The Emma Lazarus Lecture
An Annual Event Held By The Program On International Migration: Economics, Ethics and the Law
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October 21, 2008 (NEW YORK) – The 2008 Emma Lazarus Lecture focused on the surprising discoveries of Harvard University Professor Gerald Holton’s work, which will be published in his forthcoming book, What Happened to the Children? Achievement and Trauma among Young Refugees from Nazi Persecution.
And though the events dated back more than a half-century, Columbia University Economics and Law Professor Jagdish Bhagwati said the topic is just as relevant today as immigration is one of the United States’ top issues. “The whole Jewish experience is one of the triumph of aspiration and opportunity over the despair and distress they were fleeing,” said Bhagwati, who presided over the panel. Discussants were Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel; Fritz Stern, Columbia University Professor emeritus and author of Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire; and Aristide Zolberg, director, International Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship at the New School University, and author of A Nation by Design? Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America.
About two dozen people attended the panel, held in the Low Memorial Library on October 15. The lecture series began in 2003 with the formation of the interdisciplinary program that Bhagwati leads, International Migration: Economics, Ethics and Law, which is housed at the Law School.
Holton’s book, to be released in November, explores the experiences of refugees who fled Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. At the lecture, Holton said about 2,500 former refugees answered surveys and another 100 agreed to follow-up interviews. His lecture focused less on the horrors of the war, though he did refer to how the refugees who were able to escape with family often indicated how they had to grow up before their time. “ ‘I had to become the parent and they became the children,’ ” recalled one refugee, Holton said.
Rather, Holton focused on the successes of the young refugees. In the book, he compares the refugees with a control group of American-born children. The differences are striking. Two out of 10,000 U.S.-born citizens ended up in the Who’s Who guides for prominent Americans. In the refugee group that number was 25 in 10,000.
Female refugees were twice as likely to enter professional fields than U.S.-born women. Male refugees were three times as likely to have graduated from college. At the panel, Holton said he asked refugees for the reasons behind their success. One replied that they “just didn’t know how to stop.” Another said, “Success is the best revenge.”
One of those successes was Columbia University Professor emeritus Fritz Stern, who fled Europe as children during the war years, and who was one of three panelists. Stern said he was 12 in 1938 when he came to the U.S. with his parents, speaking no English. He lauded the “hospitality that I experienced at P.S. 152 in Queens.” “There was a basic humanity,” he said. “An acceptance.”
Eric Kandel, Nobel laureate, Columbia University Professor and director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, who was also on the panel, said he often thinks of how he is “obsessed with the things we left behind.” For him it is Viennese art; for his friend, Professor Stern, it is German history.
“For me, it’s a way to make meaning out of my parents’ lives,” said Kandel, who came to the U.S. at age 9 with his 14-year-old brother. Other relatives joined them later. While he was relatively poor in Vienna, Kandel said he found himself luxuriating with amenities like a refrigerator in the U.S. In Vienna, he said, he spent his days sheltered; in America, he said he found freedom in simple pleasures like roller skating in the street.
In closing, Bhagwati thanked the participants for sharing their stories. “I think it is amazing what we have heard – that you came from desperation and anguish and found your way here,” he said, “It reinforces everything we believe about the United States.”
Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School joins traditional strengths in international and comparative law, constitutional law, administrative law, business law and human rights law with pioneering work in the areas of intellectual property, digital technology, sexuality and gender, and criminal law.
— By Jennifer V. Hughes