‘Each One of Us Is a Slap in the Face of Hitler’
“This document saved my life.”
This is what Kurt Maier tells schoolchildren in Germany about his multi-stamped visa when he speaks to them regarding his successful flight from the Nazis.
Maier is featured in Michael Dobbs’ new book, “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in the Middle.”
Dobbs opens the book with a quote from the intrepid journalist Dorothy Thompson, who 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.”
The book explores the fate of a small German village on the edge of the Black Forest called Kippenheim.
The tome shows three perspectives — it offers a picture of the State Department in Washington, DC, American consulates abroad processing visas, and the point of view of the people standing in line for visas.
“To put these three stories together and show how they’re connected, that was my goal,” said Dobbs.
Dobbs was interviewed by award-winning journalist Ann Curry at the New-York Historical Society on Monday.
Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld wrote of the book: “Mr. Dobbs keeps the reader breathless as he relates, with great precision, the history of US diplomacy toward the Jews of the Third Reich.”
Dobbs said, “I wanted to write not only about the debates going on in Washington over immigration but the impact these debates had on ordinary people.”
In October 1940, some 6,500 Jews from the larger region of Baden (where Kippenheim is located) were deported to Gurs internment camp in Vichy France. Dobbs studied letters from the camp, which were a key source in telling the story.
Dobbs tracked down one refugee by googling his name: Kurt Maier, who is alive at age 86 and working as a cataloger of German books at Library of Congress in the US capital. He had escaped through Marseilles.
Many Americans feared that Germans could be using the refugee flow to insert Nazi agents into the US. In January 1939, only a few months after Kristallnacht, a Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans did not support bringing in refugee children.
Dobbs said Kristallnacht was the moment when German Jews understood there was no future for them left in their country. The book contains a photo of Nazi youth with axes over their shoulders proud of their work in destroying the interior of the synagogue in Kippenheim.
“There was debate in the Roosevelt household,” said Dobbs. Eleanor Roosevelt was in favor of admitting more refugees, but the president was neutral, testing the political waters.
“FDR was very much a politician who had his finger to the wind. He at one point said, ‘I’m a juggler and my left hand doesn’t know what my right hand is doing,’” said Dobbs.
By 1940, an election year, FDR did not want the refugee issue to cloud his chances of winning reelection.
Dobbs writes, “Roosevelt saw the issue in sweeping geopolitical terms refugee crisis rather than in concrete human terms. He wanted to solve the problem globally rather than piecemeal, unlike his wife Eleanor he did not want to get personally involved in individual cases. In the judgment of one of his biographers, he could turn empathy on or off at will as if it were water in a faucet.”
Dobbs said that in some families, it appeared that younger members could be more determined to get out. Perhaps he said because they did not have economic ties themselves. A key figure in getting out was how early one applied.
There were only 133 Jews living in Kippenheim in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power, out of a total population of around 1500. Of that number, 31 died in the Holocaust, a death rate of just over 21 percent, compared to around 33 percent for German Jews as a whole.
The former refugee Maier sometimes speaks before groups in Germany. He recalls the inflated estimates that high school students near the Rhine border offered when asked how many Jews there were in Nazi Germany. They gasped when they heard it was only one-half million.
“To think that a tiny minority could become the object of so much hatred amazed the young Germans,” Dobbs notes.
Sara Bloomfield, director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, writes in the book’s foreword that we can learn from history to help us keep vigilant: “As Mark Twain is credited with saying, ‘History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.’”
One of the surviving relatives from Kippenheim said, “I feel that each one of us is a slap in the face of Hitler.”