published in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Ordinary Courage: A Conversation with Laurel Leff




Laurel LeffAFTER COMPLETING HER 2005 book Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper — a chilling account of how and why The New York Times failed to cover news of Nazi atrocities against Jews on its front pages because its publisher didn’t want to appear to be championing a Jewish cause — Laurel Leff, professor of journalism and director of the Jewish Studies program at Northeastern University in Boston, promised her teenaged sons that her next book would not be so depressing. Her son Russell advised her to write about puppies, but her older son, Jason, knew better, suggesting that, if she did, she’d wind up writing about puppies in Auschwitz. 

Leff’s follow-up book, Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe (published by Yale University Press last December), is a searing look into how American universities failed to hire Jewish scholars fleeing the Holocaust. Contrary to the prevailing narrative that would have us believe that most scholars, such as Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt and Erik Erikson, readily fled Nazi Germany for the United States, the truth was darker. According to Leff’s remarkable research, only a fraction of academic refugees seeking positions at American universities managed to secure visas and evade Hitler’s murderous regime. The rest perished. 

Finding safety in the American university system in the years before World War II required a sponsor, a job offer by the university, and proof of having taught for two years prior to leaving Europe — a nearly impossible burden. Despite applications by hundreds of thousands of refugees, fewer than 1,000 academics received non-quota visas between 1933 and the outbreak of World War II. That is a staggeringly small number. 

Leff focuses on the heartbreaking stories of eight scholars, including Polish German musicologist Mieczyslaw Kolinski, who had a job offer from Northwestern University but was forced to go into hiding in Belgium, and Austrian zoologist Leonore Brecher, who was deported from Vienna to an extermination camp in Belarus and never heard from again. While some Americans tried to save colleagues via groups like the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, others did nothing, since antisemitic university officials and an obstructionist US State Department required paperwork that was impossible to complete in a war zone. 

I caught up with Leff when she was visiting Los Angeles pre-pandemic, just before everything shut down. We met at a beach café where the locals wore flip-flops and sun visors, while Leff looked every bit the East Coast academic in her pink trench coat and black suede pumps. She speaks with the rapid-fire enthusiasm of someone with a quick mind and generous spirit. Her crown of blonde curls and scholarly tortoise-shell glasses evoke a lovable Roz Chast character, one with an acerbic wit and a caustic understanding of life’s injustices. We talked about her research process, the discovery of an antisemitic letter from her university’s president in 1938, and her own family history.


JOY HOROWITZ: Your book feels so timely to me — our history of blocking Jewish refugees in the 30s reverberates with contemporary debates about immigration and asylum-seeking.

LAUREL LEFF: When the Trump administration announced last August that they were going to use the public charge clause to make it more difficult for immigrants who rely on public assistance to obtain legal status, I really couldn’t believe they were literally using the exact same tactic the US State Department used in the 1930s to keep out Jewish refugees. And again, it was “America First”! Like, do they not know what the history is? Do they not care what the history is? Or do they want us to think they can mess with us in any way they want to mess with us?

When thinking about Hitler’s rise to power, how much does his destroying media credibility in order to silence critics bring to mind Trump’s fake news” claims and his references to the press as the enemy of the people”?

I think it’s important to remember that, when it happened in Germany, it happened really fast. So, Hitler becomes chancellor in January 1933 and immediately they start putting restrictions on the press. Then, in April, they kick Jews out of any government jobs. Then there’s censorship at the post office and what you can write about. And then, in October, they take control of the press entirely with a law that says, among other things, that anyone who’s Jewish or non-Aryan or married to a Jew cannot work for the press. So, all Jewish newspapers were Aryanized and all Jewish reporters and editors were fired. Then, the next month, they took over all communications entirely — so, cinema and anything else that was left. The universities were taken over instantly. So, within a year, there’s no more freedom of thought in Germany. It’s gone …

I think that is really different. The press is still free here. It gets criticized a lot. I think if Trump could wave a magic wand and make us a police state, he would. If his ranting could get him a police state, where his opponents are arrested and the press is muzzled, he would. Part of the problem, though, is that it took him a while to put in place the people he needed to do what he wants. At the beginning, Jeff Sessions [Trump’s first Attorney General], despite being an abominable human being, still sort of believed in the rule of law. There were people there who, when Trump wanted to do stuff like that, they said no. And now they’re gone. There’s nobody there to say no. If he gets reelected, then next term he’ll move against the press. And not just in an enemy of the people sort of way. The intention is to make a substantial part of the population not believe in the press. That’s still really different from the press not being able to publish what it wants.

