Books interview: Laurel Leff

Laurel Leff

February 13, 2020
Laurel Leff

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
I read novels almost exclusively and without much regard for type. Before the summer break, I ordered dozens from Scholastic Books order forms. For a fourth-grade class contest, I read every Newbery Medal winner, beginning with the first in 1922. I even read the ones I knew I wouldn’t like because the protagonist was an animal (1927 and 1928 marked a bad stretch – a horse, followed by a pigeon). I had an occasional non-fiction jag; Daniel Boone biographies in the third-grade for some reason. But mostly it was novels by wonderful children’s authors such as Lloyd Alexander, Elizabeth Enright, Sydney Taylor and many more. One childhood author does stand out, however. Edward Eager’s Tales of Magic series sparkled in a way no other books did then or have since.

Your new book, ‘Well Worth Saving’, examines the ‘intellectual exodus’ from Nazi Europe. Which books would you recommend as accounts of what such refugees went through and their efforts to escape?
For a perspective on immigration, occupation and extermination, I would recommend books written as the events unfolded. Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française captures day-to-day life during the German occupation. Anna Seghers’ Transit evokes the anxiety and insanity of trying to escape the continent. Laura Z. Hobson’s The Trespassers provides a view from the other side of the ocean as a New York executive navigates the US immigration bureaucracy to help an Austrian family. Hans Natonek’s memoir, In Search of Myself, describes the profound distress of losing language and culture. Finally, A Writer at War: Vassily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945 chronicles the journalist’s travels through the slaughter fields of the Soviet Union.

Which books would you recommend as accounts of the response of American universities and how the migrants made new lives for themselves in the US?
What attracted my interest was what the many books on the intellectual migration did not say, rather than what they did. I knew refugees struggling to escape Nazi Europe obsessed over immigration. Fired from their jobs, limited in their activities, scared out of their minds, they spent their days visiting consulates and their nights writing letters to anyone and everyone who could possibly help. Yet the many otherwise excellent books on the intellectual exodus basically skip how the exiles entered the United States. One minute they are undergoing the savagery of the Nazi regime in Berlin and the next minute they are in Princeton writing about totalitarianism or inventing the atomic bomb. I knew there had to be more to the story than that.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
I gave Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward to my friend Dana, a brilliant photographer and activist whom I have known since the sixth grade.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Herrick Chapman’s France’s Long Reconstruction: In Search of the Modern Republic, Greg Dawson’s Judgment Before Nuremberg: The Holocaust in the Ukraine and the First Nazi War Crime Trial, Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz and Steven J. Ross’ Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots against Hollywood and America.

Laurel Leff is associate professor of journalism and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Northeastern University. Her latest book is Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe (Yale).


Print headline: Shelf life: Laurel Leff

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