The waves of refugees who fled Central Europe in the 1930’s to escape Hitlerism may well have constituted the most talented tide ever to wash ashore in America. They included many of the world’s most renowned scientists, writers, musicians, philosophers, psychoanalysts, and filmmakers, encompassing such diverse and distinguished people as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schöenberg, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Erik Erikson, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt. Dissimilar in temperament, they were united in their self-conscious awareness of the bitter pain of exile, their despair at being uprooted from a native soil where they had made illustrious marks. They were also bonded by a satiric sense of humor, as shown in a story popular among the émigrés: Two of them are sailing on the Atlantic, one headed for America, the other headed back to Europe. As their two boats pass each other, the old friends shout simultaneously: “Are you crazy?”
Anthony Heilbut has undertaken to chronicle this diaspora and has written an eloquent, memorable book that registers the resonance of half hope and half despair, of biting wit and sophisticated neurosis common among those brilliant but shipwrecked survivors of the darkest period in modern history. His credentials consist of Berlin-born parents who migrated to New York in the mid-1930’s, a Harvard University doctorate in English literature, and an enormous amount of research in refugee lore. His work is likely to remain an outstanding achievement in a complex category of cultural and social history.
Heilbut takes pains to note the unique nature of these refugees from Nazism and Fascism: They were largely but not wholly Jewish; they had been successfully assimilated in Germany or Austria, only to be despoiled of their identity and confidence by ruthless dispossession and expulsion; they came to serve their new land, applying rigorous standards to their professions and exerting the authority of often brilliant gifts. Nevertheless, they carried the vulnerability of the wanderer in their blood: a paranoid disposition to view the unfamiliar with alarm and to scent betrayal and incipient persecution, especially when the McCarthy period of post-World War II America struck what seemed to many of them as ominously recurring chords of intolerance, distortion, and terror.
Heilbut reminds the readers how quickly Adolf Hitler victimized intellectuals, artists, and other radicals as well as all Jews. As soon as he assumed power, in March, 1933, he dismissed Jewish academicians from their positions; on May 10, 1933, the Nazis organized their first massive book burning; on October 10, 1933, the purchase of any book by any proscribed author was declared an act of treason. Eventually, 300,000 Jews left Germany between 1933 and 1939; 132,000 of them came to the United States. (Heilbut fails to furnish the number of exiled non-Jews or of Austrian Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.) The world knows only too well the fate of all but a handful of “non-Aryans” who were unable to flee. Nevertheless, the world of the mid-to-late 1930’s was far from eager to welcome victims of this purge: The Swiss, for example, closed their borders to Jewish would-be immigrants—their persecution was declared “unpolitical.” In France, some political parties were openly anti-Semitic; one campaigned under the slogan, “Better Hitler than Blum.” Almost every European nation, as well as Great Britain, had indigenous Fascist movements. Austria’s Nazis often outdid their German comrades in anti-Jewish fanaticism. During Joseph Stalin’s purges in the late 1930’s, many Central European refugees were executed or imprisoned in Soviet gulags.
Even the Statue of Liberty’s torch of welcome proved wobbly and dim: American immigration laws imposed strict quotas, and the Immigration Service insisted that each applicant for admission to the United States have an American citizen furnish an affidavit in his or her behalf—documentary proof that the émigré would not require financial assistance. In June, 1940, the State Department ended virtually all immigration from Central Europe, even though many refugee rescues remained possible for another year. One historian has estimated that this policy alone resulted in the needless loss of twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand lives. The only prominent non-Jewish public personality who consistently championed the émigré cause in the United States was Eleanor Roosevelt, while her husband, admired by most refugees to the point of veneration, refused to urge expansion of the quota numbers, did not publicize the existence of the Nazi death camps, and waited until January, 1944, to establish the Wartime Refugee Board—by which time rescues were no longer feasible.
No wonder that some exiles from Hitlerism committed suicide before they could find a haven. Most brilliant among them was the literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, friend of Brecht and associate of Adorno, who fled Germany for France, then tried, in September, 1940, to cross from German-occupied France to Spain, only to learn that Spanish border officials refused to honor visas made out in Marseilles. Benjamin killed himself that night. Had he traveled one day earlier, he would have been permitted to cross unchallenged.
Those refugees who did manage to enter the United States found their reception variable, depending on the marketability of their skills. Intellectuals with international reputations were, in the early-to-mid-1930’s, hospitably welcomed by such institutions as Manhattan’s New School for Social Research, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the California Institute of Technology, and various University of California campuses. Later comers and those with uncompleted advanced degrees had far greater difficulties, and many, whether academics, writers, or artists, never resumed their Continental careers. Composer Paul Dessau worked on a chicken farm; writer Walter Mehring became a warehouse foreman; philosopher Heinrich Bluecher shoveled chemicals in a factory; actress-writer Ruth Berlau tended bar; the greatest German stage actress, Helene Weigel, found herself unemployable in Hollywood.
Except for legal scholars, whose training in Roman law proved useless, many European academics had distinguished careers in America. Karl Deutsch and Heinz Eulau excelled in political science; Lewis Coser, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Theodor Adorno in sociology; Paul Tillich harmonized Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas with those of Protestant theology; Franz Neumann, Hans Kohn, and Peter Gay became leading historians; Erwin Panofsky did notable work in art history; Hans Hofmann became the most influential art instructor of his era, with his students including Larry Rivers, Louise Nevelson, and Helen...
(The entire section is 2780 words.)