It has been drummed into our heads by poets, artists, and pundits that the modern world is haunted by the ghost of alienation; that despite the efforts of education, revived religion, government programs, and an endless cycle of psychological therapies, mankind continues to suffer from a sense of separateness. We are cut off from community. Even closer ties, formed in family and marriage, have lost their sustaining power. The strong can sometimes find within themselves the inspiration and strength to fashion accommodating worlds. Many people, however, lack the confidence (or arrogance) to go it alone and instead settle for a curious malaise. Many feel unwanted, and they embrace the ghost of alienation, considering marginality the true human condition. Many do not feel a sense of belonging and live out their lives straddling a metaphysical fence.
After reading Michael Marrus’ account of forced wandering in the twentieth century, some readers may find themselves wondering if perhaps in his epic story of monumental social suffering there lies an important clue to the riddle of modern alienation. Since World War I, almost a hundred million people have been driven into homelessness, often under barbaric conditions. In the late nineteenth century, czarist persecutions drove millions of Jews westward. After World War I, the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire drove more Jews, as well as Slavs, Croats, and Italians, from their ancestral provinces. Almost half a million Czechs, Romanians, and Yugoslavs crowded into Hungary in 1921. In 1924, more than 300,000 Armenians fled Turkish persecution. They, too, came west. During World War II, first as a result of Nazi persecution and invasion and finally, in 1945, as a result of the Russian advance, the astonishing figure of more than sixty million describes Europe’s homeless. The equivalent of the populations of both Great Britain and France constituted a nation in themselves—an unwanted nation. Is it unreasonable to suggest, with such a titanic example of social dislocation, that humanity was driven to internalize what had become a social reality? That unwantedness was transformed from a political tragedy into a cultural trauma?
These are but a few of the questions raised by Marrus’ wide-ranging study, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. Marrus begins by distinguishing the experience of modern refugees from that of earlier generations; one of the purposes of his book, he notes, is “to trace the emerging consciousness of a refugee phenomenon since the 1880s.” With a few exceptions (for example, “Jews banging on the gates of Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s or Polish refugees from Hitler who left the Soviet Union for destinations in the Middle East or Africa”), Marrus does not follow refugees after their departure from Europe; his focus is on refugees “moving within, out of, and into the European continent.”
Marrus’ previous book, Vichy France and the Jews (1981), cowritten with Robert O. Paxton, won a National Jewish Book Award, and while The Unwanted is by no means restricted to Jewish refugees, their fate is central to the book and is the source of the almost eerie dramatic irony that pervades it. Even before Adolf Hitler invaded Eastern Europe and began his murderous persecution of Jews, the governments of Poland, Romania, and Hungary expressed virulently anti-Semitic sentiments and urged mass emigration of what they believed were...
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