The scientists who escaped the Nazis

Gustav Born Gustav Born is one of the last living links with the refugee scientists

When Gustav Born's family were advised in early 1933 that it was time to leave Nazi-controlled Germany, it was from a good authority.

The advice was from Albert Einstein, who told his friend and fellow scientist Max Born to "leave immediately" with his family while they were still able to travel.

They packed their bags and headed across the border, first to Italy and then to England, where they arrived as part of what must have been the best-qualified refugee trail in history.

Gustav Born was 11 at the time, living in Gottingen, Lower Saxony, where his father, Max, was director of one of the world's leading centres for physics research.

The Borns were Jewish, and when Hitler took power, Max Born and his Jewish colleagues were prevented from working at the university. This pioneering, elite group of theoretical scientists were turned into asylum seekers.

Gustav now lives in London, a few days short of his 92nd birthday, and he looks back with great clarity on the remarkable flight of these German academics. The conversation is like opening a 1930s Mitteleuropa time capsule.

Living links

He is now one of the last living links to these academic refugees, who between them went on to win 16 Nobel prizes - his father received the award for his work in quantum mechanics.

Did these scientists realise the extent of the threat from the Nazis?

Einstein at the Albert Hall, 1933 Albert Einstein in London in 1933 warned against the "temptations of hatred"

"Yes, I think my father probably did. Among his Jewish colleagues, some did, but some didn't believe for some time. But the scale of what the Nazis were doing became apparent in the first three to six months."

Gustav remembers that the ugly mood of anti-Semitism had even reached the playground, with some children not allowed to play with him.

There were also positive examples of human nature, such as the academics who stood by their Jewish colleagues. The Nobel prize winner Max von Laue showed great support, says Gustav.

The physicist Max Planck went to see Hitler in person to challenge the exclusion of Jewish scientists, but Hitler "foamed at the mouth and wouldn't let him talk any more".

It was still tough to leave. Max Born had to give up running an institute, his wife was heartbroken at the prospect of emigrating.

"They hated to be uprooted in this crude and dangerous way."

'Individual liberty'

When the Borns left, they were not under any illusions that this would be a temporary departure. "Nazification" was happening rapidly and there were political murders.


  • Nobel prize winners: Prof H A Bethe, Prof M Born, Sir Ernst Chain, Prof M Delbruck, Prof D Gabor, Dr G Herzberg, Prof J Heyrovsky, Sir Bernard Katz, Sir Hans Krebs, Dr F Lipmann, Prof O Loewi, Prof S Luria, Prof S Ochoa, Dr M Perutz, Prof J Polanyi, Prof E Segre
  • Knighthoods: Sir Walter Bodmer, Sir John Burgh, Sir Ernst Chain, Sir Hermann Bondi, Sir Geoffrey Elton, Sir Ernest Gombrich, Sir Ludwig Guttman, Sir Peter Hirsch, Sir Otto Kahn-Freund, Sir Bernard Katz, Sir Hans Kornberg, Sir Hans Krebs, Sir Claus Moser, Sir Rudolf Peierls, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Sir Karl Popper, Sir Francis Simon

Source: Council for Assisting Refugee Academics

"My parents were pretty sure this was a one-way journey."

While the Borns were watching the swastikas appearing in Gottingen, a much more tweedily humanitarian response was being marshalled by university staff in Britain.

The economist William Beveridge had set up the Academic Assistance Council, with the aim of rescuing Jewish and politically vulnerable academics.

It was an organisation that would help 1,500 academics escape Germany and continue their research work in safety in Britain.

It was quickly backed by academics whose names now read like a row of text books - J B S Haldane, John Maynard Keynes, Ernest Rutherford, G M Trevelyan and the poet A E Housman.

Albert Einstein supported this high-brow escape committee with a highly-charged speech in the Albert Hall in London in October 1933.

He set out an epic defence of Western liberal values of "tolerance and justice" against the "temptations of hatred and oppression", at a time of deepening extremism and economic and political turmoil.