The area where they are most successful is the immigration stuff.

Which brings us back to your book. Let’s talk about who was considered worth saving” by universities. Though professors with university job offers weren’t subject to immigration quotas, you write that fewer than 1,000 of them received special non-quota” visas from 1933 to 1941, because they couldn’t be too old or too young, too right or too left, or, most important, too Jewish. Having money helped; being a woman did not.”

To me, what’s hardest in reading the responses from some of the university professors and presidents — and that’s why it’s called “well worth saving”: it’s as if we have to maintain quality, and if we think about the needs of particular persons, then we haven’t maintained the appropriate standards. So, the dismissal of human need is justified by maintaining some sort of intellectual standards. I have two reactions to that. One is, you’d hope we would have been more sensitive to what makes someone “worthwhile,” even in an academic sense. But the reason that some of the women didn’t get habilitation is because they were in universities run by Nazis. So, it’s not as if you can actually say, “If you jump over these obstacles, then you’re worth saving.” I think, once you recognize that, it becomes a lot easier to then also think about these issues in humanitarian terms. If you realize there’s so much that goes into what makes someone worth saving, it then becomes easier to think about what the person on the other end on that letter is going through.

In some ways, more than anything, I want people to realize what it’s like to be on the other side of that letter. What drew me to these people is that they’re trying so hard to hold it together. By that I mean not just flipping out over their circumstances, but they’re trying to get hired, right? So, they don’t want to get down on their knees and beg, because who wants to hire a professor who’s that undignified? They want to be dignified and yet at the same time they want to communicate what’s going on. Trying to do those two things simultaneously is excruciatingly hard. And I want people to try and think of themselves on both sides of the equation.

So many of the decisions among university faculty and administrators about keeping Jews out were entirely fear-based, which makes the moral courage of those who stuck their necks out to help all the more striking.

Exactly. That was really what motivated me to write this book. More than the decision of whether you hide somebody in Poland, I was looking from the perspective of people in the US who were well fed and well clothed and who were making the decisions. What do you do when you’re in the United States and you’re an editor or publisher of a newspaper or a professor who gets one of these appeals?

There are two things that are really important and that resonate in this era. One is what does it mean to have courage — especially here, it’s not superhuman courage. We can’t expect superhuman courage of everyone. Here, it’s the courage of someone who argues really hard to hire one of these refugee scholars, even if they may not be the absolute best candidate. It might get you some grief from your alumni. But really, what you’ll get is a couple of angry letters. You’re not going to be shot to death. So, who exercises that kind of courage and who doesn’t? And then the related issue to that — and I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of who the president is and this moment we’re in — is how much do we say, “If you’re afraid, it’s okay. You’re justified in doing whatever you’re doing.”

The most obvious example to me is in the immigration area. Once they got some mileage out of the public charge clause, the State Department decided, “Oh, we have another good reason to keep these refugees out, which is national security threats,” right? They could be spies, so if they come here, they’ll spy for Germany. So, a lot of the histories of this period — though they say this about the Japanese internment, too — stress that, of course, there was a war on. You had to be concerned about these threats. Now, in retrospect, we know that wasn’t the issue. But at the time they were genuinely afraid. So then, you can make these immoral decisions because you were afraid. But what did they base their fear on? And you realize, it’s nothing. Absolutely nothing.

So, it’s important to identify what it means to have courage of an ordinary sort. And it’s also important to say that, just because we’re afraid, that doesn’t mean we get to do what we want. There has to be a basis for your fear. If there’s not, it allows prejudice to take over. And that is where I can see parallels to how people are behaving now.

So, for example, Esther Caukin Brunauer would be someone who exhibited ordinary courage” when she wrote letters to seven college presidents, pleading with them to offer a faculty position to Hedwig Kohn, a 52-year-old German physics professor facing deportation to Poland, which meant certain death?

Yes. She worked for the American Association of University Women. In some ways, because she wasn’t in too exalted of a position, she didn’t have too far to fall in the way some other people did. Or, at least, she didn’t have the same level of reputation. But this wasn’t her job in any sense, and she just kept at it. And you have to admire that. Everybody else gets a little complicated. Harlow Shapley, who was the head of the Harvard Observatory, was another. For him, as a non-Jew, it was not his thing at all. But he really did take on the university administration and became a bit of a crank and a gadfly, although he didn’t lose his position. You could make yourself a pest and still be head of the Harvard Observatory, and then after the war become head of astronomy associations. Alvin Johnson at the New School was another.

