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By Lyndon Stambler

Published Oct 1, 2019 8:00 AM


Five professors who fled the Nazis brought a new way of thinking to UCLA.


Collage by Michelle Thompson.

For a decade before Adolf Hitler took power in January 1933, Arnold Schoenberg, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, was already wary of the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany. “He started writing about Hitler and the dangers of anti-Semitism in 1923,” grandson E. Randol Schoenberg says. “He was paying attention. A lot of people were not.”

Arnold Schoenberg was teaching composition at Berlin’s Academy of Art when the Nazis banned Jews from universities in April 1933. In May, after receiving a cryptic telegram from his brother-in-law, violinist Rudolf Kolisch — “A change of air recommended” — Schoenberg fled on a train to Paris with his wife, Gertrud, and their daughter Nuria. That fall, they moved to the U.S., and Schoenberg taught at Boston’s Malkin Conservatory for a year before the family moved to Los Angeles to avoid the cold winters. His royalties gone, Schoenberg survived by teaching privately and at UCLA and the University of Southern California.

Then, at a soiree in L.A. in 1936, pianist Maurice Zam asked UCLA Acoustics Professor Vern Knudsen’s wife, “Where’s Vern?” Knudsen was back East searching for a successor to late Composition Professor Theodore Stearns. “My God!” Zam exclaimed. “With Arnold Schoenberg in your backyard? Why search in New York? Schoenberg at UCLA will make it the focal point of the musical world.”

So UCLA hired Schoenberg, then 61, to teach composition in the fledgling music department. “In the arts, UCLA was a teachers’ college,” Distinguished Professor of Music Robert Winter says. “You went there in music to learn how to teach K–6 kids to sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle.’” But when Schoenberg retired in 1944, UCLA’s music program had become world-class.

At UCLA today, the enduring impact of Schoenberg and four others who fled the Nazis is not always apparent. You can see the names of three of them on campus: the Schoenberg Music Building; Jan Popper Theater, named for the man who brought opera to UCLA; and Melnitz Hall, named for the man who built UCLA’s theater arts program. But there were also Hans Reichenbach, a pioneer in scientific philosophy, and Jacob “Jack” Bjerknes, who trained more than 1,000 meteorologists at UCLA for the U.S. Army.


William Melnitz was the dean of UCLA’s College
of Fine Arts, serving in that position from 1960
to 1967.

Exiled Into Paradise

The émigrés faced challenges in the U.S. — mastering English and coping with heavy accents, paying bills, restoring reputations and dealing with rising anti-Semitism. But they overcame these obstacles and made a lasting impression on UCLA and the culture of Los Angeles.

“These scholars introduced a level of rigor, sophistication and innovation that represented the best of the continent,” says Professor David N. Myers, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA. “We’re still deriving profit from those extraordinary scholars who came in the 1930s [and] until 1945. [They] opened so many important pathways in philosophy, German literature, the sciences, theater, opera and film direction.”

These scholars also brought with them a new way of thinking. Reichenbach, who had been a political progressive in Germany, wrote a dissertation that required approval from both a mathematician and a philosopher. Schoenberg suggested a forum at UCLA for discussing how scientific, technological and economic changes impact the arts. Jan Popper, who had studied business and music in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), produced nearly 300 operas at UCLA.

They hobnobbed with émigré writers, poets and composers in L.A.: writers Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, directors Billy Wilder and Max Reinhardt, and conductor Otto Klemperer. Some gathered on Sundays to hear music at the Schoenbergs’ Brentwood house, enjoying Viennese pastries. William Melnitz summed it up in 1975: “I have been very, very happy here, and I always remember the marvelous words of fellow emigrant Albert Einstein. When he was asked by Erika Mann [daughter of Thomas Mann] how he felt being all of a sudden here in America, he said: ‘It is [being] exiled into paradise.’ I have always felt so.”

Born in Cologne in 1900, Melnitz directed more than 150 plays in Germany, Austria and Switzerland — many with the legendary Reinhardt — before fleeing Europe in 1939. Reinhardt invited him to L.A. to create a repertory theater. But Melnitz decided to reimagine his life, earning an M.A. in 1943 and a Ph.D. in 1947 in Germanic languages. The title of his dissertation was “War and Revolution on the Stages of the Weimar Republic.” He taught German. But in 1948, Kenneth MacGowan, chair of the new Department of Theater Arts, asked him to join the faculty. In 1953, Melnitz became department chair and established UCLA’s Theater Group, which morphed into L.A.’s Center Theatre Group, a company that continues today. From 1960 until his retirement in 1967, Melnitz served as dean of the College of Fine Arts.

