‘Well Worth Saving’

Author discusses her book on the failure of American universities to rescue scholars seeking to flee Nazi Germany.

December 3, 2019
 

Americans like to think of Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt as typical of the Jewish scholars who fled Nazi Germany. They landed in the United States and achieved success.

But for every Einstein, there were numerous others who were turned away by the United States. Laurel Leff, associate director of the Jewish studies program and associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, tells their story in Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees From Nazi Europe (Yale University Press).

She answered questions via email about her new book.

Q: You note that many Americans like to tell the stories of the scholars who were rescued, not those turned away. How would you characterize the split in terms of numbers? Why have we failed to tell the stories of those we failed?

A: It’s difficult to get precise numbers. The immigration service didn’t keep track of quota immigration by profession. There are two numbers that I believe are helpful, even though they should be taken as indicative of the trend, not definitive. The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, the primary committee aiding refugee professors, received over 6,000 applications during the Nazi era and supported just 335 scholars. Between 1933 and 1941, when most immigration from Europe ended, only 944 people received nonquota visas under Section 4(d), the provision in the immigration law for those who had been professors abroad and planned to continue their vocation in the United States. There was no limit on the number of who could immigrate under 4(d).

Several explanations account for our failure to tell the story of the scholars who weren’t able to immigrate to the United States. First, the scholars who did arrive in the United States had a tremendous impact on American society. It is not surprising that much literature has been devoted to Albert Einstein and the other European physicists who developed the atomic bomb; Hannah Arendt and the political philosophers of the Frankfurt School; Erik Erikson and development psychologists and gestalt therapists. They, their students and their disciples produced an overwhelming body of work that contributed to the sense that the vast majority of scholars escaped -- or at least the vast majority of the important ones did.

Second, it is far more difficult to tell the story of the scholars left behind. Many of them perished, so their stories came to an end in the 1940s, leaving only wispy traces: academic articles in nondigitized 1920s journals; letters to colleagues; and names on lists of deportees and camp inmates. Third, the story of failure is not one that Americans particularly wanted to tell. The preferred narrative is of the Greatest Generation saving Western civilization, including its intellectual heritage, from the Nazi scourge. The discordant notes, whether the restrictionist immigration policy, limited rescue efforts or tight university hiring policies, tend to be overlooked.

Q: How aware were American academics of what was happening in Germany to Jewish scholars?

A: Very aware. From the first dismissals to the last deportations, professors and administrators received personal letters, association newsletters and foundation appeals. They read newspaper and academic articles on the refugee scholars’ plight. They attended conferences and meetings where the situation was discussed. American academics knew as soon as the purges of Jewish and non-Aryan scholars began in 1933 and when, later in the decade, similar purges took place in German-occupied or allied countries. They knew of the deplorable conditions under which Jews lived throughout German-dominated Europe: fired from jobs, subject to random violence and arrests, stripped of possessions and forced to live in unsanitary conditions; denied entry to parks and public transportation; and allowed to buy necessities and appear outside only during designated hours.

They knew when scholars went into hiding and when they were deported to Poland. And American academics knew what deportation almost always meant -- death in either a disease-ridden ghetto or in an extermination center. This is not to say that every faculty member who decided not to offer a refugee scholar a position knew the decision could be a death sentence, but it does mean that most everyone regularly trying to place scholars had access to this information. If they did not know, it was only because they did not bother to learn.

Q: You write about the U.S. State Department making it difficult for many refugees to flee to the U.S. Can you talk about that? What was the thinking?

A: In general, the State Department policy was to limit the number of immigrants to the United States as much as possible. Because U.S. consulates had tremendous discretion in granting visas, they were able to accomplish that goal. During the Nazi era, from 1933 to 1945, only 200,000 refugees from Nazi Europe were admitted to the United States, while about 550,000 could have been under the existing quota. State Department officials used administrative means to keep the numbers low, denying visas to those they decided would become public charges or pose a security threat. Scholars who immigrated under Section 4(d) didn’t face any numerical restrictions, but they did encounter similar discriminatory discretion. State Department officials interpreted the provision to deny nonquota visas to anyone who hadn’t been teaching continuously during the two years prior to immigration.

