Apr 2004 Journal

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Sebastian Flyte, Meet Albert Einstein ... (Part 2)

When Einstein decided against taking up the position offered to him at Christ Church, he expressed the wish that his stipend be used to fund posts for Jewish academics dismissed from German universities by the Nazis. That wish played its part in creating a continuing connection between the Jewish refugees and Oxford's grandest college.

Already in May 1934, Dean Williams wrote to Einstein to inform him that Christ Church proposed to give a sorely needed £200 to the distinguished classical philologist Eduard Fraenkel, who had been dismissed from his chair at Freiburg University for racial reasons and was now 'giving valuable lectures' in Oxford. Einstein was delighted that good was coming from the money intended for his post; in the last letter in his file at Christ Church, he wrote that he often thought gratefully of the generosity with which British academic institutions were contributing in this way to the preservation of intellectual values.

Two distinguished German-Jewish professors found refuge at Christ Church. Felix Jacoby, an outstanding specialist in Greek historiography and poetry, had been Professor of Classical Philology at Kiel University from 1907 until his dismissal in 1935. In 1939 he emigrated to Britain, where he continued to work on his magnum opus, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, publishing 15 volumes of texts and commentary over the 35 years during which he pursued this project.

One can imagine what it meant to Jacoby, stripped of his position and at the mercy of the Nazis, to receive a letter from Dean Williams in December 1938 inviting him in the warmest terms 'to continue your important work on the fragments of the Greek historians as soon as possible here at Oxford'. As well as arranging funding for Jacoby, the college was reaching out in solidarity to a colleague in distress: 'A considerable body of scholars and historians here are prepared to give you their strongest support.'

Many years later, in 1954, Dean Lowe wrote to Jacoby, acknowledging the return he had made for the college's generosity: 'In conditions of great difficulty and strain, with every temptation to "fold up" and on a modest allowance hardly commensurate with the deserts of a great scholar of your reputation and seniority, you have gone on indefatigably and kept pouring out contributions of the highest value to scholarship. That is something which we are glad, and indeed proud, to support.'

Another German-Jewish refugee academic who brought huge benefits to his adopted college was Paul Jacobsthal, who had been Professor of Archeology at Marburg University from 1912 until his dismissal in 1935. An expert on Greek vase painting, Jacobsthal was appointed to a post at Christ Church in 1937. His studies on the influence of Mediterranean civilisations on early North Alpine cultures led to his also becoming University Reader in Celtic Archeology. Dean Williams had enlisted the support of Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (himself a former student at Christ Church) to obtain permission from the German authorities for Jacobsthal to leave Germany.

However, Jacobsthal's file at Christ Church also shows the dark side of the refugee experience in Britain. In early September 1940 Dean Lowe received a letter from Jacobsthal, who had been interned as an 'enemy alien' in Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. Characteristically, the letter expressed Jacobsthal's anger and frustration at having lost two months' work. Jacoby was also interned, as were two Christ Church undergraduates, Walter Eberstadt and Matthias Paneth. Jacobsthal wrote one of the most vivid and moving of internment memoirs, with the striking opening: 'On Friday July 5th 1940 in the morning when I was peacefully writing on Celtic Geometric Ornament a knock came at my door in Christ Church and a plain clothes Police Officer entered producing a warrant of arrest.'

On his release, Walter Eberstadt joined the Pioneer Corps. From Ilfracombe he wrote to Dean Lowe: 'May I take this early opportunity to express to you my most sincere thanks to you for all you did for me during my internment ... I find it hard to express on paper what this assistance, and the spirit in which it was done, meant to me during my internment ... you cannot imagine what it meant for an internee when he realized the outside world did not believe in his alleged guilt, and had not forgotten him'. He subsequently distinguished himself as a British officer, and later on Wall Street.

Other German-Jewish refugees who studied at Christ Church include the poet and translator Michael Hamburger and the publisher John Calmann. The eminent historian Peter Pulzer, a child refugee from Vienna, is gratefully remembered by generations of students of politics and modern history at Christ Church, where he taught for many years before his appointment to a chair at All Souls College. Last but by no means least, the distinguished economist Professor Peter Oppenheimer, the British-born son of refugees from Nuremberg, has taught at Christ Church since 1967.

This is the second and concluding part of this article.
Anthony Grenville

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