Schoenberg, who had taught a master class in Berlin, taught beginners at UCLA. He was overwhelmed with students but threw himself into writing textbooks for beginners, tailoring a test for each student and dissecting each composition. “In all the time I studied with Schoenberg, he never once led me to believe that my work was distinguished in any way,” postwar avant-garde composer John Cage said in 1970. “And yet I worshipped him like a god.”


Hans Reichenbach, at left, helped establish the philosophy department at UCLA.

Endorsed by Einstein

Meanwhile, Reichenbach had carved out a niche as a scientific philosopher in his native Germany. He had taken classes from Albert Einstein and Max Planck while studying physics, mathematics and philosophy at several universities, receiving his doctorate in 1915 from the University of Erlangen. A student activist, he nevertheless served in the German Army during World War I. After he returned home, he was one of a select few who took Einstein’s first course on relativity. Reichenbach explored relativity’s philosophical implications. Impressed, Einstein vouched for Reichenbach, who faced roadblocks due to his progressive past, and Reichenbach eventually became a professor of the philosophy of physics at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

The Nazis considered Reichenbach a mischling — both Jewish and Aryan. He was well known for Berlin radio broadcasts based on his book Atom und Kosmos. “As such, my grandfather surely knew that once the Nazis gained power, he would be suppressed,” grandson Jeff Austin says. Reichenbach and his family fled in 1933 to Istanbul, where he chaired the University of Istanbul’s philosophy department. In 1938, he moved to L.A., where he helped establish the philosophy department at UCLA, remaining there until his death in 1953. In L.A., Reichenbach mingled with Brecht and Mann and vacationed with exiled British philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Patent lawyer Marvin H. Kleinberg ’49 took several classes from Reichenbach at UCLA and recalls an atmosphere conducive to discussion: “He had a lovely office on the third floor of Royce Hall, where we had our graduate seminars. Somebody would bring cake and pastry, and he would supply the tea and coffee. It was a very civilized situation. He had a terrific sense of humor. He had hearing aids, [and] if he wasn’t interested in what was going on, he would turn them off.”

Kleinberg credits Reichenbach’s courses in logic with helping him to design computers and succeed as a patent lawyer. At his Century City, Calif., office, he displays a collection of Reichenbach’s books and a photo of Reichenbach that was taken for Scientific American.


Jan Popper established UCLA’s Opera Workshop.

Musical Aspirations

Popper grew up in Liberec, in the German-speaking area of Bohemia, to Czech parents. As a child, he aspired to become a concert pianist, but after breaking one thumb in a soccer game and the other in a skiing accident, he turned to opera. He studied piano, conducting and composition at the Prague Conservatory from 1920 to 1923 and at the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, Germany, from 1923 to 1928. He entered the opera world by chance, taking a coaching job at the local opera company — a job secretly financed by his father. He then became the conductor at Prague’s German Opera House and the Czech National Broadcasting Company. As World War II loomed, Popper joined the Czech Freedom Fighters, the Masaryk League, as a pilot and parachutist, but when Germany annexed Czechoslovakia in 1939, Popper left the country. He later said he had felt “lucky to get out.”

“Just imagine yourself … having no idea of what happened to your parents back there,” Popper said in 1978. “While I came as a visitor to this country, the war had started, and now I was a refugee.” During the war, Popper taught German and Czech to U.S. Army soldiers at Stanford University. When the war ended, he learned that both his parents had been killed in concentration camps.

Despite the trauma, Popper built the Opera Workshop at Stanford — the first of its kind on the West Coast — from 1939 to 1949. His production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes went from Stanford to the San Francisco Opera House. In 1949, he established UCLA’s Opera Workshop, which started in Moore Hall. During his 26-year tenure, he staged many West Coast premieres and productions, including Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. He also won a Peabody Award for the public television series Spotlight on Opera, and he received a Fulbright to establish an opera school at Tokyo University of Arts.

