Esther Simpson - the unknown heroine

The extraordinary story of how one woman offered refuge to philosophers, scientists and musicians fleeing from the Nazis, and in doing so reshaped the cultural and intellectual landscape of the Western World.


It’s not clear how Professor Stanislaus Jolles died. The year was 1943 and he was in his mid- eighties. But did he die from natural causes, did he kill himself, or was he killed? He was a Jew living in Berlin, after the systematic extermination of Jews had already begun, so anything is possible. The fate of his wife, Adele, is documented. In the year of her husband’s passing, she was transported south from the German capital to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. She perished in 1944.

She was Miss Simpson to strangers, Esther to colleagues, Tess to some of her close friends. And she had many, many friends, among whom she counted Ludwig Wittgenstein, often described as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein had been acquainted with Stanislaus Jolles for over three decades, ever since he’d left his palatial Viennese home in 1906 to study engineering in Berlin. Professor and Mrs Jolles had been his hosts.

Stanislaus was a mathematician who came to look upon Ludwig like a son; he and his wife called him ‘little Wittgenstein’. During World War I, when Wittgenstein was fighting for the Austrians on the Eastern Front, they furnished him with a constant supply of bread, fruit-cake, and cigarettes.

In January 1939, six years after the Nazis had come to power, and two months after Kristallnacht, Wittgenstein posted a letter to her organization about his old landlords. He explained that he’d been contacted by Adele: her husband was desperate to spend the rest of his life in peace in England.

Could a benefactor be found to support him, Wittgenstein asked, so that the Jolles would be allowed to travel? “I am well aware that it is practically hopeless to try to find such a benefactor”, he continued, “at the same time I can’t tell these people that their situation is absolutely hopeless, if there is even the smallest possible chance.”

Tess Simpson replied almost immediately, as was her practice. This was not the first she had heard about this sad case. “Professor Einstein has already written to us about Professor Stanislaus Jolles, and we wish we were in a position to assist. However, our assistance is limited to the scholars and scientists who are still able to work, and for this purpose alone our funds are inadequate. It is impossible for us to take over cases of scholars who, however eminent in their day, are now of an age when they should be enjoying their pensions”.

She was being straightforward. But the rejection sealed the fate of this octogenarian academic and his wife.

Tess Simpson, and the organization she served with intense dedication, rejected applicants immediately if they failed to fulfil the basic qualifications or after carefully evaluating their CVs.

But many hundreds of lives were saved, of scientists, philosophers, historians, artists, musicians and architects, who would go on to contribute immeasurably to intellectual and cultural life in the US and Britain.



Parentage of The Academic Assistance Council (AAC) is disputed. The Jewish-Hungarian physicist, Leo Szilard, deserves much of the credit. Szilard’s numerous accomplishments included being the first scientist to recognize the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. He overflowed with ideas, scientific and otherwise, and buzzed around with so much energy that some people joked he could be in two places at once. Simpson, who met him through a mutual friend, the Viennese economist/sociologist Karl Polanyi, said he was like “an incessant fountain” and that once, after talking to her about the feasibility of an atomic bomb, “he spoke with equal enthusiasm about the prospect of getting fresh peaches out of a tin.”

With Einstein, Szilard would persuade President Franklin D Roosevelt to launch the Manhattan Project, to beat the Nazis in the race to build the bomb. Several years earlier, immediately after the Nazis came to power, he conceived the notion of a university for exiles. Nothing came of it, but on a trip to Vienna he happened to stay in the same hotel as a British academic: a Liberal economist and progressive man-of-action, William Beveridge, Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. And that sparked Beveridge into action.

Beveridge, who would go on to transform Britain and its welfare system through the recommendations of his report on the reform of social welfare, had a different recollection, in which Szilard’s role is whitewashed. In his book, A Defence of Free Learning, written a quarter of a century later, he claimed that the idea for the Academic Assistance Council came as he was sitting in a Viennese coffee house in 1933, with fellow economists, including Ludwig von Mises. Hitler had become German Chancellor just a few weeks before. Von Mises read out the names, published in the evening paper, of a dozen Jewish academics sacked by the new German government. Outraged, Beveridge determined that something must be done.

