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Artists, Intellectuals, and World War II: The Pontigny Encounters at Mount Holyoke College: Roundtable Discussion:"The Legacy of Rachel Bespaloff, Writer and Teacher"
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Rachel Bespaloff

Of 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 as striking for its tragedy as it was for its scholarly importance.

Bespaloff 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 the 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 "method 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 be resolved. Bespaloff’s internal struggle to find peace continued to the very end of her life. She maintained that "It 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 are lucky."

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This page is created by Mallika Aryal '05, Natalia Stefanova '05 and Eleanor S. Choo '06. Last modified on September 22, 2004 .