The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem

The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem


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Few people thought as deeply or incisively about Germany, Jewish identity, and the Holocaust as Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. And, as this landmark volume reveals, much of that thinking was developed in dialogue, through more than two decades of correspondence.
            Arendt and Scholem met in 1932 in Berlin and quickly bonded over their mutual admiration for and friendship with Walter Benjamin. They began exchanging letters in 1939, and their lively correspondence continued until 1963, when Scholem’s vehement disagreement with Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem led to a rupture that would last until Arendt’s death a dozen years later. The years of their friendship, however, yielded a remarkably rich bounty of letters: together, they try to come to terms with being both German and Jewish, the place and legacy of Germany before and after the Holocaust, the question of what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world, and more. Walter Benjamin is a constant presence, as his life and tragic death are emblematic of the very questions that preoccupied the pair. Like any collection of letters, however, the book also has its share of lighter moments: accounts of travels, gossipy dinner parties, and the quotidian details that make up life even in the shadow of war and loss.
            In a world that continues to struggle with questions of nationalism, identity, and difference, Arendt and Scholem remain crucial thinkers. This volume offers us a way to see them, and the development of their thought, anew.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226924519
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/17/2017
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Hannah Arendt (1905-75) was a German-born American philosopher and political theorist. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was a German-born Israeli philosopher and historian. Marie Louise Knott is a journalist, translator, and writer, and the author of two books on Arendt, including Unlearning with Hannah Arendt. Anthony David is the author of The Patron: A Life of Salman Schocken and the editor and translator of volumes of Scholem’s diaries and letters.

Read an Excerpt


Letter 1

From Arendt

68 rue Brancion, Vaugirard 38-07

May 29, 1939

Dear Scholems,

It's become almost a scandal that I'm just today getting around to replying to your two letters that were such a delight for me. Since receiving them, first of all my mother arrived; second came my furniture; and third my library. The fourth, fifth, and sixth things that have happened here is that the good Lord in heaven, in the form of the Central Bureau, has blessed me with a profession; and as everyone knows, every gift from heaven has its shadow side. This shadow side, for me, is that I'm not managing to get a bit of work done.

As regards Rahel, I've naturally given wide berth to any sort of hagiography. I wanted to describe bankruptcy, though admittedly a bankruptcy that was historically necessary, and possibly even redemptive. I would like it if, with all their criticism, readers would glean out of the final two chapters a kind of vindication. These days this is especially important because every ignorant upstart thinks he can heap scorn onto assimilated Judaism. The book was written before Hitler. The final two chapters, which I wrote here, hardly change the book at all.

If I had only known the kind of material Schocken has in his collection! It was terribly annoying for me to be dependent on my excerpts from so many years ago. If there is any chance at all to get it published, I would be very grateful if you could make the connection for me. Naturally, you can keep the manuscript. And, of course, I would be thrilled if you want to stir Schocken's interest in the book.

I'm really worried about Benji. I tried to line up something for him here but failed miserably. At the same time, I'm more than ever convinced how vital it is to put him on secure footing so he can continue his work. As I see it, his work has changed, down to his style. Everything strikes me as far more emphatic, less hesitant. It often seems to me as if he is only now making progress on the questions most decisive for him. It would be awful if he were to be prevented from continuing.

One can hardly imagine what's going on back in Germany. For most of us here, it goes without saying that things are really lousy here, in particular as well as in general. How is your work coming along? What's Fanja up to? I would be elated if the two of you could find some reason to make another trip to Europe, because I don't see much chance for me to be a tour leader over there. Blücher sends his warmest greetings. Please don't be annoyed at my tardy reply, and don't be such a stranger. I'd like to hear from you again soon.