Back in the UK, he immediately got to work, raising money by appealing to faculty members of the LSE, many of whom donated generously. He also contacted other top scholars beyond his own institution. On 24 May, 1933, a letter, signed by renowned academics, among them seven Nobel laureates, was published in The Times. It announced the launch of the Academic Assistance Council, stating that its objective was “to raise a fund, to be used primarily, though not exclusively, in providing maintenance for displaced teachers and investigators, and finding them work in universities and scientific institutions”.

One of the signatories, and one of the first to write a cheque in support, was John Maynard Keynes. Another was the New Zealand-born physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Rutherford who, after some vigorous cajoling by Beveridge, became the Society’s President. They deliberately excluded Jews from the executive, worrying that that might be off-putting to potential supporters.

On 3 October, Einstein helped raise more funds when he addressed a packed Albert Hall on the subject of “Science and Civilisation”, urging the crowd to “resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom”.

Beveridge was in no position to run the AAC on a day-to-day basis, though he evangelized for its mission in many talks delivered up and down the country.

Two full-time officials were appointed. One was the Secretary, Walter Adam, a historian who would go on to become the director of the LSE. The second held the lowly status of Assistant Secretary. Secretaries tend not to be acknowledged in history books. This latter appointment was the more momentous. Her name was Tess Simpson.



Tess Simpson was born on 31 July, 1903 and grew up in Leeds, the youngest of four siblings; her father worked in the garment industry. She won a scholarship to study modern languages at Leeds University and gained a first.

After graduating she spent a short period in Germany as a governess for a rich but tedious family, then had a spell in Paris before, in 1928, accepting a job at the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Vienna, a body promoting reconciliation between former warring countries. She was in the Austrian capital until 1933; in her own words, she had “a marvellous few years”.

She indulged in a life-long passion, music. She was an extremely gifted violinist, regularly joining in chamber music ensembles which in Vienna, she would later recall, was taken so much for granted that “it was like cleaning your teeth”. She described a Vienna Philharmonic concert of Mozart’s G Minor Symphony, conducted by Bruno Walter as the most memorable musical event of her life.

In mid-1933, after she had moved to Geneva and a job at the World Alliance of YMCAs, a telex was wired to her at Szilard’s behest: “ACADEMIC COUNCIL HELPING GERMAN SCIENTISTS NAMELY SZILARDS WORK WANTS SECRETARY STOP IMPORTANT START NEXT MONDAY.”

The position was back in London as Assistant Secretary of the Academic Assistance Council. She accepted, though unable to quite accommodate the ‘Next Monday’ directive. Her existing Swiss job was hardly well-remunerated; nevertheless, the AAC post, at 2 pounds 10 shillings a week, represented a massive pay cut. She began work on 17 July, 1933.

For the AAC it was an inspired appointment, as Beveridge would write, “of lasting and growing importance”. She had a rare talent for organization, for friendship and for persuading people to do what she asked without provoking resentment. She also had the most astounding reserves of energy, resilience and patience. She would routinely work until 10pm when the gates outside their office were locked.

After the Anschluss in March 1938 her workload increased further; she took no holiday for 13 years. All her life, said one of her future colleagues, “she worked preposterously hard”.

The AAC initially operated out of two small rooms in the attic of a large house in Piccadilly, in central London. Although it was always short of money, it had a pot of funds to disperse, giving annual grants of £182 for single refugee academics and £250 for married ones.

But the more important function was to act as a conduit between academics displaced by the Nazis and the British university sector, finding out their expertise and whether there was a university with a suitable department and a vacancy. Its small sums of money could then leverage and lubricate a deal, providing the refugee academic with support to keep them going until a more permanent wage came their way. They were soon getting 30 applicants a day.

In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of citizenship and forbade Germans and Jews from having extra-marital sex. German university teachers were civil servants; if Jewish, they immediately lost their jobs. In 1936, the AAC was renamed the ‘Society for the Protection of Science and Learning’ (SPSL).

