This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Scholar takes active role in history

Georg Iggers’ autobiography is basis of documentary being filmed for schools

Published: February 2, 2006

Reporter Contributor

Georg Iggers, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of History, is not only a scholar of history, but a man who's taken an active role in it as well. As a Jew who was born in Germany and still living in the country during the 1930s, a civil rights activist in Arkansas and Louisiana in the 1950s and the early 1960s, and a scholar working to unite East and West German intellectuals from the mid-1960s until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Iggers' circumstances and passions have placed him repeatedly in the midst of history.


Georg and Wilma Iggers recently completed filming with a German crew that is creating a documentary on DVD to accompany their joint autobiography.

Iggers and his wife, Wilma, a professor emerita of modern languages at Canisius College, drew upon two lifetimes of experience to write "Two Lives in Uncertain Times," a joint autobiography first published in Germany in 2002. Among the experiences Iggers relates in the book are his childhood flight from the Nazis, his work toward German-Jewish reconciliation, and his involvement with the landmark civil rights case at Little Rock Central High School.

Iggers and his wife recently completed filming with a German crew that is creating a documentary on DVD to accompany their book for use in schools.

The project came about, in part, through collaboration with a former student involved with the crew, Iggers explained during a recent interview with the Reporter. Heinrich Pingel-Rollmann studied at UB in 1979-81 as part of an exchange program with the Technical University of Darmstadt, he said.

The crew filmed in Buffalo and Canada in December, and then traveled to Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., one of two southern black colleges at which the Iggerses taught during the 1950s.

The project began in 2003, Iggers said, when the organization creating the documentary, "Building Bridges," accompanied him and his wife on a visit to Germany, to Prague and to Wilma's hometown in the Czech Republic.

One of the events the crew recorded at that time was a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech Iggers delivered in Esslingen, Germany in January 2004. He was invited to speak there because of his work in the area of German-Jewish reconciliation. The town originally had contacted him in the 1980s when officials there invited former Jewish residents to return to the town. Iggers had been a pupil in the Jewish orphanage there before emigrating from Germany.

Iggers was not yet 12 years old when his family fled from Germany to escape Nazi persecution. "We left five weeks before Kristallnacht," he recalled. On that day, also known as the Night of Broken Glass—Nov. 9, 1938—the Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops, destroyed synagogues and sent tens of thousands of Jews between the ages 16 and 60 to concentration camps.

"We had just barely escaped," said Iggers. His family landed in New York City, and after a three-months' stay, relocated to Richmond, Va., in 1939. He earned a bachelor's degree at age 17—due to the accelerated education he had received in Germany—from the University of Richmond.

Wilma's family left Europe to settle on a farm in Ontario about the same time. The couple met as graduate students at the University of Chicago.

While in Europe, the crew filmed Georg and Wilma's childhood homes in Germany and the Czech Republic, and Wilma's acceptance of an award from the Czech Foreign Ministry.

However, after filming in Europe, Iggers said the crew ran out of funds and could not travel to America to complete the project. The organization recently obtained grants from the German Foreign Office and the Central Council for Jews in Germany to finish the project.

This past Dec. 6, the couple traveled south with the crew to complete filming. As young scholars, they took positions at Philander Smith College in Little Rock and Dillard University in New Orleans. Iggers said that he had wanted the crew to film in Louisiana, but it could not because of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The crew could film in Arkansas, however, where, as a teacher at Philander Smith College, Iggers joined the local chapter of the NAACP in 1951.

His experiences as a Jew in Germany made him sensitive to prejudice against blacks. "It upset me very much," he said, noting that as a student in Germany, he had learned that the United States was a land of democracy, but this knowledge did not jibe with the segregation he witnessed in the South.

Iggers held various leadership positions within the NAACP on the local level in the 1950s and 1960s, and is still a member of the board of directors of the Buffalo branch. In 1952, as part of his work with the organization, he compiled a report outlining the inequities between the two public high schools in Little Rock. All-black Dunbar High School was overcrowded and had shorter class periods than all-white Little Rock Central High School. Dunbar also offered only rudimentary courses—almost none in liberal arts, business, or mechanics—whereas Central offered extensive college prep, commercial and vocational courses.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the "separate but equal" premise with its ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, the NAACP brought action against the Little Rock School Board based on the inequalities detailed in Iggers' report and the school system's failure to integrate. Iggers was deeply involved as chair of the education committee of the Little Rock branch of the NAACP in the planning and organizing of the suit, which led to the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. The Iggerses revisited Central High School, the site of what in 1957 became a landmark victory in the battle against segregation, with the film crew.

Iggers also worked during the Cold War to counteract injustices imposed on those within his own profession. "I tried to establish communication between East German, West German and American historians," he explained. Distressed by restrictions imposed on collaboration between scholars divided by the Iron Curtain, Iggers started in 1982 to host conferences of West and East German historians at UB.

Georg and Wilma Iggers have completed an English-language edition of their autobiography due to be published this year in New York and Oxford. Wilma Iggers emphasized that the book is not a translation, but a re-written version because she and her husband wanted to explain and emphasize different elements of their past to an English-speaking audience. A Czech edition was published this January.