“The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and A Village Caught in Between,” by Michael Dobbs, (Alfred A. Knopf), $29.95 hardcover, 356 pages.
When were you introduced to Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, titled “The New Colossus”? Were you required to commit to memory the words of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”? This sonnet made for great theatre and warm feelings. However, these feelings were part of that fuzzy part of the American experience.
We are a county with great traditions, pageantry, exciting heart-tugging songs supporting the promises of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And yet, somewhere sandwiched in between these thoughts are persons who are xenophobic and anti-Semitic. So, how do we appreciate and understand all of our history?
Michael Dobbs provides insights and answers in his book, “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between." His book explores our country’s responses to Jewish families attempting to secure visas during the 1930s and early 1940s, a time of isolation, fear, and hatred.
Germany in the early 1900s was considered by many educated Americans to be the journey for studying music, psychology, theology and other subjects. However, on what was then considered the fringe, many Germans after World War I blamed Jewish people for their defeat. What many considered fringe thoughts of hatred before the war took on more meaning, the blame intensified, and with the rise of the Hitler, there was no turning back.
Dobbs, having access to diaries, documents, and visa records, presents to the reader the plight of German Jews to obtain visas knowing that at some point, there would no longer be deportation and only “the final solution”.
This well-written and structured book has 12 chapters, extensive notes, well-defined index, and resourced bibliography. In several chapters, the reader is introduced to the Valfer and Wertheimer families with other extended relations. Being educated, professional, and loyal Germans, many Jewish families, did not experience overt anti-Semitic actions from the Christians in their areas. The Valfer/Wertheimer families were well-connected, wealthy, and enjoyed the best. Often, Christians were employed by the families and were patrons at many of their businesses.
For many of the Valfer/Wertheimer families, the events after “Kristallnacht” triggered high anxiety and fright. Many in their communities disappeared, decrees of segregation were enforced, and fines were levied. Additionally, in order to fully identify Jewish women, there was the requirement to add “Sara” to their names, and the men had to add, “Israel” to their names. This would ensure that regardless of the paleness of Jewish skin, the blondness of hair, or the blueness of eyes, it was important for every Jew to be identified.
Many of them longed for America and its values. However, the German concentration camps were becoming the order of the day. Many families were hiding out in hopes of securing a visa, and they felt America was their best hope. However, this was not the case, according to Dobbs.
Dobbs provides chapter three for a discussion of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his efforts, or lack of efforts, to secure assistance for the German Jews during World War II. FDR at times said nothing publicly, and even refused allowing many children to enter.
“The Unwanted” is a must read for students of history and even casual readers. There are excellent photographs and genealogy charts for review. Dobbs' book will have its place for Holocaust studies, social, and cultural history.