Letter 2

From Arendt


October 21, 1940

Dear Scholem,

Walter Benjamin took his own life on September 29 in Portbou on the Spanish frontier. He had an American visa, but on the twenty-third the only people the Spanish allowed to pass the border were those with "national" passports. I don't know if this letter will reach you. In the past weeks and months I had seen Walter several times, the last time being on September 20 in Marseilles. The report of his death took nearly four weeks to reach both his sister and us. Jews are dying in Europe and are being buried like dogs.


Hannah Arendt


Letter 3

From Fanja and Gershom Scholem

July 17, 1941


Dear Hannah Arendt,

I'm so glad you are finally able to breathe freely again, and I hope to hear from you very soon. In your last letter you wrote about Benjamin's death.

I hardly need to tell you how Gerhard took the news. Do you remember the conversation we had about the relationship between Walter and Gerhard? I recall every word. It breaks my heart to think that I never saw the man.

It was so lovely in Paris, and the memories of this wonderful city are bound up with memories of you. You were so kind to us. We are still living well here, and we hope for victory. Your friend Jonas, now with an artillery unit, is busy shooting down enemy airplanes. He is so proud of being a soldier, and he's a bit more childish than he was when he was occupied with Gnosticism. Gerhard still wants to write to you today, so I will sign off. Take care of yourself and think about us.

Your Fanja Scholem And greetings to Kurt Blumenfeld.

My dear friend,

Mrs. Zittau tells us you've arrived safely in New York — at last one piece of good news amid all the gloom. Oh, the two of us have so much to talk about, and yet who knows when we'll get the chance! We'll just have to hack our way through this mountain of darkness, if I can say so. One senses the meaning of apocalyptic prospects in one's own flesh and blood. Please write soon — it took three weeks for your letter to arrive from last October. It was the first report I received of Walter's death. I wish you had given me a return address: I wasn't able to reply without one. Please pay a visit to my friend Shalom Spiegel at the Jewish Institute of Religion (New York, 309 West 93rd Street). Tell him I sent you. He's a fantastic fellow, and both Blücher and you should become friendly with him.

Warmest greetings, from your Gerhard Scholem Forgive me for this awfully bad ink!


Letter 4

From Arendt

317 West 95th Street, New York

October 17, 1941

Dear Scholem,

Miriam Lichtheim gave me your address and relayed your greetings. While I hope that even without her I would have gotten around to writing you, I have to admit she gave me a useful nudge.

Wiesengrund tells me that he had sent to you a detailed report of Benjamin's death. Here in New York I've heard some not unimportant details for the first time. It may be that I'm not all that qualified to give an account of his death because I had considered such a possibility so far-fetched that for weeks after he died I dismissed the entire business as being no more than immigrants' gossip. All this despite the fact that especially in the last few years and months we were very close friends and saw one another on a regular basis.

With the outbreak of war we were all together for a summer break in a small French village near Paris. Benji was in excellent shape. He had finished part of his work on Baudelaire and was prepared, justifiably I think, to do some extraordinary things. The outbreak of war immediately terrified him beyond all measure. Fearing bombardments from the air, on the first day of the general mobilization he left Paris for Meaux. Meaux was a well-known center for the mobilization, with a militarily very important airport and train station, which made it a hub for the entire deployment of forces. Of course, the result was that from the start one air-raid alarm followed the next; rather aghast, Benjamin at once made his way back to Paris. He came back just in time to get himself duly rounded up. In the temporary camp at Colombes, where my husband talked to him at length, he was rather depressed, and for good reason, of course. At once he entered into a kind of asceticism. He stopped smoking, gave away all his chocolate, refused to wash himself or shave, and more or less refused to move a limb. Upon arrival in the final camp he wasn't feeling all that bad. He had a bevy of young boys around him; they liked him a lot, and were keen to learn from him and swallowed every word he said. By the time he returned in the middle or end of November, he was more or less glad to have had the experience. His initial panic was gone entirely. In the months that followed he wrote his historical-philosophical theses, of which I have been told he sent you a copy, too. As you have seen, he was on the spoors of a number of new things, though at the same time he was undeniably fearful of the opinion of those at the Institute. You surely know that before the war he received word from the Institute that his stipend was no longer secure and that he should look around for something else. That caused him a lot of anxiety, even if he wasn't all that convinced of the seriousness of the Institute's suggestion. Which didn't improve things, and if anything it made the matter all the more disagreeable for him. The outbreak of war took care of that anxiety. Still, he wasn't all that comfortable with the reaction of his most recent, downright unorthodox theories. In January one of his new young friends from the camp, who happened to have been a student of my husband's, killed himself, mostly for personal reasons. This suicide preoccupied Benjamin to an extraordinary extent; and in all the discussions about it, with a truly passionate vehemence, he stood with those who defended the young man's decision. In spring 1940, with heavy hearts, we all made our way to the American consulate. Even though we heard the same thing, that we would have to wait between two and ten years before our quota number came up, the three of us took English lessons. None of us took it all that seriously. Benjamin had just one wish: to learn enough of English to say that he absolutely didn't like the language. And he succeeded. His horror at America was indescribable, and apparently already then he told friends that he preferred a shorter life in France to a longer one in America.

