Religious refugees of the Holocaust and the denial of the right to free movement: A discussion of Markus Imhoof’s The Boat is Full
In 2019, at a White House Hanukkah event, then American President Donald Trump signed an order that declared antisemitism as punishable under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This is, however, a clause that deals with only race, ethnicity, and nationality, not religion. The discussion around whether Jews are a religious, ethnic, cultural, racial, or national category is an age-old debate, which has had a considerable impact on the mobility of Jews throughout history. Jews were primarily identified as a religious group during the period before the beginning of the Second World War, which had a devastatingly negative impact on European Jews’ ability to cross international borders to escape Nazi persecution during the time leading up to WWII. Many European countries such as Switzerland deported Jews and handed them back to the Nazis, using Jewish religious identity as a reason for refusing them refugee status. While even Nazi deserters were granted refugee status, categorised as political refugees, Jews were denied asylum as they were identified as seeking refuge ‘merely’ on grounds of religious persecution.
The Academy Award-nominated film The Boat is Full (Das Boot ist voll), a 1981 German-language Swiss film directed by Markus Imhoof, explores this relationship between Jewish religious identity and the denial of the right to freedom of movement at a time of widespread genocide. Imhoof’s film title, ‘The Boat is Full’, is a reference to a phrase that was commonly used by Swiss border control officers and the army in denying refugees entry to Switzerland. In the lead-up to the Second World War, ‘neutral’ Switzerland, along with several other European states, refused to accept refugees, citing that they were already over the quota or that their ‘boat was already full’. This film provides ample example of how stateless Jews were turned away from Switzerland due to their ‘religious’ identity, while ‘political refugees’ continued to be accepted into the country. It explores what the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt identifies as the ‘calamity of the rightless’ in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. The Boat is Full explores the predicament of those who are ‘not… deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion – formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities’, but of those who ‘no longer belong to any community whatsoever’. German Jews were made stateless in 1935 with the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws. In this context, their identification as ‘religious refugees’ further jeopardised their ability to seek refuge in other countries in Europe.
In this film, the character of the doctor affirms that to be considered for asylum status, ‘they [German Jews] must be political refugees’, which the refugee protagonists are not, as Jews were considered religious refugees. He explains how ‘just being a Jew isn’t good enough’, that ‘the law is the law’, and that ‘the authorities know what’s best to do’ in justifying Swiss laws that denied entry to Jewish refugees. Judith (the protagonist), her father, and her brother, who are Jewish refugees, are therefore ‘by law’ fated to be deported despite having risked their lives to successfully escape to Switzerland. During the journey, Judith’s frail and elderly mother is unable to get off the train before Nazi soldiers discover her. She is assaulted and shot on the train itself, depicted in a scene that is one of the most poignant and cinematically powerful moments in Imhoof’s film. It is a meditative and controlled engagement of systemic violence perpetrated against Jewish refugees. The killing of Judith’s mother is one among many instances where Imhoof questions the disregard and denial of rights and dignities of those who have lost their rights through state-sanctioned laws such as the Nuremberg Laws.
Army deserters and prisoners of war, however, were not deported, and instead were accepted as refugees. The Nazi deserter in Imhoof’s film is spared deportation, unlike in the case of the Jewish family. The most vocal critique of this practice in the film is the innkeeper's wife, who captures the underlying injustice and inequality in her angry remark, ‘I can’t understand why we have to feed runaway Nazi swine because of some international law where you’re victims while innocent people, they get sent across the border to Germany’. She repeatedly points out that ‘there must be something you could do. You don’t just send them back’. In a context in which officials and civilians seem to uncritically accept ‘the law’ and assert that ‘the authorities know what’s best’, this critique signals the underlying ethical and moral problems of depriving Jews the right to freedom of movement and refugee status based on religious grounds during the Holocaust.
The film closes by informing the reader, with text superimposed on the final scenes depicting the receding backs of the prisoners who are escorted back to Nazi-controlled territory, that Judith was gassed at the concentration camp at Treblinka, that Mr Ostrowskij, her father, did not survive deportation, and that her brother disappeared after being deported. Considering the historical and political context of the Holocaust in which the film is set, and taking into account the harrowing experiences of this family, one would expect that they would be granted the most rudimentary of rights as human beings, precisely because they have lost all other privileges that accord them rights and dignities such as being members of a state. However, the ‘law’ and the ‘authorities’, rather than protect their rights, ensure that their right to freedom of movement and the right to seek refugee status are withheld, even when they have succeeded in entering Switzerland by undertaking a perilous journey. As depicted in Imhoof’s film The Boat is Full, many European states denied German Jews entry and refused to issue them visas, or made the process of applying for visas extremely difficult, if not impossible. Had Jewish religious identity not been used to restrict and deny Jews the right to freedom of movement, it is unlikely that over six million Jews who became entrapped in a Nazi-run Europe would have been murdered during the Holocaust.
Dharshani Lakmali Jayasinghe
Dharshani Lakmali Jayasinghe is a Lecturer in Civic, Liberal, and Global Education at Stanford University, CA. She is also an Associate of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on ‘Unbordering Migration in the Americas: Causes, Experiences, Identities’ at the Humanities Center at the University of Rochester, New York. Lakmali is a Senior Editor of the Stanford International Policy Review and an Assistant Editor of the Stanford Global Shakespeare Encyclopaedia. Her interdisciplinary research across literature, law, film, and history focuses on topics in visa law and policy, immigration, freedom of movement, and borders. Lakmali completed her PhD in Comparative Literature at Stanford University, and was a Visiting PhD Scholar at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University, New York. She is also a former Fulbright Fellow.