Professor Winter, who shared an office with Popper, says, “His voice was gentle. He knew he was heading toward retirement. He would ask me, ‘How are you doing? Are you figuring things out?’ … He singlehandedly made UCLA Opera a centerpiece in L.A. life.”


Jacob Bjerknes trained more than 1,000 meteorologists at UCLA for the U.S. Army.

Ahead of His Time

Another creative force was third-generation Norwegian scientist Bjerknes. At 19, while assisting his father, Vilhelm, Bjerknes published his first scientific paper. Two years later, he published his groundbreaking study on the structure of low-pressure systems, revolutionizing weather forecasting. He was on an eight-month U.S. lecture tour when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, and then Norway in 1940. Bjerknes and his family remained in the U.S., where he trained more than 1,000 meteorologists at UCLA for the U.S. Army. “They were in uniform, and they would march from class to class,” says Charles B. Pyke ’63, M.A. ’65, Ph.D. ’72, who was one of Bjerknes’ graduate students.

Bjerknes didn’t boast about his wartime service, but his students knew he had helped General Dwight D. Eisenhower plan the D-Day invasion. In 1945, Bjerknes became chairman of UCLA’s new Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. The department annually presents the Bjerknes Memorial Award to a promising graduate student.

Pyke and another graduate student, Donald Boucher ’73, M.S. ’75, helped Bjerknes in comprehensive studies of El Niño and its impact on U.S. weather patterns. Bjerknes had an uncanny ability to envision what the atmosphere looks like during a storm, even before satellites existed. “I showed him some of the first satellite imagery of a moving cyclone,” Boucher says. “He had it perfect. When I showed it to him, he said simply, ‘Oh, yes.’”

A Place to Rebuild

At UCLA, these refugees could rebuild their lives and research, write and teach. They expanded knowledge of the physical sciences, philosophy, opera, theater and music. “Together, Popper, Schoenberg and Melnitz transformed the entire texture, game plan and reputation of the arts at UCLA overnight,” Winter says.

When Winter first visited UCLA in the 1970s, he thought about Schoenberg. “It definitely played a role in my decision to come to UCLA,” he says.

Schoenberg had several triumphant moments at UCLA. In January 1937, all four of his string quartets were performed by the Kolisch String Quartet in a packed Royce Hall, with George and Ira Gershwin in the audience. In March 1941, he delivered a faculty lecture about his innovative freedom from tonality, the 12-tone scale the Nazis called “degenerate.” In 1949, Schoenberg delivered a lecture at Royce Hall that was captured on a wire recording: In “My Evolution,” Schoenberg explained his unique journey as a composer. “It was only a year or two before he passed away,” Winter says. “His voice was slightly frail, but his message was very clear.”

The Schoenberg family and Winter have made the “My Evolution” lecture available to the public.

In May 1956, five years after Schoenberg’s death, UCLA dedicated Schoenberg Hall as recognition that UCLA had had one of the century’s most influential composers in its midst. The building is adorned with Anna Mahler’s sculpture of the composer.

“I’ve always been happy and proud that my grandfather is still remembered at UCLA,” E. Randol Schoenberg says.

Art and Science Here to Stay

Today, with an estimated 70.8 million displaced people worldwide, UCLA’s role in providing a safe haven during the time of the Holocaust continues to resonate. “Once again, people of great talents are being displaced and dispossessed,” Myers says. “We can look back to this chapter in this country’s history and learn something.”

Popper, who attended Schoenberg’s 1949 lecture, applied lessons he learned as a refugee, rescuing others from political tyranny at great personal risk. “Sometimes I think [of] some of the problems that my colleagues and I have gone through in Europe, and the things we have seen, and the machine guns that were pointed in our direction, and yet we took it as a way of life, just as the people are taking it now in Iran, or here and there,” Popper said in 1979. “These things come and go; history shows us that. Think of the young Mozart, traveling as a child prodigy from court to court. … It was at the time of the Seven Years’ War. It was a terrible war. … Do you ever see, in any of Mozart’s letters, any allusion to war and violence? He speaks about music, about the arts, about the people he met, about the pianos and harpsichords he played. That is the thing that will prevail, that will last, that is here to stay.”

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