Flight from the Reich: An Interview with Deborah Dwork

Deborah Dwork
Deborah Dwork

Deborah Dwork is the Rose Professor of Holocaust History and Director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. As the founding Director of the Center, she has given shape to a forum for Holocaust and genocide education and scholarship, dedicated to teaching, research, and public service. Her books include Children With A Star, translated into many languages and the subject of a documentary by the CBC; Auschwitz, co-authored with Robert Jan van Pelt, received the National Jewish Book Award, the Spiro Kostoff Award, was voted Best Book by the German Book Critics, and was the basis for the Emmy-nominee BBC documentary, “Auschwitz: The Blueprints of Genocide”; Holocaust: A History, again in collaboration with van Pelt and also translated into a number of languages, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. A new work, Flight from the Reich: Jewish Refugees, 1933-1946 (2009), coauthored with van Pelt, focuses on the ever dwindling choices open to refugees, and the often painful decisions of the people who dealt with them—consuls; immigration officers and other government officials; church, health, and social workers; volunteers; private individuals. It is a story with which Dwork has personal connection: she is related by friendship and kinship to many people who left Nazi Europe as refugees, and to a few who had the opportunity to flee, chose to remain, and survived.

The following interview with Prof. Dwork was conducted by Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian in August 2009.


Khatchig Mouradian: How do refugee Jews in the 1930’s and the 1940’s fit into the Holocaust historiography?

Deborah Dwork: For you and for me, the notion that refugee Jews are an integral part of the history of the Holocaust might be obvious, but there is a whole body of scholarship that would show us otherwise. For example, if you look at other scholars’ histories of the Holocaust, you will see that they either devote a chapter to refugees or speak about them just briefly—and they surely don’t integrate the history of refugees all the way through. Let me tell you, I myself was one such historian. When I wrote Children With A Star, I collected material for, and thought that I would write, two chapters about children who became refugees. The titles of those two still-born chapters are “Escaped: to the West” and “Escaped: to the East.” But as I came to write the book itself, I felt that those children had a different historical package from youngsters caught in the net of Nazism, so I didn’t write those chapters. I put that material to the side and decided I would write a book about them later on. In the meantime, I wrote other books and one of them was Holocaust: a History. And even in that book—which I wrote with Robert Jan Van Pelt—we devoted one chapter to refugees, but we ourselves did not integrate the history of refugees into our history of the Holocaust. It really took me a long time to step back far enough so that I could encompass the whole of this history. I had to step so far back that I could get those centrifugal threads into view. And that is what led to Flight from the Reich.

K.M.: The history of the refugees, especially the refugees in the ‘30s and early ‘40s, reinforces the fact that the Holocaust wasn’t inevitable. The reader is haunted by the thought that foreign countries could have intervened more effectively, and that there could have been a better way of dealing with the Nazi regime…

D.D.: Absolutely. In fact, the Nazis were looking very closely at how other countries, especially in the West, were dealing with Jews, what their positions were on the regime’s treatment of the Jews within Nazi Germany, and how willing those countries were to accept the Jews that Berlin was expelling. Now, in expelling Jews, the Nazi regime put a burden on the neighboring countries, but the neighboring countries never held the Nazi regime accountable for that. They never said, “Look! It’s just not on. You can’t keep persecuting a portion of your population and forcing them over our borders. That is actually a hostile act towards us.” That is an aggressive act and it was identified as such in international law at the time. But France, the Netherlands, none of those countries availed themselves of that political tool to confront the Nazi regime. No one confronted the Nazi regime for far too long. So, absolutely, I think that if we scrutinize the refugee situation we see many ways in which intervention would have been possible, prevention would have been possible. And that, of course, is the reason why we study the history of the Holocaust at all. We study it because it is interesting, of course. But we also study it because the Holocaust was a process, a system. And—with changes—that system and those processes are enacted in many places around the globe. If we understand the process then we can see points at which intervention may be possible and, even better, where prevention might be possible.

K.M.: Flight from the Reich also gives insight into intervention when there are humanitarian crises and you have a large number of refugees leaving a region. Talk about what we could learn from those experiences.

