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The HG Adler Collection

The HG Adler Collection, which is housed in the Foyle Special Collections Library at King's College London, was the personal reference library of the novelist, poet and Holocaust survivor HG Adler (1910-1988).

HG Adler: his life and work

Portrait of HG Adler I said to myself: ‘If I survive all this, and I very much doubt it, then I will bear witness to everything that I experience, not, however, by a personal record, but in an objective, scholarly form’” (HG Adler, 1981).

HG Adler was born into a Jewish family in Prague in 1910 and studied musicology, literature and philosophy at Charles University, gaining his doctorate there in 1935. He was prevented from pursuing an academic career by the rise of the Nazis in Germany and in 1941 was sent to work at a labour camp in Bohemia, before being deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp with his first wife, Gertrud, and her family. 

Even while still in the ghetto, Adler was able to give artistic expression to his experiences; altogether, he wrote over a hundred poems in Theresienstadt, as well as systematically collecting material for his later studies. Closely involved in the cultural life of the ghetto, Adler was instrumental in saving Viktor Ullman’s Theresienstadt opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis; his own works owe their preservation to Rabbi Leo Baeck, who looked after them when Adler was finally deported to the East. After more than two years confined in the Nazis’ “model ghetto”, the Adlers were transported to Auschwitz on 12 October 1944. On the selection ramp Adler was ordered to an outlying work camp; his wife refused to desert her mother, accompanying her to the gas chamber so that she should not die alone.

On liberation, Adler returned to Prague in June 1945, finding work as a tutor and helping to develop the Jewish Museum before emigrating to London in 1947, where he lived in exile until his death in 1988. He married Bettina Gross in England and renewed friendships with writers and artists from pre-war Prague, many also living in exile. Adler was one of the last representatives of the Prague school of German literature, following in the traditions of Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke. Although he saw himself primarily as a poet, he wrote numerous plays and essays, as well as a number of novels including Eine Reise (1962) and Panorama (1968). He published widely in the fields of literature, sociology, religion and philosophy, yet it is as a witness and historian of the Holocaust that he is best known.

It was important to Adler to record what he had witnessed in the ghettos and camps of the Second World War and he became one of the first writers to describe and analyse the Nazi persecution of the Jews. His comprehensive study of the Theresienstadt ghetto, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft, was completed in 1948 and first published in 1955. It remains one of the most detailed and thorough studies of the organisation, history and sociology of a single concentration camp, and quickly established Adler’s reputation as a founder of Holocaust scholarship. Despite taking seven years to find a publisher, Theresienstadt met with immediate success when finally released and the book’s scholarly impartiality was held in such high regard in Germany that it was accepted by the courts as legal evidence of the “Final Solution".

The collection

Title page of Anti-Semitic book (Austria 1921)The library of HG Adler is a unique and important collection of printed material about the Holocaust and the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe. The collection comprises over 1,100 books, pamphlets and journals, many of them extremely rare, and was placed in the Foyle Special Collections Library by the writer’s son, Jeremy Adler, Professor Emeritus of German at King’s College London. 

The collection comprises HG Adler’s reference library, used in the research for his Holocaust studies, Theresienstadt and Der verwaltete Mensch (1974), and representing the core of his life and work. It includes works in German, English, Czech, Polish, Dutch and Italian, among others, with a large proportion dating from the early 1930s to the 1950s. The books range from standard texts to rare wartime propaganda leaflets, from James MacDonald’s 1935 Letter of resignation to the League of Nations to Adler’s heavily-annotated copy of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964) and an early typescript of Jakob Robinson’s response, And the crooked shall be made straight (1965). Adler played an important part in the debate surrounding Arendt’s analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trial.

An undoubted strength of the collection lies in its many early first-hand narratives, personal accounts of persecution and survival which are essential sources for any study of the Holocaust. Numerous presentation copies from Gerty Spies, Jacob Robinson, Hans Buchheim, JC Odic, Heinrich Böll and many others testify to Adler’s wide-ranging and enduring friendships. 

One exceptional rarity among the collection is the picture book, Bilder aus Theresienstadt (1944), containing eighteen hand-coloured lithographs by the Dutch artist Jo Spier, himself a prisoner of the ghetto. The book is believed to have been published as SS propaganda in 1944 in an edition of ten copies and just two other examples are known to survive. 

The collection also includes a rare copy of Der Anti-Nazi, a handbook of facts and counter-arguments for refuting Nazi claims and antisemitic propaganda. Produced in 1930 by a secret organisation of German Jews, the handbook was published as a collection of loose leaves in a cardboard portfolio; the unusual format was designed for flexibility and ease of use during public meetings. 

Another key work is Leo Baeck’s Der Rechtsstellung der Juden in Europa, an unpublished typescript of which no more than five copies were produced. A twelve-month cataloguing project by Foyle Special Collections has enabled all items in the HG Adler Collection to be added to the library's online catalogue, with the rarest and most physically vulnerable material continuing to receive appropriate conservation treatment.

Some items of interest from the collection

Der Anti-Nazi. Berlin: Max Lichtwitz, [1930] [HG Adler Collection DD256.3 ANT]

Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: ein Bericht von der Banalität des Bösen. München: Piper, 1964. [HG Adler Collection DD247.E5 ARE]

Leo Baeck. Der Rechtsstellung der Juden in Europa, vornehmlich in Deutschland, von 1830-1930. Unpublished typescript . [HG Adler Collection DS135.G33 BAE]

James McDonald. Letter of resignation of James G. McDonald, High Commissioner for Refugees (Jewish and Other) Coming from Germany. London: [Printed by Headley Brothers], 1935. [HG Adler Collection JX1975.8.G3 MCD]

Jacob Robinson. And the crooked shall be made straight: the Eichmann trial, the Jewish catastrophe and Hannah Arendt's narrative. New York: Macmillan, 1965. [HG Adler Collection DD247.E5 ROB]

Jo Spier. Bilder aus Theresienstadt. [Theresienstadt: s.n., 1944?] [HG Adler Collection D805.5.T54 SPI]

Resources

A list of the books in the HG Adler Collection can be obtained from the Library catalogue. The College Archives holds some of his papers. There are several collections of HG Adler's works in the public realm. He deposited his Theresienstadt Archive at the Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie, Amsterdam. His literary estate is at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar. The Beinecke Library owns his letters to Herman Broch and has substantial holdings of printed materials. There is some related material in the archives of King's College London.

Further reading

HG Adler. “Dichtung in der Gefangenschaft als ineres Exil”, Literatur des Exils, heraus. von Bernt Engelmann. Munich: Goldmann, 1981.

HG Adler. Theresienstadt: das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005 [HG Adler Collection D805.C9 ADL]

Jeremy Adler. “HG Adler is deported to Theresienstadt”, Yale companion to Jewish writing and thought in German culture, edited by Sander L. Gilman & Jack Zipes. New Haven: Yale University Press , c1997 [Maughan Library DS135.G3 YAL]

Seeing through “paradise”: artists and the Terezín concentration camp. Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts College of Art, 1991 [HG Adler Collection N8251.T37 SEE] 

 

 

 

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