ACRL WESS’s Panel at ALA Annual 2017: “Refugee Scholars and Academic Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Today”

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2017, Vol. 41, No. 1

The ACRL WESS Panel at the American Library Association 2017 Annual Conference in Chicago, “Refugee Scholars and Academic Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Today,” explored the history of several library collections by, for, and about the refugee scholars who departed fascist Europe in the 1930s for the United States. The speakers were Sem Sutter (University of Chicago Library), presenting on the Ludwig Rosenberger Library of Judaica; Michaela Ullmann (University of Southern California Libraries), presenting on the Lion Feuchtwanger Memorial Library; and Ann Millin (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), presenting on the Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb Collection documenting Edgcomb’s project to interview refugees from Nazi Europe in the 1930s-40s who were hired by historically black colleges and universities in the United States. Using the examples of these collections at their home institutions, our three speakers discussed how refugee scholars from Europe played significant roles in shaping American academic libraries and research institutions. Topics included the origins and history of these collections, understanding what it meant to be a refugee and a scholar, the ways in which American higher education was shaped by this wave of scholars, and how academic libraries and research collections have traditionally supported these new audiences and how they can continue to do so today.

Sem Sutter’s presentation on the Ludwig Rosenberger Library of Judaica at the University of Chicago featured a discussion of what it means to be a collector and how collections evolve. Ludwig Rosenberger (1904-1987) was a successful businessman and refugee from Nazi Germany. Not a scholar himself, Rosenberger chose to build a collection of over 17,000 titles—one of the largest privately-owned collections of Judaica and Jewish-related materials—and to make it available for research. Because he collected according to his own interests, Rosenberger created a unique collection that did not fit into traditional definitions of Judaica; instead, he collected all kinds of materials, and he planned to read everything he collected, unlike some collectors who assemble research collections. Particular areas of interest included the social and cultural history of Jews throughout the world, German Jews and the documentation of German Jewish life, as well as books by and about men and women who were remarkable in some way and by or about democratic politic figures in many lands.

Some of the materials in his collection that are not traditionally considered Judaica include literatures of conversionism and anti-Semitism. Rosenberger considered these items to be important for research and for understanding history. Rosenberger also collected works from small leftist and Marxist presses, which he was able to do by cultivating connections to independent presses and antiquarian dealers.

When it came to providing for the future of the Rosenberger collection, Ludwig and his wife Irmgard Rosenberger decided to place the collection at the University of Chicago. They consciously chose a secular setting so that the collection would be accessible and available to scholars in all fields of study. One condition attached to the donation was that the books and manuscripts in the Rosenberger collection were to be used regularly in exhibits and classes in order to support research and instruction—a condition that has been more than fulfilled by the frequent courses for undergraduates and graduates that use items from the Rosenberger Library, and by the numerous exhibits.

Michaela Ullmann’s presentation on the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library centered around the importance of the collection and the continuing role of the Feuchtwanger Fellowship in supporting refugee scholars. Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958) was an important Jewish-German writer and playwright and theater critic whose 1930 novel Erfolg (Success), criticizing the Nazis, was one of the factors that led to him being declared an enemy of the German state and he was consequently stripped of his German citizenship. When he was forced to flee Germany and then France, Feuchtwanger’s first and second libraries were confiscated and left behind but his third and final library—assembled in California—was over 30,000 volumes. After coming to the United States, his house in California, today called the Villa Aurora, became a dazzling literary salon and meeting place for fellow exiles. While Feuchtwanger himself was fortunate that he already was internationally known as a famous writer, he still experienced significant difficulties during his time in California. During the McCarthy era, Feuchtwanger was investigated by the FBI and was denied American citizenship, which would have allowed him to occasionally leave the United States, and to visit France and Germany. As a result, he was never able to return to Germany. Feuchtwanger died stateless in 1958; his wife Marta—a remarkable figure in her own right–survived him by 30 years and preserved his legacy through the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library and its activities. The Feuchtwangers’ personal papers as well as the papers of fellow German exiles such as writer Heinrich Mann, composer Hanns Eisler, and literary agent Felix Guggenheim are accessible at the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at USC.

In addition to the Villa Aurora and his research collection, Feuchtwanger’s legacy lives on in the Feuchtwanger Fellowship that hosts writers and journalists who are being censored and persecuted in their home countries. Established in 1998, the Feuchtwanger Fellowship encourages the fellows to make connections with other writers and literary figures in the Los Angeles area. Many of the Feuchtwanger Fellows are in immediate danger, as Feuchtwanger was, and would otherwise have no feasible option for continuing their work.

