- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Walter Laqueur
Brandeis University Press, $29.95, 345 pages, illus.

On the eve of the November, 1938 "Kristallnacht," a small encyclopedia was published in Germany, designed for would-be emigrants and containing information about countries, climates, visas, possibilities of work and other practical information. "Virtually every entry ended with the words, 'prospects are poor.'"
In "Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany," Walter Laqueur examines the fate of the thousands of young people who left Germany and Austria during the Nazi years, scattered over the globe and often made successes of their lives, despite such "poor prospects."
Mr. Laqueur is himself a member of the group, which includes Jews born between 1914 and 1928. He graduated from a German school in 1938, the last year Jews were permitted to do so. Subsequently, he lived in Palestine (later Israel) for 15 years and now divides his time between Europe and the United States. An illustrious writer, editor and professor, Mr. Laqueur has done a thorough job in researching his subject, given the limited source material. The problem with such a task is that while those refugees who became famous can be traced, thousands cannot.
While many of the young people led successful, productive lives, and many became famous (Henry Kissinger, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, members of the Amadeus String Quartet or Michael Blumenthal, for example), there is no way of knowing whether the percentage of Nobel prize winners, writers, artists, scientists and successful businessmen was affected one way or another by the exodus. Whether being a refugee served as impetus or hindrance, or neither, cannot be established.
Many of the young men and women joined the army in their host country to fight the war against Germany. In the United States, this meant access to a university education through the G.I. Bill. In other countries, young Jewish soldiers were not as fortunate.
As a general rule, the younger refugees adapted more easily to life in the host country, especially if they arrived with their parents and families. It is amazing that any chose to return to Germany after the war, but a number did, especially those active in politics.
Mr. Laqueur describes many of the adventures and/or hardships encountered by the refugees in a sentence or two. For the reader, it would have been desirable to go into greater detail. The lives of these young refugees including that of the author himself make fascinating reading. The generalities and personal tidbits are informative, but it is the detail and psychology of the individual that would have truly engaged the reader.
The book deals in greater detail with the young Zionists, those who had been preparing to go to Palestine by training for kibbutz life on farms in Germany in the early 1930s in order to make "aliya." ("Aliya" is a Hebrew term meaning an ascent or return to the ancient homeland, rather than a course pursued by an immigrant or a refugee). Later, both Zionist and non-Zionists went to Palestine. Most, but not all, stayed after World War II. Once in Palestine, as they did elsewhere, the young people often met with resentment, sometimes caused by their own critical attitude.
The ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis, the internment of Palestine-bound Jews in Mauritius (part of the British Commonwealth at the time) under virtual prison camp conditions, the safe haven provided by the Chinese in Shanghai even under Japanese occupation, are part of the exodus. Less well known treatment received by many of the young people in the countries where they sought refuge is also discussed. For example, many of the 10,000 youngsters of the Kindertransport of 1939 from Germany to England were socially ostracized; some were treated as indentured servants; yet some were received with open arms by loving foster families.
Mr. Laqueur's account of the reunions of this group in later years is poignant. It is interesting to note that for many of the refugees, their closest friends remained those who had emigrated with them, regardless of social or educational standing.
In the United States, the immigration quotas during the 1930s were not met, in part because of an anti-immigration attitude in the country, even after the war ended when the murder of millions of Jews was well known. In turn, "many of the refugees were shocked by the extent of race prejudice, by the exaggerated value put on money as a measure of social prestige, by the language and content of the American media, by occasional discrimination against them as Jews." Yet, very few returned to Germany from the United States, as opposed to some of the other countries where the Jews had sought refuge.
In Latin America, where tens of thousands of refugees arrived after 1938, there was little integration, primarily because of cultural and language difficulties and strong traditional anti-Semitism. (At least a dozen ships, tried to make their way to Latin American in 1939 like the St. Louis, and were refused entry because visas were invalid or had been bought from corrupt Latin American consuls in Europe.)
In India, the approximately 1,000 "Jewish refugees, however distinguished, were not made honored guests." As one British resident told Max Born, a future Nobel Prize winner, "a second-rate scientist who had been chased from his own country was not worthy of employment at the Indian science institute at Bangalore."
The author notes that he did not include those German Jews born after 1928 because, "their recollections were limited and their roots not very deep." As one of these "younger ones," my own recollections are indeed limited, but they remain vivid. Assimilation was relatively easy and language was not a problem (the young learn easily) but leaving the "Heimat" (homeland) at such a young age without a strong sense of belonging and then moving from country to country before settling in the United States made putting down deep roots difficult.
While Mr. Lacqueur touches on this subject in discussing assimilation and postwar choices for those who belonged nowhere, he does not examine how this rootlessness affected adult lives and careers. Similarly, the author does not mention the effect on young refugees of growing up without parents or with just one parent in a foreign land and how this must also have affected future adult relationships.
Perhaps, what is most striking about "Generation Exodus" is how naturally young people can adapt to even the most difficult situation; some take advantage of any opportunity and succeed regardless of the odds, while others are unlucky and find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even the Nazi machine could not defeat the human will to survive.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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