When fleeing does not mean escaping

Jewish refugees often discovered that physical survival did not guarantee well-being.

holocaust 88 (photo credit: )
holocaust 88
(photo credit: )
Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946 By Deborah Dworck and Robert Jan Van Pelt W.W. Norton & Co. 496 pp. $35 When we speak of Holocaust victims, we generally do not include people like Alfred Kantorowicz. Running from Germany to France in 1933, only to be caught and interned in 1939, he made it to the US in 1941. Yet the story did not end with his escape, nor did it end happily. Never feeling at home in America, the professor of German literature returned to East Germany alone in 1946. Political winds there blew him to West Germany 10 years later, where he remained emotionally adrift. "Fleeing does not write refugees out of the story; it simply takes the story elsewhere," write the authors of Flight from the Reich, an excellent, comprehensive look at the social, psychological and political victimization of Jewish World War II refugees. Dworck and Van Pelt trace the history of nationality and national borders to convey the power of these concepts. We learn that prior to 1914, papers, permits and passports were relatively insignificant, "and their tyranny after that date mark a social and political sea change." A scrap of paper with an official stamp (or the lack of one) suddenly spelled the difference between citizenship and displacement, life and death. By 1936, the Nazis had embraced the idea of ridding greater Germany of its Jews, not through mass murder but through mass expulsion. They implemented a systematic program of violence, intimidation and social isolation to encourage their targets to get moving. There was one unexpected catch: It quickly became clear that few countries were willing to accept the Reich's vast human refuse. The political charade of the Evian Conference in 1938 did nothing to change the situation. Surprisingly, the only participating country to offer a pragmatic solution was the Dominican Republic dictatorship, which proposed government-supported agricultural colonies to be worked by German and Austrian refugees. Though this plan was actualized, it was not nearly enough to address the huge need. Deadly measures were the next step when potential "dumping grounds" eyed by the Reich, such as Madagascar and arctic Russia (and even Palestine), failed to work out. Especially after the November 1938 Kristallnacht, large numbers of Jews sought to flee. But by then, doors were slamming shut at exits as well as entrances. The pursuit of visas, clearance forms, affidavits and tickets became a full-time obsession for trapped Jews. It took extraordinary efforts on the part of many courageous individuals - many of them gentile - to get as many Jews as possible out of harm's way as war loomed. The greatest success was achieved in the under-24 population, which found shelter in a hodgepodge of countries. England accepted 10,000 Kindertransport children, as well as young adults retrained as domestic workers; Shanghai took in 17,000 refugees. Another 6,000 illegally landed in Palestine in 1939, and Sweden accepted 6,000 in 1943, as the war multiplied the number of Jews under Nazi rule. Wherever they landed, the expatriates' circumstances often remained desperate, with lifelong effects including broken marriages and broken dreams. Karola Siegel - later to be known as Dr. Ruth Westheimer - traveled from Frankfurt to Switzerland on a Kindertransport in 1939 at the age of 10. "Like virtually all children separated from their parents, Karola yearned for reunification. And again like virtually all survivor children, she was to be bitterly disappointed at war's end." Perhaps no less tragic were those children who did reunite with long-lost parents after successfully integrating into foster families, thus being twice torn from loved ones. "There was no 'solution' to the problem of knitting back together, resuming family life, just as there was no 'solution' to the ragged finality of death," the authors write. Among the lesser-known heroes presented in the book is Elisabeth Luz, a Swiss spinster who used her own meager resources to run a clandestine postal service for some 3,000 letters sent between members of separated Jewish families from 1939 to 1945. She also pleaded, unsuccessfully, with her government to admit her correspondents as refugees. After the war, "Tante Elisabeth" continued to serve as a vital communication center between survivors. The authors also touch on the flood of Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern and North African countries following the establishment of the State of Israel. They had learned from their European coreligionists' experience that the traditional "hang on and hold out" response to local anti-Jewish violence was no longer advisable. This realization did not make their repatriation any easier, though it surely staved off a worse fate. In all, this many-angled look at Jewish refugees before, during and after World War II is instructive and innovative. Stripped of their homes, languages, families, roots and sense of belonging, refugee survivors share "a history characterized by adjustment and adaptation, and marked by loss and a thread of loneliness. Constructive lives, and lives slightly apart. Never quite at home."