Adolf, Helen (b. 1895)

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Adolf, Helen (b. 1895)

Austrian-born American professor of German language and literature who made major contributions to several areas of scholarship. Born December 31, 1895, in Vienna, Austria; death date unknown; daughter of Jakob Adolf (an attorney) and Hedwig (Spitzer) Adolf (an artist); sister of Anna Adolf Spiegel (b. 1893, a medical doctor).

After earning a Ph.D. in literature, went to Leipzig, Germany to work in a publishing house; fled from Austria to United States (1939); learned Spanish to obtain a teaching job; finally received an academic post teaching Spanish, French, and Latin; after receiving a job at Pennsylvania State University (1943), worked her way up the ladder becoming a full professor (1953); a wide knowledge of linguistics, religious psychology, aesthetics, poetry and various strands of history and culture influenced Adolf's academic contributions; awarded the Republic of Austria's Cross of Honor, First Class, in Arts and Letters (1972); her 1960 book Visio Pacis exemplifies Adolf's unique approach to scholarship.

Selected writings:

(editor) Dem neuen Reich entgegen, 1850–1871 (Leipzig: P. Reclam Verlag, 1930); (editor) Im neuen Reich, 1871–1914 (Leipzig: P. Reclam Verlag, 1932); Visio Pacis: Holy City and Grail: An Attempt at an Inner History of the Grail Legend (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1960); Werden und Sein: Gedichte aus fünf Jahrzehnten (Horn-Niederösterreich, Austria: Verlag Ferdinand Berger, 1964).

When Helen Adolf was born in Vienna, Austria, on December 31, 1895, into an assimilated Jewish middle-class family that was both financially comfortable and culturally active, she did not know she would cross new frontiers. Her father, Jakob Adolf (1850–1926), was a Galician-born attorney, while her mother, Hedwig Spitzer Adolf (1864–1936), was a native Viennese with many artistic interests. From the outset, educational accomplishments were stressed in the Adolf family. Helen's older sister, Anna Adolf Spiegel , received a medical degree from the University of Vienna, an unusual accomplishment for a woman of the period, and immigrated to the United States in 1930, where she established a successful academic career at Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia.

Helen Adolf earned her doctorate in literature from the University of Vienna in 1923, but no teaching positions were open to women in Austria. She went to Leipzig, Germany, where she worked at the famous Reclam publishing firm, compiling several highly acclaimed collections of documents relating to the period of German history from 1850–1914. These volumes were innovative in that they brought together long-forgotten political poetry, ballads and songs from a crucial phase of German cultural development. Her interests were varied. She wrote poetry as well as studying psychology and religion during this time. From 1923 to 1938, she served as secretary of the International Society for the Psychology of Religion. Gifted at foreign languages. Adolf sharpened her language skills by translating a number of works from French into German including Jeanne Galzy 's novel on St. Teresa of Avila .

The 1930s were a dangerous period for Jews like Helen Adolf in Europe. When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, it was clear that her life was in danger. Deciding to start a new life in the United States, she left in April 1939 to join her sister in Philadelphia. Fortunate to have support from friends and family, Adolf was also assisted by the American Friends Service Committee. The lack of good jobs in the closing years of the Depression meant that Adolf had to begin her career all over again. She attended the University of Pennsylvania summer school to improve her knowledge of Spanish, the most popular foreign language taught in the United States at that time. Then she took a number of secondary-school positions in Virginia and Colorado, teaching not only Spanish but Latin and French as well. By 1943, however, Adolf returned to Philadelphia to Pennsylvania State University where she began her ascent up the academic ladder, achieving the rank of full professor in 1953.

Although she made major contributions to several areas of scholarship, Helen Adolf was not merely a specialist. She maintained an intense personal as well as professional interest in many areas that cut across the spectrum of human experience. She spent many years cultivating a knowledge of linguistics, religious psychology, aesthetics, and poetry; her interests encompassed wide areas of history and culture. Her wide knowledge was reflected in her work, Visio Pacis: Holy City and Grail: An Attempt at an Inner History of the Grail Legend, which is an example of her eclectic approach to scholarship. There were very few women in the ranks of American academia during Adolf's long career, and almost none at all at the rank of full professor.

Despite the traumatic circumstances, which caused Adolf to come to America, she was glad to become a citizen of her new country in 1944. When asked whether she might return to live in Austria at the end of World War II, she stated that she had encountered individuals who exhibited traits of integrity and altruism in both countries, but only in the United States had she seen "courage and optimism" widely practiced. Postwar Austria, she stated, still retained traces of "resignation." Nonetheless, Adolf retained her loyalty to German culture and the German language. She continued to write most of her poetry in German, and in 1964 published an anthology of selected verse with an Austrian publisher. In 1968, a group of devoted students and colleagues published a Festschrift about her lifetime achievements. In 1972, Helen Adolf received the Republic of Austria's coveted Cross of Honor, First Class, in Arts and Letters.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia