Focus on Research: Historian David Zimmerman

David Zimmerman (History) reflects on his work. Photo: Philip Cox
David Zimmerman (History) Photo: Philip Cox


Known for his encyclopedic memory and gentle humour, David Zimmerman has been with the Department of History since 1988.

For the last 15 years he has served as president of the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society, which organizes memorial events and engages with local schools and community groups to teach about the history and manifestations of anti-Semitism.

David is also the author of 5 books and over 20 articles on various aspects of naval and military history, the early history of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, and academic refugee crises in Europe and Canada.

He is currently writing the final chapter of a new book, entitled Ensnared Between Hitler and Stalin: Academic Refugees in the USSR. We sat down with him last week to learn about his current research.


Can you tell us a little bit about your new book?

Ensnared Between Hitler and Stalin: Refugee Scientists in the USSR traces the lives of 36 German scholars who were forced to flee Nazi Germany and made the disastrous decision to seek refuge in the Soviet Union.  In 1937-38, all but one of the scholars were either arrested, murdered, or forced to flee again. Some of those who managed to escape the Soviet Union were then recaptured by the Nazis and murdered in the Holocaust. Only a few of the survivors were able to continue their careers in universities elsewhere. It is a sobering tale that counters the triumphant narratives that focus on the few refugee scholars who managed to continue their careers elsewhere.


What’s unique about your approach to this subject? How does it differ from existing research on the persecution of academics in Nazi Germany?

Most of the writings on the academic refugee crisis have focused on success stories of those scholars who managed to re-establish themselves after fleeing their home state, particularly in the United States and Great Britain. David Pyke and Jean Medawar’s book, Hitler’s Gift (2000), is an extreme example of this approach, portraying the mass dismissal of scientists from German universities as one of Hitler’s greatest mistakes. These authors concentrated on the remarkable contribution of the refugees, including the fifteen who became Nobel Prize winners.

My project’s objective is to broaden the range of recorded experiences of academic refugees in flight than is available in the existing historiography, focusing on those who did not survive the Second World War. By the end of 1937, at least 1,500 scholars were displaced from Nazi Germany, soon to be joined by hundreds more from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe. My work shows that while a minority of scholars sought refuge in the Soviet Union for ideological reasons, the overwhelming majority went there as a desperate last resort after all other avenues of escape were closed to them. Few went directly to the USSR after their dismissal from Germany; on average, the refugees spent two years looking for positions in Western Europe or North America before considering work in the Soviet Union.

Many of the refugee scholars included in my study did not survive the Second World War because they were younger than those assisted by the academic refugee organizations. These young scholars were also actively discriminated against by Western universities, who feared that hiring them would stir anti-Semitism among local graduate students.


Your first book was published in 1984, before the internet became a regular feature of academic life.  Has the internet changed how you conduct your research?

For this work, the internet allowed me to uncover the lives of these scholars in ways that traditional research could not. For example, using online genealogical databases, I was able to find a date of birth for Ena Zinnemann, which was necessary for locating her prison records. This date of birth was listed on her daughter’s birth certificate, which led me to her marriage certificate, which provided me with her married name. Within 10 minutes I had located Ena Zinnemann’s daughter on Facebook and sent her a message on Messenger. Within one hour I had a response. Eventually she provided me with a copy of a book she had written that recounted her parents’ story and included photographs of them from their time in the USSR. These connections would have been impossible without the access to people and information that the internet provides.


From all the personal stories you’ve encountered during your research, is there one that stands out in particular?

Yes, the story of Siegfried Gilde stands out to me as particularly tragic. He was a young medical researcher in Berlin in 1933 who was dismissed from his position because of his Jewish heritage. He and his wife, Ruth, fled to Paris, where they spent two years desperately seeking a permanent haven. Gilde even completed a second Ph.D. in physics and chemistry at that time in hopes of improving his prospects. In 1935, with his funds exhausted, Gilde reluctantly accepted a research position in Moscow, where he and his wife had a daughter named Marina. The family was safe until the autumn of 1937 when all foreign scholars were ordered to leave. Gilde was then detained at the Latvian border due to a complication with his exit-visa, while his wife and daughter were allowed to proceed. The family never saw each other again. Gilde was imprisoned in the USSR for three years until being handed over to the Gestapo in 1940 as part of a prisoner exchange. Sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, he worked in a hospital and likely perished in Treblinka in 1942. Ruth and Marina made it to Paris but were deported to Auschwitz in 1943, where they were murdered.


Why is work on this topic still important today? Almost 75 years after the end of World War II, what can it teach us?

Sadly, my study does have contemporary relevance, as both the British and American academic rescue organizations continue their efforts to assist an ever-growing number of displaced scholars from countries such as Turkey, Syria, the Cameroon, Iraq, Yemen, and Venezuela. It’s impossible to know what world-changing contributions scholars can make. Hans Hellman, for instance, was the pioneer of quantum chemistry and would likely have received a Nobel Prize for his work. He fled to the USSR in 1934, was arrested in 1938 on false charges of espionage, and summarily executed a few months later. My book provides an important reminder of what may be lost when scholars can no longer work in safety or when they are forced to seek refuge and are unable to resume their academic careers.


Stay tuned for publication details and more about David's research