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Felix and Elizabeth Hirsch: Émigré Intellectuals at Bard

Felix and Elizabeth Hirsch were two of the many émigré intellectuals at Bard who, beginning in the 1930s, escaped the devastations wrought by the Nazis throughout Europe. The two had been fond friends in Germany, but at that time Felix was an established editor in Berlin and Elisabeth Feist, still immersed in her studies, was not yet ready for marriage. Once in the United States, Elisabeth learned of the whereabouts of Felix who was then Librarian at Bard.  They renewed their friendship, and married in 1938. Two sons, Roland and Thomas, were born in Annandale.

"Felix and Elisabeth Hirsch" Painted by Robert Burns, 1973. 
Used with permission.

As individuals, each of them brought considerable talents to the Bard community. Felix had carved a new career for himself in the United States by attending Columbia University for his library degree. Dean Donald Tewksbury, himself on leave from Columbia, hired Felix as a librarian for the Hoffman Library in 1936. Dr. Hirsch sought to transform the library into the “intelligence center” (Hirsch “Library” 2) of the Bard community, while also teaching modern European history. Hoffman was completely renovated; serious attention was given to collection development; and each student was met and assessed by the Librarian. In a tribute to Felix Hirsch, Brandon Grove wrote:

…out of earshot, we called him “Popsie.” He was courteous and eagerly welcoming in his somewhat formal Central European way, lively and intense as he spoke in the accents of Berlin. He also had a ready laugh… When you came to see him about an assignment, no matter what your field of study, Popsie would load you up with books. For a year, I majored in his Modern European History course. He walked me through the stacks, reaching for a volume here and another there, telling me something about its author and relevance to my paper, in this case, on Bismarck. One would finally leave the library with eight or ten books under one’s chin—you could always tell who had encountered Dr. Hirsch. In his seminars later on, when you fumbled a question, he would peer over his glasses and say with resignation, “Go look it up in such-and-such, Mr. Grove.” You hated to fail him. (Hirsch “Selected Writings” xxiii-xxiv)

"History seminar on lawn with Dr. Hirsch, 1950. Seated student in foreground is Brandon Grove."
David Brooks, photographer.

Felix took enormous pride in the Bard library, writing:

Accrediting agencies and library experts often go to great pains in measuring the quality of college library service. They rightly examine seating capacity, book budget, periodical subscriptions, staff size and many other aspects. But one factor of excellence remains hard to appraise: the spirit of a library. This writer is fully aware of the fact that other colleges have better library buildings, bigger book collections and more personnel, but he has yet to be shown the college library which plays a more vital part in the academic life of the institution, provides more of an atmosphere of freedom, and means more to the individual student, than does the Hoffman Memorial Library. (Hirsch “Library” 3)

felix paper
"Felix Hirsch, the 'Spirit of the Library'" from the student
newspaper 'Communitas,' June 3rd, 1954.

Felix Hirsch left Bard in 1954 to become the Librarian at Trenton State Teacher’s College. He nevertheless remained close to Bard, visiting the library periodically, and maintaining correspondences with Presidents Case, Kline, and Botstein. In 1961 he received the Bard medal in appreciation of all of his efforts on behalf of the college. He indeed embodied the “spirit of the library,” and thus we have borrowed his name for the library catalog. He set a high standard for future librarians, and when we help a student to research a topic using  ‘Felix,’ we hope to recall some of his dedication to scholarship and service.

felix medal
"Felix Hirsch receives the Bard Medal 1961"
Roland Hirsch, photographer.

Elisabeth Feist was born in 1904 in Mainz, Germany, but grew up in Berlin where her father, a linguist, found employment as the director of a large Jewish orphanage. Her mother, daughter of a rabbi, had trained as a teacher, but did not pursue this career once she married. During and after the First World War, Elisabeth attended the Berlin Gymnasium, and then passed the written examination that would allow her to pursue a university degree at the institution of her choice. She writes: “There was no doubt in my mind that I would pursue such a career that was open for my generation of women for the first time.” (Hirsch “Sketches” 294) Her parents were pleased by her choice of the University of Freiburg, but not impressed by her decision to study philosophy which her father compared to “a useless attempt to find a black cat in the dark.” (Hirsch “Sketches” 296) Undaunted, she continued her study of philosophy; eventually settling at Marburg University, where she studied with Martin Heidegger and ultimately earned her Ph.D. She writes:

We were fascinated with Heidegger’s new approach to philosophy which he developed in Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), a book that was published during his years at Marburg. Instead of starting with man as the creator of his world, it was Being (das Sein) that in epochal events opens a world for man’s consideration. I belonged to a small group of students who were invited by Heidegger for a discussion of phenomenology every two weeks at his house. The sessions always started with Mrs. Heidegger reading a poem. Following the meetings we would have long, animated discussions among ourselves. (Hirsch “Sketches” 296)

