Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees From Nazi Europe
By Laurel Leff
Yale. 357 pp. $28
Reviewed by Michael S. Roth
In higher education today we argue whether safe-enough spaces provide the security to allow students to explore new ways of thinking or if these environments just spoil already overprotected children. In the years before World War II, the question for universities was one of life-and-death proportions: Would higher education save the lives of scholars likely to be murdered by their own government?
In the 1930s, higher education was more segregated by gender, race, and religion than in our time, and its “old boys network” was even tighter. Americans were struggling through an economic depression, especially in the first half of the decade, and many watched the rise of European fascism and Nazism with increasing trepidation. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, and soon afterward the Nazi Party took steps to “Aryanize” the universities. Jews fled if they were able to, but where could they go? By 1938, Austrian and Czech schools, libraries, and research centers were also being “purified,” and a year later the Nazi war machine threatened the entire continent. Thousands of academics, like millions of other threatened people, desperately hoped to escape to the New World — any world other than the one that was being constructed according to the dictates of the Führer.
The story of refugees from Nazi Europe has been told many times, but Laurel Leff’s focused, well-researched book sheds new light on part of it: how academic refugees struggled to find safety in the American university system. Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees From Nazi Europe explores the fates of individual scholars and teachers as they tried to find the money, the sponsors and the academic posts that would get them the visas they needed to escape the Nazi killing machine. It probably goes without saying that most of them never made it.
There were two main paths for those who wanted to emigrate to the United States from Germany. Hundreds of thousands applied for the small quota of visas available, but that usually meant waiting years for the opportunity to escape. Many professors tried another path. They had to show they had been teaching at a university for two years before leaving and that they had a secure job waiting for them in America. If a university committed to hiring the professor, that school could get that person (and some family members) to safety. There were many who worked tirelessly to persuade college and university presidents to make room for these desperate refugees. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, raised funds to pay passage and salaries. Still, only a fraction were saved: Fewer than 1,000 academics received non-quota visas between 1933 and the outbreak of World War II.
Leff turned to this subject because she thought that the saving of some had led to a “myth of a welcoming American academy.” Famous scientists and writers who managed to escape the Nazis have dominated the story, and Well Worth Saving offers a corrective to the myth by emphasizing the plight of the many who struggled and often failed to secure a post. “Those who survive calamitous events shape the history of the period,” she writes, “while the dead too often are forgotten.” Leff’s book is an act of troubling remembrance.
While American universities certainly had problems of their own in the 1930s, they also faced competition in saving scholars, with the wealthiest schools wanting only the best. "Refugee scholars had to be world class and well connected and working in disciplines for which the American academy had a recognizable need," Leff writes. The notion of what was best, however, was subject to the usual prejudices. "They could not be too old or too young, too right or too left, or, most important, too Jewish," she explains. "Having money helped; being a woman did not."
Legendary Harvard President James Conant was in this regard unexceptional, if horribly parochial: "A deluge of medium and good men of the Jewish race in scientific positions (age 40 or thereabouts) would do a lot of harm," he observed, adding, "There may be a scrap of comfort in the fact that Yale is taking exactly the same attitude as we are." A scrap of comfort, but for whom? It wasn't just the Ivies, of course. If colleges across the country "did not ban Jews outright, many departments had an informal 'one-Jew rule.' Hiring a refugee scholar would upset that balance." Williams College, she notes, wouldn't even go that far.
Leff's accounts of individual academics are especially moving because the reader gets a sense of the very particular, and very brutal, paths of dehumanization they experienced. There are female scientists who heroically continued their research even as they waited for visas that would never come, and itinerant musicologists who seemed to have kept their will to live by maintaining their deep investigations of sonic patterns. All around them was the noise of hatred and violence, and as Jews they felt that violence closing in. Would America offer them a new start, or would they find themselves in a cattle car, on their way to death? More often than not, their fate was deportation and murder.
As a historian, a Jew and a university president, I read this book with growing sadness. A few years ago, I was approached by Scholars at Risk, one of today's heroic agencies supporting academic refugees. We were able to welcome a refugee Syrian professor to Wesleyan University, and this helped him launch an American academic career. But as a university, could we have done more? Catherine Rampell recently wrote in The Washington Post that the United States in October accepted no new legal refugees. As a nation, could we do less?
Perhaps Leff's book will remind academic leaders today that we have a responsibility to sound the alarm about America's disastrous, cruel policies toward refugees from around the world. We can become advocates nationally for the inclusion we prize on campus. There are so many well worth saving, if only we paid attention to their plight.