Harvard physics professor Gerald Holton and researcher Gerhard Sonnert discussed in a study group yesterday the assimilation of German refugee children and the factors that contributed to their socioeconomic success in America.
The two co-authored the 2006 book “What Happened to the Children Who Fled Nazi Persecution,” which examines the immigration experiences of a group of refugees born between 1918 and 1935.
To their surprise, Holton and Sonnert said that the group did not follow the usual model of assimilation, in which immigrants become familiar with the new country’s culture before achieving social and economic success.
“Linear assimilation was not true for this group because although they did really well socioeconomically, they did not assimilate into the mainstream,” said Sonnert, adding that the cultural values retained by the refugees proved “advantageous.”
Holton and Sonnert also found that children whose parents had been professional workers in Germany were three times more likely to become professionals in the United States.
Though the post-war climate in America was friendly to many job-seeking immigrants, the German refugees were especially successful in their assimilation efforts, Sonnert said. The group boasted greater rates of professional careers and degrees in higher education, compared to the general American population.
“We want to know why this particular group of people was so successful,” Sonnert said.
Among other explanations, Holton pointed to the amount of responsibility required of children who endured the oppression of Nazi Germany and negotiated their own immigration efforts.
For example, many refugee children were charged with obtaining immigration documents for their parents, who could not safely leave the house without a Swastika, according to Holton.
After the discussion, Alex Sagan—co-chair of the study group on Jews in modern Europe—said he was impressed by the professors’ systematic approach to understanding the immigrant experience, and the simultaneous evocation of the refugees’ psychological condition.
Holton and Sonnert are currently awaiting the publication of their new book, which applies their findings about the German refugee children to modern-day immigrant populations.