The priority for the AAC/SPSL was to rescue threatened academics from danger and to help resuscitate their careers abroad; it was not the enrichment of British intellectual life as such. To this end, Adams and Simpson began to improve their links with American universities. The president of the New York Institute of Fine Arts, who recruited refugees into his faculty said, “Hitler is my best friend. He shakes the tree and I collect the apples.” Sometimes the AAC/SPSL would provide a grant to subsidize a lecture tour in the US. For some of the less prestigious academic institutions in the States, here was a chance to acquire a thinker who might in normal circumstances be out of their league. After finishing their lecture tour, Tess Simpson remembered, the scholars invariably, “came back with a job in their pocket”.

The SPSL could not help everyone. Money was tight and there were a limited number of university openings. So the organization had to pick and choose. Support for figures of international repute was otiose, because they would have private routes to sanctuary. An Einstein was never going to lack offers. Some individuals were ineligible: perhaps, like Stanislaus Jolles, because they were too old. For the rest, the SPSL saw its task as to identify talented scholars, many of whom were mid-career.

There was a standard form for applicants to fill in requesting the usual biographical details, date-of-birth, qualifications, income, a question about their language proficiency and which regions in the world the academic was prepared to consider. There was also space for academic referees. The young Austrian-born Karl Popper (whose reputation rests on his philosophy of science and who became one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite political thinkers), compiled a starry list: Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Cambridge titans Bertrand Russell and G.E.Moore. And Albert Einstein. Unsurprisingly, he received an offer of a grant to lecture in Cambridge, which in the end he did not take-up after a permanent job offer from New Zealand.

Tess Simpson processed these forms and sent them out to be assessed by experts. Was this scholar worthy of assistance? If ‘yes’, there were then mundane but essential details to arrange: the passage to England, rooms to rent, bank accounts to open, spousal requests to accommodate. Tess did it all, offering advice, answering questions.

Tess was the same age or younger than many of the refugees she assisted, but she called them, her “children”. She had no partner and no biological children of her own.



Her work might have come to an end in September 1939, for with the German invasion of Poland and the British and French declaration of war, the borders closed. There were around 70,000 German-speaking emigres in the country who were now declared ‘enemy aliens’, obliged to register with police and prohibited from living in areas of military significance. Tribunals were set up to classify them into three categories. Category A were considered sufficiently threatening to be detained. Category B had some restrictions placed on their movements. Category C were exempt from restrictions. Less than 1% were placed in Category A; the vast majority were Category C.

The mood changed in May 1940, with the German invasion and occupation of the Low Countries and then France. The media began to whip up fears of the enemy within. “Act! Act! Act!”’ demandedtThe Daily Mail of the government. One of their leading commentators, the Nazi sympathizer George Ward Price, had this advice for Jewish immigrants: “They should be careful not to arouse the same resentment here as they have stirred up in so many countries”.

The authorities reviewed the alien list to determine who was too dangerous to be at large. In the end, around 27,000 were arrested and despatched to various detention centres — most to the Isle of Man. They had not proved difficult to locate; their address details, after all, had all been registered with the police. It was said, only half in jest, that the most effective means to trawl refugees was to carry out sweeps through the public libraries of north-west London.

The British authorities drew no distinction between Jew and Nazi: the ‘enemy aliens’ found themselves in the same detention centres. For the Jewish inmates that caused anguish. As one internee (Frank Pierre) wrote in October 1941, this unfortunate set-up “creates a continual strain of nerves, hearing of fascist songs, exchange of fascist salutes…you will easily imagine what I feel when I see people smiling when the radio announces the executions in France and other countries under the fascist yoke.” Some of the Jews had been in Dachau, so it was not their first time behind barbed-wire.

At the SPSL, relocated to Cambridge, Tess Simpson now had a new cause. Over 500 of those detained were academics, almost all of whom she had helped to settle in the UK. They included molecular biologist Max Perutz, architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and art historian Ernst Gombrich. She opened a file on each of them and began to prepare the documentation to petition for their release. A turning point came when the government announced that those who posed no danger and had a vital contribution to make to the nation were free to go. The Home Secretary then agreed that this would include contributions to science and learning.

