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Long, Dark Journeys From Nazi Germany

HITLER'S EXILES, Personal Stories of the Flight From Nazi Germany to America, Edited by Mark M. Anderson, New Press, $30, 350 pages

November 12, 1998|Book Review RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

"I call the ocean the holy sea," wrote the child Annette Wolfram, whose family, after the nightmare of fleeing Nazi Germany and fighting the endless battle of immigration papers, visa quotas and other bureaucratic hurdles, found itself at last aboard a ship to New York.

To Annette and many other refugees, the ocean was the antechamber to salvation, or at least escape from destruction. Those great liners, with their prewar luxury and ease, were in deranging contrast to the agonies so many had endured before making it aboard. On another ship, Max Korman wrote of jubilation, hope, the beautiful ocean skies and the volcanic effect of rich food on long-stinted stomachs.

The irony was terrible. Korman's ship was the St. Louis, denied admission to Cuba and the United States, and forced eventually to return to Europe and distribute her Jewish passengers to England, France, Holland and Belgium. One year later, the last three would fall to the Nazis. For most of the passengers, the St. Louis was a luxury detour to a postponed hell.

Some 132,000 refugees arrived in the United States from Germany between 1933, when Hitler came to power, and 1941, when Pearl Harbor put a virtual end to the flight. Some came directly; others fled to other parts of Europe, only to flee once more when the Germans arrived. The early exodus was largely from political and intellectual oppression; later it was from Hitler's racial pogrom.

From hundreds of exiles' accounts and memoirs, Mark M. Anderson, chairman of the German department at Columbia University, has assembled a stunning and varied portrait of the torments of their escape and flight and the chiaroscuro of their arrival. To each of the three sections--the departures from Germany, the storm-tossed passages and the bewilderment of the first years in the United States--he has composed a lucid introduction.

It was, he writes, an immigration unlike any other. The majority were prosperous businessmen, esteemed professionals, and established artists and intellectuals. The United States was safety, to be sure, but not hope. Hope was what had been destroyed and left behind. Instead of the immigrant fix on the promised land, many of the exiles looked back to the land of betrayed promise. "Byunsys," they were called, after their repeated lament: "Bei uns war alles besser." (It was better back home.) Or the mordant joke--from Berlin, no doubt--about the two dachshunds: "Over there we were St. Bernards."

The accounts in the first part are vivid and moving, though, what with all that has been written about Nazi atrocities, relatively familiar. Still, there is Marta Appel's poignant account of a small atrocity that summons up so much more: the treatment of her children at their school. They were excluded from school outings; they were not allowed to join in the Mother's Day singing. "I know you have a mother," the teacher said, "but she is only a Jewish mother."

The second part is a nightmare of broken flight, particularly when German exiles in France, for example, tried to get to the United States in anticipation of an invasion. American consular officials demanded documentation from refugees whose passports the Germans had stripped. Usually Germany ignored or refused requests for such things as birth certificates; though in one case the Frankfurt authorities, with ingrained efficiency, sent the papers in less than a week. "The German bureaucracy is the 1,000-year Reich," remarked the American consul, marveling.

The accounts of unobtainable papers, delays, missed and changing deadlines--all in the face of approaching destruction--have a Kafkaesque horror. Most horrific of all, and one of the book's most stunning selections, is a mother's account of fleeing Paris on the jammed highways, being strafed by German planes and hearing her little boy exclaim, "I have a bomb in my neck." Her battle to save his life amid doomsday chaos has the untamable ferocity of a Mother Courage.

The richest and most varied part of the book is the voices of those who arrived. They range from bitter personal complaint to marveling appreciation of American openness and informality. There is guilt and grief, as well, and horror at having seen the Beast of the Apocalypse take possession of Europe. Stefan Zweig cited an unnamed author: "The 19th century was in despair because it had lost its belief in God, our century because it has lost its belief in humanity." He committed suicide; so did Walter Benjamin, Ernst Toller and Joseph Roth.

In an essay at once sardonic and prophetic--one of many jewels that Anderson has unearthed, this one from an obscure magazine--Hannah Arendt blames it on denial: the efforts of many German Jewish intellectuals at the time to preserve their buoyancy. "Something is wrong with our optimism," she wrote. "There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way."

For generations, this intelligentsia clung to its European identity and avoided admitting that it belonged to Jewish history. And now for the first time, Arendt concluded bitingly, this history is tied up with all the others. "The outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations."

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