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Our Man in Copenhagen

Bohr uses Rockefeller cash to save fellow scholars

The actions of the Rockefeller Foundation of America in the 1930s expressed the ambiguity inherent in American intellectual life: on the one hand they helped fund and support the Eugenics movement which fed into the Nazi ideology, and on the other they rescued 303 scholars and notable artists from the grip of Nazi persecution in the 1930s and during the Second World War.

At a time of appeasement towards Nazi Germany, and general prejudice, particularly with regards Jews, the Rockefeller Foundation stands out as a beacon of the New World's promise of humanitarian support of the needy. If it were not for their intervention in relocating academics and rescuing artists targeted for their race or political views, the world would have lost hundreds more of its shining intellectual stars.

Niels Bohr became their man in Copenhagen, and his courage proved instrumental in saving many of his fellow academics.

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The now Niels Bohr Institute, founded 1918, became a world beacon for revolutionary thought, and a refuge for persecuted intellectuals during WW2

The Rockefeller Foundation was founded in 1913 with the mission of "promoting the well-being of humanity throughout the world". Based in New York City, their endowments have supported many projects throughout the 20th century, including notably health research and parasite eradication programmes in the 1950s and 60s, such as hookworm.

On his own initiative, Niels Bohr, the prominent Danish theoretical physicist, met with the foundation's president in 1933. The collaboration allowed Bohr to offer refugees aid. He was the founder and director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (now the Niels Bohr Institute), and provided academics with temporary positions at the Institute, obtained fellowships for them from the Rockefeller Foundation, and arranged for many of them to take up posts in institutions abroad.

Bohr and others
Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, James Franck, Isidor Rabi, refugees in America escaping Nazi persecution

Among those Bohr helped were Otto Frisch, Lise Meitner, Edward Teller, James Franck, and Victor Weisskopf. A famous anecdote recollects how Bohr in 1940 preserved the gold from the Nobel Prize medals awarded to Max von Laue and James Franck, by dissolving them in acid. This allowed him to keep the gold out of the hands of the invading Nazis. After the war, the gold was recast into the medals again.

By September 1943, Bohr and his wife were under threat, and they fled to Sweden. There, Bohr added his voice to persuading the Swedish king to offer neutral Sweden as a safe refuge for Danish Jewish refugees, which led to many thousands reaching safety.

Article by Andrew Bone, January 17, 2016

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