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Refugee Scholar Program

In 1933, as fascism descended upon Europe, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) found itself forced to respond to a crisis that challenged its core belief in progress. Between 1933 and 1945, while the European intellectual community was dismantled by the racial and ideological tenets of Nazism, the RF responded by supporting and operating a refugee scholar program. Hundreds of scholars and their families were rescued under this program, but its highly selective nature created a complex legacy.

Special Research Aid Fund for Deposed Scholars

The first program for refugee scholars was initiated in 1933 as the Special Research Aid Fund for Deposed Scholars. This fund set aside money for educational or research institutions in Europe and the United States that were willing to employ scholars who had lost their former positions for religious or political reasons. RF funding typically provided half the cost of a scholar’s salary. This program operated until 1939, aiding mainly German academics. Many notable scholars, including physicist Leo Szilard and novelist Thomas Mann, were assisted under this program. While aid for deposed scholars continued until 1945, by 1940 the rate of funding was slowed when the Emergency Program for European Scholars began.

Emergency Program for European Scholars

The Emergency Program for European Scholars began when war intensified in Great Britain and Germany invaded France. As circumstances became more dire, RF concerns expanded to include scholars who were in increasingly dire physical danger because of Nazi policies. In June 1940, in a memorandum entitled “If Hitler Wins,” Joseph H. Willits, RF’s Director for the Social Sciences, questioned the role of the Foundation during the crisis. Willits wrote:

With millions of people having to or desiring to migrate from their homelands, the pressure on the Foundation to become a relief body will be terrific. I suggest, – at least so far as SS [Social Sciences] is concerned, – that we choose now as the small part of the total task which the Foundation’s limited resources permit it to undertake, the responsibility for relocating such of the best of the scientific and scholarly men and women from France, Great Britain and other over-run countries as may be available to leave.[1]

Memo from Joseph Willits to RF Staff Re: If Hitler Wins, June 3 1940

Memo from Joseph Willits to RF Staff Re: If Hitler Wins, June 3, 1940

Less than two weeks later, following the German invasion of Paris, Willits reiterated his call to action to his fellow RF officers.

The program suggested by Willits had a two-fold purpose: to save Europe’s scholars and to improve American scholarship by bringing them to American institutions. In describing this facet of the program, Willits wrote: “I would take the initiative and shop for the best. I would do this cold-bloodedly on the assumption that Nazi domination of these countries make them a poor place for a first-class person to remain in … We could contribute to much needed distinction of our universities by facilitating such immigration.”[2]

Throughout the summer of 1940 RF officers continued to debate what the Foundation’s role should be. In July 1940 RF Vice-President Thomas B. Appleget suggested that the RF not become directly involved in saving refugee scholars. Appleget argued that such a program would overwhelm the Foundation with requests from scholars and that “[t]here would be inevitable confusion between the hardboiled desire to save intellect and the humanitarian desire to save lives.”[3] Appleget also worried about the ill will that might develop among the European scholars not chosen for the program. In lieu of direct action Appleget recommended a $100,000 appropriation to the Institute for International Education for its program aiding refugee scholars.

The debate on the matter continued, and two days later Appleget wrote another memorandum revising his earlier opinion. Appleget noted that after conferring with individuals both inside and outside of the Foundation, “certain personal convictions” had become clear, and he recommended that the RF undertake a direct role in an emergency program for refugee scholars. Appleget continued, “There does not seem to be any way in which the Foundation can escape responsibility for decision as to the scholars who are to be aided. There is no other organization so well equipped to select these scholars. Any delegation would be simply a meaningless smoke screen.”[4]

The resulting Emergency Program for European Scholars involved RF cooperation with a number of organizations. RF officers worked closely with Alvin Johnson of the New School for Social Research (NSSR), with whom they had been working since 1933. By 1940 the NSSR already counted fifty deposed scholars among its faculty and had placed others in various American universities. The RF also depended on the help of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars to find permanent employment for scholars and the U.S. Department of State to secure non-quota visas for refugees.

Hard Choices

The Emergency Program for European Scholars allocated funds to support 100 scholars (beyond the over two hundred scholars already assisted by the earlier Deposed Scholar Program). To be accepted in the program, a number of criteria had to be met. Scholars had to:

  1. Be outstanding in their field
  2. Be in their productive years
  3. Have lost their position and generally be considered to be in some danger, whether for religious, racial or political reasons
  4. Hold the promise of improving existing scholarship in American universities
  5. Have an assurance of a teaching position for at least two years – this visa requirement also benefitted the Foundation’s financial interests, as scholars without long-term positions would require additional resources.

The strict criteria helped at first but became more difficult to follow as it became clear that those who could not leave might not survive.

Much of the hard work of the Emergency Program was accomplished in RF’s European offices. Foundation officers Daniel O’Brien and Alexander Makinsky remained in Europe and aided fleeing scholars by arranging visas and travel. As the war closed borders and trapped refugees, Makinsky and O’Brien showed a remarkable level of inventiveness and flexibility in their planning. While they initially worked out of the Paris office, the war forced its closure, and operations were relocated to Lisbon. Throughout the course of the war these men faithfully recorded their experiences in their RF Officer Diaries, which now provide fascinating source material on the era.

Portrait of Daniel Patrick O'Brien

Portrait of Daniel Patrick O'Brien

In the spring of 1942 discussions began on winding down the Emergency Program. On May 11, 1942, Willits wrote:

At no time was the program intended as a relief program, although such considerations have undoubtedly had some weight in particular instances. But the longer the program goes on, the more it tends to take on the character of a relief program. Liquidation of the program as rapidly as is consistent with the achievement of the original objective and the goodwill elements of the situation is, therefore, indicated.[5]

Assessing the Program

The refugee scholar program had its failings along with its success. Critics argued that the program was too limited and elitist and that the RF could have devoted more resources to its operations. However, restrictive immigration quotas in force at the time prevented the Foundation from bringing more scholars to the U.S. Additionally, after its World War I experience, the Foundation had determined not to take on large-scale relief programs. The RF committed itself instead to saving a small group of European academics, whose work had often benefitted from inter-war RF funding initiatives.

The combined RF refugee scholar programs ultimately awarded aid to 303 scholars and their families. Among this group were six Nobel Prize Laureates and six future Nobel Prize winners. Eighty-nine of the scholars were part of the later Emergency Program. Fifty-two of these scholars came to America and took up teaching positions, six accepted and spent a portion of their travel grant but ultimately failed to get out of Europe, while a further thirty-one grants were canceled either because the scholar was unable to leave Europe or declined the RF’s offer.


[1] Joseph H. Willits to RF Officers, June 3, 1940, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 46, Folder 530.

[2] Joseph H. Willits to RF Officers, June 3, 1940, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 46, Folder 530.

[3] Thomas B. Appleget to RF Officers, July 9, 1940, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 46, Folder 530.

[4] Thomas B. Appleget, July 11, 1940, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 46, Folder 530.

[5] Joseph H. Willits to Roger F. Evans, May 11, 1942, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 47, Folder 541.