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.