Oxford gave sanctuary to many who fled Nazi persecution, and the refugees in turn made a colossal contribution to the University’s intellectual life, as a forthcoming book reveals.

Shelter from the storm

By Victoria Bentata

With refugees constantly in the news, a new book shortly to be published by OUP is a timely reminder of the enormous contribution made by a small group of refugees in the 1930s and ’40s.

The uncatalogued contents of a plethora of unpromising brown boxes discovered in the bowels of the Archaeology Department — and previously classified as ‘of no academic importance’ — turned out to provide detailed information about how one of Germany’s top classical archaeologists, Paul Jacobsthal (pictured above), was able to evade the Nazis and escape to Oxford.  Transforming their department’s archives from a clutter problem into a valuable public resource, Sally Crawford and Katharina Ulmschneider told his story via an exhibition at Oxford Town Hall in 2012 and a booklet, Persecution and Survival: The Paul Jacobsthal Story.

Shelter from the stormAbove: Sorting the Jacobsthal archive at the Institute of Archaeology

Having embarked on one story, they found the interest generated led to the unearthing of numerous other stories and, in true archaeological style, kept digging deeper. The result is The Ark of Civilisation, out from OUP later this year — a unique collection of essays concerning not only how top academics from mainland Europe were spirited away to Oxford, but also the role played by some of these remarkable scholars once they got here.

Intriguingly, Jacobsthal appeared on the ‘100 list’, the list of 100 key people who would be removed from circulation if the Germans invaded, and he was involved in something so secret that the National Archives cannot release the full records until 2031. Certainly, he was known to be a great friend of Sir John Masterman, Chairman of the Twenty (or XX) Committee (a pun on double-cross) which ran a network of double agents, successfully uncovered every German spy active in Britain and masterminded Operation Mincemeat. (Sally confirms that the underpants of the tramp washed up on Spain’s shores with a sheaf of ‘secret’ papers designed to divert the Germans from the true Allied invasion route were indeed those of an Oxford don, patriotically donated by his widow at a time of shortages.)

Shelter from the stormAbove: A post-war note from a German colleague to Jacobsthal pleading for the censors to let the message through

Jacobsthal, it seems, was a friend of everyone from Kaiser Wilhelm to Maurice Bowra — who called him ‘the most fascinating and interesting’ of men — and the broad reach of this book lays bare many of the personal networks which existed in Oxford during the war amongst the refugees and their contemporaries. As Nicolai Rubinstein, historian of Renaissance Florence, commented on his arrival in Oxford, ‘I shall snuffle about and make relations.’

Relationships between German and British academics of course went back a long way and refugee scholars did not end up in Oxford by accident but as a result of a concerted effort. The single biggest impetus was the setting up of the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) by William Beveridge, who saw the writing on the wall during a trip to Vienna and organised a meeting at the Albert Hall in 1933 addressed by Albert Einstein. AAC later became the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL), actively supported by several Oxford colleges, and is credited with saving 2,500 academics of whom 16 became Nobel Prize winners.  It exists today as the Council for Assisting Refugee Scholars (CARA) and is currently busy helping academics from places such as Syria and Iraq.

Shelter from the stormAbove: The 2012 exhibition, Persecution and Survival: the Paul Jacobsthal Story, at Oxford Town Hall

Until now, it is the stories of the wartime refugee scientists which have been best documented: Ernst Chain, penicillin scientist, Hans Krebs and his ‘Krebs cycle’, Franz Simon, the father of low-temperature physics, Ludwig Guttmann, founder of the Paralympic Games. The Ark of Civilization looks at those in the arts and social sciences, from classicist Eduard Fraenkel, who managed, memorably, to bring two railway carriages full of books with him, to publisher Bruno Cassirer. It considers historians such as Arnaldo Momigliano and Nicolai Rubinstein, artists and musicians such as Ernst Eisenmayer, Heinz Edgar Kiewe and Egon Wellesz, and philosophers including Jacob Leib Teicher and Raymond Klibansky, all of whose stories are fascinating.

Oxford as an ark, preserving civilisation and its guardians until they could safely be set down on dry land, is an appealing metaphor and while the tragedy of those who were lost should be forever remembered, it is heartening that the stories of those who were saved are not being forgotten either.

 Shelter from the stormAbove:  Luggage tag for an internee, Warner’s Camp, Seaton, Devon 1940

All images reproduced courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford.


By Fred Wright

Any explanation for the picture accompanying the letter to 'Dear Mr Censor'? Also is 'maol' the German way of writing 'mad'?

By Professor Dr. S...

I found the story fascinating. Being an Alumni I am proud of my Oxford connection and am interested in collecting similar stories from the refugees coming from Afghanistan who came to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of that country.

By Richard Walsh

Ernst Kantorowicz, historian?

By Akhtar Hamid

I wonder if Otto Kahn-Freund, the famous Oxford lawyer, was part of the exodus? I had the pleasure and honor of being one of his pupils in the late 1960s.

By Andrew Nelson

Certainly very interesting but the list of Academic refugees who contributed to UK life after the war is far greater than given above: Max Perutz, Max Born (a distant relative of mine), Geoffrey Ehrenberg, Hermann Bondi and many many others. I think this is an argument for encouraging immigration not discouraging it as so many short sighted politicians have done in the past!!

By asif

Very important topic-to analyze -to learn.

By Timothy Keates

Most interesting and heartening. Sorry there is no mention of Teddy Adorno — who was simultaneously eminent and slightly preposterous. How can 'Professor S.' (professor?) claim to be 'an alumni' (the second word being plural)?

By Orly Almi

Fascinating, but makes me wonder: were there no women scientists that arrived in this way? and what does it say about Oxford, not only about the era. There is no one single name of a woman in the article, but the two current researchers...

By Charles Griffin

To add to Andrew Wilson's comment: my D Phil supervisor, Dr Kurt Mendelssohn, FRS, (same family as the composer) was a prominent low-temperature physicist who had the foresight to get out of Germany in 1933 when Hitler became Reichskanzler.