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  • Rescue and Flight: American Relief Workers Who Defied the Nazis
  • Michal Shapira
Rescue and Flight: American Relief Workers Who Defied the Nazis. By Susan Elizabeth Subak (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2010) 342 pp. $40.00

Rescue and Flight is devoted to the work of a group of American Unitarians and the rescue networks that they created in Europe to help several thousand refugees to escape the continent before and during World War II. The story begins in Czechoslovakia and moves to southern France, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United States. Overall, only a minority of refugees were rescued. Yet the efforts of relief workers to aid civilians who became "stateless" due to the Nazi persecution were significant in the context of reluctant and inefficient help from Britain and the United States.

Despite the weakening power of Unitarianism during the 1930s, this group of liberal Christians was responsible for the rescue efforts initiated before the war. Helping individual Jewish refugees to flee Germany and other regions under the Nazis had never been the mandate of the American Unitarian Association. But exposure to the misery and the frustration of European Jews applying for visas to the United States under a quota system and the restrictions of the 1924 immigration law inspired Robert Dexter, a local Unitarian leader, to launch a direct international program on behalf of the refugees. He, and others like him, made a case for the contribution that refugees could make to American life. Such engaged sympathy was uncommon at a time when isolation and a degree of anti-Semitism prevailed. Yet this small number of American Christian rescuers—a group that included Elizabeth Dexter, Charles Joy, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, Noel Field, and collaborators like [End Page 314] Varian Fry and Donald Lowrie—were willing to risk their lives for the cause.

These individuals tried to stay in France and Portugal as long as possible, at times making last-minute escapes. When they returned to the United States, most of them spent their time raising awareness about the refugees' predicaments and the unfolding Holocaust. While in Europe, they were often the first to meet new waves of refugees traveling through France and Portugal. Collaborating with Jewish organizations, they helped refugees cross borders and obtain exit visas, identity papers, and immigration documents. They corresponded with consulates and government officials (as well as with Eleanor Roosevelt), provided emergency financial help, secured releases from prisons, and arranged for refugees to cross the Atlantic by boat.

The Unitarians and their collaborators also managed to relieve the living conditions in French internment camps, to release some children imprisoned there, and to open medical clinics and kindergartens. They worked to strengthen underground networks, and they financially supported Jewish orphan children immigrating to Palestine. Overcoming massive hurdles, they helped thousands of notable intellectuals and artists—among them Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Otto Meyerhof, and Marc Chagall—as well as ordinary adults and children, to emigrate from Europe.

The book traces the little-known efforts of Unitarians and those who worked with them in great detail, but more attention to the hardships endured by the Nazis' victims, to immigration policy, and to attitudes toward refugees in different countries could have enriched the book. Subak also might have explored the relationship between religion and international intervention, as well as the motivations of religious activists, in greater depth. Complementing recent historiography concentrated on the actions of relief workers in Displaced Person Camps after the war, Rescue & Flight is valuable, focused research on the important and relatively few efforts undertaken before and during the war to save lives.

Michal Shapira
Barnard College


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pp. 314-315
Launched on MUSE
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