The Emigrants is largely concerned with memory, trauma, and feelings of foreignness. For example, Dr. Selwyn dwells on the story of a man he met in Switzerland in the time immediately prior to World War I, and explains how he felt a deeper companionship with this man than he ever did his wife. He also divulges how his family emigrated from Lithuania as a young boy, and tries to get the narrator to reveal how he feels being an emigrant from Germany living in England. In acknowledgement of this motif, Lisa Cohen of the Boston Review points out that The Emigrants' section-title characters "suffer[ ] from memory and from the compulsion to obliterate it; from a mourning and melancholia so deep that it is almost unnamable; from the knowledge that he has survived while those he loved have not; from problems distinguishing dream and reality; from a profound sense of displacement."
A concomitant theme is the impact of World War II and the Holocaust on German nationals, particularly on those of Jewish heritage. All the characters in the work are emigrants who have left Germany or a Germanised community, each specific case has its nuances. For example, Paul Bereyter remains in his homeland but becomes an outsider because of the persecution he experiences as a Jew; Ambrose Adelwarth is a non-Jewish character, but has close affiliations with a family of German-Jewish emigrants as the family's major-domo, and the affiliation makes him feel the angst of the war more sharply from abroad. Generally speaking, the narratives explore the different senses in which the characters' homeland can remain with them—in the form of both memories and memorabilia—as they approach the end of their lives.