“I know few people who seem so qualified to do so…” A Letter of Recommendation for Siegfried Landshut

Lisa Gerlach

Source Description

Letters of recommendation combine the personal micro-level with the macro-level of social habits and circumstances in a given time period. This two-page letter of March 5, 1936 for the sociologist Siegfried Landshut which his former supervisor Eduard Heimann sent from his New York exile to [Hans] Kohn in order to help Landshut get a position at the Hebrew University clearly illustrates this combination. The letter opens with a short introduction and then turns to Siegfried Landshut’s curriculum vitae. Landshut, born in 1897 in Strasbourg in Alsace, began his studies after his voluntary service in the First World War. After briefly describing Landshut’s life and studies, Heimann proceeds to explain his relation with Landshut, who had been Eduard Heimann's research assistant at the sociological faculty at Hamburg University since 1927. The letter also describes how Landshut lost his employment at Hamburg University and then embarked on an international odyssey with his family that, according to Heimann, ended in Cairo in disastrous circumstances. In Siegfried Landshut's case, this letter helped significantly in getting him temporary employment at the Hebrew University. In a very personal and immediate way it reveals not only how National Socialism interrupted careers and lives at German universities, but it also sheds light on the networks within which letters of recommendation were written, which migration paths Jews followed, how being Jewish was relevant in professional contexts and the argumentative space friendship and a sense of responsibility occupy in such letters.
  • Lisa Gerlach

The career path of a Jewish academic

After the First World War, when Landshut began his studies, the already relatively high number of German Jewish students once again rose significantly. With this flourishing of Jewish academics in the 1920s also came growing antisemitism at the universities. The letter of recommendation for Landshut reports that his first attempt to qualify for a professorship (habilitation) failed because of the anti-Jewish attitude of one department member: according to Heimann, Andreas Walther spelled "Walter" in the letter was the only and in this case certainly a very powerful member of the NSDAP at the philosophical faculty in Hamburg. Around November 11, 1933 he signed the "Statement of Support of Professors at German Universities and Colleges for Adolf Hitler" and, as can be seen from this letter, actively acted against Jewish and/or regime-critical colleagues. Because of these "machinations," Landshut had to leave his position at the University of Hamburg. Finding employment at another German university was impossible due to the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service."

Getting a job at the Hebrew University was also problematic in the 1930s. During its initial years, the institution was still extraordinarily small. The first graduation class in 1932 consisted of 13 graduates. However, with the opening of new institutes, the university management sent out inquiries and requests for recommendations to draw Jewish academics to Jerusalem. This practice was reversed after 1933, however. Although the university grew during the 1930s, the inquiries and recommendations addressed to the management from 1933 on far exceeded the number of positions available. Since the National Socialists had come to power and the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service" was passed shortly thereafter, the number of applications and letters of recommendation received at the Hebrew University had risen rapidly. At that time, the Hebrew University had exploited its capacities almost completely. Its staff, however, were anxious to find a job for as many Jewish academics who fled from Europe and above all from Germany as possible – at least temporarily– and sometimes they raised money from international aid funds in order to do so. This is documented by the applications that can be found in the personnel files of the university archives as well as in the archived folders filled with application documents of persons who had to be rejected. In this situation, an impressive letter of recommendation could thus be a decisive factor for a successful job search.

Migration paths

In 1933, about 60 percent of Jews in Germany migrated. During this first wave of migration during National Socialism, the roughly 300,000 refugees first fled mostly to neighboring European countries, as many initially assumed that the situation would improve again. This letter does not mention that Landshut first moved to France and then to England. During the second wave of migration from about 1935 onwards, an increasing number of Jews sought refuge in other continents, including Landshut, who went to Cairo.

While his movements are quite typical, their description and the consequences arising from them are unusually moving. Letters of recommendation from the early 1930s often do not address the desperate situation of the individual they recommend. For example, Landshut was encouraged to migrate to Cairo after a personal encounter opened the prospect of being able to work there. In his letter Heimann explicitly describes the plight in which the family found itself since no one in Cairo seemed to remember the plan of founding a college.