"It is in times of economic distress such as we experience everywhere today, one sees very clearly the strength of the moral forces that live in a people."

Syrian refugees in Jordan World Refugee Day 2013: Syrian refugees in Jordan

He told his audience that it was "the liberty of the individual that has brought us every advance of knowledge and invention - liberty without which life to a self-respecting man is not worth living".

Rescue operation

The council launched its "rescue operation", arranging for academics to come to Britain and providing practical support in the form of grants, accommodation and most importantly jobs.

This was a remarkably talented group being cast aside by the Nazis. As well as the trawl of Nobel prizes, there were 18 future knighthoods and over 100 fellows of the Royal Society or British Academy.

According to the Association of Jewish Refugees there were about 70,000 Jewish refugees who came to Britain before the outbreak of war in 1939.

Max Born Nobel prize winner and refugee Max Born took British citizenship before the outbreak of war

Max Born and his family went first to Cambridge and then to Edinburgh University. He paid his way by writing a science text book that became a school standard.

There were others who moved on to the United States. Mathematician Richard Courant went to New York where one of the foremost centres for applied maths, the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, is named after him.

Losing such intellectual powerhouses was a self-inflicted wound for the Nazi war effort.

In the race to develop atomic weapons, German refugees played a key role in making sure that it was the United States that won.

Even though Max Born refused on moral grounds to work on atomic weapons research, Robert Oppenheimer, the US-born "father of the atomic bomb", had been Born's PhD student at Gottingen.

There were signs at one stage that the Nazis might have realised their mistake.

In 1934, Max Born and his family were visited in Cambridge by Werner Heisenberg, another Nobel prize winner and old colleague who had continued working at Gottingen.

Heisenberg brought a message from the Nazi government inviting Max Born to return to continue his scientific work in Germany. The invitation left Born "beside himself with fury", his son recalls.

Going back

But Max Born and his wife did eventually go back to Germany, after the war was over and after he had retired. He died there in 1970 and is buried in the same cemetery in Gottingen as Max Planck and Max von Laue.

Gustav, who became a professor of pharmacology at King's College London, says that his parents were committed to trying to rebuild Germany in a way that would prevent the return of such political extremism.

Start Quote

I want them not to forget that things like this, the suppression of a country by a gang of murderous crooks and the victimisation of people of good nature and good intention, it could happen again”

End Quote Gustav Born

What lessons should be learned from all this?

Gustav Born remains a strong supporter of the campaign to rescue academics, which is now marking its 80th year.

It has become the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara) and its current chair, Anne Lonsdale, says that after 80 years the organisation "would love to be out of a job", but the problems in Zimbabwe, Iran, Iraq and Syria mean that academics still need help in places where "civil society no longer functions".

There is an "urgent need for scholars from across the Middle East to get to exile in a place of safety", she said.

The stories of refugees from the Nazis, with grainy photos of faces with lines like old railway maps of Europe, might seem like something from a lost world.

But Gustav Born says that Cara's ongoing work shows that it is as relevant as ever. It is also a reminder not to make hasty judgements about refugees and what they might be able to achieve.

His descriptions of that academic world of the 1930s are also a last glimpse of a highly cultured society. His father, remembered for his science research, played Bach on the piano every day. These were internationalists, their ideas and research moving across national and political boundaries.

Such a world proved fragile in the face of the Nazis. And Gustav Born says people can too often overlook that Germany had still been a young country in the 1930s, little more than 60 years old, and that it hadn't built the institutions able to resist its own "militaristic and nationalistic" tendencies.

He is very much aware that he is now one of the few remaining people who can talk first-hand about such a legacy.

"I'm sad that it almost ends with me.

"I want them not to forget that things like this, the suppression of a country by a gang of murderous crooks and the victimisation of people of good nature and good intention, it could happen again."