D.D.: I find this movement of people riveting. True, in some cases it is because of genocide, but we also see it in our country right now in terms of economics. We have economic refugees, groups of people moving from one part of the country to another in search of employment. What do we learn from the historical experience? We learn much, or rather we could learn much.

The first is that when a people leaves a place, that place becomes impoverished. It loses all kinds of capital. An obvious loss is economic capital. But the loss of human capital has an even greater impact. All of us belong to the society in which we live, to our towns, our cities, our communities. We participate in all kinds of ways; people belong to a town orchestra, or choir. All of this is volunteer activity. All of these volunteer activities are charitable, non-profit, and all of us participate, give labor, and in these ways strengthen and enrich our communities. When large numbers of people leave, not only do they take their labor and their capital with them, but they also take all of those human interactions and social and civic connections with them.

Then there is the issue of relocating. The refugees themselves face an enormous problem of integrating into a new place, settling, putting down roots, situating themselves. The host community also shoulders a great burden, because it needs to incorporate, integrate, and assimilate the people who have come. In the end—and my feeling is there always is good news in the end—the newcomers will indeed enrich the community that they have joined. But it takes time and it is a process. So, when I look at the history of the Jews during the Nazi time and when I survey the economic situation in the U.S. today, I want to tell host communities, “Prepare. Open your arms. But open your eyes too, and think about all the social structures and social systems that you’ll need to put into place to situate those who are coming. And the good news is: your communities will be much richer down the road.”

K.M.: Why is there a differentiation between Holocaust survivors and refugee Jews who fled the Nazis?

D.D.: In the immediate post-war period, “survivor” referred only to those who had gone through camps—primarily slave labor camps because there were very few survivors of the straight annihilation camps. And then, about 20 years ago, just when Children With A Star came out, the first international gathering of Jewish child survivors was held. That really introduced the notion that people who were in hiding, children and adults, were survivors too. They had a different historical package than camp survivors, but they too were survivors of the Nazis’ plan to annihilate the Jewish people. (Anne Frank’s family had been hidden, so you would think that people who were in hiding would have had a prominent place in the historiography or popular imagination, but they didn’t.) Only now do we see—and this is what I argue, I absolutely argue—that refugees, too, are survivors of the Nazis’ plan. Refugees, however, feel diffident about applying the term survivor to themselves. Most refugees, the overwhelming majority of refugees from the Nazi regime, will say, “Oh, I am not a survivor; I fled.”

Yet, when we talk about people who are survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, for example, we talk about people who fled, and we do not see any contradiction. We say, “So and so fled and was a survivor of the genocide.” But we don’t use that exact same model when talking about the Holocaust. While I understand refugee Jews’ feelings of diffidence about applying the term survivor to themselves, I, as a historian, see a different picture.

K.M.: Talk about how other countries received these refugees and how differences in class, sex, education, etc. played a role in accepting and integrating them in their host communities.

D.D.: Different countries had different policies with regard to accepting refugees. France, for example, initially had a very open-door policy; it was part of their national tradition to offer asylum. But as thousands upon thousands streamed in, and, also, as the political situation in France itself changed, the government’s policies changed as well. Britain had a more closed policy. It was interested in taking the very elite. But at a certain point, Britain offered to take in as many children—unaccompanied minors, under 17 years old—as could be sent to safety. Nearly 10,000 Jewish children were sent to safety in Britain. The United States had the most closed-door policy of all. We in the U.S. don’t really have a developed refugee policy. We have an immigration policy, we are a country of immigrants, but we are not a country that offers asylum to refugees, and that applied during the Nazi era as well. So, very few people could come to America as refugees. They could come only as immigrants under the quota system. And alas, the State Department was extraordinarily anti-Semitic, and so, not even the full number, the full quota, that could be admitted was indeed admitted. Some members of Congress tried to pass a bill in the United States similar to that in Britain, to allow unaccompanied minors, Jewish children, into the U.S. But the State Department countered with the argument that it would be inhumane to separate children from their parents—that it would be better to take nobody at all.