This all came to a quick end. From the middle of April, those of us under the age of 48 who had been released from internment were examined for our suitability for military fatigue duty. Fatigue duty was really just another word for internment with forced labor; and measured against the first round of internment, in most cases it was worse. Everyone — that is, everyone but Benji — had no doubt he would be declared unfit for service. In those days he was awfully agitated, and on a number of occasions he told me he wouldn't be able to play along once again. Of course, he was declared unfit. Independent of all of this, in the middle of May the second and far more systematic internment took place. You must know about this. As if a miracle, of the three people spared the internment, Benji was one. Due to administrative chaos, he nevertheless could never know whether, or for how long, the police would accept an order from the Interior Ministry. Would the police simply arrest him? Personally, I had no contact with him at the time because I was interned. Friends told me, however, that he didn't dare venture out on the streets any longer, and he was living in constant panic. He managed to get on the last train leaving Paris. He took only a small suitcase with two shirts and a toothbrush. As you know, he traveled to Lourdes. As soon as I got out of Gurs in the middle of June, by chance I, too, headed to Lourdes, where I stayed for a few weeks at his instigation. This was the time of defeat, and after a few days the trains stopped running. No one knew what had happened to families, husbands, children, and friends. Benji and I played chess from morning to evening, and between games we read newspapers, to the extent we could get our hands on them. Everything was as fine as could be — until the ceasefire terms were published, along with the infamous extradition clause. But even then I can't say that Benjamin fell into a full-blown panic, even if we were both feeling anxious. Mind you, when news reached us of the first suicide among those in internment fleeing from the Germans, Benjamin began for the first time to talk repeatedly to me about suicide: there was always "that" way out. In response to my energetic and emphatic objections that there was still plenty of time before the situation became that desperate, he predictably repeated that you could never know, and under no circumstances should you wait too long. At the same time, we talked about America, a prospect to which he seemed more reconciled than before. He took seriously a letter from the Institute in which they informed him that they were making every effort to bring him over; less convincing for him was their declaration that he would belong to the editorial team of the journal and would receive a regular salary. This he considered a phony contract in order to secure him a visa. What he feared greatly, wrongly, it seems, was that the minute he got here they would turn their backs on him.

