Friday, January 3, 2020

Laurel Leff's "Well Worth Saving"

Laurel Leff is associate director of the Jewish Studies Program and associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. She is the author of Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper.

Leff applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe, and reported the following:
Page 99 comes at the end of Chapter 5, “Age, Politics, Gender and Money.” Those are all criteria that U.S. universities used in deciding which of the thousands of scholars fleeing Nazi Europe were worth hiring and thus worth saving from the horrors of first persecution and then annihilation. Page 99 focuses on the money part, providing examples of scholars who received university appointments because someone else was willing to pay their salaries. Physicist Arthur von Hippel joined the MIT faculty because businessman Carl Boschwitz contributed $1,500 of Hippel’s $3,000 salary (the equivalent of $55,000 in today’s dollars). Arthur Korn assumed a position at the Stevens Institute of Technology when Pioneer Instrument Company founder Charles Colvin gave $2,400 for his first-year salary. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau quietly offered to pay $600 a year to an American institution willing to hire his friend, astronomer E. Finlay Freundlich. Freundlich had been dismissed from Berlin’s Einstein-Institut in 1933, left the increasingly inhospitable University of Istanbul in 1937, and fled German University in Prague as the Germans moved in in 1939. Freundlich ended up taking a job at St. Andrews in Scotland and not needing Morgenthau’s money. A financial commitment without a university appointment did not work, however. American Cyanamid Company agreed to transport microbiologist Ludwig Hirszfeld, his wife and daughter out of Warsaw in 1940. Despite serious efforts, a university appointment wasn’t forthcoming. Hirszfeld and his family were trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Page 99 of Well Worth Saving doesn’t quite pass the test, but it doesn’t fail either. It hits on a central theme of my book – that the American academy’s decisions about whom to hire weren’t meritocratic. Despite the assumption implicit in the voluminous intellectual migration literature that “all the good ones” got out, thousands more scholars sought to escape Nazi Europe than found refuge in the United States. The ones who obtained American university jobs tended to be, as other chapters describe, world class and well connected and working in disciplines for which the American academy had a recognized need. They could not be too old or too young, too right or too left, or most important, too Jewish. Having money helped (as Page 99 shows); being a women did not.

The examples on Page 99 illuminate just one criteria and are not even its most poignant or unsettling representations. For that, the reader would need to flip ahead to encounter University of Groningen philosophy professor Leonard Polak, whose wealthy fragrance manufacturing family believed it had secured him a position at the New School for Social Research by paying his $2,500 annual salary. The New School made the offer that enabled Polak to qualify for a non-quota visa for himself, his wife, and his minor daughter. The New School accepted his two older daughters as students, whose tuition the fragrance company also paid, making them eligible for student visas. The reader later learns the Polaks’ immigration did not work out as planned, largely because of the U.S. State Department. That points to another failing of Page 99; it doesn’t describe the State Department’s essential role in denying non-quota visas to professors, even though there was no cap on how many could be issued. Finally, Page 99 misses a critical element of Well Worth Saving’s narrative structure, which is to chronicle the struggles of eight scholars in particular. The eight are introduced in the Introduction, and then emerge in subsequent chapters as they are fired from their positions for being Jewish or non-Aryan; make frantic attempts to find American university jobs; flee only to find themselves in countries Germany seizes; try to head off impending deportations to Poland; and meet their ultimate fate. These eight scholars are nowhere to be found on Page 99.
Learn more about Well Worth Saving at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue