Center for Leadership
Intellectuals, and World War II: The Pontigny Encounters at Mount Holyoke
Discussion:"The Legacy of Rachel Bespaloff, Writer and Teacher"
Featured Audio Broadcast
the many European artists and intellectuals who found a haven at Mount
Holyoke College during the Pontigny encounters, one found a more permanent
home in South Hadley. Rachel
Bespaloff became a Mount Holyoke French professor. Her life was
for its tragedy as it was for its scholarly importance.
was born in Bulgaria to Swiss parents and was educated in Geneva. In
1942 she and members of her family emigrated from France, fleeing increasing
persecution against Jews. Before becoming a professor of French at Mount Holyoke,
Bespaloff worked in New York City as a scriptwriter for the French Section
of the Office
of War Information.
Not only a professor, Bespaloff also was a philosopher and literary critic
who traveled in circles with luminaries such as Hannah Arendt, another Pontigny
participant. One of Bespaloff's most renowned works is a book entitled On
Iliad: A Study of Homer's Interpretation of Man in War and in Peace, published
in 1947. Begun in France and completed in the United States, the book was Bespaloff's
of facing the war," she said.
Bespaloff often wrote to relatives on the contrast between Europe and America: "Here
I feel like I am in a dream-- the people know, but they don't feel yet what war
is. The menace is just as anguishing as it is invisible." Bespaloff would
comment that in America "abundance reigns but also worry," its citizens
indulging in such "scandalous luxuries" as white bread, milk, and butter.
Committing suicide on April 6, 1949, Bespaloff left a note saying she was "too
fatigued to carry on." One close friend expressed his hope that "all
these cruel and awful contradictions" that he found in Bespaloff would finally
internal struggle to find peace continued to the very end of her life. She maintained
seems to me that we have all the same had a lot of luck: we saw Hitler defeated
and Israel recognized...When one thinks of all those who died without hope, we
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