A film by Hilan Warshaw
UNWANTED will be a feature-length documentary about American immigration policy during the Holocaust. Throughout most of the 1930s and World War II, the United States Government actively worked to ensure that the influx of European Jews to America stayed well below the immigration quota that America had officially committed to accept from that part of the world. This acknowledged policy– rooted in a variety of political concerns, as well as frequently transparent anti-Semitism– left millions of individuals with no haven from the Nazi terror, and had a tangible impact on Hitler’s actions.
When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, they pledged to eliminate the Jews from German life. The method that they advocated was not extermination; it was emigration. To this end, they hoped for cooperation from nations who seemed most likely to accept Jewish immigrants, particularly the United States. Although there is no denying the murderous intensity of the Nazis’ hatred, it is also clear that for most of the 1930s, their first priority was to encourage Jewish resettlement.
They could hardly have anticipated the profound international reluctance to accept the Jews. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was wary of being perceived as bowing to Jewish pressure to admit the refugees. For its part, the State Department presented hopeful immigrants with deliberate bureaucratic delays and endless forms to fill out, and gave explicit instructions to their consulates that Jews were not to be given visas to America. In Washington and throughout the nation, the issue sparked a political firestorm; critics of immigration policy were demonized as “internationalist” and un-American. Following America’s lead, most other governments also demurred to accept the refugees.
There can be no mistaking the effect that such attitudes had on the Germans. In a meeting of the Nazi leadership shortly after Kristallnacht—a pogrom that Nazis spoke of as a “shock tactic” to induce more rapid emigration– Reynald Heydrich lamented, “We cannot get out more than the maximum of 8,000 to 10,000 Jews a year… Therefore, I shall have to take steps to isolate the Jew so he won’t enter into the German normal routine of life.” At this meeting, the notions of ghettoes and yellow stars began to be formulated. It was when it became apparent that the international community had no intention of accepting significant numbers of Jews that the Nazis abandoned the offer of emigration. The more sadistic impulses emerged in full force; new “methods” began to be proposed. According to the opening statement of the Nazis’ infamous Wannsee conference in January 1942 — in which the procedural machine of genocide was officially decided on — the original aim of ejecting the Jews “in a legal manner” having been frustrated, “another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration.”
UNWANTED will bring this troubling history to life in an innovative format. Unlike in most documentaries, there will be no expert “talking-head” interviews or narration. Instead, the story will be told almost entirely through primary source materials—archival footage, photographs, and documents, supplemented with original cinematography and a powerful musical score—allowing the events to unfold in real time, as people of the time experienced them. We see anti-immigration sentiment erupt — often under the banner of “America First” — across an America still reeling from the Depression. We watch as Nazis hold sold-out rallies in Madison Square Garden, and Congress rejects initiatives to take in Jewish refugees because, in the words of one bigoted senator, refugees are “systematically building a Jewish empire in this country.” We experience the dilemma of American Jewish leaders, who wrestle with how to advocate for European Jews in the face of record-high anti-Semitism at home; and in the Third Reich, we witness the Nazis’ increasing brutality as the world’s nations refuse to let in the unwanted.
The questions that are raised by this story – about prejudice, nationalism, American anti-Semitism, and the fear of refugees and immigrants in a nation of immigrants — have never been timelier than now. UNWANTED seeks to provide a window into the words and deeds of an America that sometimes sounds not unlike our own, caught in the onrush of an unprecedented historical calamity.
UNWANTED is a fiscally sponsored project of the National Center for Jewish Film, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. To visit the project’s page and make a tax-deductible contribution to the production: