America’s Shameful Betrayal of Europe’s Desperate Jewish Academics in the Holocaust

Within days of Germany annexing Austria in March 1938, biologist Leonore Brecher was fired from her position at Vienna’s famed Institute for Experimental Biology. She was dismissed along with 15 other Jewish employees, who made up half the staff including its founder and director and all its department heads.  

The 52-year-old Brecher, who studied the environmental and hereditary factors that produce color changes in the cabbage white butterfly, knew her only hope was to immigrate as a scholar to either Great Britain or, better yet, the United States. Born in Rumania, she couldn’t expect to enter under the American quota for her home country, which stood at just 603 people a year. Brecher, however, had another avenue of escape. 

Section 4(d) of the 1924 immigration law provided non-quota visas to those who were professors at institutions of higher learning abroad and who planned to continue their vocation of professor in the United States. There was no limit on the number of professors who could be admitted. But the State Department interpreted 4(d) to require an immigrant to have a job offer from an American university to obtain a non-quota visa.

So Brecher wrote to every organization, colleague, friend, and acquaintance she could think of to help her obtain an American university position. She was not alone. From 1933 until immigration basically ended in 1942, thousands of desperate scholars – the vast majority of whom were Jewish or of Jewish descent – besieged American universities. Some universities made offers to refugee scholars, but many more did not. Even with an offer in hand, the State Department often found other grounds upon which to deny visas. 

Prior to the 1938 Anschluss, long lines formed from dawn outside the US embassy in Vienna, as desperate Jews sought visas to escape the Nazis. From the book ‘Well Worth Saving,’ courtesy USHMM archive

All told, only 944 professors from Europe received non-quota visas between 1933 and 1941. It is hard to estimate accurately how many scholars sought to immigrate – or rather, how many sought to survive. As one measure, the primary American committee to help rescue European scholars, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, received over 6,000 appeals and ended up supporting just 335 scholars. 

This reality challenges the popular and scholarly narrative that America saved Europe’s intellectual elite from the Holocaust. The United States did indeed welcome Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse, Rudolf Carnap and Richard Courant.

But a welcoming America is only part of the story. The other part, the more common part, is reflected in Leonore Brecher’s experience as a dedicated biologist hampered by her age, her gender and her religion. "We cannot aid everybody, only the most prominent and gifted – the more’s the pity," wrote Alfred Cohn, an Emergency Committee founder. "About the rest and their fate, we have no plan, as yet."