The Nazi persecution of the Jewish people before and during WWII affected all layers of the society, regardless of the victims’ social status or achievements. Among the estimated 80,000 Jewish people from Bohemia and Moravia murdered in the Holocaust were also many distinguished scientists and scholars from various fields of science. A new book entitled Disappeared Science now profiles several dozen of them.
The book Disappeared Science includes the stories of 46 Czech- and German-speaking scholars and scientists active in Bohemia and Moravia before the Second World War. Among them were renowned physicians, biologists and mathematicians as well as historians and philologists whose work at universities, hospital and research institutes was interrupted after the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands.
I sat down with one of the book’s editors, Michal V. Šimůnek from the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and first asked him about how they chose the people to be included in the study.
“We had five of six main criteria such as long-term scientific activities in Bohemia and Moravia, their affiliation with universities or high schools, as well as the tragic ends of their lives in consequence of the Nazi racial persecution.”
The number of people included in the study – 46 – does seem rather low. Any such death was of course tragic but given the stereotypic anti-Semitic complaints from before the war of disproportionately large Jewish presence at universities, in hospitals, and so on – were you surprised that there were only 46 Holocaust victims among Czech and Moravian scientists?
“It depends. I think that in proportion, it is a very high number. The problem is there is lack of information on the situation in Austria and Germany, for instance, which makes it very complicated to compare the proportions with these countries.
“You also need to take into consideration that there were significant differences between the situation in Bohemia and Moravia, between Prague and Brno as the main intellectual and scientific centres at that time. So I think this question is still open, and I’m looking forward to further case studies and opportunities to compare.”
When the Nazis launched the persecution of the Jewish people, some of them were hoping that as WWI veterans, famous industrialists and renowned scientists would protect them. Did you find that this actually happened?
“Not at all. Many of course hoped that their achievements and contributions would protect them and their families. But it did not play a role at the end of the day.
“The Nazi authorities just worked on solving the so-called Jewish question without any exemptions. We saw how the Nazi authorities ranked the people also with regard to their financial sources. So it’s very tragic.”
In the book, you say that quite a lot of the victims in fact committed suicide when faced with the persecution – about 7 percent of them, which was probably higher than the average Jewish population of the Protectorate. What do you think that was?
“It’s hard to say. We were also surprised by these numbers. One reason could be that these suicides stared happened at the very beginning, in late 1938 and early 1939.
“Another factor could be that many of these people were physicians. You could probably assume they had access to medicaments and drugs.”
Do you think that the intellectual capacity of these people actually helped them better understand what was coming?
“That’s a good question. Many of those who perished tried to leave but did not succeed. There were also several cases when they managed to leave but the Nazis still caught up with them.
“For instance, a professor of the medical school of the former German university in Prague emigrated to Norway in 1939 but then failed to leave. So he was deported to Berlin, and then to Auschwitz where he was murdered.
“So I think they were very well aware of the situation. Another aspect could be the fact that scientists and scholars, or at least some of them, had contacts outside of the German-speaking countries, in the US for instance.”
When we look at the individual people mentioned in your book, who would you say were the most respected scientists?
“It’s extremely hard to judge their personalities like that but in putting the stories together, you are naturally inspired by some of the lives more than by others.
“In the branch of medicine and natural sciences, I think that Professor Emil Starkenstein was a very impressive person, a pharmacologist and toxicologist and a very cultured person, too.
“He was one of those who were able to leave with his family to the Netherlands. But they stayed there and he was brought back by the Prague Gestapo and died in the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1942.
Another interesting person, and one that’s not so well-known, was Gustav Gellner, a brother of [Czech poet] František Gellner. He was a bacteriologist and a former Austrian military physician; after his retirement, he took up another specialization which was history of medicine, and became quite well known among historians of medicine.
“We should not forget the members of the Einstein quartet in Prague. Among them were two professors – Professor Pick who was one of those who originally invited Albert Einstein to Prague, and the other was Professor Kamil Körner of Prague’s Technical University. They in fact played with Albert Einstein in that quartet.”