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Professors uncover lost stories of WWII refugee-scholars

Some of the greatest scientists of our time came to the U.S. as migrants or refugees during World War II—Albert Einstein, Hans Bethe, and Rita Levi-Montalcini all fled the growing influence of the Nazi party and wound up making groundbreaking contributions to their fields while in the U.S. But what about the scholars whose work we might never know because they didn’t reach U.S. shores?

Those are the stories an interdisciplinary group of Northeastern faculty members—Laurel Leff, Michelle Borkin, and John Wihbey—sought to tell when they started digging through migration records at the New York Public Library. They, along with several Northeastern students, pored over the files of nearly 5,000 scholars seeking refuge in the U.S. during World War II—a quest that was met with varying degrees of success for each of them.

“As a researcher thinking about these past generations of academics, I wanted to help solve a mystery and recover these lost stories,” said Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism.

The result is the Refugee Scholars project, a digital database and data storytelling platform that follows the lives of dozens of these scholars.

The New York Times and German-Jewish immigration

Leff, associate professor of journalism and associate director of Jewish studies, is a journalist and a scholar of the American response to the Holocaust, particularly the media coverage.

In the course of her earlier research, Leff came across World War II-era letters to the Sulzberger and Ochs families, members of which owned—and still own—The New York Times. In particular, the letters were from family, friends, or acquaintances still in Germany in the 1930s, writing to the Sulzbergers and Ochs in America for help immigrating to the U.S.

“Reading those got me interested in what it was like to live in the U.S. in the ’30s and ’40s, when all of these calamitous events were happening in Europe,” said Leff, associate director of the Jewish Studies Program in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Often, those fleeing Germany with connections in the U.S. would write to those American relatives for a formal affidavit—a document that would attest to the U.S. State Department that they would support the refugees once they were in the U.S. The affidavit also proved that the U.S. relative had the financial resources to do so.

The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted into the country from every other country, though this wasn’t enforced until 1933, making the affidavit all the more crucial.

There was a built-in provision though: foreign professors and religious ministers who intended to practice their profession in the U.S. could be granted a non-quota visa, which didn’t count against the immigration limit imposed by their country.

German-Jewish professors flee

The Nazi party came to power in Germany in January 1933. By April, no one of Jewish descent could work for the state, Leff explained.

“At the time, all universities were state-run, so Jewish professors were among the first to be purged in Germany,” she said. “This was also a group that had a lot of contacts in the U.S.—German universities were considered some of the best in the world, and they sent a lot of people to the U.S. for fellowships—which made it a natural migration connection.”

Thus the U.S. Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars was born, also in 1933. The goal of the committee was to help Nazi-persecuted scholars find employment at U.S. universities. Edward R. Murrow, who would go on to an illustrious career as a journalist at CBS, helped lead the effort of the Emergency Committee as its assistant director.

Letters from displaced scholars requesting assistance flooded in. They included requests from scholars such as Kurt Lewin, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Tillich, and others whose research would later make massive impacts in science at large.

The letters, curricula vitae, and other materials sent to the committee have since been archived at the New York Public Library and comprise part of the nearly 5,000 files Leff, Borkin, and Wihbey examined.

In addition to the faculty, the project team included graduate students Brittany Costello (College of Social Sciences and Humanities), Noah Lapidus (School of Law), Aditeya Pandey and Michail Schwab (College of Computer and Information Science), and undergraduate Peyton Tirnoff (College of Computer and Information Science).

From the massive archive, the Northeastern researchers winnowed down the files to focus only on female scientists and mathematicians in order to piece together their lives, their migration, and what happened next.

Who was offered grants?

“The general assumption about these scholars is that everyone who wanted to come came,” Leff said. “But we realized there were thousands of files of people who wanted to come, and the Emergency Committee only made grants to 330 people. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone else died; some got jobs on their own without the help of the committee, some went to other countries, and some came under regular visas.”

Still, the discrepancy was striking.

Of the scholars they studied, some women such as Hilda Geiringer were able to secure positions at U.S. universities and continue their research. For others, such as Leonore Brecher, an offer didn’t come quickly enough, or at all.

Challenges and charms

The Northeastern researchers wanted to illustrate all this information while telling the stories of scholars who have been lost to time. But the scattershot, primary source archives at the New York Public Library offered some special challenges.

“This was an instance where we had to figure out what was relevant, then establish some sort of uniformity in order to build a dataset that we could visualize,” Wihbey said. “When you’re doing that kind of reading, reviewing, and extraction, it’s a human-oriented task more than an automated task. There’s something really neat about having a dataset that’s not premade for you, though.”

Another challenge was geography. Since World War II, many of the addresses listed on documents in the files were destroyed, country boundaries redrawn, and city and country names changed.

Borkin, assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science is a data scientist with a background in astrophysics. She said, “This has been one of the most challenging projects I’ve worked on to date. You’re starting from the ground up with boxes of papers—how do you create some consistency in a database that includes different terms for the same city, different languages, and turn that into a digital map?”

‘We weren’t the heroes last time, but we still can be this time’

The researchers were inspired by the work of these scholars who came before them, and that feeling pushed them to uncover their stories and share them with the world.

“As a female Jewish academic, I can’t help but read through these files and connect with them,” Borkin said.

“These women were in many cases not just the first women to be academics in their fields of study, but they were also groundbreaking pioneers in their fields. It is amazing in the face of such adversity how much these women accomplished, only to have the rise of the Nazi regime and subsequent immigration challenges prove devastating. Many of their stories and recognition have been lost with time but now with this project we hope to make sure lives and accomplishments are shared,” she said.

The work also inspired her to want to tell the story of her own family, members of whom were imprisoned in concentration and labor camps or killed in extermination centers.

For each of the researchers, there’s also a more current connection to the archival information: the ongoing refugee crisis gripping the world today.

Citing the largely laudatory yet incomplete media coverage of Jewish migration during and immediately after World War II, Leff said, “As a society, we did a really good job of going into denial about our role in accepting refugees at the end of the war—it was just too painful to deal with.

“But, if we faced up to our shortcomings, we could see that we weren’t the heroes allowing in refugees last time, but we still can be this time,” she said. “We still have work to do today. I’m doing this so we don’t make the same mistakes this time.”