How did the United States, and President Roosevelt, respond to the Jewish refugee crisis triggered by the rise of Hitler? The Unwanted attempts to answer that question in a thoughtful, nuanced manner. Continue the discussion in a classroom or book club. Here are some questions that may help focus the conversation.
1. Michael Dobbs opens The Unwanted 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. Dobbs 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? What do you think about the positions taken by FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt?
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?
FDR press conference, August 1939, AP photo.
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)