At the beginning of July, I left Lourdes á la recherche de mon mari perdu. Benji was hardly thrilled, and I vacillated back and forth if I should take him with me. But that would have been simply impossible. In regards to the officials (thanks to a letter of recommendation from the Foreign Ministry), he was safer staying put than he ever would have been somewhere else. Until September, my only contact with him was through letters. In the meantime, the Gestapo had been at his apartment and confiscated everything. Judging by his letters, he was very depressed. His manuscripts had been saved, but back then he had every reason to fear he had lost everything. In September we made our way to Marseilles because our visas had arrived. Benji had already been there since August, as his visa had already arrived in the middle of the month. He had the famous transit passes from Spain and, naturally, Portugal. When I saw him, the Spanish visa was valid for another eight to ten days. Getting that sort of visa in those days was completely impossible. He asked me, in a fit of despair, what he should do and whether we, too, could get a Spanish visa, as quickly as possible, so we could cross the border together. I told him how hopeless that would be, and that by the same token he had to leave soon because Spanish visas were not being extended. Moreover, I said he shouldn't take the risk of allowing his visa to lapse because it was highly uncertain how long such visas would be available. Of course, we would prefer to go together, all three of us, I said. In that case he could come with us to Montauban. But no one could take the responsibility for this. Rather on the spur of the moment, he decided to leave. The Dominicans had given him a letter of introduction to some Spanish abbot. At the time, Benjamin made a forceful impression on us all, but at the same time the situation was completely absurd. In those days in Marseilles he spoke again about his suicidal intentions. You know the rest of the story: that he had to leave in the company of complete strangers; that they chose to take the long route that required a seven-hour journey by foot through the mountains; that for entirely mysterious reasons they destroyed their French residency papers and thus cut off the possibility of returning to France; that they arrived at the frontiers exactly twenty-four hours after the closing of the Spanish border to people without national passports — the only papers we had were from the American consulate; that Benji had already completely broken down a number of times on the way to the border; that the group was supposed to report to the Spanish border the next morning; and that that night they were allowed to stay, and he took his life. Months later, when we arrived at Portbou, we searched in vain for his grave. It was nowhere to be found. His name was nowhere. The cemetery looks off at a small bay, directly onto the Mediterranean. It is composed of terraces carved out of stone. The coffins are shoved into these stone walls. It is by far one of the most fantastically beautiful places I've ever seen.

The Institute has his literary estate, though for the time being they hesitate to publish anything in the German language. I wonder if one couldn't bring out Benjamin's historical-philosophical theses independently with Schocken. Benjamin gave me the manuscript, and the Institute got it first through me.

Dear Scholem, that's all I can tell you, and I've told the story as precisely and without comment as possible.

Greetings to you and your wife from the monsieur and me,

Your Hannah Arendt

P.S. Because all copies of my unfortunate Rahel have gone missing, I've asked my relatives to pick up the copy from you and to send it to me. Kurt Blumenfeld will transfer the necessary money for this through his wife.

Merci d'avance!


Letter 5

From Scholem

Abarbanel Rd. 28, Rehavia, Jerusalem

February 6, 1942

Dear Hannah Blücher,

I can't describe to you the kinds of contradictory feelings your long letter from last fall stirred in me. On the one hand, I was overjoyed to get a sign of life from you, and to know that you and your husband, after everything you have no doubt gone through, are in America. I would have welcomed learning more concrete details about you and how you are doing. On the other hand, naturally I was deeply stricken by what you wrote about Walter and his death. A year ago I received similar reports from Wiesengrund, to whom I then wrote a number of times concerning Benjamin's literary estate. And to my greatest astonishment, I received no answer from him. Perhaps you could give the dear fellow a little bit of hell; I thought he would have an interest in remaining in contact with me. Could you inquire what's behind this strange silence? I would be just as grateful if you could give me information on whether papers and manuscripts of his were as grateful if you could give me information on whether papers and manuscripts of his were rescued from Paris and taken to New York, and if so, which ones. I have a large number of things here, beyond an almost complete collection of his printed works.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: “Why Have We Been Spared?” by Marie Luise Knott

Part One: The Letters
Part Two: Documents
Hannah Arendt, Five Reports from Germany
Editorial Note
Document One: Field Report No. 12
Document Two: Field Report No. 15
Document Three: Field Report No. 16
Document Four: Field Report No. 18
Document Five: Final Report to the JCR Commission

Editorial Remarks
Index of Persons
List of Abbreviations

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