27 January 2011 is Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember the victims and those whose lives have been changed by Nazi persecution, and later genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. This national memorial day has been held in the UK since 2001, and was declared an International event in November 2005 by the United Nations. The HMD Trust website states that 27 January was chosen as the date for HMD because it was on this date in 1945 that the largest Nazi killing camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated.

It was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who first used the term ‘genocide’ in 1943.. The word was coined from the Greek word ‘genos’ meaning family, tribe or race and the Latin ‘cide’ meaning killing. Lemkin succeeded in having the word included as a descriptive term in the indictment of the senior Nazi officials at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1945, but it was not until 11 December 1946 that the General Assembly of the United Nations resolved that genocide was a crime under international law. This was approved and ratified as a Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on 9 December 1948.

Lemkin himself was forced to leave Poland in 1939, travelling first to Sweden and then to America. He followed in the earlier footsteps of those who were deprived of their livelihoods and jobs, and feared for their lives. Many of these were academics. Scientific freedom became a matter of considerable concern, and in response to dismissals in Germany, in 1933 the AAC, the Academic Assistance Council which later became the SPSL (Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) and thereafter CARA, was started by, among others, Sir William Beveridge and G M Trevelyan (Master of Trinity College Cambridge). The formation appeal was strongly supported by the British Press and the Royal Society, particularly Professor A V Hill FRS, Ernest Rutherford FRS and Albert Einstein FRS. The purpose was to offer funds for scientists who had fallen from favour under Nazi rule, to leave Germany or other countries invaded by Germany and take up posts in British academia and industry. In this it was very successful; in its existence it helped over 2000 scholars.

Photographic porrait of A.V. Hill, from the Godfrey Argent studio

Photographic porrait of A.V. Hill, from the Godfrey Argent studio

Many of the best known physicists, mathematicians, biologists and chemists, who fled to Britain or in some cases to America, were Jewish, though a few non-Jewish scientists fled because they opposed the Nazi regime, or, like Enrico Fermi, had Jewish wives. Many of these became Fellows of the Royal Society; Albert Einstein (whose strong support and attendance at a meeting at the Albert Hall was very helpful), Erwin Schrodinger (not Jewish), Max Born, Otto Frisch, Hans Bethe, Rudolf Peirls, and Francis Simon, all physicists; Otto Loewi, biochemist, who with Sir Henry Hallett Dale received the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1936; physician and biochemist Hans Krebs ; molecular biologist Max Perutz who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962, and  Ernst Chain biochemist who received the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1945 with Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming. Austrian born Thomas Gold,( later known for his ‘steady state’ theory with Bondi and Fred Hoyle, and his work on moondust) and Max Perutz were, like many others, interned in 1940, and the SPSL was active in encouraging lobbying to have such academics released and allow them to continue research of benefit to the war effort.

The Royal Society holds the papers of a number of these Fellows, such as physicist Sir Francis (Franz) Eugen Simon (1893-1956). These include his scientific notebooks from 1919-1934, largely the period of Simon’s researches on low temperature physics at the Physikalisch-Chemisches Institut of Berlin University, and subsequently at Breslau and Oxford; also  the correspondence files from the years 1922-1956, which provide a full account of Simon’s dealings with many fellow scientists, industrial firms, universities and international organisations. They include considerable correspondence with the ‘refugee scientists’ e.g. Max Born (1882-1970), the SPSL and Tess Simpson, and involvement with the atomic energy developments.

 Another such scientist was Otto Loewi (1873-1961), pharmacologist and physiologist, whose  manuscript material is of a personal rather than a scientific nature and provides an important biographical source about Loewi’s escape from Nazi Austria and his resettlement in the United States

The Biographical Memoirs of many of the Fellows include references, as do their biographies and other works. In addition there are works specifically on the organisations involved and the scientists they helped which are available in the Library; particularly interesting is Eric Ashby’s account   ‘Einstein was a refugee‘  a talk broadcast on BBC Radio on 18 July 1977. (Tracts 769/8).  Also illuminating is the title of the book by Jean Medawar and David Pyke, ‘Hitler’s gift; scientists who fled Nazi Germany’  London, Richard Cohen Books, 2000.

For those who are interested in the organisations, material about them, the work they did and the people they helped, the archives are in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the National Archives at Kew, the Wellcome Library, and Sussex University Library.

Comments are closed.