These are the words of a remarkable woman. A secretary, who through her tireless work for the organisation now known as CARA – the Council for At-risk Academics – helped to arrange for the rescue of prominent scholars who had been dismissed from German universities on racial and political grounds. The Academic Assistance Council, as it was first known, was set up by William Beveridge in 1933, and its first president was Ernest Rutherford. Joining with other organisations, the AAC organised a fundraising event under the umbrella of the Refugee Assistance Fund, at which Albert Einstein spoke powerfully about intellectual and individual freedom:
“If we want to resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom we must keep clearly before us what is at stake, and what we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles. Without such freedom, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Pasteur and no Lister … Most people would lead a dull life of slavery … It is only men who are free who create the inventions and intellectual works which to us moderns make life worthwhile.”
As persecution in Germany intensified, and it became clear that Jewish scholars, and those who opposed Nazism, were not only losing their jobs and their freedom to work, but that their lives were at risk, the AAC set up a more formal structure to continue the work, the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL).
In the years between Hitler coming to power and the outbreak of war, they raised the equivalent of some £4 million in today’s terms, which they used to support individuals and their families while they found new posts in universities in the UK or in other safe countries.
In all some two thousand people were saved, and helped to build new lives. Sixteen won Nobel Prizes; eighteen were knighted; over one hundred became Fellows of The Royal Society or The British Academy. Their contribution to British scientific, intellectual and cultural life was enormous. To give just a few examples: Ernst Chain, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1945; Hans Krebs, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1953; Max Born, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1954; Max Perutz, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1962; Lise Meitner, celebrated nuclear physicist; Nikolaus Pevsner, architectural historian and author; Marthe Vogt, prominent neuroscientist; Geoffrey Elton (born Gottfried Ehrenberg), Tudor historian and philosopher of history; Ernst Gombrich, the notable art historian, who was able to work as a Warburg Institute research fellow in London; Karl Popper, political and social philosopher; Ludwig Guttmann, neurologist at Stoke Mandeville, ‘father’ of the Paralympic movement. It was a unique effort; there was no parallel elsewhere in Europe. At a commemorative event at the House of Lords in 2012, Mrs Eva Loeffler, Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s daughter, warmly thanked Cara for its vital role in obtaining visas for her family and for giving her father a grant to support his needs and to enable him to continue his research at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. Without Cara’s help, she said, they would all have perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Instead, her father’s dream of the Paralympics had come true.
Many eminent men headed up the organisation in its various forms (its work continued after the war – oppression and persecution continued and their efforts were as desperately needed as ever), and many eminent men were saved by its work. But it couldn’t have happened without Esther Simpson.
She became the AAC’s Assistant Secretary, recruited thanks to her work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
For the AAC it was an inspired appointment, as Beveridge would write, “of lasting and growing importance”. She had a rare talent for organization, for friendship and for persuading people to do what she asked without provoking resentment. She also had the most astounding reserves of energy, resilience and patience. She would routinely work until 10 pm when the gates outside their office were locked.
She had pots of funding to allocate, according to strict criteria, but most importantly she was the link between British (and later US) academic institutions and at-risk academics, finding ways of getting them out of Germany and providing support whilst they secured longer-term posts.
After the borders closed with the declaration of war, demonstrating what Max Perutz called ‘an iron toughness in the face of officialdom’, she helped to get Jewish refugees out of the British internment camps where they were being incarcerated (alongside Nazis) as ‘enemy aliens’.
Over 500 of those detained were academics, almost all of whom she had helped to settle in the UK. They included molecular biologist Max Perutz, architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and art historian Ernst Gombrich. She opened a file on each of them and began to prepare the documentation to petition for their release. A turning point came when the government announced that those who posed no danger and had a vital contribution to make to the nation were free to go. The Home Secretary then agreed that this would include contributions to science and learning.
Simpson ‘chivvies officials, chases references, comforts wives, sends food parcels, performs innumerable small acts of kindness. Practical humanity. The banality of goodness.’