Ann Millin’s presentation on “Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb and Related Collections” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum highlighted an underused and understudied collection that deserves more scholarly attention.
The story of this collection begins with Edward R. Murrow, the journalist who was almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing down Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist purges. Murrow was strongly driven to support the European refugees, particularly those displaced by the Nazis; he served as assistant director of the Institute of International Education (IEE) which facilitated European-American student exchanges and was also Assistant Secretary of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars (ECADFS) that formed in response to the German law in 1933 that removed Jews from civil service positions. The New York Public Library Manuscript Division holds the papers of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars (1927-1946), which is an amazing and rich collection (MSS col 922). This collection also has the ECADFS’s financial records, in addition to those from the Rockefeller Foundation, funding positions for displaced foreign scholars at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

The ECADFS was able to rescue over 300 European artists, writers, and scholars by placing them at American institutions of higher education. By far the most difficult part of the process of placing a scholar was in finding a willing college or university to serve as host. While the ECADFS could easily find a position for well-known scholars regardless of their religious affiliation, it was much more difficult to find hosting institutions for those who were less famous. Jewish scholars in particular encountered a great deal of hostility, resentment, and discrimination. At the same time, the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States were eager to hire qualified instructors, although they lacked the funding to do so. As long as the ECADFS could provide funding support, these universities and colleges were quite willing to accept well-educated and experienced professors, regardless of religion. Therefore, at least 19 HBCUs hosted Jewish refugee scholars with the support of the ECADFS, and these professors were to have significant impact on the lives of their students. Both the Jewish professors and their Black students had experienced harsh and systematic persecution (the Black students under the oppressive Jim Crow laws, and the scholars under the anti-Semitic laws enacted by Nazi Germany), and the professors for the most part provided a rigorous and thorough education to students who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to study with professors of such high quality.

While there has been scholarly attention paid to the refugee scholars who were placed by the ECADFS at non-HBCUs in the United States, the Jewish professors at the HBCUs were ignored by historians after the end of WWII. This is where Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb enters the story. Edgcomb (1921-1997) had been born in Austria and had come to the United States as a Jewish refugee as a child in the 1930s. She had long been interested in the topic of the Jewish scholars who taught at the HBCUs and was hired by the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., to find and interview the remaining living professors in the 1960s. Edgcomb’s work resulted in the book, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,Edgcomb, Gabrielle Simon. From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges (Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1993). There is also a documentary film that includes brief footage of both Edgcomb and several of the refugee scholars and their students: Cheatle, Lori, Martin D. Toub, Steven Fischler, Joel Sucher, Luc Sante, John Miglietta, Frank London, and Gabrielle S. Edgcomb. From Swastika to Jim Crow (New York, N.Y: Distributed by the Cinema Guild, 2000). and in a collection of oral interviews. These oral interviews are all digitized and available for scholarly use.

Edgcomb’s collection of oral interviews is a highly significant collection, with some significant challenges. Unfortunately, she lacked training as an oral interviewer and she conducted the interviews with these now-elderly professors in an idiosyncratic fashion. The resulting interviews are therefore irregular in nature. However, those scholars who were the subject of Edgcomb’s interviews have all since died, as has Edgcomb herself, and this collection is all the more valuable because it is all that survives of their own recollections. Its significance lies in the context of how these scholars found safe haven in the United States and began to reconstruct their lives, and the impact that they had on their students, many of whom are likely still alive and could be interviewed themselves.

Edgcomb’s idiosyncratic collection also serves as a reminder to those of us in libraries and institutions of higher learning of the fragility of the historical record and the drastic need to document personal narratives and preserve memories for the future. In addition to the urgent need to revisit Edgcomb’s work, and to better investigate and understand the experiences of the Jewish refugee scholars who were placed at American HBCUs in the 1930s and 1940s and those of their students, there is much to do regarding the current international refugee situation. Today’s refugee crisis is much, much larger in scale that of the 1930s. In addition to providing humanitarian support, it is important to document, preserve, and make accessible as much of their narratives for the future to work towards understanding and preventing future crises, if possible. To this end, libraries and cultural institutions have important work to do in documenting the current situation, such as collecting narratives, creating and maintaining archives, and introducing younger students and scholars to important historical topics such as the experiences of earlier refugee scholars.

Through these three examples of collections by, for, and about refugee scholars in the 1930s and 1940s who came to the United States, our panel speakers repeatedly emphasized the important role that these European refugee scholars played in shaping American higher education and cultural institutions. The current refugee crisis has unfortunately seen a return of certain rhetorical expressions familiar from past eras, such as the 1930s, that focus more on the dangers rather than the benefits of providing aid and support to those in need. Academic libraries and research collections in the United States would benefit tremendously in supporting these new audiences and in learning from the experiences of the past.

Kathleen Smith
Stanford University Libraries