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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar's College Historian

Distinguished Displaced Scholars

Following in the footsteps of his father, Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Chancellor of New York University, Henry Noble MacCracken, Vassar’s president from 1915 to 1946, worked in various ways for peaceful problem-solving and international understanding during his time at Vassar. Two seminal contributions to Vassar’s liberal arts education were two programs aiding established European scholars who sought refuge in the United States from Eastern European oppression in Poland in the twenties and from the Nazi holocaust in the thirties and forties.

MacCracken received a letter in 1923 from a Polish immigrant, Stephen Mizwa, then a professor at Drake University, responding to an article by MacCracken in the magazine Current History, entitled “Beacon Lights of Civilization in Central Europe.” MacCracken wrote about bringing a handful of Czechoslovakian exchange students in the previous couple of years to Vassar, and Mizwa wanted to know whether he would now consider bringing an exchange professor, Dr.Sudlecki, in order to encourage such arrangements at other institutions. MacCracken responded that this could be arranged if there were a Polish-American Committee to promote it. Two years after the establishment of such a committee, the Kosciuszko Foundation was formed in New York City, and MacCracken, its president from 1928 to 1956, worked hard to introduce cultural exchanges to many American institutions with reciprocal arrangements abroad.

With the rise of the Nazis in Europe in the 1930’s MacCracken established a similar program for displaced scholars, especially from Germany. Vassar profited, of course, from taking these scholars, many of whom had left distinguished careers in Europe, into its own ranks, but under MacCracken’s guidance, the program also developed into a clearing house, wherein the scholar would stay at Vassar for a period of time and then move to another institution. Through what might be called a kind of “above-ground railroad,” eminent foreign scholars and specialists moved into American colleges and universities, providing students and faculty with a wealth of knowledge and new approaches. MacCracken worked closely with Vassar faculty committees that were established to identify scholars who might be suitable for posts at Vassar, as well as with other colleges and universities, to enlarge the job pool. A hospitable milieu for “displaced scholars” developed both at Vassar and on many other campuses, and thus MacCracken’s tenure at Vassar was graced with many distinguished European scholars.

Richard Krautheimer
Richard Krautheimer

Richard Krautheimer, a celebrated German art historian, came to Vassar in 1937, after a brief stay at the University of Louisville, to teach architectural history. He remained until 1952, when he went on to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Among his many accomplishments, Krautheimer found a 4th century Constantinian Chapel under the 12th century Church of San Lorenzo in Rome, a discovery made possible when an American bomb aimed at nearby railroad yards missed its mark and hit the church instead. He began his dig in 1947 and finished it in 1948.

Nikander Strelsky came to Vassar in 1934 with very few financial resources, but multiple intellectual talents, and immediately began to tutor students in Russian. Before coming to Vassar, Strelsky, a Ukrainian nobleman and an ex-captain in the Russian Imperial Army, fought in the “White Army” against the “Reds” in Sebastopol and escaped to Constantinople in 1920. He came to the U.S. in 1922 as manager of the Russian Imperial Ballet, but fell ill of tuberculosis for six years. After arriving at Vassar, he did graduate work at Columbia, from which he received his M.A. and Ph.D. and with President MacCracken’s assistance became a fellow of the Kosciuszko Foundation along the way, travelling among Eastern European universities.

After a trial year, Strelsky had begun serious classroom teaching of Russian literature and language, at first teaching more Russian literature in translation than courses in the language itself. By 1945-46, students were majoring in Russian studies. Vassar was the first women’s college in the United States to offer work and a major in Russian, and by 1945 the department had thirty students.

Ernst Krenek
Ernst Krenek

Other noteworthy scholars and artists came to Vassar during this time. Ernst Krenek was composer in residence from 1939-42 and Adolph Katzenellenbogen, distinguished scholar of Chartres Cathedral, and his wife Elizabeth Katzenellenbogen, a master pianist whose speciality was Bela Bartok, were on the faculty until 1957. After leaving Vassar, Adolph Katzenellenbogen went to Johns Hopkins, as founding chairman of the Department of Fine Arts. Elisabeth continued her career as teacher and performer at nearby Goucher College. All told, some thirty or forty scholars came to Vassar to enrich its cultural life and enhance its teaching of languages, the arts, and philosophy.

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Henry Noble MacCracken

EAD 2005, CJ 2006