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How, and why, some Jewish scholars were left behind

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.

President Joseph E. Aoun speaks to the audience during the Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration in the Raytheon Amphitheater.

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.

Third-year student Heather Viola, the 2012-13 Gideon Klein Scholar, spoke at the Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration.

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.