Fleeing Nazis, Some Found Refuge Here

But Harvard’s effort to save Holocaust Jews called ‘very small and very late’

As undergraduates today commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, they will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors who sponsored refugees from Nazi Germany to complete an undergraduate education.

Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the 63rd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when captive Jews in Poland’s capital attempted a revolt.

As German forces marched through Europe and then attempted to exterminate the continent’s Jews, student pressure here at Harvard eventually caused the University to sponsor the full undergraduate educations of 14 refugees by 1944.

Rahel Kestenberg, who fled from Prague, was the first Jewish refugee to enroll in Radcliffe, The Crimson reported in February 1939.

Kurt M. Hertzfeld ’41 was also sponsored by Harvard. Then an 18-year-old refugee, Hertzfeld traveled from Austria in 1937 to avoid military conscription.

Alone with no money, Hertzfeld said he saw a New York Times article about special Harvard scholarships for refugees, applied, and was awarded a full scholarship for his entire undergraduate career. Hertzfeld concentrated in economics and went on to Harvard Business School for which he was again awarded a full scholarship.

“I was a very fortunate person,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Amherst, Mass. yesterday. “I wanted to live in America like any other American.” Determined to change his life around, Hertzfeld said he cut off ties with his German-speaking relatives and socialized mostly with non-refugee students.

“My past is my past. My future is in America,” he said of his thoughts at the time.

Students planned a rally and a concert in Sanders Theatre to raise over $10,000 that the University would then match for additional scholarships, historian Morton Keller said yesterday.

Keller and his wife Phyllis are the authors of “Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America’s University.”

In 1938, the Harvard Corporation established 20 scholarships of $500 for refugees who had fled Nazi Europe, according to the Kellers’ book.

Still, Morton Keller said, Harvard could have done more to help Jewish refugees, who composed the majority of Europeans eventually awarded scholarships.

The University “began in a small way, very small and very late,” he said. “It doesn’t really add up to that match.”

Among the contributors to the Harvard Refugee Committee’s fundraising efforts were House tutors and College parents, netting praise from dignitaries such as Albert Einstein and Frances Farmer, The Crimson reported.

“It wasn’t much in the way of organized activity,” Keller said. But “it is kind of striking that the students were as active as anybody else,” he added.

Last night, Harvard Hillel sponsored a talk by Auschwitz survivor Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, director emeritus of Hillel, who spoke about his experience in the Holocaust.

Members of Hillel will read names of the murdered from a microphone on the steps of Widener Library from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m today. Hillel’s Rabb Hall will also be open for the lighting of remembrance candles and reflective meditation.

­—Staff writer Shifra B. Mincer can be reached at smincer@fas.harvard.edu.