Wertheimer seems to have understood from the beginning that Germany would no longer be a safe place for intellectuals—let alone Jewish intellectuals—after Hitler and the Nazis took charge of the German government. In 1933, the same year that Adolph Hitler was elected chancellor, Wertheimer, his wife, Anna, and their four children traveled from Germany to his native Czechoslovakia, an independent country since the end of World War I. It was part of a prearranged plan. Their next journey would take them across the Atlantic to the United States. The Wertheimers settled in New York, and the next year Max accepted a previously made invitation offered while he was still in Germany: to join the "University in Exile."
The notion of an entire European-style university functioning in New York as part of the New School for Social Research had been the idea and dream of several German refugees from Nazism. The New School itself was an innovative place that had been developed in 1918, long before Hitler and the Nazis had become an issue. But the New School's "University in Exile" came into being in 1933 through the efforts (and donations) of several American and European philanthropists determined to find a safe place for some of the brightest minds in Europe, many of whom were German Jews, now at risk for their lives. Initially only two from each of several different disciplines were invited to teach there. Wertheimer was one of the two psychologists invited to put together a masters degree and doctoral program in psychology for the new university. Later the school would enlarge its teaching roster to include a greater diversity of nationalities and thinking.
At the outset of the 10 years Wertheimer would spend at the University in Exile, he was very much hindered by the strangeness of everything American and the New School. He learned English as thousands of other immigrants before him had done—through exposure to it. It is said that despite his brilliance in so many areas, he never did get English exactly right. Yet Wertheimer quickly developed a love for America, his new home. Always a man of many interests, he became passionately interested in American politics. He made many new friends as well as maintaining several of the friendships that had begun in Germany. This was possible because so many of his former colleagues were now also his fellow refugees. His old friend from pre-World War I days, Erich von Hornbostel, was one of these. Von Hornbostel had also come to the University in Exile in 1933 as a musicologist. Nominally a Christian, von Hornbostel's "sin," making emigration the only safe course, had been that his mother was Jewish. Sadly, von Hornbostel only spent two years in America before he died.
One of the immediate differences Wertheimer and the other refugee academics encountered at the New School was the transition of psychological and philosophical studies from the humanities to the realm of social science. This particular change seems to have been one to which Wertheimer easily adapted. He increasingly studied, taught, and wrote about how Gestalt theory applied to other social issues. His eloquent essays about ethics and the meaning of freedom are evidence of this shift. It is said that Wertheimer continued to do small psychological experiments informally, but he published none of this work.
The American students Wertheimer eventually taught were also mostly of a far different category than those that he had taught in Germany. They were most often practicing psychologists who were furthering their education or just interested in hearing Wertheimer's lectures because of his fame as the founder of Gestalt psychology. In the same way that Wertheimer had won over his students in Germany, he soon began to make his classes at the University in Exile among the most popular classes held there. The golden age of psychology had passed back in Germany thanks to the Nazis, but Wertheimer's impact remained. Despite Nazi efforts to write him out of psychology literature in Europe, his influence was still strongly felt among students on both sides of the Atlantic. Friends have said that Wertheimer never was very concerned with dignity and pomp. He was simply a natural-born teacher who always seemed to be more excited about learning than most of his students.
Some have suggested that the 53-year-old Wertheimer had become weary by the time he reached the United States. His friend Horace Kallen describes him as "frequently exhausted." However, his child-like spirit was still capable of giving him the enthusiasm for which he was famous. Another friend, Edwin B. Newman, states that "the dreariest experiment would become cosmic in its scope as he would brush aside details and keep pushing you on, insisting that you get to the heart of the matter." Wertheimer made research studies into games, debates into a test of his students' resourcefulness. One of his students, quoted by Horace Kallen in Social Research, described him thus:
The impact of his personality was so strong that the whole atmosphere seemed to change. . . . Most of us experienced a refreshing and stimulating adventure in which Wertheimer himself took an active part. Shouting and gesticulating, walking between the benches, he was indifferent to all demands of dignity; his carefree and completely natural manner made us forget his age and his fame. His words had the power to bring to life even figures and geometrical drawings.
Another of his students noted that Wertheimer was "an extremist . . . either passionately for or passionately against (whatever issue he became interested in)."
During his 10 years at the New School, Wertheimer functioned as both professor of psychology and philosopher. He led a joint seminar on social sciences each week as well as being involved in what was called a "General Seminar." This group met and discussed problems in all the areas covered by the University in Exile, and attempted to find Gestalt theory solutions to these difficulties. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States declared war on the Axis powers, 61-year-old Wertheimer immediately contacted the War Department and volunteered his services. It is said that he and his students at the University in Exile did psychological research for the armed forces during the early part of World War II, but the exact nature of that work is unknown.
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