Laurel Leff, Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies, on an American “Crisis of Conscience” During the Holocaust

While researching my book on The New York Times’ contemporaneous coverage of the Holocaust, I visited libraries and historical societies seeking correspondence between Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and other luminaires. Like Sulzberger, many of his correspondents in the 1930s and 1940s were members of the American Jewish elite: writer Edna Ferber, diplomat Laurence Steinhardt, FDR adviser Sam Rosenman, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Among crumbling newspaper clippings, marked-up book drafts, yellowing receipts, and faded photographs, I invariably discovered in each of these collections a folder with the word “refugees” scrawled on the top. Inside were letters, hundreds of letters, from friends, relatives, even strangers pleading with Ferber or Steinhardt or Rosenman or Frankfurter to help them escape Nazi Germany. I had found similar folders stuffed with frantic entreaties from Sulzberger’s German relatives in The New York Times Co. Archives. Sometimes, not always, there were letters going in the other direction, with promises to help secure the all-important affidavit, or dismissals for lack of time, money or interest.

Upon finding these folders filled with desperation, it occurred to me that this story about the American response to the Holocaust had not been fully told. Of course, scholars have probed the U.S. government’s refusal to open the immigration gates, examining decisions made by Roosevelt and his top advisers, State Department officials, and members of Congress. The American Jewish community’s ambivalent stance toward advocating publicly on behalf of their European brethren also has been explored. Academic articles, popular books and movies have chronicled the intellectual migration of scientists, scholars, musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers to the United States. Yet little of this literature looks at the choices faced by individual American citizens and private institutions in what I have come to consider a crisis of conscience. How did academics decide which scholars to hire knowing that a university’s offer of a position would allow the refugee to immigrate outside of strict quotas? How did American journalists, lawyers and doctors react when their European colleagues were banished from their professions and sought to escape the continent? How did prominent American Jews respond to pleas to save the lives of people they had never met understanding that it would require considerable financial and personal capital? I decided to find out.

The quest has taken me to many more libraries in Minneapolis, Albany, New York, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Tarrytown, Cincinnati, Northampton, and London. It has led me to university archives that record faculty debates over whether a European scholar could be considered “world class” and therefore worthy of hiring and ultimately saving. It has taken me to the minutes of professional meetings as doctors grappled with the potential threat to their livelihoods posed by an influx of refugee physicians. It has taken me to the papers of journalists and journalism school deans who for professional and personal reasons didn’t see any special obligation to help their European colleagues. It has taken me to the personal anguish of playwright and novelist Edna Ferber who wanted to help her German relatives yet came to realize the investment of time, money and emotion was just too great. Ultimately it will take me to the writing of a book that I hope will serve as an antidote to the triumphalist tale often told about the United States’ role in saving European refugees. For every persecuted intellectual America saved many more tried to escape and could not. The book will tell this story through the lens of one institution, Harvard University, which offered more jobs to European intellectuals than any other, but in relatively small numbers and only after intense battles. The book, tentatively titled, Publish or Perish: Harvard University and the Hiring of Refugee Scholars from Hitler’s Europe, would describe those fights, with several faculty members trying to help European refugees, as others, most significantly Harvard’s president, opposing them. The book also would describe what happened to some of the European intellectuals Harvard ultimately was not willing to hire, moving between their increasingly desperate efforts and the increasingly hostile response.

The letters they and so many others wrote at the time may not have been answered then but they deserve to be acknowledged now.

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