WWII’s Refugee Academics and the Myth of a Welcoming American Academy

Nazis Blocking University


In 1940, Princeton professor Rudolf Ladenburg received an urgent telegram: His student Hedwig Kohn, a Jewish physicist formerly at the University of Breslau (today, Wrocław, Poland), was in grave danger. She had managed to flee to Sweden but had no exit visa and would soon be forced to return home, where she faced almost certain death. Her best means of escape was to obtain a visiting professorship in the United States. If an American institution agreed to employ her, Kohn would qualify for a special visa granting her legal passage out of Sweden. Kohn’s friends implored Ladenburg to do all that he could to secure her a teaching post.

Soon after receiving the telegram, Ladenburg sprang into action: He contacted Esther Caukin Brunauer of the American Association of University Women, who dispatched a flurry of letters to the presidents of Sweet Briar, Vassar, Goucher, Wellesley, Sarah Lawrence, Connecticut College, and the New Jersey College for Women. Would any of them agree to hire Kohn? she asked. Would any of them save her life? Brunauer urged the presidents to reply immediately: “The time is very short.”

By 1940, the leaders of American universities and colleges would have become inured to such dire pleas. The 1924 Immigration Restriction Act had made it possible for foreign professors with proof of an American job offer eligible to receive a rare “non-quota” visa, which was not subject to the United States’ strict country-by-country immigration limits. This provision gave the American academy an outsize power to save Jewish refugees, and during the 1930s and ’40s, thousands of Jewish scholars in Nazi-occupied Europe begged their American colleagues for positions as a golden ticket to freedom.

In principle, there was no cap on how many “non-quota” visas could be granted per year. In practice, however, there could be a hard cap on American empathy, as recounted in Laurel Leff’s Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees From Nazi Europe. As this brisk and chilling account of the American academy’s response to the Holocaust reveals, from 1933 to 1941 (the year most emigration from Europe ended), a startingly low number of professors received “non-quota” visas: Only 944, or fewer than 150 per year, not counting those given to their children and spouses. For every academic like Ladenburg or Brunauer seeking to help Jewish refugee scholars, Leff shows that there were thousands more professors and administrators unmoved by their suffering. In telling the forgotten story of their inaction in the face of Nazism, Well Worth Saving issues a stark reminder of just how deeply rooted intolerance and xenophobia are in American society, lurking in even its most supposedly enlightened corners.

If you, like me, believed that Jewish scholars were largely embraced by the American academy during the 1930s and ’40s, that is because you, like me, are familiar with the people whose biographies buoy this triumphant narrative—people like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, and Herbert Marcuse. All arrived in the United States during this period; all were accepted here and went on to leave indelible marks upon their fields.


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