The book: As the Nazi Party began to harass and murder Jewish, communist, and all “non-Aryan” peoples in the countries they controlled and captured, persecuted scholars tried desperately to leave the country by finding employment in non-Axis countries, particularly the United States. Despite the stakes, thousands were denied employment or visas due to their ethnicity, politics, age, and other factors. 

Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees From Nazi Europe (Yale University Press) is a detailed account of the lives of many refugee academics during the Holocaust who were denied entry to the U.S., and how they fought to escape from the horrors of Nazism. While some found refuge in other countries many that were spurned by the United States ultimately lost their lives.

The author: Laurel Leff ’78 is associate director of the Jewish Studies Program and associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. She is the author of Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper.

Opening lines: The telegram that landed on Princeton professor Rudolf Ladenburg’s desk on May 7, 1940, was short and to the point. If an American university did not agree to hire Hedwig Kohn right away, the former University of Breslau physics professor would be loaded onto a train and shipped to Poland. “Deportation Poland a question of weeks,” the telegram said. It came from a Swedish economist who, along with a German exile physicist, had arranged for Kohn to be able to enter neutral Sweden but only if her stay was temporary. Swedish authorities needed proof that Kohn had a job waiting for her in the United States.

For six years, Ladenburg, who was himself a German émigré, had been working to find faculty positions for Kohn, his former student, and other physicists dismissed under the Nazi regime. So far he had not had any success finding a place for Kohn. The fifty-two-year-old Kohn was still in Breslau, without any means of support. Ladenburg knew he had until mid-June or Kohn would be sent back to Poland, “and that means practically death.”

Princeton would not hire Kohn, for many reasons, starting with the fact that the university appointed only men to its faculty. So Ladenburg turned to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), whose contacts at women’s colleges seemed the best hope. As soon as she received Ladenburg’s warning, Esther Caukin Brunauer of the AAUW wrote to the presidents of seven colleges, explaining Kohn’s “urgent, if not desperate…problem,” asking for a “letter of invitation for next June,” and insisting “the time is very short.” If one of the presidents agreed to hire Kohn for the following academic year, she would be able to get an entry visa to Sweden and escape before she could be deported. On May 25, Brunauer dispatched the letters to Sweet Briar, Goucher, Connecticut College, New Jersey College for Women, Wellesley, Vassar, and Sarah Lawrence. She and Ladenburg then waited to see whether any American university would offer Kohn a faculty job, put it in writing, and save her life.

Throughout the Nazi era, American universities made many choices similar to the one that faced the seven women’s college presidents in May 1940. Should they hire scholars trying to escape Nazi-dominated Europe and thus restore their careers and ease their path to immigrating to the United States? Or should universities during a decade of economic depression allow budget and other concerns to lead them to reject the thousands of applicants banging on their doors? Those who received positions at American institutions of higher education could obtain non-quota visas that would spare them the long waiting lines, both literal and metaphoric, emerging all over Europe. Some universities made the choice to hire refugee scholars, knowing what those scholars were suffering in Europe. Immediate deportation was not always in the offing, but a life of privation and persecution certainly was. Many universities, however, did not. …

            Of the seven college presidents to whom Esther Caukin Brunauer had written in late May 1940 on behalf of Kohn, two had rose to the challenge: Meta Glass of Sweet Briar College and Mildred McAfee of Wellesley College — though the latter required considerable prodding. The day after Glass received Brunauer’s letter, she expressed her willingness to invit Kohn for the 1941-1942 academic year. “In the years I have known Miss Glass I have appreciated increasingly her combination of wisdom and human sympathy,” Brunauer wrote to Professor Ladenburg to tell him of her offer. “It is good to know that there are still people like that in the world.”

            Ladenburg and Brunauer had overcome the first obstacle to saving Kohn’ life. Many more would emerge in the coming months.

Reviews: “In this meticulously researched book, Laurel Leff recounts the dismal history of the many brilliant researchers who, unlike the Albert Einsteins and Hannah Arendts, were not rescued from the Nazis. Leff gives names, faces, and biographies to these forgotten victims of the Nazi madness. Her beautifully written book is an act of belated rescue.” – David Biale, author of Gershom Scholem