No where to go: Michael Dobbs pens well-researched tale of Holocaust victims

Michael Dobbs has penned a well-researched but dispassionate tale of the Jews in one German town during the Holocaust.

Women cook in the Gurs concentration camp in France during the Holocaust (photo credit: UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
Women cook in the Gurs concentration camp in France during the Holocaust
Michael Dobbs opens his new book, The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between, with a revealing quote from American journalist Dorothy Thompson: “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.”
We sense that Dobbs shares Thompson’s worldview in the cruel randomness that often determines life or death. The author seems averse to heroic infatuations of any kind; or divine providence; or even the capacity of a single individual to significantly change the world.
He tells us about teenaged Hedy Wachenheimer, a resident of Kippenheim, Germany, whose middle-class Jewish family had lived there for decades, who left for school one day in November 1938 only to be told by her usually mild-mannered principal to get the heck out of the building, while screaming at her that she was nothing more than a dirty Jew. She was no longer welcome. Her father would be arrested that day and she would find herself later on hiding with her mother and aunt who were both terrified. Hedy was an only child.
Dobbs quickly abandons Hedy Wachenheimer’s story and jumps to the historical events swirling around her. He explains how Hershel Grynspan, a young and destitute Polish Jew, had shot Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, who died a few days later. Hitler used this event to mobilize ferocious fury against the rest of Germany’s Jews.
Dobbs tells us he was drawn to this project after seeing photographs of Kippenheim’s Jews being deported. He says little more about what moved him to study this particular village, or what drew him to research any aspect of the Holocaust. Kippenheim is a small village located at the edge of the Black Forest. Dobbs, an impeccable researcher and historian who has written many widely acclaimed books including Six Months in 1945 and One Minute to Midnight, and served as a Washington Post journalist for decades, scours letters, diaries and visa records and interviewed survivors from Kippenheim and their children in preparation for this work. He visited Gurs and Dachau.
Yet, we never hear any agony in his narrative voice, or personal reflections. It hinders his narrative, since his topic is so harrowing. It seems to call for a more emotional and nuanced response. The Holocaust has forced all of us to confront pressing questions about humanity, God, revenge, redemption and justice. His silence puzzles us.
Dobbs spends several pages talking about US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s initial response to the anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany. He notes that FDR was appalled by what he heard, but reticent when it came to taking active measures. Dobbs attempts to explain FDR’s mindset: “While he sympathized with the victims of Nazi persecution, he was also very aware of a xenophobic strain in American public opinion. He felt it would be political suicide to propose major changes to the restrictive immigration laws, even supposing that he could push them through the anti-immigrant Congress.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was more sympathetic and ready to take more decisive action; but her hands were often tied. Eventually, FDR began to think about where the Jews could have a new homeland; assuming they might settle in one of the vacant places on the planet.
The US Congress would not increase any immigration quotas. Father Charles Coughlin, a popular radio priest, railed against the Jews and claimed Kristallnacht was a justified response to Jewish persecutions of Christians. Even among moderately minded Americans, a Gallup poll taken in January 1939 shows two-thirds of Americans were not willing to support a plan to allow refugee children from Germany to come to the United States.
Sen. Robert Reynold from North Carolina said this: “If I had my way, I would build a wall around the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of the earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”
Dobbs describes the congenial relations that existed between Jews and Gentiles in Kippenheim before the war. There was a large synagogue in the center of town that was built in 1852. Hitler only won three votes in Kippenheim in the 1928 Reichstag election; it was known to be a progressive region. The famous German-Jewish writer who lived near Kippenheim, Berthold Aeurbach (1812-1882), wrote sympathetically realistic stories about Jewish peddlers and Catholic farmers and how they lived in peace. There was class antisemitism, claims Dobbs, that was related mostly to the fact that Christians were farmers, and Jews, who had been barred from owning the land, became cattle ranchers and peddlers.
AFTER THE WAR, disputes about what had transpired during the Shoah were ongoing. Local trials in Germany usually ended with very light sentences for those accused, or were dismissed outright. The synagogue in Kippenheim was transformed into a workshop for creating hollow concrete blocks, and eventually became a warehouse. Most Germans focused on forgetting and denying what had happened. Of the 522,000 Jews in Germany when Hitler rose to power, a third were annihilated, among them 31 Jews from Kippenheim.
One famous resident, Stef Wertheimer, left for Palestine with his parents in 1937, when he was 11. He started a small metal workshop in his backyard that eventually morphed into a huge enterprise called ISCAR. In 1977, he was elected to the Knesset as part of a centrist political party.
Another resident of Kippenheim, Kurt Maier, left at 10 with his parents when they were deported to the Gurs concentration camp. Despite the horror of his experience, he clung to nostalgic feelings for the village of his birth and returned often after the war. He was present in 2003 to attend a ceremony for the final restoration of the synagogue. He listened to the town’s mayor promise to break the silence regarding the 1940 deportations to Gurs. When Maier spoke, he told the crowd he still finds it incomprehensible how his neighbors turned upon his family with such vengeance. He is haunted by a memory of huddling with his mother underneath a bathtub turned upside down as rocks were hurled through their windows.
Dobbs covers a lot of ground, but somehow leaves us hanging. There is a dispassionate tone in his narrative that is disconcerting, and the book loses its footing. Yet his work was provocative enough to prompt me to look up Hedy Wachenheimer’s hours upon hours of oral testimony available on the Internet. She filled in the essential blanks that Dobbs left out with her courageous and unnerving testimony.
Wachenheimer, born in Kippenheim in 1924, spent her entire life as a social activist advocating the importance of Jewish memory as well as fighting for humanity at large. She died in 2016 in the United States, age 91. Listening to her speak, my heart broke in half as she struggled to control her trembling voice from crumbling. She was proud and determined and had a puritanism about her that reminded me of my own elderly relatives. She spoke about the Kindertransport she took to England at 14 and her first two foster home experiences there, which were Dickensian.
She explained how she clung to hope her parents had survived the war and did not accept their death until 1980 when she stood on the ramp at Auschwitz. She had received notification they had been sent there, but their names were never found on any list of the deceased. Haunted by nightmares about her separation from them, she refused to give up and gave speaking tours throughout Germany to promote tolerance. As a young adult, she worked as a research assistant at the Nuremberg trials scanning files about Nazi doctors who had performed heinous experiments upon the Jews. Later on, she took her only son back to Kippenheim, but felt deeply troubled there since she kept secretly hoping to see her dead parents; somehow still alive and walking down the street.
In Hedy Wachenheimer’s voice and moving reflections; Kippenheimer’s Jews came to life. They breathed and felt and mourned and prayed and struggled with a world gone mad. As I listened to her talk, Dobb’s book receded into the background. Instead, all I could think about was what Hedy had endured, and the precious memory of her dead parents.
Wachenheimer’s remembrances made me realize that Dobbs, perhaps without realizing it, has resigned himself to a gloomy submissiveness to life’s tragic unfairness’s that Wachenheimer fought against each day; refusing to succumb to a helplessness that constantly confronted her. She spent her long life trying to make a difference for others who were oppressed and targeted as she had been. She made you realize that it is upon all of us to fight back and remain vigilant; particularly as times once again seem to be going in a wayward direction.
By Michael Dobbs
Alfred A. Knopf
368 pages; $29.95