How Einstein fled from the Nazis to an Oxford college

The Oxford Times: How Einstein fled from the Nazis to an Oxford college How Einstein fled from the Nazis to an Oxford college

M ovements are afoot to found some sort of lasting memorial — a scholarship perhaps — to commemorate the extraordinary role Oxford played in the years before the war when the University offered sanctuary to several Jewish academics fleeing Nazi Germany.

The most famous of these was Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the first German Jewish scholar to take up an academic post at Christ Church. He arrived in May 1931 and was soon afterwards offered a studentship (fellowship) at the college, at an ‘emolument’ of £400 a year.

Einstein was a protégée of Frederick Lindemann, later Viscount Cherwell (1886-1957), who famously toured the continent in style during the 1930s (some say in a Rolls-Royce; others an Armstrong Siddeley) in order to search out Jewish academics and offer them posts in the relative safety of Oxford.

Einstein’s studentship was scheduled to last five years. However, he left after only two, having stayed in his accommodation at Christ Church for three periods between 1931 and 1933. Then, still concerned about the Nazi threat, he departed for Princeton. He asked that his annual £400 be used to assist other Jewish emigrées; and Lindemann — who of course later became famous as Churchill’s wartime scientific advisor, universally known in Whitehall as ‘the Prof’ — did indeed use the funds to bring brainy Jews, mainly scientists, away from Hitler’s horrible regime.

Sad to say, though, Einstein’s appointment at Oxford also serves to show up some ambivalent attitudes in England to the business of helping persecuted Germans. When the Dean of Christ Church, Henry White (1859-1934), offered Einstein his research studentship, he immediately received a letter from J.G.C. Anderson, Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology, fulminating against Einstein’s appointment as “unpatriotic”, and stating that the college founders had never intended emoluments to go to foreigners.

Prof Anderson wrote on November 2, 1931: “The University cannot carry on its work without a very large Government grant, and yet a college can pay out money to subsidize a German.” Happily, not a lot of notice was taken of Anderson. The Dean wrote: “[Einstein’s] attainments and reputation are so high that they transcend national boundaries, and any university in the world ought to be proud of having him.”

I was reminded of all this the other day when I dropped into Oxford Town Hall just in time to see curators dismantling an exhibition called Persecution and Survival: The Paul Jacobsthal Story, which had been on show there since January. The exhibition was part of a project, part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to enable researchers and volunteers to bring to light an extraordinary archive, kept for years in dusty boxes at Oxford’s Institute of Archaeology, that tells the tale of the life and times of another German-Jewish academic, archaeologist and expert on Celtic art, Paul Jacobsthal (1880-1957).

The excellent and easy to read booklet accompanying the exhibition, by Sally Crawford and Katharina Ulmschneider, gives a wonderful insight into what it was like to be a refugee lucky enough to be given a new lease of life in Oxford.

Jacobsthal was thrown out of Marburg University in 1935 “aus rassischen Gründen” (on racial grounds) and together with his wife Guste came to Oxford — helped through the formalities by friends, including classical archaeologist John Beazley, with whom he had already published a work on Greek vases.

His huge collection of photographs had been confiscated by the Nazis, but in Oxford he set about rebuilding it. In this he had the help of many former colleagues in Germany who continued to correspond with him at great risk to themselves. The problem for them was that German pre-history was a hot political potato. The Nazis wanted archaeological evidence of Aryan supremacy. Jacobsthal, for one, refused to supply it. But why, I wonder, are the Home Office records on Jacobsthal to remain closed to researchers until 2031?

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