Jerusalem Post - April 3, 2008

Columbia skips NYC event on university's Nazi ties in '30s

By Etgar Lefkovits

The president of Columbia University and university officials did not attend a weekend historians' conference in New York on the university's ties with Nazi Germany during the 1930s.

The Sunday evening conference, which was organized by the Washington-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, featured an American historian who has just completed a book about the American academic community's response to Nazism in the 1930s.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who was invited to speak at the event, did not attend, nor did any member of the university's administration, said Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff.

The event, which was held in Manhattan's Center for Jewish History, attracted about 100 people, including Holocaust survivors and a former Columbia student who attended the university during that time.

University of Oklahoma professor Stephen H. Norwood recounted how then-Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler had welcomed Nazi Germany's ambassador, Hans Luther, to the campus in December 1933 and tried to forge friendly relations with Nazi-controlled German universities in the mid-'30s.

"One might think that highly educated people like these elite university officials would show greater moral sensitivity," Norwood said. "But in fact, Butler was morally indifferent to Nazi crimes during the critically important early years of Nazi rule."

Norwood, who earned his Ph.D. in history at Columbia, also recounted how Butler had punished some Columbia students and faculty members who criticized his position towards the Nazis.

Jerome Klein, a professor of art history, was fired for opposing the Nazi ambassador's visit, and Robert Burke was expelled for leading student protests against Butler's decision to send a university delegation to a Nazi event in Germany, Norwood said.

"Sixty years after the Holocaust, Columbia has never acknowledged that they did anything wrong, even when we now know what the failure of confronting Nazism led to," Norwood said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post from Oklahoma. "They don't care enough to look back and say injustices were done."

The director of media relations at Columbia University, Robert Hornsby, said in response that Bollinger had not received the invitation in time to attend the event.

"President Bollinger's office received an e-mail last Saturday afternoon about this event happening on Sunday. Given the last-minute timing of such an invitation during a weekend (when the university is not open for business), it was not possible to respond or recruit a surrogate, since President Bollinger was not in New York that weekend himself," Hornsby said in a statement.

But Medoff said they had invited Bollinger to the conference over a month in advance, notifying him of the event by mail, e-mail and fax. He added that a university official from the president's office had even called him at the end of February to say that Bollinger was unable to accept their invitation.

"It's sad and ironic that Columbia was willing to send its representatives to a celebration at a Nazi-controlled university in 1936, but was not willing to send a representative to a meeting of historians who were discussing Columbia's relations with Nazi Germany," Medoff said.

Among the attendees at the New York conference was 91-year-old Nancy Wechsler, who, as a Columbia student, took part in the 1933 anti-Nazi protest on campus on what she recalled was a bitterly cold winter day.

The controversy over the university's failure to send a representative to the conference comes just six months after Columbia stirred a bitter tempest by hosting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel to be wiped off the map and has dismissed the Holocaust as a "myth." Norwood noted the "shocking" parallels between the visit of Nazi Germany's Ambassador in 1933 and the visit more than seven decades later of the Iranian President last year.

He noted that an earlier, similar conference, dealing with Harvard University's ties with Nazi Germany, had been boycotted by former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers.

 

(Click here to watch a video of this event, sponsored by Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation.)


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