German Jewish Academics and the Land of the Free

Review of Laurel Leff’s Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life and Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Germany

Published by Yale University Press 2019, pp.357

To be hired by an American university, a refugee scholar (from Nazism) had to be world-class and well connected, not too old and not too young, not too right and not too left, and most important of all, not too Jewish.

Laurel Leff’s succinct description of the cold, unspoken process by which many German Jewish academics were failed by the land of the free confronts the reader from the very beginning.

She points out that we tend to look at the Einsteins and Arendts, who were welcomed rather than remembering those whose escape route was blocked.

While some scholars in the US did their utmost to secure invitations and posts for their beleaguered colleagues, others feared competition.

Many departments implemented an unofficial “one Jew policy”. Aided by the State Department’s obfuscation in changing regulations and the demands of pedantic university bureaucrats, both before and after the US’s entry into the war, the plight of German Jewish academics was never considered by many to be a matter of life and death.

The Rockefeller Foundation tended to reject Jews with Communist sympathies. A. Lawrence Lowell, the Harvard president in 1933 believed that “where Jews become numerous, they drive off other people and then leave themselves”. He had already dismantled the university’s Semitics department and attempted to introduce a quota for Jews.

Interestingly, Laurel Leff reports that British scholars demonstrated “a much greater commitment and solidarity than their American colleagues”. Foundations considered whether an academic was important enough and worthy of joining an illustrious institution — and then graded them. As the title of the book implies, not everyone was ‘well worth saving’.

Princeton rejected women. George Washington University was advised not to hire Edward Teller, subsequently ‘the Father of the Hydrogen bomb’. After Dunkirk in 1940, a Rockefeller Foundation official argued that with Britain in danger of being overrun, it might be a good idea ‘to shop for the best 100 minds’ in the UK.

In their anguish, some Jewish scholars pleaded that they were willing to be baptised – American universities seemed to be much more receptive than their Nazi counterparts to converted Jews. American colleagues, looking for ways to help, altered their language of recommendation in references to indicate how “Aryan” a particular German Jew looked — someone who was “not at all of the disagreeable type”.

Leff illustrates this situation by following the odysseys of eight academics. Hedwig Kohn finally gained entry to Sweden, took the Trans-Siberian express, reached Japan and then the US. Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, tried to save Simon and Helena Syrkus who miraculously survived the camps and became eminent architects afterwards in Communist Poland.

Many however “disappeared”, leaving no trace, others committed suicide. A thought-provoking book — collaboration takes many forms.

Jewish Chronicle 27 March 2020

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