Several renowned academics and researchers participated in a most revealing and highly informative event on Sunday, March 30th entitled, "Columbia and the Nazis: New Research, New Concerns". The event, designated as a special session of the Organization of American Historians annual conference was held at The Center for Jewish History in Manhattan and was sponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
The session was chaired by esteemed historian and prolific author, Dr. Rafael Medoff. Dr. Medoff is the director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and has recently co-authored a book with former New York City Mayor Ed Koch titled, "The Koch Papers: My Fight Against Anti-Semitism" (Palgrave MacMillan).
Dr. Medoff introduced Prof. Stephen H. Norwood of the University of Oklahoma who has done extensive research on the ties between such prominent institutions of higher learning as Columbia and Harvard Universities and their support for Hitler and the Nazi party during the 1930s. Norwood himself is an alumnus of Columbia University, having received his PhD from there in 1984. Prof. Norwood told the audience that in 1933 Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler invited Hitler's ambassador, Hans Luther to speak on campus, despite vehement protests by students there. Ignoring strident editorials in The Columbia Spectator admonishing Butler for extending this invitation, Butler nonetheless forged ahead, referring to Luther as "a gentleman" displaying great courtesy and respect to this high ranking member of the Third Reich. In order to dodge hostilities by Columbia student opponents of his decision, Butler had another speaker introduce Luther, while he attended a sporting event.
Moreover, Prof Norwood reveals that Butler went so far as to have certain faculty members terminated and students expelled from Columbia because of their anti-Nazi stance. Prof. Jerome Klein of the Fine Arts department at Columbia was terminated and Robert Burke, a student leader of the anti-Nazi contingent was expelled for "leading pickets protesting the Columbia administration's insistence on sending a delegate and friendly greetings to a major propaganda festival the Nazi leadership orchestrated in 1936 in Germany, the 550th anniversary celebration of Heidelberg University."
Burke was a fine student, had been elected president of his class and had challenged Columbia's decision to expel him with a lawsuit, yet he was never readmitted. Prof Norwood said that "like his counterparts at Harvard and Yale, Butler considered German universities in 1936 to be part of the "learned world" and claimed political concerns were irrelevant when academics interacted." Norwood further reveals that the "Nazis tightly controlled Germany's universities, driving into exile many of the world's foremost scholars, propagated Nazi racial ideology and helped the Hitler regime develop anti-Semitic legislation." Columbia students held a mock book burning in front of Butler's mansion, to reflect the very real book burning that occurred in 1933 on the campus of the University of Heidelberg. Prof. Norwood also mentioned that President Butler was an admirer of Mussolini and had consistently violated the boycott of Nazi goods and services by taking German ocean liners to Europe, where he visited the Third Reich on a regular basis.
Columbia University made international headlines in September of 2007, when Columbia President Lee Bollinger extended an invitation to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus. The administration, completely cognizant of the fact that the Iranian dictator has denied the veracity of the Holocaust and has repeatedly threatened to obliterate the State of Israel were not swayed by arguments presented by student protestors and other vocal opponents to cancel this invitation. It now appears that a delegation of Columbia University professors and deans of faculties will be accepting Ahmadinejad's offer to visit Iranian universities.
Prof. Norwood drew parallels to student and faculty exchange programs during the Nazi era saying that American university students were incessantly subjected to Nazi propaganda and eventually became "apologists for the Nazi government". Conversely, he said that "German students came to the United States to serve as propagandists for Nazi anti-Jewish policies." While Prof. Norwood defended the concepts of freedom of speech and academic freedom he said "you don't have to go out of your way to invite dictators and despots to American campuses." Prof. Norwood spoke at length about the "moral bankruptcy" of the American academic community, underscoring the fact that anti-Semitism is a ubiquitous and dangerous phenomenon on Western campuses. Norwood went on to say that, "despite the higher university degrees and brilliance of those at the helm of the academic world, there is very little or no sense of morality. Quite to the contrary, these same people display an insensitivity to morality. These people can't feel deeply enough to care about people. Their only concern is about the prestige of the university that they represent."
The second speaker of the day was 92-year-old Nancy Wechsler, Esq. who attended Columbia University in 1933 and was a participant at the anti-Nazi demonstrations that took place on campus. She recalls that as a freshman at the New College, a branch of Columbia, she joined the Social Problems Club, a leftist organization that decided to protest the invitation to the German ambassador to speak, based on the premise that fascists had no right to speak. It was there that she met her future husband, journalist James Wechsler who was covering the demonstration. Mrs. Wechsler said of her husband, "he was supposed to be neutral but he was not. He got up and made an anti-Nazi speech. We started talking and we had our first date." She said that demonstrators handed out leaflets while police escorted them away. "People climbed on each other's shoulders and spoke out against Nazi fascism" she said and "three women were able to get in to the speech and disrupted and were arrested." She added that the sister of New York Times op-ed contributor A.M. Rosenthal was one of those arrested.