I found myself especially moved by the stories of the women refugee scholars. 

You can see the sacrifices they made. That’s why they weren’t married or taking care of an aging parent. To set out on this path of doing academic work at a time when women were not encouraged to do that had to take incredible determination. You do that and then realize that, not only because you’re a woman but because you’re a Jew, you probably won’t have the career you deserved — and you’ll be murdered. I mean, that’s a crass and hard way to put it. But you kind of see it dawning on them. You can see them coming to that. That’s part of the reason they went to the Association of University Women. That felt like the only place they could go.

Can we back up here and talk about the genesis of your book?

When I was working on Buried by the Times, whenever I would go look at [New York Times publisher] Arthur Sulzberger’s correspondence, there was always a folder that said “refugees.” Everybody at that time was getting letters from these desperate people who wanted them to help. So, it seemed to me there was a bigger story of how Americans responded to this crisis. At some level, this was something many Americans were thinking about, confronting those kinds of moral choices in their life. So, that was sort of the big thing. I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with it.

More specifically, a couple of these people whose correspondence with Sulzberger I looked at was a Harvard government professor named Carl Friedrich and David Riesman, who was then an untenured law professor at Buffalo University (this was before he went to Harvard and wrote The Lonely Crowd). They did this project together. In Friedrich’s papers, I found a couple of folders that said “law and journalism program.” So, of course I looked at them. Friedrich and Riesman decided they were going to convince law schools and journalism schools to admit refugee lawyers and journalists so they could be retrained in American journalism and American law. About 30 law schools participated. And the people in the programs all did fairly well. But journalism schools would have nothing to do with this. And I thought, “Hmmm, why is that?”

So, I started looking at records of the Emergency Committee and the Rockefeller Foundation. That’s when I realized that there was a story here about not just journalism faculties not being willing to hire journalism scholars but faculties in general not being willing to hire.

You write about the obvious antisemitism of Harvard president James Conant, but what did you learn about what was going on at your own university, Northeastern?

I gave a talk on this a couple of years ago at Northeastern as part of our Holocaust commemoration lecture series. It was highly embarrassing. I guess I thought, it seems to me if you’re talking about universities, we should at least see what Northeastern had done, assuming there would be nothing, because it wasn’t much of a university at the time. There wasn’t very much.

But I knew something was up when I made this inquiry to the librarian. They have the archives there. They invited me to come to a meeting with the head of communications, the head of the library, the PR guy from the university. It was like, huh, this is a little weird. Then they handed me a letter from the president at the time, saying he “didn’t want any smelly Jews.” This was 1938. If he had just said, “We don’t have the resources, blah blah blah,” that would have been the end of it. But he did have to refer to the way Jews smelled.

Can you tell me about your family history in terms of the Holocaust?

My father’s first cousin was named Vilma Kaufman. She and her parents, along with another of my grandmother’s sisters and husband and daughter, were among the first Jews sent to Auschwitz from Slovakia. Vilma was a bookkeeper and survived Auschwitz. So, all through my growing up, she was part of our family and had the blue tattoo on her arm. She always talked about it, too.

So, this is the weird part. The story she told was that she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen. But when I was doing the research for this book at the International Tracing Service at the National Holocaust Museum, I gave them the names of different scholars I was looking at. I also asked about Vilma and some other people, too. It turns out she wasn’t liberated from Bergen-Belsen — she was liberated from a sub-camp of Ravesnbrück. So, I thought, that’s weird. If you’re willing to talk about how you were in Auschwitz, why this discrepancy? So, then I read an academic paper on it: this sub-camp which was mostly Jewish women, and when the Russians came through, they raped them all.

You’re on a tenure committee at Northeastern, and I was wondering if, in considering someone joining your faculty, whether the dire circumstances of their country ever enters the conversation. In other words, how do you institutionalize humanitarian needs as part of the hiring process?

At Northeastern Law School, there was an appeal from someone in Liberia. It was not for a tenure-track position, but they’ve done everything they can to keep him in the United States. I was at a conference in Paris not long ago, and an architecture professor was talking about applications from Iranian students. He was thinking about it in humanitarian terms. And China now is obviously a big one, too. I guess part of it — and this is the hardest part when we talk about the process — there’s the hard-boiled decision and then there are the mushy humanitarian concerns. Somehow or other, they can’t be that distinguishable.

Based in Los Angeles, Joy Horowitz is the author of two books and teaches at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. She was the recipient of a 2019 T. S. Eliot Foundation residency in Gloucester, Massachussetts.

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