Einstein, AAUW, and Getting Jewish Women Scientists out of Nazi Germany

Albert Einstein alongside his letter to AAUW

In 1989, AAUW donated the original letter to the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

March 14, 2013

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of history’s greatest scientific minds, Albert Einstein. It is a perfect time to highlight a lesser-known side of Einstein: that he was an advocate for Jewish women scientists and a friend to AAUW.

The story begins on April 18, 1938, with a letter addressed to then-AAUW Director Kathryn McHale concerning a woman named Marietta Blau. The letter was signed Albert Einstein.

At this time, the women of AAUW were receiving numerous requests to help women academics who were trapped in Nazi-controlled countries. In 1941, spearheaded by International Relations Secretary Esther Brunauer, AAUW created the War Relief Committee to try to aid more than 100 women threatened by war and oppression, whether to support their research or to aid with immigration — which often meant finding them jobs in safe locations. The committee found an ally in Einstein, who had avoided Nazi persecution by leaving Germany and wanted to help scientists of Jewish descent do the same.

Blau was one such refugee, an Austrian physicist who was doing groundbreaking work in radioactivity. But, Einstein wrote, “She is of Jewish race and has therefore to leave Austria.” Brunauer wrote back, “We will do whatever we can.” However, there was little AAUW could do. Though Blau was able to escape to Mexico, she was unable to come to the United States until 1944.

Brunauer’s reply to Einstein also mentions Austrian physicist Lise Meitner. In 1939, chemist James Franck called Brunauer to say that Meitner had lost her research position because of her Jewish ethnicity. Brunauer wrote to Einstein along with several heads of colleges and chemistry departments informing them of Meitner’s plight.

There were no positions for Meitner in America, but she escaped to Stockholm for a lesser position than what she had before. But even without sufficient resources, she continued her research. In 1939, Meitner published her discovery of nuclear fission and changed science forever.

Though the War Relief Committee sometimes faced insurmountable challenges, there were successes too: AAUW International Fellowships were granted to refugees like chemist Gertrud Kornfeld and archaeologist Elisabeth Jastrow to help them continue their work.

Another success story is that of Hedwig Kohn, a prominent German physicist who was threatened with deportation to Poland, which in the words of Professor Rudolf Ladenburg, who advocated for Kohn tirelessly, meant “practically death.” With help from Hertha Sponer, herself a German refugee physicist aided by AAUW, Brunauer secured a position for Kohn at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. With only weeks to spare, Kohn was cleared to enter the United States.

These inspiring stories demonstrate AAUW members’ history of devotion to aiding women in need, as well as supporting the international scientific and research community. So today, as we remember Einstein’s contributions to science as the man who developed the theory of relativity, let’s also honor him for the part he played in the admirable efforts of the AAUW War Relief Committee.

By:   |   March 14, 2013

5 Comments

  1. Alexa Silverman says:

    I really enjoyed looking through the archives with AAUW Archivist and Records Manager Suzanne Gould – these stories are really so amazing to me. There were a lot of great moments of discovery: for instance, it turned out James Franck was in the chemistry department at my own alma mater, the University of Chicago and one of his letters is addressed from a building where I’ve taken a class before.

    The story of Hedwig Kohn is condensed into just one paragraph here but it is a tale of Hollywood-worthy proportions – once Kohn got her papers to go to the States, her ship left at a different time than was expected and no one could get in contact with her, then suddenly she was in San Francisco, then she got sick and they were worried she wouldn’t be allowed in the country for public health reasons, and then she got detained by US immigration and no one knew why or what was going on and may have only made it out because of a flurry of letters signed by university professors and deans saying essentially, it’s okay, we really did approve this. It’s gripping stuff!

  2. Jackie Littleton says:

    The efforts made by Esther Brunauer, AAUW, and IFUW to save women academics and scientists prior to and during WWII were amazing…I’ve been researching their stories for over a year and the web just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Brunauer herself downplayed the results, “The refugee problem presents two aspects to us–one, the personal, trying to help individuals in which we have not been very successful except in the way of providing advice and information. We have made a beginning on the other aspect of the problem, namely, creating a better understanding of the situation.”

    Sometimes moral support is the best kind, as many of our LAF plaintiffs have stated through the years. Dr. Lucie Adelsberger, one of the refugees, said it best in the memoir of her years in Auschwitz, “We lap up the kindness of others the way a sponge absorbs water.”

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