80 years ago
80 years ago today on May 22, 1941 Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher arrived at Ellis Island on the SS Guiné. They had twenty-five dollars and didn’t speak English.
The ‘List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United State’s’ registers Heinrich Blücher as a 42-year-old, stateless, German writer, and Johanna Arendt as a 35-year-old, stateless, Hebrew wife.
The morning after their arrival, Arendt sent a telegram to her first husband Günther Anders letting him know they survived.
With a stipend from the Zionist Organization of America, they rented two furnished rooms at 317 West 95th Street. One for them, and one for Hannah Arendt’s mother, Martha.
Arendt’s friend Paul Tillich put Arendt in touch with an organization called Self-Help for Refugees, an agency of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in New York. Through them, Arendt applied to be placed as a housekeeper with an American family for the summer to learn English.
Heinrich Blücher had a more difficult time acclimatizing to life in America. He resisted learning English and only did so unhappily at the urging of Arendt. He spent his first year in the United States compiling a book of English idioms and working at a factory in New Jersey.
After the summer Arendt went to Columbia University to visit the Jewish historian Salo Baron, whom she had met years earlier in Germany. During her meeting with Baron they talked about the history of anti-Semitism in France, and Baron suggested that she develop her argument into an article and send it to Theodor Herzl Gaster, who was the executive secretary for the Institute for Jewish Affairs. With his help, she published her first essay in English translation, ‘From the Dreyfus Affair to France Today’, in Jewish Social Studies in 1942.
This was the beginning of Hannah Arendt’s writing career in the United States. Not long after she began writing a column for the German weekly, Aufbau, titled “This Means You!” calling for the formation of a Jewish army to fight the Nazis. She was forty-five years old when she published her first major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
She had escaped two world wars, imprisonment, and internment.
Natality, Arendt said, the miracle of new beginnings, is what “saves the world, the realm of the human affairs.” And it is only this capacity to begin again that bestows “upon human affairs faith and hope.”
Martin Heidegger might have talked about being in the throws of becoming, but for Hannah Arendt we are always in the process of beginning. And it is in this ability to begin again that Arendt found the promise of politics and a commitment to the realm of worldly affairs. Arendt saw the worst her generation had to offer and she refused to look away. "What is most difficult,” she said, “is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it."
I struggle with Arendt’s commandment to love the world, but I hope I have an ounce of the “violent courage for life” she found when the chips were down. Here’s to this “none too beautiful world of ours” and new beginnings.
PS. I just finished an essay on Hannah Arendt’s interment and escape, which you will be able to read soon. Some of the passages above have been excerpted and edited from my forthcoming biography, Hannah Arendt.