Commentary Magazine

Flight from the Reich by Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt

The Terrible Escape

Flight from the Reich:
Refugee Jews, 1933-1946
By Debórah Dwork and
Robert Jan van Pelt
Norton, 312 pages, $35

Adolf Hitler made no secret of his racist intentions or of the violence he would use to fulfill them. A few weeks after taking power in January 1933, he promulgated laws to remove Jews from employment as civil servants, physicians, professors, and teachers. Boycotts of Jewish shops and businesses, and the notorious public burnings of books, mostly but not exclusively by Jewish writers, were further measures proving that Nazi ideology had immediately become the mainspring of daily life in Germany. By the end of that same year, somewhere between 37,000 and 54,000 German Jews and 10,000 Gentiles had fled abroad. A country that had no place for Albert Einstein or Thomas Mann and his almost equally famous sons was a clear danger to the established order.
As Hitler proceeded to lay hands on the Rhineland and the Saar, Austria and Czechoslovakia, more and more Jews found themselves at his mercy. They too were to lose nationality, citizenship, property, livelihood, right to education, and finally, personal security. Initially, Nazi policy was directed at making them understand that if they were to have a future, they would have to find some other country to live in. Thus other countries all over the world had the plight of the Jews inescapably pushed upon them.

Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946 is first and foremost a study of the failure of the institutional apparatus set up in that period for the purpose of dealing with refugee problems in general, and the Nazi persecution of Jews in particular. The book’s authors, Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, previously collaborated on a comprehensive history of the Holocaust, and many of the refugees whose fate they are now describing were eventually caught by the Germans and became victims of genocide. This did not have to happen. Hitler’s anti-Semitism could have been confronted, and many lives saved. The authors do not raise their voices, but their disappointment at the feeble and inhumane responses to Nazi racism of the democracies and their institutions is this book’s undercurrent.

Following the Versailles Treaty, the League of Nations had written the protection of minorities into its constitution. In 1925 the League established a special body, the Congress of European Nationalities, to enforce that provision. It might therefore have been possible to establish that Jews were a minority with a right to international protection. German representatives were instead to have no trouble fabricating to their satisfaction the syllogism that minorities wanted to assimilate whereas Jews wanted to dissimilate, ergo Jews were not a minority but rather a national liability. At one point, Goebbels himself was delegated by Hitler to go to Geneva to put the Nazi case to this Congress and disrupt proceedings. Once Jews fleeing Germany began to spill in large numbers into neighboring countries, the League of Nations in 1935 turned the issue over to a new International High Commission for Refugees (Jewish and Other) Coming from Germany—that “Other” giving away the fudging behind the endeavor. The head of the Commission was James McDonald, a professor from Indiana. No money was provided; Germany soon left the League; and the well-meaning but helpless McDonald resigned.

In the next international demarche, a conference of 32 countries met at Évian in 1938 a few days after Germany’s invasion of Austria, in order to discuss, and then facilitate, the emigration of Jews. At that moment, the Nazis were contemplating deporting all Jews to Madagascar, while the British were proposing the barren island of Socotra as a refuge, or possibly Northern Rhodesia. However, the governor there, Sir John Maybin, vetoed any such outcome on the grounds that it might lead, in his words, to a “poor white problem.” Évian was a glaring extension of the wider policy of appeasing Hitler. Participating countries were not prepared to relax immigration regulations or quotas. Hitler was then enabled openly to mock the democracies where Jews, he said, were described as an “extraordinary, culturally valuable, irreplaceable element,” but which were unwilling to accept the gift of Jewish presence inside their own borders.

Exclusion and expulsion by the Nazis collided with barriers put up everywhere to keep refugees out. America had a tight system of quotas. Britain and France led the way in restricting immigration. Exposing the attitude of British officialdom, one member of the Foreign Office wrote in a memorandum to colleagues that “our policy [is] therefore to do nothing to encourage further immigration.” A member of the British embassy in Berlin had what he evidently believed were solid grounds for refusing to help Jews, writing to his superiors in 1934, “The Jews themselves are naturally doing their best to placate the new regime and their inborn cleverness is coming to their assistance.”

In 1938, Sir John Simon, then the British Home Secretary, met representatives of the medical profession to discuss whether to allow in Jewish doctors, and if so, how many. Robert Hutchinson, president of the Royal College of Physicians, told the meeting that the ethical standards of refugee doctors “are not ours,” and after talking to them, “I begin to sympathize with Hitler, and I constantly hear that view expressed.” Exceptions could be made for Jews prepared to work as maids and servants, and 10,000 children were allowed in on the so-called kindertransports. In the end about 50,000 Jews entered Britain, with another 2,000 in the Empire.

