Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Far and Away

A new book amasses the varied tales of those who fled the Third Reich

Print Email
Jewish DPs en route to Palestine register in Rome on October 27, 1945. Among those pictured are Eugene Hammond, representative of the Intergovernmental Commission on Refugees, and Major George Hartman, Allied Commission Repatriation Officer.(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

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.

'Flight from the Reich' cover

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.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Really good blog you have got here. You’ll find me browsing your stuff often. Bookmarked!

I’ve said that least 812539 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

I haven’t any word to appreciate this publish…..Really i am impressed from this submit….the person who create this submit it was a great human..thanks for shared this with us.i found this informative and interesting blog so i consider so its incredibly useful and knowledge able.I would like to thank you for the efforts you could have built in writing this article. I’m hoping the same greatest work from you inside the future as well. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me.Genuinely the blogging is spreading its wings rapidly. Your write up is fine example of it

I genuinely enjoy studying on this website, it has got wonderful content.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Far and Away

A new book amasses the varied tales of those who fled the Third Reich

More on Tablet:

Comedy Legend Anne Meara Dies

By Jas Chana — Logged 36 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show with husband Jerry Stiller