Posts Tagged ‘Elisabeth Ephrussi’

Eric Voegelin and the eagle eye of an archivist

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Voegelin letters (Photo: Hoover Archives)

Linda Bernard was deep in the pages of Edmund de Waal’s acclaimed The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, a family memoir of the Ephrussis, a wealthy Jewish clan who fled the Nazis in 1938.  Something clicked.

Here’s what clicked:  the Hoover archivist saw the name of Eric Voegelin, an Austrian political scientist who, like de Waal’s great-grandparents, escaped Vienna when Adolf Hitler annexed Austria and died at Stanford in 1985.  “So often when I read books or articles about the tumultuous past century, I find a reference to someone whose papers we have in the Hoover Archives,” she wrote on a blog for the Hoover archivists:

“When I saw Voegelin mentioned in the book, I promptly checked the finding aid for his papers in our archives, which, coincidentally, I had prepared many years ago. Sure enough, there was her name in the correspondence series: Elisabeth de Waal—forty-five letters sent to Voegelin between 1938 and 1976 and seven carbon copies of Voegelin’s letters to her.”

In August 1966 (Photo: Hoover Archives)

Voegelin and Ephrussi met while students in Vienna in the 1920s and remained close friends throughout their lives abroad, he in the United States (and eventually at Stanford) and she in England, where she had settled with her Dutch husband, Hendrik de Waal.

Linda Bernard wrote the author a fan letter to author Edmund de Waal, who is curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

“Not only did he reply immediately in the kindest way, but he offered to send us twelve letters from Voegelin to his grandmother, stating that his family would be honored to have them housed at Hoover, where they would complement the correspondence we already had.”

Archivist extraordinaire

So the dozen letters were recently added to Voegelin’s collection.  It’s quite an exciting find.  According to the Hoover Archives website, Voegelin’s widow gave the original cache to the archives in the 1980s, including 45 letters from Ephrussi to Voegelin (from 1938 to 1976), and seven carbon copies of his replies to her (from 1941 to 1974). We have what she said to him, but comparatively little of what Voegelin said to her. De Waal’s donation fills out his side of the conversation.

So what do the letters say?

Their correspondence (in German and English) addresses the fateful events of 1938. Particularly poignant in this regard is her letter of November 8, 1938, in which she informs Eric of the death of her mother (about which more is learned in The Hare with Amber Eyes). But beyond the politics of the day that affected them both so much is a rich dialogue over five decades on philosophy, history, religion, and law between two brilliant individuals.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss looks pretty good.  Washington Post review is here.

Postscript on 1/19: ‎”The death of the spirit is the price of progress.” — Eric Voegelin died on this day 26 years ago.