Send us your comments and thoughts on how academic refugees were rescued and are still at risk.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the UK and US for providing safe place for these world's great men to realise their potentials, without them many discoveries and technologies would have still been in the offing. How I wish these schemes would have been in place for many brilliant Africans who are wasting their talents.

Yaw, Finland

In the race to develop atomic weapons, German refugees played a key role in making sure that it was the United States that won. They sure did. Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, originally from Austria and Berlin respectively, together kick started the Manhattan Project. They both worked at Birmingham University on theoretical physics. Being of foreign origin they were not allowed to work on the most secret of projects at the time, RADAR. Together they correctly calculated the amount of Uranium-235 that would be need to sustain nuclear fission, a few kgs instead of the many kgs that was previously thought Prior to their discovery it was thought that the amount of Uranium-235 needed to sustain nuclear fission was so great that it made an atomic bomb impracticable. Without this information the Nazis wasted a lot of time and effort trying to develop a Hydrogen bomb which the Americans didn't even succeed at till 1952.

Stuart, Ellesmere Port

This is a wonderful story which should never fade from memory. It is especially wonderful that the work done by CARA continues to the present day. We all need to remember the better responses of humans to crisis as well as the hideous and evil responses as with the Nazis and those who made their crimes possible.

Christopher, Lake Katrine, NY, USA

You have forgotten about Sir Joseph Rotblat in your list of refugee Nobel laureates. He was an amazing person. A scientist, who won the Nobel peace prize!

Jennie, Bury

I can say of my personal experiences here in Europe, being an African from Ghana, I had the real feeling of what is discrimination when I got to be trained as Elektrotechniker, As a professional person I had many experiences when I had to exercise a lot patience within my enviroment. Mankind all over the world, we should learn to tolerate one another

Kwame, Essen, Germany

Reading stories such as this reminds me of not only the extraordinary circumstances of German and Austrian scientists in the 1930's but also of differences in their motivations and opportunities compared with today. That generation of physicists (including Heisenberg) believed that they were on the verge of understanding fundamental facts about the operation of the universe and felt an almost almost religious obligation to advance that knowledge. By contrast the motivations and opportunities for today's leading scientists are more heavily dictated by the potential for extraordinary wealth and celebrity. Thus China (among other nations) has learned to reward and retain brilliant computer scientists and physicists despite maintaining a criminally corrupt economy and abusing fundamental human rights. The very success of fundamental science to establish its value to economic and military value has undermined much of its intellectual and moral purposes.

Stephen, Wilmington, Delaware, USA

Academics are absolutely still at risk and I was glad to see mention of the present conflicts in the Middle East. Through systematic radicalization and coercion scientists are steered towards projects focused on providing their despot leaders with more efficient means of harming others (even their own citizens). Meanwhile, the problems most relevant to the people in those countries (poverty, education, disease, hunger, etc.) are allowed to fester. Although not in the Middle East, North Korea provides a clear example of the cost of such policies, having made itself a pariah amongst the majority of the world. And even as the adult intellectuals are used as the means to violent ends, many of these same nations suppress the education of their own children under the guise of piety, afraid to give their citizens the opportunity to consider for themselves how they wish to live and use their talents. Instead of encouraging the natural curiosity and ingenuity of their young people (and yes, particularly young women), totalitarian regimes attempt to strip them of their potential as individuals. The hatred that can step into that void is see in the news every day of the week. It seems at times that the sun cannot set in certain countries without a life being taken to prove some ideological or religious point. And finally, like so many despots, every regime has an almost limitless supply of scapegoats. Every authoritarian tells their people the death, poverty, disease, and hunger is the result of some sinister conspiracy from foreigners, minorities, or outside religions. They tell their people not to use their minds to solve problems for themselves, but to mindlessly attack those who might have been their partners in a better future. So yes, as is often the case, I find myself nodding in agreement with the late Mr. Einstein. Intellectuals, particularly younger students, must be removed from these environments before their talents are shamelessly wasted. Worse still, they could be "weaponized" for the greater glory of thugs willing to kill anyone that threatens their world view.

Matt, New York

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