a necessity for Jews everywhere. “The existence of Israel did not mean there would be no Jewish refugees in the future,” Dwork and van Pelt write. “But it did mean that if at some future date Jews found themselves refugees, they had a place to go.”
Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.