Some western diplomats hoped that the Soviet Union would allow Jews oppressed by the Nazi regime to immigrate to the so-called autonomous province of Birobidzhan, which was supposed to be the Jews’ national region, just as there were regions for other nationalities in the Soviet Union. But the Soviet constitution did not grant refugee status on the basis of “race.” And those diplomats well knew that, in the Soviet xenophobic and spy-obsessed political culture, even if Jewish communists were allowed in, they would soon fall victim to a “purge.” In any case, the Soviet Union took in no one during the pre-war period.  The situation changed radically after the Germans invaded Poland from the west and the Soviet Union moved in from the east. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled to Soviet-occupied territory.  And when Germany attacked Russia in June 1941, Jews fled with the retreating Red Army.  Ultimately, the Soviets packed up stateless Jews and Jews with foreign passports and sent individuals and whole families to
camps under harsh conditions in areas where labor was needed.  But, as one survivor reflected, “They saved us.  This was not their intention, but they saved us.”  Some 250,000 of the 300,000 Jews who fled into Russia survived.

K.M.: What about the differences in terms of education, sex, age, etc.?

D.D.: The first myth is that the wealthy got away. And there are reasons why people would think that. Most countries, especially initially, were willing to welcome the elite. Then too, famous people claim headlines. What happened to famous people looms large, and thus a myth developed that it was the very wealthy who escaped or it was the very well educated, the famous, the Einsteins, and the Freuds who managed to flee. What people don’t look at is, for example, the numbers of children who found refuge.

Another myth is that primarily men got away. There is a rationale for that myth as well. In the beginning, everyone thought that men would be particularly targeted. First, because they were much more in the public realm than women.  And also, because traditionally, regimes go after men before they go after women. So, it was the men who left in ’33 and ’34 in far greater numbers than the women.

But in each of these cases there is always this underside, this other story, which is not told. The other story is that first of all, Jews of all social classes were seeking desperately for small openings in what was perceived as a closed world. So many doors were shut, and Jews in Nazi-occupied lands were always looking for just the smallest little opening through which they could seek safety. Jews everywhere, of all kinds, rich and poor, middle aged and young. They had agency and they took action.

As time went on, there were many countries—in South America for example, but also Palestine—that needed people who brought practical skills: plumbers, electricians, all kinds of blue-collar workers, or people who might not have been blue-collar workers but trained to gain those skills. So again, we focus on Freud, but not on Jacob Cohen the electrician, who made his way to Peru, for example.

Also, there were more occupational training opportunities for men than for women, and more job opportunities for men than for women. However, there is the other story for that as well. Middle class women in Britain—and upper middle class and upper class women in Britain—soon needed maids. The populations upon which they had depended before—Irish women and Central European women, German, Austrian—were going home in the mid-1930s and their positions lay vacant. And middle and upper class women in Britain wanted maids! Jewish women stepped into those opportunities. Those were openings where gender worked in favor of women. There were far more opportunities for women to serve as maids than for men to serve as buttlers, chauffeurs, and gardeners. Those were the positions available to men.

K.M.: What role did these refugees play in alerting the world regarding what was going on in Germany?

D.D. Refugees who fled Nazi Europe sought desperately to do two things: The first was to find opportunities for loved ones left behind in order to bring them out, and the second was to publicize the situation at home and the plight of the oppressed. There is no end of evidence of their efforts to bring these matters to public attention, through lectures, through books, through performances. All kinds of means. They met with little interest. By and large, most politicians took the position that this was an internal matter for Germany and they took the position that they just did not want to interfere. Once war was declared, they took the position that the goal was to win the war. For them, rescue was a minor matter; opening the doors to refugees was not the issue and winning the war was the solution to the problem.