“The netherworld of requirements and permissions,” to use the apt phrase of the authors, acquired monstrous and tormenting shape. They cite Stefan Zweig’s account in his classic autobiography The World of Yesterday, who wrote that among the humiliations to be endured by those in his predicament were photographs as devised for criminals, “furthermore certificates of health, of vaccination, police certificates of good standing . . . letters of recommendation . . . invitations to visit a country . . . they asked for addresses of relatives, for moral and financial guarantees, questionnaires, and forms in triplicate and quadruplicate had to be filled out.” No avenue of escape could be neglected, and no destination was too outlandish; Zweig and his wife killed themselves in Brazilian exile. No matter how far Jews were willing to go, they could not beat the numbers game anywhere. A total of 472 refugees were to reach the Dominican Republic; a few hundred more in British Guyana; 17,000 made their way to the extraterritorial concession areas of Shanghai, there to live under the horrific yoke of the Japanese Empire. 

War was to place millions more Jews at risk as persecution and random murder evolved into genocide. Those unable to escape from Poland were exterminated. The authors give the figure of 200,000 Polish Jews who managed to flee to the Soviet Union, where they were then deported to work camps in the Arctic. Many died from the harshness of conditions, but as one survivor recalls, the Soviet intention was to put them to work, not to kill them:  “It was not like the German camps. We were not beaten. There were no ovens.”

In Western Europe, by contrast, German occupation led to all manner of inventive methods of potential escape. Jews could search for a passeur to take them across the border into a neutral country such as Spain or Switzerland, but the man had to be trusted not to betray them first to the authorities; they could go into hiding with the help of locals in the manner of Anne Frank and her family; or they could try to live underground. Few found a way out of this trap. In Vichy France, for instance, the American consulate remained open until the German occupation of the zone in November 1942. That September, there were 1,108 last-minute applications for visas to the United States. Only 276 were granted.


The authors have gone to great lengths to trace survivors from these ordeals.Their experiences, their tragedies, and occasionally even their good fortune are as representative as they are personal—broken lives, family partings, harrowing moments when parents and children embraced in tears one last time in the expectation that they would never meet again, heart-stopping adventures, and not least, the defenselessness against Gentile neighbors willing to rob or denounce them. All over Europe there were scenes such as the one that occurred in France in 1941 at the small station of Oléron. Children were being deported, and their parents were allowed just three minutes to say goodbye. So stricken were the parents, so painful was their sobbing, that the children tried to give them some of the three slices of bread that had to last for their own journey. According to a witness, even hardened gendarmes wept at this sight, and the French commanding officer allowed the train to remain for a few extra minutes.    

Some—the Vichy authorities in France, or the Swiss Chief of Police Heinrich Rothmund—actively delivered refugees to the Germans for the slaughter. But the authors record those who did what they could to rescue those in need.  Frank Foley, for instance, ostensibly a British passport officer in Germany but actually a secret agent, saved thousands behind the backs of his superiors. The Dutch and Japanese consuls in Kovno, Lithuania—Jan Zwartendijk and Chiune Sugihara, respectively—saved at least two thousand by issuing transit visas. Henri Bérenger, an old-style French senator, stood up to Goebbels and participated in the Évian Conference, savagely criticizing its spineless proceedings. Elisabeth Luz, an elderly Swiss spinster, was inspired to act as a postal clearinghouse, receiving letters from people in one country and transcribing and forwarding them to recipients in another country, an indispensable feat that only a neutral person could perform. Georges Loinger and his wife Flore set up a chain of passeurs, including themselves, to take hundreds of children out of France into Switzerland.

Continuously, in the background and mostly at long distance, a bewildering variety of Jewish organizations were badgering authorities, raising funds, obtaining papers, in effect substituting more or less as freelances for the defective international and democratic agencies as best they could. Their moment came in the aftermath of the war, when the majority of the survivors could not or would not return home, but endured as “displaced persons” in a limbo of camps. David Ben-Gurion visited these camps in October 1945, and in the authors’ phrase, there arose “a groundswell of Zionism.”  In the end just over half the 250,000 DPs settled in Palestine, soon to become Israel, and just over a quarter in the United States.

This admirable, thoughtful, and restrained book stops its narrative at this point, but the reader cannot help recognizing how closely contemporary events connect to the period and the horror under review. In Israel, Jews are threatened by their neighbors with dispossession and death just as those of an earlier generation were, and international diplomacy is as hollow as ever. The world has not recovered from the aftershocks of Hitler, and quite possibly it never will.

About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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