STARRED REVIEW
April 02, 2019

The Unwanted

By Michael Dobbs
Review by
By the time Hitler came to power, Kippenheim’s Jews had been subjected to escalating state-sponsored violence, mass arrests and economic sanctions. Their world torn apart, emigration was their only reasonable option.
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Michael Dobbs is a journalist, author of a trilogy about the Cold War and staff member at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, specializing in the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. In The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between, he tells the story of Kippenheim, a small German village near the French border. Before Hitler came to power, it had a small, close-knit and bustling Jewish population. However, by the time of the book’s opening on Kristallnacht, Kippenheim’s Jews had been subjected to escalating state-sponsored violence, mass arrests and economic sanctions. Their world torn apart, emigration was their only reasonable option.

The Unwanted follows four extended families as they try to escape from Germany. Through Dobbs’ richly detailed narrative, we come to care deeply for the Wachenheimers, Valfers, Wertheimers and Auerbachers as they confront each new barrier to their salvation. And as the subtitle implies, many of those barriers were raised not by the Nazis—who, at that time, were eager for the Jews to leave—but by the American government. In those days before the Refugee Act, asylum seekers had to prove their worthiness to enter the U.S. by jumping through a series of difficult, expensive and frequently contradictory hoops. Isolationism, anti-Semitism and moral cowardice conspired to strand the Jews of Kippenheim in the ports of Vichy France. Some escaped, mostly through luck, but many others did not. Instead, they were deported to be murdered in Auschwitz.

This is more than the history of one town: Kippenheim stands in for the thousands upon thousands of other villages, shtetls and neighborhoods that disappeared in the wake of the Holocaust. Dobbs’ book reminds us that the Nazis and their allies murdered not only individuals but also the webs of friendship, commerce, culture and religion that make a community. This is also a cautionary tale of what happens when human lives are sacrificed in the name of political ideology and bigotry—a lesson that resonates today.

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The Unwanted

The Unwanted

By Michael Dobbs
Knopf
ISBN 9781524733193

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