York prof donates family library to Jewish museum in Germany

York Professor Emerita Joy Cohnstaedt has returned a portion of her late husband’s family library to Frankfurt, Germany, the city survivors of the Jewish family were forced to flee in 1933.

With help from Toronto city officials, the former dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts has donated rare books and family papers chronicling German history, culture and politics between the 1800s and early 1930s to the Jewish Museum and city archives in Frankfurt.

“The family is returning the books and other papers to help Frankfurt remember the lives and contribution of the Jews of that city,” says Cohnstaedt.

The Cohnstaedts had been prominent journalists in Germany from the latter half of the 1800s to the early 20th century. But in 1933 Wilhelm Cohnstaedt, a senior editor at Frankfurter Zeitung, feared for his life after refusing to write an editorial welcoming Adolf Hitler to power and fled to New York. For the next four years, he wrote for the New York Times until his suicide in 1937.

After Wilhelm died, 2,000 books were donated to a New York university. Martin Cohnstaedt, Joy’s late husband and the youngest of Wilhelm’s three children, inherited the rest of the exiled family’s collection, which once numbered over 5,000 items. After Martin died in 2002, Joy decided to repatriate the collection to Germany. “I am returning [the collection] because I think that the values that my husband had as a pacifist and his belief in education and liberal society, together with my father-in-law’s similar values, would lead one to say that these items rightly belong in Germany, not with us,” she told the National Post in a recent interview. “You return them to the people who can make the most use of them and who can learn from them.”

One portion of the collection will remain in Canada. Joy plans to donate Aus Westkanada, a series of articles Wilhelm wrote for the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1909 based on his travels in Western Canada, to the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa.

Two years ago, Joy Cohnstaedt endowed the Writer-In-Exile Bursary (see YFile story March 19, 2004) to honour Wilhelm Cohnstaedt. The bursary supports a senior or mid-career writer-in-exile studying at York and registered in the Graduate Program in Communication & Culture. It was established through the York University Foundation.

She established an award in honour of her late husband Martin to support research of pacifism or non-violence. The award is managed by the York Centre for International & Security Studies.