The process was protracted. Tribunals were established by the various learned societies — the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Society of Medicine — to report on the interned academics. The SPSL prepared cases. Once again, Simpson needed references to vouch for each detainee. The Austrian philosopher and Marxist Otto Neurath was a typical example. Neurath had over many years developed a unique system for presenting complex information through simple images. Biologist Julian Huxley was approached for a testimonial and was happy to oblige: “He is most definitely anti-Nazi. I am sure that he could be very usefully employed by the Ministry of Information or other similar body on propaganda and information work”. But writer H.G.Wells, who was also acquainted with Neurath, proved less supportive. Wells saw “no reason why Dr Neurath should be made the subject of a special campaign for preferential treatment”. On 20 September, 1940, a letter of support for Neurath arrived from Princeton, and from an individual that even the British establishment could not ignore. “Neurath”, Einstein wrote, “is very well known to me through his scientific work and through common friends who know him well personally. On the basis of my reliable information I am gladly taking every responsibility for the political reliability of Professor Neurath. His release from internment would, in my opinion, by fully justified”. It took another four months but by February 1941, Otto Neurath was teaching in Oxford.

Eventually, Tess Simpson and the SPSL secured the freedom of almost all her scholars. She had an “iron toughness in the face of officialdom”, said Max Perutz. This officialdom was mostly benign in intent but frustratingly sluggish and often idiotic. The individual files in the archive bulge with notes and memos, letters and forms. There are thousands upon thousands of Simpson letters, elegant but matter-of-fact. She chivvies officials, chases references, comforts wives, sends food parcels, performs innumerable small acts of kindness. Practical humanity. The banality of goodness.

The absurdity and expense of incarcerating often hugely talented people who were desperate to join the war effort against the Nazis eventually dawned on the British establishment. But there were many stressful times. Some inmates committed suicide. Simpson wrote to a friend over this period: “I faced one or two anxious moments last week. One naturally has something to worry about when one has a family of six hundred”.



In 1944, Tess Simpson accepted a job as the assistant secretary for the Society for Visiting Scientists but from 1951 combined this with voluntary work for the SPSL. Then, in the mid 1960s, she returned to devoting all her energies to the SPSL. Aged 68, she wrote to a Canadian friend in 1972. “Alas! I am kept as busy as ever. Since 1968 there have been waves from Czechoslovakia, Greece, Poland, Brazil, some South Africans, the occasional Hungarian, Rumanian, ex-Biafran, Bangladeshi — there is no end.”

There would be other refugees from Argentina, Chile, Uganda, Zimbabwe and, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, China.

The South African lawyer, Albie Sachs, an anti-apartheid activist who lost an arm in an assassination attempt on his life and was helped by Tess in exile in the UK, rejects the idea that she was some kind of hero. “I regard her as an exemplary person of loveliness and kindness and efficient support. I don’t think we need heroes in the world. We need courage and solidarity”.

What motivated her?

She described herself as a Quaker and was reluctant to talk about her upbringing. In fact, she was not born Esther Simpson. The name on her birth certificate is Esther Sinovitch: her parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who arrived in Britain to escape the pogroms and worked in the schmutter trade. (Intriguingly, she changed her name by deed-poll on 21st August 1933, just one month after she had begun to facilitate the entry of others whose alien status was communicated to native Britons instantly by their foreign-sounding names.) Even if Tess herself never drew the connection, her background is surely not unrelated to the refugee cause to which she devoted her life.

She preferred a different diagnosis. She once said that, “The people who were losing their jobs were the same sort as those I had played chamber music with in Vienna”. She quickly formed bonds with Mittel-Europa intellectuals. She had an ability not to see statistics and anonymous, abstract problems but individuals. “The human being is what matters to me: not humanity”, she wrote to one of her “children”, Engelbert Broda. She felt very English, but “I have to belong to the world too”.

