The Contributions of Jewish Refugees

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Jewish Renaissance in America

During the years of the Nazi rule of Europe (1933-45), hundreds of Jewish scholars escaped to the United States and caused in this country a rebirth of science and scholarship, which reminds us of three similar events in the history of learning.

Best known among similar events was the flight of the Christian Greek scholars from Constantinople as the city was invaded by the Muslim Turks in 1453.  Fearing forced conversion to Islam, these scholars moved to nearby Italy and there promoted a major development of science, art, music, and literature.

Constantinople was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I at the site of the ancient city Byzantium, located at the entrance of the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.  Constantine had abandoned Rome and made Constantinople the capital of the Roman empire so that the eastern empire became known as the Byzantine Empire, lasting from 330 to 1453. 

A second example of a scholarly renaissance was the flight of the Protestant scholars from the French city Nantes upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had been issued by King Henry, permitting the Protestant religion in that city, although Catholicism was otherwise the only religion allowed in France.  When Louis XIV revoked that edict in 1695, the Protestants in Nantes were beaten until they converted to Catholicism or died at the hands of the French enforcers.  Consequently, numerous Protestant scholars fled to Prussia, England, and the Netherlands.

In 1937, the dictator Stalin purged the learned professions in Russia by killing or imprisoning those he suspected of disloyalty to him.  This persecution led to the flight of numerous Russian scholars to America, England, and elsewhere.

The Hitler years in Europe then resulted in the entrance to the United States of hundreds of German, Austrian, and eastern European Jewish scholars, who brought with them major scientific developments not known in this country.  Albert Einstein alone was responsible for thirty-three inventions by others that rested on Einstein’s theoretical physics.  Not as well known as Einstein was the physician and expert on childhood diseases Erwin Netter, the legal scholar Arthur Lenhoff, the ophthalmologist Franz Michael, the historian Franz Gilbert, and the numerous Hungarian Jews who developed the atomic bomb, including the physicist Teller, the mathematician von Neumann, and som many other Jewish scientists that atomic energy and “the bomb” were indeed Jewish contributions to American science.

The history of art was brought to this country by a Jewish art professor, as was the study of hydraulics, and developments in American literature, music, and the movie industry.

The contributions of Jewish refugees also included military achievements, which were of vital importance to the US armed forces during the Second World War.

Indeed, the Jewish immigration to the USA during the 1930’s and 1940’s resulted in an American renaissance of scholarship and learning that made this country even greater than before the coming of these remarkable Jews.  For the chance to live in this blessed country, every Jew owes the USA sincere gratitude.  May Shem Yisborach bless the United States, the country country outside of Israel which, in the words of George Washington (1732-99), “gives to persecution no assistance.”

Shalom u'vracha.

  Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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