Heimann further reports that while in Cairo, Landshut applied for a stipend from the Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft Probably rather the Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaftler im Ausland/ Emergency Aid Organization for German Scholars Abroad in order to be able to go to England. Due to some miscommunication it was awarded to someone else, however. Aid organizations and stipends enabled many German Jews to migrate, sometimes by creating jobs for academics to secure them an entry visa and residence permit abroad. This letter represents a snapshot from such an initiated support process – yet miscommunication and rumors due to a lack of infrastructure could hinder the support process, if not prevent it, as in this case.

Historical networks

Recommendations allow us to reconstruct social and professional networks. In Landshut's case, the letter contains a small network of people who influenced his life in one way or another. And it shows very clearly what a decisive turning point 1933 represented for individual social networks. On the one hand, the National Socialist academic Walther gains a measure of influence he did not previously have. On the other hand, Landshut's network was extended by several actors such as the unnamed Cairoans, Norman Bentwich and now indirectly Hans Kohn in this letter.

Intercession through letters of recommendation took on a new character during the period of Nazi persecution. Now it could actually be life-saving. A stable and reliable professional network became a social and cultural capital not to be underestimated if it included people who knew or recognized the need of the person to be recommended and at the same time knew how to act within the framework of professional practice.

With regard to professional networks, two competing approaches are discussed in historical research. In his essay on the topic, Mark Granovetter argues that especially in professional social networks, it is the weak, more distant social connections that help you further, because that is where new information reaches social networks, which then contribute to further development. In contrast, Coleman's "closure" argument, according to which closed networks with strong connections, such as family or community networks, can ensure that potential resources are actually made available. The letter for Landshut identifies both weak and strong links and makes it clear that in this case the strong link between Landshut and Heimann was more successful.

Jewishness as a factor in letters of recommendation

The advent of German-Jewish modernism, the legal emancipation of the Jews, the Jewish Enlightenment – Haskalah – and Reform Judaism allowed for new ways of living and the entry into new professional fields. The historical and cultural influence of the diaspora on the one hand and a growing patriotism among the Jewish middle class that had established itself since Emancipation on the other hand, in conjunction with increasing antisemitism, created circumstances in German-Jewish history that seem exceptional. At the same time, it offers an analytical approach to the understanding of modernity in general.

In academic letters of recommendation before 1933, the faith of the individual recommended is rarely addressed explicitly. In the case of Jewish academics, the network of recommendations often also consisted of Jewish academics, as was the case with Siegfried Landshut. Furthermore, letters to the Hebrew University often include a paragraph confirming the Zionist mentality of the recommended. Following the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service," which expelled Jewish academics from universities, Heimann considered it important to emphasize that Landshut "did not discover his Jewish heart only in 1933."

Heimann’s comments on Landshut's "Jewish heart" show that he does not define being Jewish in a strictly religious sense. Rather, he explains that Landshut was not educated in a specifically Jewish tradition, but had pursued regular studies. According to Heimann, Landshut felt the particular burden and the special significance of being Jewish to be central to his life though, which is why he intended "to analyze the position of the Jew and the significance of being Jewish in history and the present state of the modern world." In his letter, Heimann also justifies Landshut's right to a place in the Jewish community and thus in Palestine precisely with this "special significance" of being Jewish in the modern world. There Landshut would finally be among like-minded people again and could pursue his studies far from misery and humiliation. Jewish identity is described here as both a privilege and – in the “wrong” environment – a burden.

This part of the letter acknowledges that the lives of Jews in non-Jewish and/or anti-Jewish majority societies are subject to special challenges. At the same time, both Heimann in his writing and Landshut in his work integrate Jewish history into larger narratives, such as that of "the modern world." Current historical research also applies this approach, according to which the perspective of Jewish history is particularly suited for researching the development of transformation processes and especially modernization with all its achievements and crises. In the case of Landshut's research and Heimann's writing about it, it is above all the awareness that being Jewish was not only defined by religious customs, but that it determined the social position of every Jewish person and that being Jewish should therefore be analyzed as a social factor.

