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Refugee Scholar Stories

Otto Meyerhof

Otto Meyerhof was a German-Jewish physiologist who had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1922. In 1938, under Germany’s racial laws that prohibited the employment of Jews as university professors, Meyerhof was forced to resign his position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. After his dismissal Meyerhof moved with his family to Paris, but following the German invasion of the city in 1940 he wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in hopes of finding a way out of Europe.

Given Meyerhof’s academic status and his standing as a Nobel Laureate, a position was quickly secured for him at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in July 1940. Meyerhof spent the next several months encountering roadblocks as he and his family attempted to flee Europe with the help of the RF and various other organizations. In late July, Alexander Makinsky, working at the RF office in Lisbon, believed that he had secured tickets for Meyerhof on a ship destined for the United States only to have the reservations canceled because of a lack of funds. Frustrated by the financial situation that included inflated prices and black market deals, Makinsky wrote to Alan Gregg describing the reality of trying to secure travel with insufficient funds. Makinsky wrote:

There are 20,000 people here now, all ready to go to America; most of them quite well off; and practically all of them are prepared to pay much more than the actual cost of the ticket (I hope you will understand what that means!) …Those who are paying merely the price of the ticket are already definitely handicapped; and those who, like myself, try to make reservations without paying the full price of the ticket at the time of the reservation is made, have naturally no chance at all.[1]

Meyerhof also struggled with securing the necessary visas. Although American visas were in hand, securing the exit documents from the French authorities proved more difficult. Under the terms of the French-German armistice, no person with German citizenship residing as an émigré in France was authorized to leave the country. Even interventions by RF, UPenn and U.S. State Department officials failed to secure the necessary papers.

With all legal means exhausted, Meyerhof sought help elsewhere. With the assistance of the Unitarian Service Committee, Meyerhof and his wife were smuggled out of France and crossed the Pyrenees by foot to arrive in Spain. At the border the couple was held by Spanish authorities and threatened with deportation before finally being released with the help of the U.S. Consul. From Spain Meyerhof and his wife traveled to Lisbon, where they boarded a ship to the United States. On board the SS Exichorda Meyerhof penned a note of thanks to Makinsky, writing: “Just in the moment before the ship will leave Europe, I may write you a line to thank you in my name and that of my wife for all the kindness you showed to us, and for your incessant help and interest. You are one of the most comforting impressions we had now, in leaving Europe, under the grave circumstances of today.”[2]

Letter from Otto Meyerhof to Alexander Makinsky, 1940 October 16

Letter from Otto Meyerhof to Alexander Makinsky, 1940 October 16

Meyerhof arrived in the United States in October 1940 and took up a position at UPenn. Following the war he remained in the U.S., and he died in Philadelphia in 1951.

Marc Bloch

Marc Bloch, who taught at the Sorbonne, was one of the world’s leading economic historians when he left his professorship to become a captain in the French Army at the outbreak of World War II.

Following the French surrender in 1940, and based in part on his own Jewish origins, Bloch sought refuge for himself and his family in the U.S. Writing on his behalf, Professor Earl J. Hamilton of Duke University wrote:

I believe that M. Bloch’s presence in this country would tend to raise the level of scholarship in economic and social history. I fear that he is in a precarious position in his native country. Assistance from the Foundation in reaching America and living until he can secure a foothold would not only be an act of charity and brotherly love but it might be instrumental in saving from destruction a fertile, energetic, and original mind.[3]

In October 1940 Bloch was invited to become a part of the Emergency Program for European Scholars.

In April 1941 word reached Bloch that American visas had been secured for him, his wife and four of his six children. He was told that visas for his two eldest children would be forthcoming in June. With news of the progress, Makinsky, working from RF’s temporary headquarters in Lisbon, set about arranging travel for the first group to leave.

However, before travel could be secured, Bloch wrote Makinsky informing him that he and his wife felt it impossible to travel without their remaining children. Aware of the difficulties in securing travel out of Europe in 1941, Makinsky wrote of Bloch’s decision, “I am completely out of sympathy with B.[loch], as unless he is willing to wait until the late fall, he will never be able to get eight places on the same boat.”[4]

Telegram re: Marc Bloch's unwillingness to leave without visas, 1941

Telegram re: Marc Bloch's unwillingness to leave without visas, 1941

Bloch’s decision to remain in France proved fatal. In 1941 the French government passed a law prohibiting French males between the ages of eighteen and forty years old from leaving Paris. Bloch’s eldest sons fell under the new law. On July 31, 1941, Bloch wrote to Alvin Johnson at the New School for Social Research, updating him of the situation and informing him that he and his wife felt that they could not leave their sons behind. Bloch went on to express his uncertainty over the future, writing that, “Nobody may foresee whether the present legislation, as to the leaving of the French territory, will last or no: at least, with the same strictness. It will depend on the circumstances, interior and exterior. The fate of those people who, like us, are falling under the so-called racial laws is equally uncertain.”[5]

Bloch remained in France and joined the French Resistance in 1942. In June 1944 Bloch was captured and shot by the Gestapo for his activities.

[1] Alexander Makinsky to Alan Gregg, July 31, 1940, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 1.1, Series 200A, Box 113, Folder 1389. Emphasis by Makinsky.

[2]Otto Meyerhof to Alexander Makinsky, October 16, 1940, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 200A, Box 113, Folder 1390.

[3] Letter from Earl J. Hamilton to Joseph H. Willits, October 13, 1940,RAC, RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 48, Folder 550.

[4]Excerpt from Makinsky Letter, April 28, 1941, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 48, Folder 550.

[5]Letter from Marc Bloch to Alvin Johnson, July 31, 1941, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 48, Folder 550.