Opinion |

America's Shameful Betrayal of Europe’s Desperate Jewish Academics in the Holocaust

‘I beg you very much to help me if possible to emigrate very soon’: The wrenching appeals of Jewish scholars under Nazi rule – and how the American academy’s anti-Semitism, sexism and apathy condemned them to death

Laurel Leff
Laurel Leff
Leonore Brecher (front row) with other researchers at the Institute of Experimental Biology in Vienna, 1923. Hans Przibram, the Institute's founder, is to her left in the dark suit. From the book ‘Well Worth Saving,’ courtesy of Hans Przibram’s family
Leonore Brecher (front row) with researchers at Vienna's Institute of Experimental Biology, 1923. Institute founder Hans Przibram is to her left. From the book 'Well Worth Saving’ Credit: Photographer unknown, courtesy Przibram family
Laurel Leff
Laurel Leff

Within days of Germany annexing Austria in March 1938, biologist Leonore Brecher was fired from her position at Vienna’s famed Institute for Experimental Biology. She was dismissed along with 15 other Jewish employees, who made up half the staff including its founder and director and all its department heads.

The 52-year-old Brecher, who studied the environmental and hereditary factors that produce color changes in the cabbage white butterfly, knew her only hope was to immigrate as a scholar to either Great Britain or, better yet, the United States. Born in Rumania, she couldn’t expect to enter under the American quota for her home country, which stood at just 603 people a year. Brecher, however, had another avenue of escape.

Section 4(d) of the 1924 immigration law provided non-quota visas to those who were professors at institutions of higher learning abroad and who planned to continue their vocation of professor in the United States. There was no limit on the number of professors who could be admitted. But the State Department interpreted 4(d) to require an immigrant to have a job offer from an American university to obtain a non-quota visa.

So Brecher wrote to every organization, colleague, friend, and acquaintance she could think of to help her obtain an American university position. She was not alone. From 1933 until immigration basically ended in 1942, thousands of desperate scholars - the vast majority of whom were Jewish or of Jewish descent - besieged American universities. Some universities made offers to refugee scholars, but many more did not. Even with an offer in hand, the State Department often found other grounds upon which to deny visas.

Prior to the 1938 Anschluss, long lines formed from dawn outside the US embassy in Vienna, as desperate Jews sought visas to escape the Nazis. From the book ‘Well Worth Saving’ Credit: Photographer unknown,courtesy USHMM archive

All told, only 944 professors from Europe received non-quota visas between 1933 and 1941. It is hard to estimate accurately how many scholars sought to immigrate – or rather, how many sought to survive. As one measure, the primary American committee to help rescue European scholars, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, received over 6,000 appeals and ended up supporting just 335 scholars.

This reality challenges the popular and scholarly narrative that America saved Europe’s intellectual elite from the Holocaust. The United States did indeed welcome Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse, Rudolf Carnap and Richard Courant.

But a welcoming America is only part of the story. The other part, the more common part, is reflected in Leonore Brecher’s experience as a dedicated biologist hampered by her age, her gender and her religion. "We cannot aid everybody, only the most prominent and gifted – the more’s the pity," wrote Alfred Cohn, an Emergency Committee founder. "About the rest and their fate, we have no plan, as yet."

At the time Brecher was fired, the years-long German Jewish refugee problem was becoming an international crisis. Over the next two years, Germany would seize or ally with most countries in Europe, endangering the Jews who lived there and those who had fled there. The emigration stampede that ensued made non-quota visas particularly precious.

Like many displaced scholars, Brecher pinned her hopes for obtaining one on the Emergency Committee, which had been formed in New York in 1933. It wasn’t her first contact with the committee. In fact, being fired from the Institute for Experimental Biology wasn’t her first loss of a job for "racial" reasons.

Having been denied a professorship at the University of Vienna in 1926 for anti-Semitic and sexist reasons, Brecher had been pushed into a peripatetic research career. In 1933, she had been working in a University of Kiel laboratory when its Jewish director was fired and the lab was shut down.

Without any way to support herself (her parents had died before she was 20 and she had almost no other family), Brecher turned to the committee and to a board member, Leslie Dunn, head of Columbia University’s zoology department. Brecher had worked with Dunn in a Berlin lab in the late 1920s and, in 1930, he had offered her a temporary position in his Columbia lab.

But after she lost the Kiel post, Dunn wasn’t encouraging. He seemed perturbed that she had failed to obtain the visitor’s visa necessary to assume the Columbia position, and irritated that she wrote meandering letters that could go on for 27 handwritten pages.

Rather than heading to the United States as she had desired, Brecher returned to Vienna. Her thesis advisor, Hans Przibram, the biology institute’s founder and director, allowed her to sleep in the institute and serve as his assistant. Within a few years, she was able to resume her research. And then German troops marched into Austria.

Brecher again beseeched the Emergency Committee, and Dunn personally, this time with greater urgency. "I would be happy in the most modest conditions of living," she wrote in June 1938. Dunn made one attempt to find her a position, but the scientist he contacted replied: "Things do not look too hopeful for her and for many others in Austria." Dunn took no more actions on Brecher’s behalf.