K.M.: One interesting aspect is that there were many Jewish intellectuals and scientists who were actually fleeing in the early years. An important segment of the intelligensia actually fled and perhaps that contributed to creating more awareness. If we compare it with the Armenian Genocide, the intellectuals were the first to be murdered…

D.D.: Absolutely. The situations are very different in the sense that the Armenian Genocide was not preceded by these first measures that the Germans took against the Jews. Armenian intellectuals were targeted at once. Unlike the Jews in Nazi Germany, they did not first lose their jobs, and know they had no hope for employment, and no hope for their families, and no future for their children, and therefore had to look elsewhere. The Armenian Genocide unrolled very rapidly, whereas the Nazi regime came to murder step by step and it took them eight years to get there. Step one within Germany was pressing Jews to leave. Step two by the time the Germans annexed Austria was pushing out the whole community. Step three was the creation of reservations. This is an idea similar to what we in the United States did with Native Americans. We don’t want these people in our society, so we push them into a reservation while we figure out what to do with them. And then step four was the decision to unroll mass murder.

The Nazis came to power in 1933. Within 18 months, the lives of every single Jew in Germany had been changed radically. Those who were employed had mostly been thrown out of their jobs by that point. Children were either at a severe disadvantage at school or thrown out of school. Elite intellectuals who were thrown out of their jobs at German universities were quite quickly able to leave and find employment elsewhere. There’s a flip side to consider too: they wouldn’t have been able to leave and find employment elsewhere had universities elsewhere not been willing to take them. But universities in France and the Netherlands and Switzerland and Britain and the United States recognized an opportunity to build their faculties. You are absolutely right that having those intellectuals in many different countries certainly gave an opportunity for the dissemination of information. And indeed, information was disseminated. But that doesn’t mean that the politicians did anything about it.

K.M.: Talk about the sources you used when researching Flight from the Reich.

D.D.: It has been my privilege to record the oral histories of hundreds of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. And in so doing, I learned that people have personal papers and photographs—a big shock to me. When I was growing up, I was told that there were no photographs of the family in Poland because all of them had been burned when the Germans rolled into Poland in September 1939.

When I was recording the oral history of my aunt and we were talking about her niece, a little girl named Mirka, I said, “I always wondered what she looked like.” And my aunt said, “You know, I remember my brother took her photo and sent it to our cousin who lives in Philadelphia. He’s got that photo!” In this way I learned that the notion that there are no letters, there are no photographs, there are no diaries, was a myth too. Therefore, when conducting oral histories, I always ask, “By any chance, do you have anything or might you or your parents have sent anything, to family who lived beyond Nazi Europe?” I have collected letters, family albums, diaries, and photographs that pertain to the people whose histories I recorded. And I was just delighted to be able to use some of those materials. I talk about one little girl, for example, who went on a child transport to England and she had all these letters that her father had written to the people with whom she stayed. I’ve used excerpts of some of these letters in the Flight from the Reich.

Another resource came to me completely unexpectedly. About 18 years ago, I got a letter from an eminent professor of theology in Switzerland named Ulrich Luz. We’d never met each other. He wrote that he knew of my book Children With A Star, that his aunt had kept up a lively correspondence with Jewish people during the war, and asked whether I would be interested in these letters.

And so he sent them to me, and it turned out to be an amazing cache of about 3,000 letters written by Jewish parents, in Germany, to their children whom they thought had been sent to safety. And some of whom were indeed saved. Some had gone to Britain or the United States, others had been sent to France, where the Germans caught up with them some years later. The letters are between the parents separated from their children. Mail did not go back and forth between Germany and these countries, so the parents wrote to a woman whom they called Tante (Aunt) Elisabeth Luz, who lived in neutral Switzerland, and she, in order to fool the censors, copied every letter and sent it out again to the children. In turn, the children wishing to write back to their parents wrote to Tante Elisabeth and again, she copied every letter and sent it out again. She was the go between and as she copied each letter, I have the originals of every single letter between the parents and the children.

K.M.: What role did Palestine play in the experience of the refugees.

D.D.: Here, too, there are all kinds of myths. One myth is that the Jewish state was created in Palestine because of the Holocaust. And that’s when historians like Yehuda Bauer will tell you, “No, it was created in spite of the Holocaust.”