Most of those trying to immigrate in the mid-1930s or beyond had been fired from their positions in 1933, which meant they could not have been teaching for the previous two years. State Department officials also decided that professors had to have been classroom teachers in Europe, thus disqualifying researchers and librarians, and had to become classroom teachers once in the United States. They also limited the types of European institutions that qualified scholars to be professors, excluding Berlin’s Jewish seminary, for example. Finally, the State Department insisted that those immigrating under Section 4(d) had to have appointments at American universities waiting for them of one-year, sometimes two-year duration. The State Department’s interpretation of the law, along with the difficulty of securing an American university position, meant that fewer than 1,000 professors immigrated this way, while thousands and thousands could have.

The thinking, unfortunately, is simple. State Department officials tended to be xenophobic and anti-Semitic and had a great deal of discretion that enabled them to implement their xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Some State officials had particular antipathy for German professors whom they considered “a very different type of man from the professor in the United States in a similar position,” as Berlin consul George Messersmith wrote in 1933. State officials assumed German professors were socialists or communists and thus would indoctrinate American youth in these dangerous philosophies.

Q: You write about how American universities didn't want to hire anyone "too Jewish" or too old or too young. Can you describe how this worked?

A: Being offered a position at an American institution of higher education was essential to most refugee scholars. It meant a means of supporting themselves and continuing their research in the United States, as well as a chance at a nonquota visa (which was particularly important in 1938 and 1939, the only years the quotas were mostly or wholly filled.) But obtaining such a position was difficult. Anti-Semitism marked the American academy during this period, perhaps more than other parts of American life. Some universities wouldn’t hire Jews at all, whether citizens or foreigners, and many had a “one-Jew rule,” meaning a department could have one Jew but no more -- Jews’ clannishness meant that as soon as there was more than one, they tended to take over.

Asked to hire refugee scholars, many universities resisted. Some colleges, such as Hamilton College, insisted that they would only consider hiring “Aryans.” Others, such as Dartmouth, said they would consider a professor as long as they weren’t “too Jewish.” Because many of the scholars were “non-Aryans,” meaning they or their parents or their grandparents had converted to Christianity, or only some of their family had Jewish blood, they might be acceptable as long as they didn’t look or talk or act Jewish (everybody seemed to know what that meant). The question of who seemed Jewish occupied much of the correspondence between American universities and advocates pushing institutions to hire refugee scholars.

Universities were reluctant to hire scholars they considered too young, because they hadn’t yet established a world-class reputation and because they might compete with American scholars. They also didn’t want to hire scholars who were too old, even when they had world-class reputations. Universities assumed they wouldn’t be able to work for too long, and might not be able to teach in an American classroom at all. Yet the school would be saddled with their hefty pensions. Schools also resisted scholars based on their gender (women faced a much more difficult time) and their politics (neither communists nor fascists were desired).

Q: Your book seems timely today in a time of anti-immigrant moves in federal and some state policies. Are there lessons from this period for today?

A: This period offers the important lesson that the purported explanations for a restrictionist immigration policy -- economic displacement and national security fears -- often hide xenophobic and racist impulses. Jewish refugees were denied visas because they wouldn’t be able to support themselves in the United States or because they would work against U.S. interests. Only the flimsiest of evidence at the time supported either rationale, and neither over time turned out to be true. Yet these pretexts helped to keep hundreds of thousands of refugees from entering the United States and sentenced some of them to the most horrible of deaths.

Restrictionists might respond, perhaps under their breath, that it’s different because those were the good refugees. But that’s not what was said at the time. The most educated and sophisticated American citizens relied upon the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes (they’re all communists, or crass capitalists, or clannish, or craven individualists, or all at once) in refusing to provide visas or academic havens. Our hatred and fear of “the other” can tar any refugee.

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