"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."
-- Dorothy Thompson, 1938
America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between
The Unwanted tells the story of Jewish families from the village of Kippenheim on the edge of the Black Forest desperately seeking American visas to escape Nazi Germany. Some make it to the United States, after battling formidable bureaucratic obstacles. Some are turned back. Some perish along the way. Some are murdered in Auschwitz. It is a German story that is also an American story.
Drawing on previously unpublished letters, diaries, and visa records, Michael Dobbs paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live among increasingly hostile neighbors, waiting for "the piece of paper with a stamp" that would determine their fate. He describes the expulsion of these "unwanted" German Jews to France in 1940 and their continuing quest for American visas. And he recounts the heated debate taking place in the United States over whether or not to admit refugees and the national security threat from "Fifth columnists," both real and imagined. The result is a page-turning narrative filled with memorable characters facing life-or-death moments that will resonate with readers today.
Author Q and A
Why did you choose the village of Kippenheim?
I came across some rare photographs showing the deportation of Kippenheim Jews to Gurs in October 1940. I wanted to know what happened to the people in the images after they were forced to leave their homes. I discovered that a ten-year-old boy in one of the photographs, Kurt Maier, worked at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., very close to my place of work, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I contacted Kurt, who described his incredible luck. Following their expulsion from Germany, the family received American visas and were able to reach the United States. People featured in several of the other photographs, including Max and Fanny Valfer, were murdered in Auschwitz. Starting with these powerful images, I was able to piece together the story of how “a piece of paper with a stamp,” in Dorothy Thompson’s phrase, meant “the difference between life and death” for many German Jews.
How did you carry out your research?
I was lucky to be able to interview several survivors and their children, who shared extensive family correspondence, photographs, and memoirs with me. I discovered a lot of material in archives in the U.S., Germany, and France that shed light on what happened to the people in the book. To tell the story through the eyes of the leading characters, I followed in their footsteps. I made two visits to Kippenheim, and visited concentration camps like Dachau in Germany and Gurs in France to try to understand what they went through.
Some critics have said that your books read like novels. Is that intentional?
I think that non-fiction writers, particularly historians, have a lot to learn from the writing techniques of novelists. These include memorable characters, vividly described places and scenes, the use of dialogue, and a plot that keeps readers turning the pages. But there is an additional requirement in the case of non-fiction: you can’t make anything up! Every incident, and every scrap of dialogue, in The Unwanted is accompanied by an endnote. Readers can check the source of a quote, or surprising piece of information, in the back of the book.
Why is this important for us to know about today?
I agree with the sentiment attributed to Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” My goal was to recreate the past as accurately as possible, rather than look for explicit parallels with the present. But readers will certainly find echoes of our modern-day debates and controversies in The Unwanted and draw their own conclusions.
Part of the "Americans and the Holocaust" Project at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The title evokes the signs proclaiming Juden sind hier unerwünscht ("Jews are unwanted here") which were a common sight in Germany during the Nazi period. Courtesy: USHMM.