A couple of weeks ago, we shared a quite popular post on our social media about the writers of Curious George and how they were refugees from Nazi-occupied France. For this week’s blog post, we’re going to look at a few other well-known individuals whose contributions to society were only realized because they escaped from the Nazis.
Josef Albers- Modern Artist, known for color field painting
Already an artist and a member of the Bauhaus, Albers was primarily known as a glass artist while living in Germany. It was not until 1949, after he immigrated to the United States (which he did once the Nazis forced the closure of the Bauhaus, calling modern art “degenerate”), that he produced his famous and highly influential Homage to the Square series. Color field painting represented an important moment for modern art wherein artists sought a pure expression of emotion not tied to illustration.
Vladmir Nabokov- Author, best known for “Lolita”
Nabokov’s situation is especially fascinating because he was a refugee twice over; first, during the Russian revolution in 1917, and then again after the Nazis rose to power in Germany and France. His brother, who was homosexual and an outspoken critic of the Nazis, was killed in a concentration camp. Nabokov was another artist who began producing work before his emigration, but he did not make more than a few hundred dollars from any of his writing until the publication of Lolita in 1955. While Lolita caused significant controversy due to its subject matter, it was an important and overt social commentary on already disturbing patterns of modern culture, and made a huge influence on the field of literature.
Madeleine Albright- Politician, the first female Secretary of State in US history
Madeleine Albright and her family escaped from the Nazis when she was just two years old, moving first to England and then the United States when she was still a child. Her family raised her as Catholic to hide the fact that they were, in fact, Jewish; she did not learn the truth of her heritage until adulthood. Her relatives that stayed behind perished in concentration camps. Albright went on to become the United State’s first female Secretary of State, and at the time of her appointment she was the highest ranking woman in the history of the United States government. Albright has been honored many times over for her diplomacy while in office and her legacy has paved the way for women in American government.
Henry Kissinger- Politician
As a child, Kissinger and his family escaped the Nazis and he became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943. He was a security consultant to several presidential administrations in the late 50’s and 60’s, eventually becoming Secretary of State under President Nixon. He received the Nobel peace price for his diplomatic efforts to deescalate the Vietnam war, and was also known for his attempts to ease relations with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War as well as resuming previously cut relations with Egypt after the Arab-Israeli war. While he has since become a controversial figure, there is no arguing that he was one of the most influential politicians of the 20th century.
Lucian Freud- Artist, known for expressionist portraiture
Freud and his family immigrated to Britain in 1933 as Nazism began to rise in Germany. Grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian became famous in his own right, and is considered one of the foremost portrait artists of the 20th century. He had a confrontational art style and was known for adding psychological drama to semi-realistic (usually nude) figures, making him an important part of the Expressionist art movement.
Carl Djerassi- Chemist, inventor of the first birth control pill
At age 16, Djerassi and his mother immigrated from Austria to the United States; promptly, they lost their last $20 to a swindling New York cabdriver. He naively wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, asking for assistance, and obtained a college scholarship that would give him the education that lead to one of the most revolutionary discoveries in the 20th century. Djerassi is best known for his work in 1951 synthesizing a hormone that would lead to the invention of the first birth control pill, earning him the nickname “the father of the pill”. He also patented the first antihistamines and made innumerable contributions to the fields of science and art.
The list of individuals who were already famous when they escaped the Nazis is even longer–Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Marc Chagall, just to name a few. As we celebrate those who survived, let us take a moment to think of those who did not. We will never know what talent and ingenuity was lost with the millions who died during the Nazi regime.
As we reflect on those who we lost in the Holocaust, while it is appropriate to feel sad, let us channel those feelings into productive activity to change the narrative moving forward. There are more people displaced in the world today than at any time since the end of World War II. The United States is the nation that gave most of these important individuals the second chance they needed to change the world; let us hope that it continues to serve as that beacon of hope for the next generation of revolutionary minds.