Secondly, many people believe that the Zionist movement was born out of the Holocaust. And again, that’s not true. Theodor Herzl, who is considered the father of the modern Zionist movement, lived well before the Holocaust. He has nothing to do with the Holocaust. So, there is this conflation and confusion about the modern Zionist movement and the push for a Jewish state in Palestine with the history of the Holocaust.

Palestine certainly emerged as a potential destination for Jews and, initially, the Germans were quite happy about that. Initially, when they were not interested in murdering Jews, but in just getting rid of them, they had the idea that the Jews should go off to Palestine and be busy with the business of building their own nation state, just like the Nazis were busy with the business of building an Aryan Germany. But as Jewish settlements in Palestine developed and began to coalesce, the Germans began to look at the situation differently. They began to worry that Palestine would become a focus of political power for the Jews. As they said, it would become like the Vatican for Jews, and that they did not want. So, in this way, their ideology led to a political difficulty. And then there were the British, who were balancing the needs, wishes, and demands of the Arab populations with the requests of the Jews. And so the British limited the number of Jews who could enter Palestine. The Peel Commission of 1937 suggested a two-state solution. In my view, this is one of the most heartbreaking “what ifs” of history. Because if everyone had seized upon that solution—the indigenous Arabs and the Jews—if they had seized upon that solution, number one, many, many, many more Jews could have got to Palestine because it would have been a Jewish state, under Jewish control, not under British mandate. And then, we would already have had the two-state solution that we are struggling for 70 years later!

K.M.: Let’s talk about cultural loss during the Holocaust. The book provides a powerful account of the Jewish cultural heritage that was lost. Can you make some comparisons here between the Jewish and Armenian experiences?

D.D.: My own feeling is that both peoples, the Armenians and the Jews, suffered great cultural losses. Frankly, I don’t think either of us has made it up until today. That doesn’t mean Armenians and Jews haven’t produced great works of culture in the meantime. But had we not lost what we, Armenians and Jews, did, imagine how much more we would have been able to produce.

When Barack Obama spoke in Buchenwald, he said somewhere in the neighborhood of six million Jews were lost and pointed out that this is greater than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Now that’s a really shocking image. Think of an entire population of a nation 60 years ago, and how it would have increased just through natural growth. The same can be said of the Armenians with even greater extrapolation for natural growth because the genocide was many decades before the Holocaust.

As peoples, we are still reeling from those losses in ways we don’t typically consider or appreciate, because we have what we have. We don’t typically sit around and think about what we don’t have, but every once in a while it is worthwhile to recognize the immensity of our losses. 

Then too, Armenians in their own homeland lost their institutions, their population, and their roots to their land. They lost that connection to place. Jews as a diasporic people living in many different places did not suffer that loss of ancestral homeland. On the other hand, in the mid 20th century, Jews were indeed a diasporic people; for example, Jews had lived in Germany for 500 years. Jews had lived in Italy and France since Roman times. They belonged there as much as anybody else. So they suffered that loss as well, meaning, once uprooted, could they ever return to where their families had lived for centuries upon centuries (even if it wasn’t their people’s ancestral homeland)?

Regarding cultural loss, peoples develop cultural institutions wherever they are, whether it is their traditional homeland or the place to which they migrated either in their own time or centuries before. And all of that was lost as well, all of those cultural institutions, the libraries, the schools, the synagogues, and the institutions that are related to Jewish traditional practice.

K.M.: When reading the book, I had this feeling that with every page, one story, one personal account, one personal experience is being added on another, and once you’re finished with the book you don’t just have a bigger picture of the Holocaust, but you actually have a bigger picture that it is put together by its individual parts. While in many other histories of the Holocaust, it’s more about that bigger picture and the parts are not as clear…

D.D.: I want to address this in two different ways. First, I am a storyteller. That is what I am. I used to be—I tell you frankly and honestly—embarrassed about that, a little bit ashamed of that. I thought there was something suspect about the kind of history that I liked to write and also the way I thought about history—most particularly in relation to my male colleagues who always seemed to be interested in some theory or other. Then I realized that it wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in theory. It was simply that the way I thought about the pastmy actually thought processesdiffered. For me, what matters is unpacking people’s stories, understanding how politics shape personal lives and how personal lives are framed by political situations. That interplay between public and private shaped my insight into the past. It is in the unpacking of the stories that we understand the broader context of history.