"Elisabeth, Toni, and Sigmund Feist, late 1920s"

Years later, Elisabeth was the subject of an oral history performed at Trenton State Teacher’s College, and she describes being formally evaluated by Heidegger:

…It was so, that he examined me in philosophy, as a matter of fact in his house, privately. Yes, you know the university [Marburg] was small; you knew your professors, and they knew what grade they would give you. It was really more or less a formality and so we talked about the philosophical problem about Kant and I was shaky obviously, and he said to me, ‘Well, I know what you can do so don’t worry about it. I just want to discuss a problem,’ and so I felt better then. He didn’t quite—you know a young student and a famous professor, that is always kind of an exciting, let us say, situation.* (Interview 4)

"In this video clip taken from the same oral history, Dr. Hirsch discusses
why Heidegger should not be viewed as an existentialist; the "arrogance"
of Sartre; and the importance of Nature in Heidegger's worldview."**

Elisabeth Feist immigrated to the United States in 1937, having initially been invited to Yale University as a Sterling Research Fellow. When she happily rediscovered Felix and came to Bard, she transitioned nicely:

I found a very kind reception from the faculty at Bard, and we enjoyed many lovely dinner parties given in honor of Felix and myself. I felt very strongly that I should return their many kindnesses. But how could I do this? My mother had often urged me to take cooking lessons in order to be prepared for when I should get married and have to take over the various duties of a housewife. Now the time had come, which meant a definite shift from my scholarly activities. I could not count on my husband’s help because Felix’s library duties occupied him not only during the day, but often into the evening. Happily the Baintons had given me a copy of the Fanny Farmer cookbook as a wedding gift, which I consulted whenever the need arose. By and by I felt secure enough to invite friends for a dinner party at our home. (“Sketches” 316)

"Hirsch Family at Bard, from left: Roland, Thomas, and Elisabeth Hirsch;her mother Toni Feist,
and Felix Hirsch." Photograph by Elie Shneour, '47.

She also raised two sons, staying home until they were well established in school. Eventually though, she returned to work, teaching political science and philosophy at Bard. In 1953 she was asked to teach one of the first classes of the ‘Common Course,’ that has since evolved into the First Year Seminar. The Common Course, developed and structured by philosophy professor, and husband of Hannah Arendt, Heinrich Blücher, took as its subject the history of philosophy, so Elisabeth would have been a particularly appropriate candidate for this position. Of teaching, Elisabeth said, “It was really what I like to do.” (Interview 9)

*Although their paths must have crossed, there is no documentation to suggest that Elisabeth Hirsch had any personal relationship with Hannah Arendt, another student of Martin Heidegger.

**Like Arendt, Elisabeth Hirsch maintained a friendship with Martin Heidegger, even after the events surrounding his membership in the Nazi party become known. Her refusal to portray him as antisemitic in any of her writings about him was interesting, from which we can only infer the complexity of the relationship between the individuals involved.

"Heinrich Blücher, left, makes a point during a meeting in the library.
Felix Hirsch is seated beside him."

Works Cited

Hirsch, Elisabeth Feist. “Autobiographical Sketches.” Selected Wr. By Felix E. Hirsch and
     Elisabeth Feist Hirsch. Germantown, MD: The Franklin Press, 1993. 289-324.
- - -. “The Problem of Speech in ‘Being and Time.’Heidegger’s Existential Analytic. By F.      Elliston. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978. 159-178. Rpt. in Selected Writings, 1929-
     1993. By Felix E. Hirsch and Elisabeth Feist Hirsch. Germantown, MD: The Franklin Press,
     1993. 346-365.
- - -. “Remembrances of Martin Heidegger in Marburg.” Philosophy Today (July-Aug. 1979):
     160-169. Rpt. in Selected Writings, 1929-1993. By Elisabeth Feist Hirsch. Germantown, MD:
     The Franklin Press, 1993. 336-345.
Hirsch, Elisabeth Feist, and Hogstrom Harold. Dr. Elisabeth F. Hirsch. Ts. Oral history Interview.
     The College of New Jersey . TCNJ Library, Trenton. 1-22
Hirsch, Felix E. “The Bard Library and its Public.” The Bard College News-Letter I.3 (Jan. 1948):
Hirsch, Felix E., and Elisabeth Feist Hirsch. Selected Writings, 1929-1993. Germantown, MD:
     The Franklin Press, 1993.

Additional Reading

Hirsch, Felix. "The Bard Family." Columbia University Quarterly (Oct. 1941)

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