Friendship and Responsibility

The semantics of friendship as well as responsibility and loyalty appear in many letters of recommendation. Eduard Heimann also introduces Landshut as his "close friend" right at the beginning of the letter.

The fact that friendship is not a supertemporal phenomenon, but describes different relationships at different times and in different situations is evident in this case too. Friendship here serves as a signal word for hierarchizing the relationship. In using it, Heimann suggests to Kohn that Landshut is not "just" a colleague or an employee, but that his relationship to him is closer than that. It is a – perhaps unconscious – stylistic device to give special emphasis to his recommendation. We do not know whether Landshut and Heimann actually were friends and if so how close they were.

Furthermore, the letter contains semantics of responsibility and loyalty. These occur not only in written form when Norman Bentwich "confirmed orally and in writing with the greatest loyalty that it is necessary to do something for Landshut." That Heimann feels to some extent responsible for improving the fate of his former assistant also becomes evident in the description of his actions or when he points out that "I have tried countless things to help him out, nothing has succeeded so far." While the reference to their friendship lends his words the necessary emphasis, the description of his failed attempts to help increases the letter’s urgency. Reports of failure were rather unusual in letters of recommendation until 1933. In this case, however, it serves to make Kohn feel some responsibility to help since it makes it clear to him that other ways out of existential distress have already been tried and failed and that this might be a last chance.

After careful consideration, Siegfried Landshut returned to Hamburg University in 1950 / 1951. Letters of recommendation such as the one presented here cannot only provide historians with information about their subject’s careers. They contain information about conditions at the time of migration as well as about personal connections and support networks that arose from these professional contacts.

Select Bibliography

Tobias Brinkmann, Migration und Transnationalität, Paderborn et al. 2012.
Arndt Engelhardt et al. (ed.), Ein Paradigma der Moderne. Jüdische Geschichte in Schlüsselbegriffen. Festschrift für Dan Diner zum 70. Geburtstag, Göttingen 2016.
Johannes Marx, Netzwerke als Quellen sozialen Kapitals. Zur kulturellen und Strukturellen Einbettung vertrauensvoller Handlungen in Netzwerken, in: Markus Gamper / Linda Reschke (ed.), Knoten und Kanten. Soziale Netzwerkanalyse in Wirtschafts- und Migrationsforschung, Bielefeld 2014, pp. 95-119.
Rainer Nicolaysen, Siegfried Landshut. Die Wiederentdeckung der Politik. Eine Biographie, Hamburg 1996.
Jana Osterkamp / Martin Schulze Wessel (ed.), Exploring Loyalty, in: ebd. (ed.), Exploring Loyalty, Göttingen 2017, pp. 1-17.
Monika Richarz, Der Eintritt der Juden in die akademischen Berufe. Jüdische Studenten und Akademiker in Deutschland 1678-1848, Tübingen 1974.

Selected English Titles

Mitchell G. Ash, Forced migration and scientific change. Emigre German speaking scientists and scholars after 1933, Cambridge 1996.
Norbert Kampe, The Jewish Arrival at Higher Education, in: Herbert A. Strauss (ed.), Hostages of Modernization. Studies on Modern Antisemitism 1870-1933/39, vol. 1, Berlin 1993, pp. 80-106.
Helga Schreckenberger, Networks of refugees from Nazi Germany. Continuities, reorientations, and collaborations in exile, Leiden 2016.

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.

About the Author

Lisa Gerlach is currently a research assistant at the chair for “19th Century Transnational History” at Ruhr-Universität, Bochum. Her research project is titled “The history of letters of recommendations in German-Jewish networks during modernity”. Prior to that she held amongst others positions as doctoral fellow at the collaborative research center „Cultures of Decision Making“ (University of Münster) and at the German Historical Institute in Washington DC. She graduated from Freie Universität Berlin.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Lisa Gerlach, “I know few people who seem so qualified to do so…” A Letter of Recommendation for Siegfried Landshut (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, July 29, 2019. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-257.en.v1> [September 23, 2023].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.