April 9th, 1938: Brecher asks for help after the Anschluss. She and 15 other Jews were fired from the Institute; she has 'no means of subsistence.' From the book ‘Well Worth Saving’ Credit: Courtesy AAUW archives

In Vienna, conditions grew worse. In 1939, the Reich government shut down Jewish businesses and shipped thousands of Jews to Buchenwald and to a "reservation" near Lublin, Poland. Brecher approached the American Association of University Women. The AAUW had awarded her a fellowship in 1924.

Robert Sims, a New York friend, tried to convey to the AAUW Brecher’s plight. "Miss Brecher is condemned to perish if some outside help is not given very soon," Sims wrote in November 1939. "Hope you will try and help Miss Brecher as she hasn’t any one in the World to help her and the situation is precarious." Sims wrote a similar letter the same day to the Emergency Committee, which prompted the committee’s assistant director, Betty Drury, to respond that the organization had known about Brecher "for many years." But "there seems to be nothing at the present time that we can do to help Dr. Brecher."

Laurel Leff: "Well Worth Saving: American Universities' Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe" (Yale University Press, December 2019)

With a quota number of 3,749 (a wait of more than six years for the Rumanian-born), Brecher knew a non-quota visa was her only hope. But as the need for non-quota visas grew, U.S. universities extended fewer offers. Some administrators argued that adding any more Jews to U.S. faculties would provoke a backlash.

Scholars who were world-class and well-connected found positions, but "the run of the mine," as one academic put it, "have to take their chances like the run of the mine anywhere in the world."

Besides being "run of the mine," Brecher also was nearing the age that many considered too old. (The cutoff was 55 though it was not a hard and fast rule.) And Brecher was Jewish, unlike some displaced scholars who were "non-Aryans," having only Jewish ancestry. Many U.S. universities, such as Dartmouth College, wouldn’t consider anyone "too obviously Jewish," and some, such as Hamilton College in New York, explicitly insisted on "Aryans."

No U.S. university has been called to account - or has voluntarily apologized - for its actions during this period.

Brecher had the additional disadvantage of being a woman. American universities rarely hired women as professors, foreign or not.

Brecher might have been able to get a U.S. job as a researcher but universities hesitated to hire foreign researchers because they might not get a non-quota visa. The State Department interpreted 4(d) to exclude researchers; only classroom teachers qualified. So in an exquisite Catch 22, Brecher might have been able to get an American position as a researcher - but then she wouldn’t have qualified for a non-quota visa.

In February 1940, Brecher described her predicament to the AAUW’s Esther Caulkin Brunauer: "But as I am not in a position to go forward with my research work so long as I am here and as I am not in a position to support myself where I am and cannot wait my quota number here, I was applying to you to help me to come as soon as possible to the United States."

Brecher also contacted the Emergency Committee, sending a six-page, handwritten letter that described her research and ended with a plea: "I beg you very much to help me to come very soon to the United States, because it is very urgent for me."

‘I beg you very much to help me if possible to emigrate very soon’: In a desperate letter from 1941, Brecher tries again to get a U.S. non-quota visa. From the book ‘Well Worth Saving’ Credit: Courtesy AAUW archives

The Emergency Committee’s assistant director Drury turned to board member Dunn. But Dunn responded that he had already done whatever he could for Brecher, attributing her difficulties to her "personality," though she was "an indefatigable worker." Drury then wrote Brecher: "I am exceedingly sorry that there is practically nothing we can do to assist you."

Brecher fixed all her remaining hope on the AAUW’s Brunauer. While the Emergency Committee thought Brecher’s problem was that no university was willing to hire her, Brunauer thought it was her having "not been in a teaching position." Brecher tried to remedy that.

She provided the AAUW with a testimonial from the institute’s Przibram stating that she had conducted courses in experimental zoology. "Professor Przibram writes that he hopes it will serve me to obtain a non-quota visa," Brecher explained in September 1941.

It didn’t. On October 15, 1941, the first systematic deportation of Jews from Vienna to Poland began. Ten days later, the AAUW’s contact in Switzerland sent Brunauer a cable that read: "brecher in greatest danger deportation." Knowing she needed to leave immediately, Brecher asked Brunauer to contact the State Department so she could obtain a transit visa to Spain or a tourist visa to Cuba. "It is now very urgent for me to emigrate," Brecher wrote to Brunauer in November 1941. A few more letters from Brecher arrived focusing on the Cuban tourist visa. Then silence.

A grove of memorial trees at the site of the Maly Trostenets death camp in Belarus. Of the 65,000 Jews killed at the camp, 10,000 were Jews from AustriaCredit: wikimedia

On September 14, 1942, Brecher boarded a train at Vienna’s Aspangbahnhof station at 7:08 p.m. along with about 1,000 other Jews. She was prisoner 703 on transport 41. Two days later, the deportees were transferred to freight cars at the main train station in Wolkowysk. They arrived at 4:30 a.m. at Maly Trostinec, an extermination camp in Belarus on the outskirts of Minsk. Only 17 Viennese Jews are known to have survived Maly Trostinec.

The 55-year-old Brecher was almost certainly among the Jews herded immediately to the open pits in the nearby forest and shot to death.

Laurel Leff is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Associate Director of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Her most recent book is Well Worth Saving: American Universities' Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe (Yale University Press, December 2019)

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