Feature Book By Michael Dobbs

The Unwanted

The Unwanted

The Unwanted by Michael Dobbs is a riveting and unfortunately true story of how the world turned their back on Jewish families seeking to escape Nazi Germany.  Although many would like to compare it to the current day, the fact is that the book’s account of the early years of World War II does not echo today’s policies. After reading this book, anyone that compares the past and present should be ashamed.  As the book illustrates these were true asylum seekers. 


The problem thwarting the Jewish escape was mainly the low refugee quotas.  At a time when the American public was deeply isolationist, xenophobic, and Anti-Semitic, US officials dragged their feet or denied visas.  Dobbs quotes American journalist Dorothy Thompson, “a piece of paper with a stamp on it was the difference between life and death." Using the village of Kippenheim as a sample population, he shows the tragic consequences of an unresponsive refugee policy. This small village is located on the edge of the Black Forest, not far from the French/German border of the Rhine River. A place where Jews and Christians lived peacefully with each other for generations, notably the town's synagogue was right down the street from the Catholic Church. Dobbs writes how Anti-Semitism seemed to be confined to cities and towns, “for many Christian Kippenheimers, antisemitism was more a matter of class resentment than racial hatred…. A cultural and psychological gulf developed between the Christian farmers and the Jewish tradesmen,” that did not manifest itself into much violence.

Yet, everything seemed to change after Kristallnacht in late 1938, where Jewish homes, hospitals, synagogues, businesses, and schools were ransacked and destroyed. The Nazis claimed it was a supposed “spontaneous protest” against “murderous” Jews. There was a senseless roundup of Jewish men, a signal, to those who were paying attention, that Germany was not safe. Dobbs writes, “Any doubts about what they should do were swept away in an instant. A single hope remained: emigration.”

Dobbs delves into the lives of a few families from the village and the attempts they made to escape. Many were successful and were able to leave before and slightly after the breakout of war on September 3, 1939. Several Kippenheimers made it to Marseille and then on to the United States via Morocco. But most of the remaining Jews were sent to Gurs, a holding camp in the southwest part of France, and from there to the killing concentration camp, Auschwitz. Readers find out how 6,500 Jews were deported, where roughly one in four died in the deplorable French camps; four out of 10 were sent to Auschwitz.

The book recounts how the wait for visas turned deadly for Kippenheimers Gerda and Momo Auerbacher. With their papers stamped “Immigration to the United States pending,” they were crammed into railroad cars and taken to the final stop on their life’s journey: Auschwitz. Another village couple, Max and Fanny Valfer were finally granted visas in August 1942, just weeks after the Germans shifted their policy toward Jews from expulsion to extermination. The Valfers were deported “to the east” in the fall of 1942 and murdered at Auschwitz.





About the Author Michael Dobbs


Wendy Walker

I like to describe myself as a "recovering journalist." As the author of six books, I feel I am half-way through the twelve-step program to regain full sanity. My focus has shifted from the "first rough draft of history" to the second.

Now an American citizen, I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was a child of the Cold War--almost literally. I went to Russia for the first time at the age of six weeks, courtesy of my diplomat parents. I experienced every Soviet leader, from Stalin onwards. Here I am above, aged seven, with my mother and younger brother Geoffrey, in the British embassy, opposite the Kremlin, under the watchful eye of a KGB guard. This was during the Khrushchev "Thaw." In one way or another, I have been thinking--and writing--about the Cold War ever since, with occasional forays into World War II and the Holocaust.

I spent much of my journalistic career covering the collapse of communism.  After a stint 
in Rome as a correspondent for Reuters, and a tour of Africa, I lived in Yugoslavia during the twilight years of Marshal Tito. In 1980, Tito died, and I moved to Poland for The Washington Post, just in time to witness the extraordinary spectacle of workers rebelling against the "workers' state." I was the first western reporter to visit the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980 and was standing in front of  Boris Yeltsin when he climbed on a tank in August 1991 to face down Communist hardliners. (See photograph below.) In between, I reported on the imposition of martial law in Poland, the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, Gorbachev-Reagan summits, the Tiananmen uprising in China, and the 1989 revolution in Romania.




Other highlights of my journalistic career included exposing the Soviet atomic spy known as Mlad (Theodore Hall), revealing Madeleine Albright's links to the Holocaust, and covering the Bosnia peace negotiations as the diplomatic reporter for The Post. For a change of pace, I was swimming off the southern tip of Sri Lanka in December 2004 when I was almost swept away by the monster tsunami. In 2007, I launched The Post's Fact Checker column, handing out "Pinocchios" to lying politicians. 

Since retiring from The Post after the 2008 election, I have focused on researching, writing, and teaching. I have taught courses at the universities of Princeton, Michigan, and Georgetown, as well as American University. I have been on the staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since 2013. I organized conferences of international decision-makers on the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, and helped research the Museum's  "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibition. The Unwanted is my sixth book.






An Interview with Michael Dobbs (Interviewer Elise Cooper)


Elise Cooper: I know that some reviews might use your book to compare it to the present-day situation.  How do you feel about that?

Michael Dobbs: This is a book about history, not about the modern-day politics.  I did not want to make a judgement but allow readers to draw their own conclusions based on the facts.  As a writer I believe in show, don’t tell. 

EC: Why did you decide to write the book?

MD: I work for the Holocaust Museum.  To celebrate the 25th Anniversary they have a new exhibit, “Americans and the Holocaust.”  I helped with the research that dealt with the refugees and their immigration to the US. I want to connect the abstract with the impact it had on ordinary people.  I chose the village of Kippenheim because it had a substantial Jewish community that tried to emigrate to the US. The families I write about had different experiences:  some succeeded getting to America, and some did not.

EC: You also discuss the different attitudes towards the Jews?

MD: There were different perspectives regarding the Jews in Kippenheim.  Some villagers were outright Nazis like the postmaster who waged brutal campaigns.  Some were sympathetic and helped such as Anna Kraus who sold milk and eggs to the Wachenheimer Family and visited them late at night when the rest of the village was asleep. Yet most just put their heads down. 

EC: Do you think that many Jews stayed too long before trying to get out?

MD: I think the younger Jews had fewer ties to Germany and saw the writing on the wall sooner.  But after Kristallnacht everybody understood that it was no longer safe for a Jew to live in Germany.  The decrees robbed most of them of their wealth and they needed to rely on charity to get out of the country.

EC: What do you want the reader to get out of your book?

MD: I want everyone to understand the human dimension where real lives are at stake.  I tried to show what it was like to be a refugee trying to emigrate to the US.  This included all the harrowing aspects that they went through, the bureaucratic nightmare.  I wanted to show the political debate at the time and the issues that went on with the various sides.







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