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How, and why, some Jewish scholars were left behind

Annual Commemoration part of Northeastern Holocaust Awareness Week programming
April 9th, 2013

During the 1930s and early 1940s, fac­ulty posi­tions offered by Amer­ican uni­ver­si­ties served as one of the few life­lines for hun­dreds of thou­sands of scholars trying to flee war-​​torn Europe to escape per­se­cu­tion. Yet far too often, the uni­ver­si­ties didn’t do enough to save these refugees and even offered chill­ingly dis­mis­sive rea­sons for not doing so, according to Laurel Leff, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the School of Jour­nalism and the Bernard A. Stotsky Pro­fessor of Jewish His­tor­ical and Cul­tural Studies at Northeastern.

Leff deliv­ered the keynote address Monday morning at the annual North­eastern Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion, held in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater. This year, the event was also part of a new edu­ca­tional series on civic sus­tain­ability—Con­flict. Civility. Respect. Peace. North­eastern Reflects.”—pre­sented by the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties with the Office of Stu­dent Affairs. The North­eastern Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion was the first in a series of events for Holo­caust Aware­ness Week.

“The United States’ role in saving Europe’s intel­lec­tual elite from the Nazis is often told as a tri­umphalist tale,” Leff said. “But in many ways, it is not a tale of tri­umph because for every per­se­cuted intel­lec­tual we saved, many more tried to escape but couldn’t.”

Six mil­lion Jews were killed during the Holo­caust, and Leff said that very little atten­tion has been paid to exploring why so many couldn’t escape. She called the refugee crisis “the cen­tral moral dilemma of the 1930s and the early 1940s.” She is a former news­paper reporter whose book Buried by The Times: The Holo­caust and America’s Most Impor­tant News­paper was pub­lished in 2005.

Leff’s talk focused on Amer­ican uni­ver­si­ties not only because they could cir­cum­vent immi­gra­tion quotas by offering refugees fac­ulty posi­tions, but also because aca­d­e­mics and pro­fes­sionals were among the first to be dis­placed by the Nazi regime. In addi­tion, she said Amer­ican aca­d­emic elites had the strongest ties to Europe and there­fore a better under­standing of the problem.

Refugee pro­fes­sors typ­i­cally received two-​​year appoint­ments at Amer­ican uni­ver­si­ties, and those posi­tions were funded by out­side orga­ni­za­tions. Leff said uni­ver­si­ties largely viewed the deci­sion to save refugees as strictly a hiring job appli­ca­tion process, and they based their deci­sions on a range of cri­teria. Intel­lec­tual elites were the ones pri­marily offered fac­ulty posi­tions. In the uni­ver­si­ties’ defense, Leff acknowl­edged that many were wor­ried about how they would pay these pro­fes­sors once those terms expired, par­tic­u­larly in the eco­nomic cli­mate fol­lowing the Great Depression.

How­ever, Leff said her research uncov­ered wide­spread anti-​​Semitic sen­ti­ment and some chilling lan­guage in let­ters, memos, writ­ings, and other records related to the dis­missals of Jewish pro­fes­sors. Phrases like “too Jewish,” “run of the mill,” “mediocre,” and “not first rate” were reg­u­larly used when making hiring choices. Leff cited numerous exam­ples from East Coast universities—including Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, Dart­mouth Col­lege, and Boston University.

Leff also cited an example from North­eastern that ref­er­enced a memo from then soon to be pres­i­dent Carl S. Ell, who was weighing whether to hire a Jewish pro­fessor from Hun­gary. The two had a 90-​​minute con­ver­sa­tion, fol­lowing which Ell wrote a note to file in which he made anti-​​Semitic com­ments and ques­tioned the value the scholar could bring to Northeastern.

The memo was dis­cov­ered in Northeastern’s library archives fol­lowing Leff’s request during her research. When the finding first came to light, Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun imme­di­ately requested the entire archives be mined for other exam­ples of prej­u­dice. This work has been under­taken by William Wakeling, dean of Uni­ver­sity Libraries, and Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of His­tory William Fowler.

After the pre­sen­ta­tion, Aoun praised Leff for the rigor of her research and under­scored the impor­tance of trans­parency on the issue. Aoun added that the Ell note serves as an indi­vidual example of what the Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion is all about—“making sure that we never, ever forget.”

In Feb­ruary, Aoun announced the for­ma­tion of the Pres­i­den­tial Council on Inclu­sion and Diver­sity, which has been fol­lowed by the year­long series “Con­flict. Civility. Respect. Peace. North­eastern Reflects.” He said Monday’s Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion con­tinued the growing dia­logue on campus.

Prior to Leff’s keynote address, Lori Lefkovitz, Rud­erman Pro­fessor, director of the Jewish Studies pro­gram, and a pro­fessor of Eng­lish, intro­duced the day’s stu­dent speaker: Heather Viola. A third-​​year inter­na­tional affairs and human ser­vices com­bined major with a minor in Jewish Studies, Viola received the 2012–13 Gideon Klein schol­ar­ship, which sup­ports a stu­dent exploring the work of a Jewish artist or musi­cian per­se­cuted by the Nazis.

Viola opened her talk by beau­ti­fully singing in German the lul­laby “Wie­gala,” orig­i­nally com­posed by Ilse Weber. Weber and her family were deported to Terezin, a con­cen­tra­tion camp in the hills out­side Prague. There, she became a nurse and con­tinued to write new songs to inspire, teach, and nur­ture the thou­sands of chil­dren who were sent there. Through her research, Viola explained how she became fas­ci­nated with Terezin’s his­tory and the role music played in the lives of detainees—one of whom was Gideon Klein himself.

“[Music] was the tool through which people expe­ri­enced and sur­vived their reality,” said Viola, who is a soprano in the North­eastern Choral Society and the Zamir Chorale of Boston. Music, she explained, is a means of con­necting with her own spir­i­tu­ality and religion.

Holo­caust Aware­ness Week pro­gram­ming con­tinued Monday after­noon with the 21st Annual Robert Salomon Morton Lec­ture by author Daniel Mendel­sohn. An award-​​winning writer, he penned the 2006 best­seller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Mil­lion fol­lowing years of research into the his­tory of six of his rel­a­tives in Poland. Mendelsohn’s talk explored that his­tory, and how over the years, some of the details he’s received first­hand and from written doc­u­men­ta­tion and sur­vivor inter­views have changed the narrative.

With respect to the Holo­caust, he called this a “hinge moment”—at which point an event is in the process of passing from the lived expe­ri­ence con­tained in the living mem­o­ries of the par­tic­i­pants into recorded his­tory. In other words, from oral nar­ra­tive into written documentation.

“This moment that we live in now is of course that moment … when the last sur­vivors and wit­nesses are dis­ap­pearing, and there­fore that moment when their sto­ries are grad­u­ally changing hands and becoming the pos­ses­sion of people like me, who track those sur­vivors down and pre­serve those sto­ries for other people,” Mendel­sohn told an audi­ence gath­ered in the audi­to­rium of 20 West Vil­lage F.

Holo­caust Aware­ness Week pro­gram­ming con­tinues Tuesday at noon in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater, where author Matthew Brzezinski will dis­cuss the myth of pas­sivity during the Holo­caust by showing that resis­tance was far more wide­spread than is gen­er­ally acknowledged.

Visit the North­eastern Human­i­ties Center web­site for more details about the all the Holo­caust Aware­ness Week pro­gram­ming.

by Greg St. Martin


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