The Forgotten Women Scientists Who Fled the Holocaust for the United States

A new project from Northeastern University traces the journeys of 80 women who attempted to escape Europe and find new lives in America during World War II

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A 1939 photo of German Jewish refugees aboard the German liner Saint Louis. AP

Nedda Friberti was an Italian mathematician and physicist reduced to refugee status in World War II. Fanny Shapiro came from Latvia, where she studied bacteriology until the war disrupted her research. French microbiologist Marguerite Lwoff worked with her husband, André Lwoff, though she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize along with him. Elizabeth Rona was born in Hungary and became a famed nuclear chemist, but was forced to flee the country in 1940.

All four women earned Ph.Ds in their respective fields, at a time when being a female scholar was incredibly challenging. They also faced the additional hurdle of being targeted by anti-Semitic laws that came about across Europe in the 1930s and 40s. And all four women applied for—and were denied—assistance from the American Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars.

These are but four stories illuminated by the Rediscovering the Refugee Scholars project. Created by researchers at Northeastern University in the fields of journalism, Jewish studies, history and computer science, the project seeks to illuminate the fraught journeys of scholars who fled persecution in Europe and hoped to come to the United States with assistance from the Emergency Committee. The committee, initially headed by journalist Edward R. Murrow, acted as an intermediary between American universities and European scholars looking for work outside their countries of origin. It was funded by the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, and received applications from nearly 6,000 scholars. Of those, only 330 received aid. As for the 80 women scientists and mathematicians identified by the Northeastern team—only four were supported by the committee (though many more made their way to the U.S. and other safe havens).

The project came about in part because of the unanswered questions journalist and professor Laurel Leff had following research for her book, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper. One of those questions was how Jewish refugees made their way to the United States, and the archival material from the Emergency Committee was the perfect resource to dig into for answers.

With colleagues and students armed with camera phones, a team of eight researchers poured through the reams of documents now stored at the New York Public Library, taking photos of the papers, then attempting to manipulate the information in a digital-friendly format. To make the Herculean task more manageable, the researchers limited themselves to just 80 women scholars in science and math, and came up with a few clever workarounds (including using longitude and latitude for geographic points to make their online maps, as both the cities and sometimes the countries had changed names since the World War II era).

“There’s this literature that is both very extensive and also very laudatory, that says the United States played this incredibly important role in saving Western civilization by bringing all these people here,” Leff says. “While certainly a lot of people escaped and were able to transform American culture [think Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt], it wasn’t everybody. It’s a self-satisfied version of our history.”


In April 1933, the Nazi party passed its first major legislation to limit the rights of Jewish citizens. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service excluded Jews and other non-Aryans from various professions and organizations—including from having roles in universities. New laws also cut down the number of Jewish students and those who could practice medicine or law.

And then there was the issue of how the Nazis defined Jewish-ness. To the government, it wasn’t a question of being an active worshipper. All that mattered was the purity of blood—meaning that having three or four grandparents born into a Jewish religious community was enough for the grandchild to be considered non-Aryan, and be persecuted for it.

While some scholars were able to cling to their positions for a few years after the 1933 law thanks to service in World War I, ultimately all of them were removed from German universities. “In some disciplines and faculties this was a huge number of people, one-third of them Jewish or of Jewish descent,” Leff says. Based on research from the Institute for European Global Studies, the figure came to include around 12,000 educated individuals banned from their work in Germany.

That’s when the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars jumped into action.

At the time, the United States was operating under the Immigration Act of 1924. The law denied entry to any immigrants from Asia, and placed an annual limit, or “quota” of 150,000 immigrants allowed entry into the U.S. That number was divided between countries based on the population numbers, and had a severe limiting effect on the number of Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe and Russia.

“Many people will ask some version of the question, ‘Why didn’t the Jews just leave?’” says Northwestern University history professor Daniel Greene, who also works as a guest exhibition curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “What projects like this reveal is that this isn’t the right question to be asking. We should ask, 'Why was it so hard for other nations to admit Jews?'”

But the U.S. law held a particular provision that applied to professors and ministers: if they could find work at institutions in America, they could immigrate without going through the quota system. It was this aspect of the law that the Emergency Committee planned to exploit. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Emergency Committee began collecting resumes and CVs from European scholars seeking work in the U.S. and tried to place them in American universities.

Yet even with help from the Emergency Committee, scholars were in no way guaranteed to find work. Of the 80 women currently profiled by the Refugee Scholars project, only four received grants.

“To get a job in an American university, it was really helpful not to be Jewish,” Leff says. That didn’t mean quite the same thing as it did in Germany; few institutions were interested in blood ties. But some, like Hamilton College in upstate New York, explicitly told the Emergency Committee they wanted an Aryan applicant. And Dartmouth College offered to take someone of Jewish heritage, but that person “shouldn’t seem too Jewish,” Leff says.

The extra challenge for women was finding a university that would hire them for research. It was easier to find positions at women’s colleges, but sometimes that meant the highly trained scholars wouldn’t have access to the lab technology they were accustomed to. Many of the women scholars came to the United States working as domestics, at which point they would apply to the Emergency Committee for help finding work in academia rather than as cooks or childcare providers. 

But for the women attempting to flee Europe, it wasn’t simply a matter of getting a job in their field; the stakes were life and death. Leff cites biologist Leonore Brecher as a particular example. The Romanian researcher developed a career studying butterflies, moving from Romania to Vienna to the United Kingdom and back all in pursuit of her career. But after being forced to live in a Jewish neighborhood, Brecher was later rounded up for deportation.

“It’s just heartbreaking. She’s this dedicated scholar, and she’s slaughtered upon arrival in this relatively unknown extermination center out of Minsk,” Leff says. “Those people deserve to have their stories told, too, not just the great scientists who develop the atomic bomb”—like James Franck, a German physicist who protested the Nazi regime and came to the U.S., where he participated in the Manhattan Project.

Eventually Leff and the team at Northeastern University would like to digitize all the thousands of applications currently stored in physical copies. They hope scholars from a variety of fields will make use of the information, and that casual viewers will visit the project’s website to see the stories of these individuals.

For Greene, who also believes in knowing the details about the individuals in the midst of the masses of data on the Holocaust, another lesson from this research deals with the United States’ attitude towards refugees of the era. “One way to look at the story of American history is to look at American ideals versus realities on the ground,” Greene says. “The 1930s are a moment of crisis. There’s pervasive fear of foreigners, generated as a result of being in a deep depression. Often when you have those conditions in the United States, it makes it more challenging to live out some of our stated ideals about being a nation of immigrants or a land of refuge.”

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