New Hannah Arendt By the People Crowdsourcing Transcription Campaign Launched for Jewish American Heritage Month

This guest post is by Barbara Bair, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

This May, the Library launches a new By the People crowdsourcing transcription campaign devoted to Hannah Arendt in tribute to Jewish American Heritage Month.

The Manuscript Division is home to the personal papers of public intellectual, political theorist, cultural critic, lecturer, teacher, and writer Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Received as a gift to the Library from Arendt and her estate, the collection is digitized and available for viewing and study.

The crowdsourcing campaign, Woman of the World: Political Thinker Hannah Arendt, premieres with five projects to engage volunteers interested in transcribing documents, primarily in English or German. These include the collection’s Family Papers series and all four parts of its Correspondence series.

Naturalization certificate with head and shoulders portrait of Arrendt.

Hannah Arendt’s United States certificate of naturalization, 1951. Box 4, Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Born and educated in Germany, Arendt was from a secular Jewish family that had roots in both Germany and Russia. As a young woman she fled the Third Reich for France. She spent eight years living in exile in Paris with other intellectual activists, where she worked on behalf of Zionist refugee organizations. She was interned in France as a foreigner and a Jew, and was helped through a refugee aid network to leave the country and immigrate to the United States in 1941.

Arendt made a life as a New Yorker and became one of the western world’s most prominent public intellectuals. She connected with other Jewish emigres in New York, learned English, and made a living as a freelance writer and editor and then as a teacher at a number of different universities. The letters and notes in her papers document Arendt’s personal side as a wife and family member, a friend, mentor, and colleague who interacted internationally with a Who’s Who of thinkers, writers, critics, and teachers.

The collection’s Family Papers series, available for volunteers to explore this May, includes numerous notable items, such as the notebook that Arendt’s mother Martha Cohn Arendt Beerwald kept of her daughter’s childhood development in Germany. It also contains Arendt’s visas, passports, and naturalization documents and papers regarding restitution from Germany, as well as correspondence and writings related to Arendt’s second husband and fellow émigré the Bard College professor Heinrich Blücher, whom Arendt met and married in Paris.

The four projects drawn from the collection’s Correspondence series include personal and professional correspondence to and from Arendt. There is general correspondence with friends, critics, and fellow intellectuals like Walter Benjamin, Mary McCarthy, Alfred Kazin, and Hans Morgenthau (whose papers are also held in the Manuscript Division). There are letters regarding her university and college teaching appointments and visiting lectures and talks, and her interactions with organizations, including the American Council for Judaism and the American Jewish Committee. There is also correspondence with publishers in the United States and Germany who printed her seminal works, including The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), published in the same year she obtained U.S. citizenship; Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess (1957); The Human Condition (1958); and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), the latter based on the series of articles she wrote covering the Nazi war crimes trial in Israel for The New Yorker.

By transcribing the family papers and correspondence, volunteers can explore the richness of Arendt’s heart, mind, influence, and experience; see the evidence of her commitments and intimacies; enjoy her wit; marvel at the breadth and impact of her activities as a public intellectual; and see the many kinds of relationships and interactions she had with friends, foes, students, colleagues, publishers, and admirers.  She did indeed have, as she might have put it, a vita activa (an active life).

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