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Italian Refugee Scholars at the New School: A Collective Profile

This blog post was written in response to information gathering resulting from the visit of an international researcher. Here in the New School Archives and Special Collections, we assist researchers from around the world on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Many of the researchers who consult the records of the Graduate Faculty (what was originally the University in Exile and what is now the New School for Social Research) are doctoral students and post-doc fellows from Europe who are seeking information about Jewish and anti-fascist academics from their home countries who sought refuge in the United States in the years leading up to and during World War Two. As the New School Archives staff makes progress in organizing and describing the New School’s institutional records, we look forward to assisting even greater numbers of international scholars in their investigations of New School history. — The Editors

The New School is well-known for its rescue or assistance to German-speaking Jews seeking to emigrate to the United States in the 1930s, and for its role as a venue for classes held by the École Libre during World War II. Less well-known is the aid it provided to various anti-fascist Italian academicians. At least thirteen Italian scholars were employed by the New School so that they could stay safely in America – Max Ascoli, Giuseppe Borgese, Paolo Contini, Renata Calabrese, Mario Einaudi, Nino Levi, Paolo Milano, Franco Modigliani, Alexander Pekelis, Gaetano Salvemini, George D. deSantillana, Angelo Piero Sereni, and Lionello Venturi.

Of these émigrés, five had backgrounds in the field of law: Max Ascoli, Paolo Contini, Nino Levi, Alexander Pekelis, and Angelo Piero Sereni. Political science occupied Paolo Contini and Mario Einaudi. Max Ascoli, Giuseppe Borgese, and Paolo Milano were involved with literature. History was a major interest for Gaetano Salvemini; George D. deSantillana taught the history of science and Lionello Venturi, the history of art. Franco Modigliani was the only economist and Renata Calabrese, the only psychologist.

In their initial emigration, some of this group had fellowships or visiting appointments to teach in America and simply did not go home. Max Ascoli got a two-year fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1931 and remained in the U.S. Giuseppe Borgese took a job as a visiting professor at the University of California in 1931 and stayed on. Some came to America in a roundabout way. Pekelis worked in France and went to Lisbon before coming to America. (The ultimate émigré of the group, Pekelis immigrated to Italy from Russia in 1917 before politics displaced him a second time.) Santillana taught in Paris before emigrating. Lionello Venturi left Italy for France because of fascism at home and then departed from France when the Vichy regime was established there.

Several Italian émigrés returned to Italy after the war – some to careers, and others to retire. Returnees included Giuseppe Borgese, Paolo Contini, Mario Einaudi, Paolo Milano, Gaetano Salvemini, Angelo Piero Sereni, and Lionello Venturi. In 1948, Borgese was restored to the professorial rank he had held at the University of Milan before the war, teaching aesthetics and historical criticism. Contini worked in various U.N.-related legal capacities and was employed by the Rome-based FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] at the time of his death, in 1975. In retirement from Cornell University, where he had established the Center for International Studies, Einaudi lived part-time in Ithaca, New York and part-time in Italy; he died in Piedmont, Italy in 1994. Milano died in Rome in 1988, where he worked as the chief literary critic for the well-known weekly news magazine, L’Espresso. Salvemini retired to Italy in 1954 after a university teaching career at Harvard, and died three years later. Sereni returned to Italy in 1958 to take a chair in law at the University of Bologna after teaching for many years at Columbia University; he died in Italy not quite ten years after his return, in April, 1967 . Venturi was reinstated as the art history chair at the University of Turin on his return to Italy after the war, and died in Rome in 1961.

Other émigrés stayed in the U.S. for most or all of their lives. Max Ascoli left the New School to start a magazine, The Reporter, which he edited until it folded in 1968. He died in New York City on New Year’s Day, 1978. Renata Calebrese worked most of her life for the Veterans Administration, retired from it in 1969, and died in New Haven, Connecticut in 1995 at the age of 96. Franco Modigliani and George D. deSantillana both made academic careers at MIT. Both lived out their lives in Massachusetts; de Santillana died in 1974 at age 72, and Modigliano, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1985, died in 2003 at 85. Alexander Pekelis became active in Zionism and died in 1946.

Three of the thirteen scholars met their ends in accidents: Paolo Contini died on August 6, 1975 in a mountain climbing accident in Canada at the age of 61; Nino Levi died in his mid-40s from injuries sustained when he was thrown from a horse in Central Park on March 25, 1941; and Pekelis died in an airplane crash in Shannon, Ireland en route back to the U.S. from a World Zionist Congress to which he had been a delegate in Switzerland; he was only 44.

Whether their lives ended peacefully or traumatically, what united this group of Italian émigrés was their staunch position against Mussolini, their often peripatetic lives, and their dual and considerable contributions to cultural and scholarly spheres, both in America and in Italy. The New School Archives

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