From fascist Europe to U.C. Berkeley: Students help uncover a history of intellectual migration

It must have been an Indiana Jones moment for Stuart Fine. Poring over rare documents, many of which had been boxed up for decades, the 19-year-old U.C. Berkeley freshman uncovered a lost world.

Fine was one of nine students taking part in a project of the university’s Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship program. Their mission: Explore the lives of 70 professors, most of them Jewish, who had fled Nazi-occupied Europe in the ’30s and later joined the U.C. Berkeley faculty.

Their findings will be part of a 2014 exhibit at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley.

At the Magnes, students who worked on the research project, with Magnes graduate fellow Daniel Viragh (center) photo/peg skorpinski

“It was fascinating to learn about these people,” Fine said. “I knew about the Jewish intellectual diaspora after the war, but I had no idea so many amazing people came to U.C. Berkeley or that Cal accepted so many persecuted Jews.”

The documents had been stored at the university’s Bancroft Library, which houses a portion of the Magnes’ archives.

The semester-long project culminated in an April 25 program at the Magnes called “Saved by the Bay: Refugees from Fascist Europe at U.C. Berkeley,”  at which the students presented their findings.

“U.C. Berkeley was very active in giving employment to the scholars,” said Alla Efimova, director of the Magnes. “They benefited greatly from embracing the scholars. In the post-war years, [the university] became a premier institution largely due to the influx of scholars.”

One of the scholars Fine researched was Frank Oppenheimer. Though less famous than his brother, Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer, the younger Oppenheimer made his mark. He not only taught physics at Cal, but also co-founded the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

“It was a treasure trove,” Fine said of the materials he uncovered at the Bancroft Library. “It was really cool to see his old documents: his high school grades, his letters to his brother about life-changing research, letters from his parents about leaving Germany. He was always living in the shadow of his brother, but he was an amazing guy.”

Other notable Jewish scholars the students researched were German-born art professor Peter Selz. He arrived in Berkeley in the ’60s, and went on to develop the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. At the opening of the art museum in November 1970, Selz hired a dance troupe to dance naked through the halls.

At 91, he remains a Cal professor emeritus of art history.

Another was Max Knight (born Max Buhnel), a Viennese Jew who fled Hitler, first to Shanghai. He had been hired to teach in Cal’s political science department, but chose instead to become an editor at the UC Press, where he worked from 1950 to 1976.

Magnes not only opened its archives to the students, but its staff was available to help them. Everyone’s task was slightly different based on the amount of materials available. “For some [professors] there were boxes and boxes; for others just a few folders,” Efimova said.

Cal history professor Thomas Laqueur, who knew many of the refugee professors personally, was drawn to the project.

“This was special in some measure because it’s connected to a museum,” Laqueur said. “[The students are] not just working on my research questions, but presenting an exhibition, telling a story and telling it visually.”

Making the experience especially meaningful to Fine was his own refugee story. His Jewish grandfather fled his native Syria in the 1940s for pre-state Israel, where he established a kibbutz.

“There was definitely a deeply personal connection,” Fine said. “I also love history and doing research.”

“The students went through the stuff intelligently and the final presentation was really engaging,” said Laqueur, a U.C. Berkeley professor since 1973. “Some [of the students] were Jewish, some not;, some German, some Asian. It’s very Berkeley.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.