Just like you said, story after story about individuals come together to form a narrative about the past. Thank you for that wonderful pat on the back to me as a historian and the way I think about the past, and the way I think about the interaction between theory and life experience.

My second answer to your question focuses on how to tell this particular story about refugees. Their history starts in many different places at many different moments, and ends up in many different places and in many different moments. The question was, as a writer, how to wrap my arms around that. Robert Jan van Pelt and I talked about this a lot. I am the native English speaker, Robert Jan is Dutch, and so I am the one who actually writes. We agree about everything, it is the actual structure of the narrative and the writing of the narrative that falls to me. So, we talked a lot about how we would tell a history that does not conform to what is called a grand narrative, a story that starts at an easily understood beginning and concludes with what seems to be the natural end. I suggested that we develop a whole different structure, that we think about pivotal moments and look at them through a number of different lenses, one chapter for each lens. Each chapter would include a story which we would unpack in different ways. Robert Jan said, “Try it. See how it goes.” I took the idea to Ed Barber, our editor then at WW Norton (he has since retired), and he pointed out that it would be the most writerly book that I had ever done, that I’d really have to pay attention to narrative in a different way. At first it just seemed like a patchwork quilt and I wondered whether it would hang together. We’ve both seen patchwork quilts: Some of them work and some of them don’t, they are just ugly. Happily, in the end, we all thought, “Yes, this quilt holds together.” And what I am hearing from you is that you think so, too. Thank you!

Dr. Khatchig Mouradian

Dr. Khatchig Mouradian

Khatchig Mouradian is the Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist at the Library of Congress and a lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He also serves as Co-Principal Investigator of the project on Armenian Genocide Denial at the Global Institute for Advanced Studies, New York University. Mouradian is the author of The Resistance Network: The Armenian Genocide and Humanitarianism in Ottoman Syria, 1915-1918, published in 2021. The book has received the Syrian Studies Association “Honourable Mention 2021.” In 2020, Mouradian was awarded a Humanities War & Peace Initiative Grant from Columbia University. He is the co-editor of a forthcoming book on late-Ottoman history, and the editor of the peer-reviewed journal The Armenian Review.


  1. Fascinating interview!

    “And so he sent them to me, and it turned out to be an amazing cache of about 3,000 letters written by Jewish parents, in Germany, to their children whom they thought had been sent to safety. And some of whom were indeed saved. Some had gone to Britain or the United States, others had been sent to France, where the Germans caught up with them some years later. The letters are between the parents separated from their children. Mail did not go back and forth between Germany and these countries, so the parents wrote to a woman whom they called Tante (Aunt) Elisabeth Luz, who lived in neutral Switzerland, and she, in order to fool the censors, copied every letter and sent it out again to the children. In turn, the children wishing to write back to their parents wrote to Tante Elisabeth and again, she copied every letter and sent it out again. She was the go between and as she copied each letter, I have the originals of every single letter between the parents and the children.”

    Very moving!

    Your interviewees are a class of their own, Khatchig. Is this the third interview in 10 days? Krikorian, Edmonds, and now Dwork. Do you have time to breathe? Keep up the good work!

  2. I am awed and fascinated and by such a complete, historical publication of the history of the Reich and the holocaust.  Being a (child)  survivor myself I have read so much of this history but never such a full and detailed text.  Thank you for this marvelous work.
    I would like to know if there is a publication of all or any of the letters from “Tante” Elisabeth Luz.  This would be a most fascinating addition to the holocaust history.
    Thank you for this very excellent work
    FR. Rosenthal

  3. Mme. Elisabeth Luz has much later written about this exchange of letters and cited from some of them in a short form. This essay has only a few pages in this German book: Heinrich Fink (editor), Stärker als die Angst. Den 6 Millionen, die keinen Retter fanden. Union-Verlag Berlin (DDR), 1968

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