After the war, Esther Simpson continued to work for the AAC/SPSL (Society for the Protection of Science & Learning) to secure the safety of at-risk academics from Czechoslovakia, Greece, Poland, Brazil, South Africa, Hungary, Romania, Biafra, Bangladesh, Argentina, Chile, Uganda, Zimbabwe, China …. As she said, ‘there is no end.’
And the organisation that she worked so tirelessly for is still pursuing the same goals today.
Its name changed yet again – from SPSL to the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) and then in 2014 to the Council for At-Risk Academics,
reflecting the fact that Cara helps many who are at great risk but do not see themselves as ‘refugees’, and instead still hope to return to their home countries when conditions allow.
The academics with whom CARA works today come from different parts of the world – their circumstances and their needs may be different to those of the first groups to whom the organisation reached out. But the fundamentals remain the same.
Alier was first arrested in 1992, accused of supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a multi-ethnic resistance group based in the south. He was released, but then faced with conscription into the Sudanese state’s army. He fled to the UK. He was supported by Cara to do an MSc in Water Management. Following the 2005 Peace Agreement he returned home and worked for a UK charity as a Water and Sanitation Engineer. After South Sudan’s independence, he took over a senior position in the Directorate of Water Resources Management, before beginning a new role as the Head of Technical Affairs, South Sudan National Petroleum and Gas Commission in January 2015.
In this short video, two Cara Fellows from Syria, Reem and Saeed, explore what they had to leave behind, talk about what they are doing now and discuss their hopes of returning in the future. Click here to hear their stories
The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is ‘our shared future’. The world we live in would be very different without the contribution of those who were rescued from the horror of Nazi Europe.
We cannot yet know what the contributions of those who Cara is helping today may be. One day, who knows, the names of some of those being supported now may be as well-known as those above. All we can know for sure is that without this work, gifted researchers and scholars who have the potential to make a difference in their field – whether it is medicine or engineering or plant science or law – will die.
Cara reports that the battle for Mosul has just this year cost the lives of a number of academics: Professor Lokman Safar, Professor Abdul Aziz Mahmoo, Professor Mohammed Mahmoud Sheikh-Isa, and Dr Ali Salah.
Executive Director Stephen Wordsworth says that
There has, sadly, been no let-up in the pace of work recently, as university academics around the world continue to be targets for repressive governments and extremist groups. Just now, most of those seeking the help of our Fellowship Programme to get to safety come from from Syria and Turkey, but there are many other places too where intellectuals are seen as ‘opposition’ and find themselves, sometimes quite literally, in the firing line.
As well as Fellowships, we are also developing our Syria Programme, to provide support in the region to Syrian academics affected by the crisis. This draws on our experience from earlier crises in Iraq and Zimbabwe, and is aimed at helping those who have been forced into exile to stay engaged academically, and to develop their skills.
Like all of the agencies working with the refugee crisis, Cara needs support. Find out how, here.
As an alumna, current student and retired member of staff at the University of Sheffield, I’m immensely proud that my University is at the forefront of initiatives to support both at-risk academics (working with Cara and other agencies) and asylum-seeker students.
Amongst many notable alumni, we remember in particular during Refugee Week, one scholar who came to Sheffield thanks to the efforts of the AAC.
Hans Krebs is just one person who came as a refugee from Nazi Germany. He came to Sheffield and established a group that worked on aspects of biochemistry that have been important to the world. His discovery of the Krebs cycle saw him awarded a Nobel Prize, but he has also left a legacy in Sheffield which continues to inspire future generations. We celebrated this legacy in 2015, 80 years after his arrival here.
Like Esther Simpson, we have to belong to the world. We are international, we always will be. Our community is made up of people from over 120 nations. Academics from all over the world teach students from all over the world, collaborating with institutions across the world. Only when we belong to the world can we truly ‘discover, understand, explore’, push the boundaries of knowledge, dig deeper, shed brighter light, make a difference by fighting back against disease, creating innovation, challenging received wisdom.