New School Co-Founder Alvin Johnson Honored in North Carolina for Saving Jewish Families

In 1939, nine Jewish refugee families were rescued from the Holocaust in Germany and settled in an obscure rural community of Van Eeden near Burgaw, North Carolina.

The heroic act was carried out by none other than the late Alvin Johnson, an American economist and co-founder and first director of The New School.

Johnson was honored posthumously for his efforts at a ceremony establishing a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker at Pender County Public Library in Burgaw in April.

Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, who nominated the story for State of North Carolina; author Susan Taylor Block, who collected the family stories for her book, Van Eeden; and Michael Hill of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, spoke at the ceremony.

Klinger explained that, in the beginning of the Holocaust, the U.S. State Department largely refused to admit Jewish refugees trapped in Europe to the United States. Johnson, he said, discovered a loophole.

“He learned there was a back door to saving life,” Klinger said. “If a refugee was a farmer, the State Department was willing to let them come to America, even begrudgingly. Johnson’s simple solution was to have Jewish academics classified as farmers.”

For individuals he saved, many of whom were academics in Germany, adjusting to agrarian life wasn’t easy. However, with Johnson’s help and the support of the community, the refugees were able to get by.

Johnson’s work to help refugees didn’t end in North Carolina. Under his leadership, The New School established the University in Exile as a safe haven for Jewish intellectuals threatened by the rise of European Fascism. The University in Exile served as an institutional home to Claude Levi-Strauss, Erich Fromm, and Max Wertheimer, among others. It also laid the foundation for The New School to become the major degree-granting institution it is today.

Following his death in 1973, Johnson, a Nebraska native, was inducted into the state’s Hall of Fame. He was also featured on the state’s Public Television channel.