Rockefeller Archive Center workshop: World War II Refugee Scholars

Last fall as part of our Memories & Politics of Exile Symposium, we invited the Rockefeller Archive Center [RAC] to Paris for an interactive workshop. The Rockefeller Foundation’s refugee scholar program, which ran from 1933 to 1945, was not intended as a relief program, but rather sought to “salvage for the world of scholarship . . . the best of the refugee scholars” from Europe. During the workshop, students put themselves in the role of Rockefeller Foundation program officers during World War II to determine which refugee scholars should receive Foundation assistance.  Working in groups, students read primary source documents related to ten scholars from a variety of nationalities, backgrounds, and scholarly disciplines provided by Marissa Vassari, Assistant Archivist and Educator, and Laura Miller, Historian and Project Director from the Rockefeller Archive Center. Students were then asked to make a decision about who would receive Foundation aid, and articulate the reasoning behind their decisions. The workshop underscored the challenge of preserving scholarship during times of crisis.  These issues are as relevant now as they were in the 1930s and 1940s.  This exercise can lead us to ask what is different today, and what policies and practices might be appropriate today.

“I found that one of the most challenging aspects of the decision making process was to read first hand accounts of an individuals personal trials and be faced with the decision to either take this information into account or remain a more unbiased arbitrator who looked only at the person’s credentials as a scholar. Our group found it impossible to proceed as impartial moderators. We were moved emotionally to select who would receive a visa based on the amount of danger or hardship they were facing. 

The workshop brought to light the importance of maintaining a strong international community of scholars and educators particularly during times of political unrest. This is more relevant today than ever. As a student at a high diverse and international institution I am grateful to be able to foster connections with my colleagues form all over the world. The workshop demonstrated how personal and intellectual bonds such as these are of vital importance importance as divisions between people, ideologies, and nations become manifest in our world.”

— Chanel Host, student workshop participant

“We were given facsimiles of the original documents contained within the application dossier of each endangered scholar. The type of documents varied widely from typed letters of recommendation written by university colleagues to more urgent and concise telegraph reports. Whereas the letters of recommendation described the scholar’s academic work and their ability to integrate into an American host university, other documents gave insight into their personal and political circumstances. In assessing their level of danger, the authors made note of the scholar’s national origins, religious heritage, and whether or not they had a family who would also require visas.  One particularly urgent report mentioned that an eminent scholar was in poor health after being interred in a detention camp. Apart from the gravity of the words and situation, it was very touching to see the traces of human contact visible on each document, such as hand-written annotations questioning the whereabouts of a threatened scholar. The most challenging aspect of the experience was the process of weighing institutional interests (ability to speak English, work within an American Institution) against human interest (are they described as sick, elderly, or in a detention camp already). There were no easy choices.”

– Stephanie Nadalo, faculty coordinator/workshop participant

Much to everyone’s surprise, all three groups came up with the same result on who should receive visas.

Images by PuxanBC.