Stuyvesant’s Evolution During World War II

From building plane models for training purposes to winning Nobel Prizes, Stuyvesant students of the 1940s found a haven in the old school building on East 15th Street during a time of global turmoil and national anxiety.

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The 1940s was a decade of great change in not only world history but in Stuyvesant history as well. World War II changed the daily lives of all, altering the dreams of many young men and fostering innovation at the same time. These innovations were made possible by the development of military science in the United States with projects like the atomic bomb. This energy and enthusiasm towards the sciences spilled over to Stuyvesant, which was just beginning to become the leader in the scientific curriculum it is today against the backdrop of the cultural melting pot of New York City.

Leading up to and during the 1940s, many Jewish refugees immigrated to New York City and some attended Stuyvesant. One of them was Richard Wolf (‘49), the son of a German newspaper writer. “ I came to the United States in 1936 at the age of four and a half from Germany. My father, fortunately, got us out of Germany before the worst of Hitler, and let me tell you, it wasn’t nice to be in that situation,” Wolf said. 

Not only did they make up a large part of the school, but the Jewish refugees at Stuyvesant had a profound impact on their peers’ education, with many expressing prior knowledge stemming from their advanced early educations. “There were large numbers of refugee children […] mostly of the intellectual classes in Germany and Austria, and they had an enormous influence on me,” Gary Felsenfeld (‘47), valedictorian of 1947, recounted. “They had already read Shakespeare […] in German before they came to the United States. And, you know, no one taught you Shakespeare at an American school until you were in high school.”

The Stuyvesant community was also severely impacted by World War II itself, with many students uncertain about pursuing their prior goals, such as travel or college. “In my freshman year in December, we had the attack at Pearl Harbor. We knew we were at war and everything changed,” alumnus Gerald Malamud (‘45) said. “Everything was cut down—there was no gasoline and we couldn’t get around. We never forgot traveling and anything like that. We had a very unusual high school experience and we had no future to look forward to. We knew during these ensuing three and a half years that if we got to college, which we doubted, we were going to be drafted into the Army.”

While the experience outside of school and the prospects of the future may have been very different for the Stuyvesant boys, general life at Stuyvesant persisted in its typical manner. “The school itself was not affected by any of this. You know, I carried on with all the normal courses and everything,” Malamud reminisced. Malamud participated in the typical extracurriculars—he was a member of ARISTA, for example. “I was [also] the assistant editor of The Spectator, and I was in [a] projection department that showed motion pictures,” Malamud said. He remembers his time at Stuyvesant as being very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating, despite his reluctance regarding homework. “I never did [home]work in high school. I loved my time at Stuyvesant, I learned a lot,” Malamud said. 

Many of the students at Stuyvesant contributed to the war effort through regular classes they took, such as woodworking. “We made model airplanes for the United States government that they could use in New York [...] they would use these to simulate our airplanes, the German airplanes, and the Japanese Zeroes,” Malamud said. “I took a machine shop class where we made small instruments for the effort.”

After the war ended, Stuyvesant students still faced pressure when choosing career paths. Though many students were interested in the sciences, pursuing a career in science after high school beyond becoming a physician was uncommon. “Scientific projects were not supported by the government […] except for the atom bomb. Science was an obscure thing. There was very little funding. There were no grants. There was no national science foundation. Most people had no idea what it was to be a scientist. And there were a few kids like me, geeks, who wanted to know,” Felsenfeld said. 

Stuyvesant was one of the few high schools empowering the next generation to go into diverse STEM fields. Stuyvesant teachers nurtured students’ interest in science as many of them were STEM “geeks” themselves. “Many of our teachers had PhDs, and they were people who would have been university professors. But it was a depression, or it had been in the 1930s […] And they couldn’t get jobs in universities. There were no jobs. So they took jobs at places like Stuyvesant. They became high school teachers,” Felsenfeld said.

While at Stuyvesant, Felsenfeld was also among the first to participate in the early Science Talent Search, now known as Regeneron. “[I] carried out this research project in which I tried to develop a film that was x-ray sensitive, but not light sensitive, or normal, light frequency sensitive,” Felsenfeld said. “It was a lot of fun, and it got me a trip to Washington. In the Science Talent Search, there were 40 of us [and] two of us have won Nobel Prizes. And while I was there, they had young adults, who were scientists and tried to persuade us that we could have careers in science too [...] And that was the beginning of the change.”

Because of this, Stuyvesant students during the 1940s were far ahead of the rest of their generation in terms of scientific knowledge. “We had read everything there was to read about atom bombs,” Felsenfeld recounted. “The day I read in the newspaper about the dropping of the atom bomb in Hiroshima, we were warned by our chemistry teacher that despite this news, we were to say ‘no’ when we were asked [if] one element can be changed into another on the Regents exam because the people in Albany hadn’t heard that news.” 

From building plane models for training purposes to winning Nobel Prizes, Stuyvesant students of the 1940s found a haven in the old school building on East 15th Street during a time of global turmoil and national anxiety. During this time, Stuyvesant constructed and cemented its representation as a leader in STEM fields. While World War II no longer rages on the beaches of Europe and in the seas of Japan, its effects on Stuyvesant are still profoundly visible almost 80 years later.