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Rescuing academics from the Nazis – well, sort of

The story of how US academia vetted and weighed which Jews it would save from the Holocaust.

With Nazis in control of the German government, Daniel O’Brien, a Rockefeller Foundation official based in Europe, wrote in his diary, “The Jews are being put out everywhere and without justice.” In April 1933, the government dismissed all Jews from civil service positions, including universities and research institutes, even if they or their grandparents had converted to Christianity. At the University of Berlin, students insisted that the rector post “12 theses,” including “Our most dangerous enemy is the Jew,” on all buildings. “The general situation is bad for science,” O’Brien noted. “It may get worse.”
It got much worse. In Well Worth Saving, Laurel Leff – an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and the author of Buried By The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper – tells the story of the efforts to rescue displaced academics, made by college professors and administrators, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars (changed to “Foreign Scholars” as Nazi control spread throughout Europe) and the University in Exile of the New School for Social Research.
Historians, Leff notes, have tended to focus on successes – and the contributions made by Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and other world-class intellectuals in exile. Her compelling and poignant account “deepens and darkens their ebullient depiction” by shifting the focus to the much larger number of Jewish academics who tried – and failed – to emigrate to the United States; the difficult choices professors, administrators and rescue advocates faced; and the pervasive failure of Americans to rise to the challenges.
Leff documents the daunting challenges faced by refugee scholars. Constrained by the lingering impact of the Great Depression, college and university presidents were often unwilling to appoint more faculty and, if a vacancy appeared, to fill it with a foreigner instead of an American citizen. The relatively small number who agreed to make an exception (or two), had to choose between advancing knowledge by hiring the best scholars and providing emergency relief to individuals whose lives were in imminent danger.
“The need for sifting is urgent,” declared Alfred Cohn, founder of the Emergency Committee, who knew all too well that “also-rans” would be left to face the horrors of the Holocaust. “We cannot aid everybody, only the most prominent and gifted – the more’s the pity.”
Other considerations entered into the decisions as well. Rescue advocates wanted established scholars who also had long, productive futures ahead of them. The general rule, observed often but not always, according to then-New School president Alvin Johnson, was to appoint no one over 55. The emphasis on world-class scholars, however, disqualified younger academics.
Rescue committees also preferred people who were not too far to the Left or Right, even when their politics did not affect their academic work. Rules adopted by the Rockefeller and the Emergency Committee, Leff points out, dramatically reduced the prospects of women. Both organizations required grantees to have been professors or privatdocents, even though European universities did not appoint women (or, in some cases, Jews) to these positions.
Some rescue advocates feared stirring up xenophobia or antisemitism by bringing Jewish professors to campuses in the United States. Many departments in colleges and universities, moreover, either banned Jewish professors outright or had an informal “one-Jew” rule. Correspondence about hiring, Leff reveals, often focused on whether an individual exhibited any “obvious” Jewish characteristics.
The hostility of officials in the US State Department “to immigrants in general and refugee scholars in particular,” Leff reminds us, was the greatest obstacle of all. In a 1940 memo, assistant secretary Breckenridge Long advised consuls to “put every obstacle in the way... and resort to various administrative devices to postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
Examples of malign intent included: restrictive definitions of institutions of higher education and classroom teaching; applying the requirement of two years of employment as a professor just prior to the date of emigration to refugees who had been expelled from their universities; and insisting that the provision that visas could be issued to a qualifying scholar’s wife did not apply to husbands as well. Although fear of refugee spying proved to be a red herring, and appeared nowhere in statutory language, State Department officials also took it upon themselves to reject applicants who did not meet their standards for appropriate political backgrounds.
To her credit, Leff provides up-close-and-personal accounts of heretofore invisible refugee scholars, caught between the Nazis and the bureaucratic inertia of Americans. She does not, however, address the larger questions posed by the crisis. Should academics – and not bakers and barbers – have been granted visas above and beyond the quotas set for their countries? Given existing political constraints, what might the US government, universities and private organizations have done differently?
And, at a time in which millions of people are seeking asylum, what lessons can be learned from the 1930s? How might we get more people to act with a sense of urgency, to reply, as Alfred Cohn did, that he was borrowing trouble because “there’s nothing else to borrow.... As long as I can, I mean to help”?
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.