Life & Culture

How a language student became the heroic saviour of 16 Jewish Nobel laureates

A new biography tells the story of a young woman who masterminded the escape of academics from Nazi Europe to the UK


To save one future Nobel laureate from Hitler’s clutches is admirable. To save 16 is nothing short of astonishing, and yet that is what Esther “Tess” Simpson achieved.

As the secretary of the London-based Academic Assistance Council founded in 1933, Simpson was a driving force in bringing Jewish academics from Nazi occupied Europe to safety.

“Her life,” says John Eidinow, author of a new biography of Simpson, “tracked the horrors of the 20th century.” It is an extraordinary story, of one woman’s selfless dedication to those persecuted by the Nazis, and until now, almost entirely overlooked.

Esther Simpson was born Esther Sinovitch in Leeds to a Russian Jewish immigrant family in 1903. Her home, writes Eidinow, would have resonated “to chatter in Yiddish and Russian and blessings and curses in Hebrew”.

Her two eldest brothers emigrated to Canada before the First World War, forever separating the family.

Unusually well-educated, Simpson studied at Leeds University, gaining a first-class degree in French and German. Despite her academic success, there was no obvious career path for a “very bright, very talented young Jewish woman”, so “she made much of the opportunities that were open to her”.

After a short-lived teaching career, she moved overseas, living between Paris, Vienna and Geneva, working for international organisations.

In 1933, Simpson returned and began a life dedicated to rescuing and resettling refugees, having been recommended for the role of secretary at the newly established AAC. “The job that came up in London was specifically to save academics from Germany who had been excluded from their university posts under Hitler,” explains Eidinow.

“The point of the AAC was to act as a sort of international labour exchange, so they could leave Germany and resume their careers, reroute themselves in safety and cultural opportunity.”

Yet Simpson was much more than just a secretary. While the AAC (known as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning from 1936) had prominent founders, among them the physicist Leo Szilard, Simpson was a crucial figure behind the scenes.

She didn’t deal only with the administrative and logistical challenge of securing their route out, she helped established new lives for people who had, often, lost almost everything.

Her “children” as she called them — for she remained connected to many throughout her life — included Nobel laureates Sir Hans Krebs, Sir Ernst Chain, Max Born and Max Perutz, as well as Sir Ludwig Guttmann, who founded the Paralympics, and many more.

Eidinow’s exhaustively researched book explores the behind-the-scenes wrangling to create the SPSL, the turgid bureaucracy that helping refugees entailed, and the political debates around it. The SPSL was championed by the likes of William Beveridge, who later became the architect of the welfare state, but nonetheless the issue of migration was just as thorny then as it is today.

More than a few refugee scholars Simpson helped escape were subsequently interned as enemy aliens on the Isle of Man.

By the time she became involved, Simpson had almost entirely abandoned her Jewish upbringing and become an active Quaker. But, says Eidinow, “dealing with the mainly Jewish German-speaking academics, she was able to reconnect with her Jewishness, a form of Jewishness that was appealing and acceptable to her”. For many years the SPSL operated in north London and she lived in the Jewish émigré-heavy area known as “Finchleystrasse”.

For Simpson, unmarried and with no notable romantic attachments, the refugees became her family “in a really significant way”.

And although she may not have outwardly professed an attachment to her Jewish roots, it was the Jewish refugees that became lifelong friends — despite the later decades she spent supporting academics from places such as Chile, Biafra or the Soviet Union.

Not that she didn’t strive to help those later scholars; the commitment she demonstrated throughout the 1930s never waned. “She did her best for them, but the ‘children’ were exclusively that category of highly talented, mainly Jewish German-speaking academics.”

His book has been in the works for six years, delayed by Covid-19 and the shutdown of many archives.

It began with a BBC programme about Esther and the SPSL by Eidinow’s frequent writing partner David Edmonds — the pair have co-written three books, including on an encounter between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, and another about chess master Bobby Fischer — which sparked a Jewish Chronicle essay.

With Edmonds otherwise engaged, Eidinow took up the mantle of looking into what he realised had been the overlooked life of an extraordinary but poorly remembered woman.

He is clearly in awe of her. “Whatever Simpson turned her hand to she did to the best of her very considerable abilities,” he says.

“The objective situation is that she worked long and hard and devotedly to save this cohort from the horrors of the Nazi regime.”

He is keen to place Simpson’s story “into the historic context of who was working to save Europe’s Jewish population”.

For instance, he describes Simpson as a “desk saviour”, noting that there were others who got far closer to danger. “That doesn’t diminish the work she did and her achievement, but we must put it in its historic context.”

Nonetheless, he suggests there was an element of sexism that led to Simpson’s contribution being marginalised, albeit recognised by those she helped: in a sign of their affection, they banded together on her retirement, donating £56,000 in today’s money to buy her a flat.

“When tributes were being paid they were paid to her as a secretary,” says Eidinow. This despite the fact her SPSL colleagues “depended on her administrative skills and her dedication to the job”.

It was her self-effacing personality, perhaps, which prevented her from rising further. “This very gifted young woman who had French and German, who could do French shorthand, who had lived in Germany and in Vienna and in Paris, you would have thought there would have been opportunities for her to play a part in the war effort,” he says.

l“I could see her at that stage at Bletchley Park. And she had the contacts. She could have said to someone, find me a job where somebody needs a French speaker. But she didn’t.”

Indeed, although the book tells Simpson’s story, many questions remain unanswered. Eidinow is still unsure why she left Geneva. “She appears to be working happily there and was very highly regarded. Maybe there was some other reason she wanted to get to London.”

Ninety years on, the work of CARA — the organisation that succeeded the SPSL — continues today helping refugees from places such as Syria and Afghanistan. But the 1930s, when so many esteemed academics were under threat, remains a unique episode.

“It’s an absolutely remarkable list, the Nobel laureates, companions of honour and knighthoods,” says Eidinow.

“And this frames her. She was the person who saved them. She found these extraordinary people a new home, new posts, the ability to reroute, to continue their careers, to contribute to science. And in doing so, her work changed the culture of the world.”

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