She followed the fortunes of her “children” avidly, keeping a detailed record of their achievements, remembering not just their birthdays but their children’s birthdays. There was a touch of the intellectual snob about her. She wrote to Broda in 1954. “You will have seen that this spring I got a further crop of FRSs [Royal Society Fellows]…‘my’ total is now 26! Not only that — I now have ‘my’ first knight. ”

Not all those she helped made a positive contribution to Britain and the wider world. Broda, a chemist and physicist, was later exposed as a Soviet nuclear spy. And as a lifelong pacifist, Tess must have had mixed emotions about the scientists Robert Frisch, Rudolf Peierls and Francis Simon: each played a part in the development of the atomic bomb.

Over her long life she nurtured a remarkable set of friendships: nuclear physicists and molecular biologists, historians, philosophers, architects and musicians. That she commanded the respect of so many eminent thinkers is testimony to what is strikingly apparent from the thousands of letters she wrote: her clear, sharp and curious mind. It probably helped that she never posed any kind of competition to the scholars.

She played the violin with virtuoso Max Rostal, had long-standing friendships with Ernst Gombrich and, through Szilard, the (non-refugee) sociologist Edward Shils. She regularly had supper with Nikolaus Pevsner. Ludwig Wittgenstein was another example of a friendship which the woman appointed assistant-secretary in 1933 might not have predicted would develop. Tess got to know him well. He used the SPSL as a secret conduit to fund an impoverished and highly-strung Polish-born female logician, Rose Rand (he did not want to offend her by handing her money directly), and in wartime Cambridge once queued for an hour to buy Tess Simpson a bun. They discussed Brahms’ clarinet quartet and she discovered he could whistle “any symphony you could mention”. Later in the war, when he moved to Newcastle to work as a laboratory assistant, Tess suggested he lodge with her Newcastle-based brother, who had a spare room in an ordinary terrace house. Wittgenstein, who had long before renounced his family wealth, decided it was far too opulent for him.



Tess Simpson found it difficult to retire. At one attempt, in 1966, there was a surprise party, attended by a galaxy of lords and knights and professors. Tess was always frugal with clothes, never owned a car and every item of furniture in her home was worn. Her one indulgence was Belgian chocolate. Since she had only ever had a modest salary and had built up virtually no pension there was concern about how she would survive in old age. So, for the party, several members of her now widely dispersed refugee family, among them the molecular biologist Max Perutz, secretly organized a postal whip-round, proposing a small donation of between £5 and £20. Letters poured in from Australia, the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Israel and elsewhere. Many expressed a similar sentiment: “I hardly know of any other cause as worthy and deserving as this one” and most protested that the recommended amount was miserly.

Walter Adam could not attend and apologized in a note: “Seldom can so many have owed so much to one person working with such few material resources. Yours was a wholly personal success, the giving of yourself and of your friendship unstintingly, in a way that literally changed the cultural history of the world…your family – of which you are mother and sister – is without doubt the most talented and distinguished in the world.”

The refugees raised enough to present her with a cheque that enabled her to buy a sizeable flat in an affluent part of London, Belsize Park, into the spare bedroom of which she moved the SPSL.

In the second half of her life she received some official recognition: an OBE and two honorary doctorates, and the French government made her Officier d’Académie.

She continued to work almost until her death. Each morning, until she became too frail, she would potter half a mile down the road to Swiss Cottage to buy The Times and once back in her flat would cut out news about her children – their lectures, books, and decorations. Among her WWII refugees, 74 became Fellows of the Royal Society and 34 Fellows of the British Academy. 16 were recipients of a Nobel Prize, including Max Perutz.

Charged with elitism, Tess would always defend the work of the SPSL: there were other organizations to help other groups, she said. Even among scholars she and the SPSL had had to be highly selective: “We could not give grants promiscuously. We knew that academics would have to be first class if they were going to be easily absorbed into the country.”

Tess Simpson died on 19 November 1996. In her will, she bequeathed her flat back to her charity.


David Edmonds is the presenter of Radio 4’s ‘Miss Simpson’s Children’, available from Friday on the BBC iPlayer

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