NYPL Manuscripts and Archives

By: Christina Quintana

This past weekend I visited the NYPL Archives in order to review the records for the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, a New York association formed in 1933 for the purpose of employing refugee European scholars in American institutions. While the committee worked to support all scholars fleeing Nazi persecution, special attention was paid to Jewish scholars who required assistance. The records are quite extensive—over 200 boxes—and consist mainly of grant files on refugee scholars who applied for aid, along with some correspondences between the committee and other philanthropic organizations. I was interested in only one file, however: Hannah Arendt’s, who submitted an application for aid in 1934. Hannah Arendt was a German-born Jewish political theorist who wrote extensively on theories of power, politics, and totalitarianism, among many other topics. For my final paper for my other course (Professor Miller’s Postwar Women Writers and Intellectuals) I plan to examine Arendt’s sometimes troubling notions of identity, and how she often eschews seemingly objective labels such as ‘woman’ or ‘Jew.’ Because the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars somewhat focused on Jewish scholars in need of aid, I was interested to see how Arendt would position her Jewish background in her application.

As both Sarah and Chelsea discussed, the NYPL can sometimes resemble a crowded amusement park more than a library. After a frustrating ten minutes or so of bypassing dawdling tourists and jogging up and down flights of stairs, I finally found the Archives Division, tucked away at the end of a fairly well-hidden corridor. The archivists working that day were all extremely helpful and informative, but I do agree (again) with Chelsea and Sarah that the highly restrictive nature of the archives is somewhat problematic. While I can understand the reasoning behind the appointment-only structure of the archive (in order to ensure no one is carelessly wandering in and poking around), the need for references and proof of academic affiliation seems unnecessarily obstructive and elitist. Again, as Chelsea pointed out, the implication that only “real” scholars (i.e., those attending an institution) need to and can have access to primary materials is disquieting.

Once I had signed in, I was given my box of requested materials. As I mentioned, I was interested in only Arendt’s file, which consisted of about thirty separate documents. The first dozen or so documents were fairly standard forms requesting the applicant’s name, date and place of birth, marital status, employment history, etc. Several letters of recommendation were included, which were fascinating to read. Both Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger submitted recommendations, but unfortunately they were in German (a possibility I naively had not even considered). The other letters, written in English from various colleagues of Arendt’s, all testified to her staggering intellect and warmly recommended her for financial aid. In terms of my original inquiry—that is, how does Arendt discuss or position her Jewish background on her application—I was not able to find a lot of satisfying material. On her CV, Arendt lists her field as “History of Jewish Emancipation and Assimilation” and marks her religion as “Jewish—Reformed”; otherwise, there was little to no mention of Arendt’s background in any of her application material or in the correspondences between the committee and Arendt. This is most likely due to the fact that the committee’s application did not require any sort of personal statement or academic essay, and therefore the majority of the file’s documents were not even authored by Arendt herself (except in the most perfunctory of ways, such as filling out generic forms).

Ultimately, Arendt was denied a grant from the committee nearly ten years after she originally submitted her application (a puzzling find for me—why did it take them so long to arrive at their decision? It seems absurdly long), but assured by the committee’s secretary that all the members held her in high esteem and would reconsider her application at a later date. Although these documents didn’t exactly address my original question, I was grateful to have had the opportunity of engaging with these texts in such a direct, tactile way. Additionally, the experience revealed to me the incredible potential of archival research in general—and that it’s not nearly as intimidating as I originally thought it would be.