The next speaker on the program was Prof. Laurel Leff, author of the new book, "Buried By the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper". She told the audience that the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany and the Holocaust "presented a moral choice for elites from the United States." She went on to say that despite their copious scholarship many leading American intellectuals and the US government remained indifferent and apathetic towards the plight of European scholars and intellectuals who were summarily dismissed from their positions throughout western Europe and subsequently persecuted due to their opposition to Nazi philosophies.
"Seeking to escape Nazi Europe, many European professors, lawyers, journalists and authors made their way to Prague or Brussels and were then deported to Poland for assignment in a concentration camp where many, if not all of them perished" she said, adding that "the United States government erected obstacles to immigration from Europe during this era and it took Herculean efforts for German academics to get in to the United States. German scholarship was even greater than that in the US and a great deal of talent and brains were lost to the US because of their callousness and reluctance to condemn the Nazism. America was not a monolith. People had clear moral choices to make when it came to allowing European scholars in to the US." She did mention that "some Americans did try to help by signing affidavits assisting scholars in getting US citizenship and obtaining teaching positions in the US, but more could have been done, such as insisting that the US increase immigration quotas. Professors at Harvard did succeed in bringing 45 European scholars to the US, over the staunch objections of the university president."
Prof. Leff was followed by Dr. Melissa Jane Taylor who is a historical researcher and employee at the United States Department of State. The thrust of her remarks focused on U.S. diplomatic responses to the Anschluss and she spoke in great length about a State Department official named John Wiley who was stationed at the American Consulate in Vienna, Austria during the rise of Nazism in Europe. She prefaced her words by saying that these were her own views and did not represent the official position of the US State Department. John Wiley was assigned to Vienna from July of 1937 through the end of 1938 and was present during the Nazi Anschluss. He remarked that subsequent to the Anschluss, Vienna had become a "dull and restrictive city".
Dr. Taylor illustrated the internal conflicts that plagued Wiley during his employ at the visa section of the consulate. "Wiley did not create obstacles for immigrants, yet did not break any immigration laws. Wiley strove to adhere to US policies of severely restricted immigration, but felt the pain of those seeking to emigrate. He very much wanted the US to relax immigration quotas, to revise immigration policies due to the pervasive and intense anti-Semitism in Austria in the wake of the Anschluss. Wiley insisted that Austrian Jews had a moral right to be heard, to be treated fairly and respectfully and he communicated this to the State Department in no uncertain terms."
Dr. Taylor said that immediately following the Anschluss, Wiley telegraphed the US State Department saying, "the tragedy here is greater than in Berlin. The visa section is in a state of siege and will be for a long time." Wiley worked tirelessly to increase immigration from a little over 1000 a year following the Anschluss to 27,362. The State Department responded to Wiley by indicating that they wished to reduce the staff at the US Consulate in Vienna. Wiley protested vehemently, insisting that the consulate desperately needed personnel, both German and American to process all visa applications and even hired employees and paid them from his own pocket. Wiley's reimbursement requests to the State Department were denied.
As the plight of Austria's Jewish population intensified exponentially, Wiley referred to the Austrian government's policy toward Jewish immigration as "lunatic", saying that government wanted the Jews out of Austria even weeks before a visa could be issued. Dr. Taylor said that Wiley continued to struggle with his desire to be a humanitarian while following the letter of the law.
The last speaker of the day was independent scholar, Dr. Susan Subak who spoke about American Unitarian efforts to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Dr. Subak said that Unitarians were very active in rescue efforts during World War II and most were New Englanders who were highly educated and had chosen Unitarianism. While Unitarians routinely confronted the US State Department on the issue of European immigration, their rescue efforts spread throughout Europe including Vichy France, Lisbon and Prague. In Prague, Dr. Subak said, "there was a large Unitarian community numbering in the several thousand range. They were magnetic speakers who aroused their spiritual kinsmen such as Quakers to get more involved in helping European refugees. Unitarians would help people get on ships, stay out of prison and would assist those refugees in internment camps to get proper medical care."
Dr. Subak also spoke of the Jewish Children's Aid Society who coordinated its rescue efforts through the Unitarians because it was a safer option and spoke of the efforts of Martha Sharp, the wife of a Unitarian minister who rescued Jewish children in Austria following the devastating destruction of Kristallnacht. She risked her safety and her life by leading these children across war-town Europe to Portugal where they boarded a ship sailing to the United States in December of 1940. Dr. Subak also said that through the use of refugees as would be informants the Unitarians also engaged in "espionage missions and worked on passport renewals". Following the war, Dr. Subak said that many prominent Unitarians were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for assisting "leftist" refugees to escape Europe and the results of this witch hunt cast a giant shadow on their careers.
The day concluded with a lively question and answer session as audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions of the panelists. Both audience members (which included several members of the Arts and Letters Council of the David S. Wyman Institute) and the panelists then headed to another room to enjoy a reception where more questions more dialogue took place.
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