Wilma Abeles Iggers (1921–)

Wilma Iggers was a longtime and well-respected scholar specializing in German literature. In addition to her scholarly pursuits, she and her husband, Georg Iggers, a scholar of European intellectual history, were active in the American civil rights movement through their work at a number of historically black colleges in the South, including Philander Smith College in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

Wilma Abeles was born on March 23, 1921, in the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia. A Jew, she and her family moved to Canada in 1938 to escape the Nazis, who had recently begun their occupation of Czechoslovakia. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from McMaster University in Canada and, in 1952, a PhD in Germanics from the University of Chicago. At the University of Chicago, she met Georg Iggers, and the couple were married in 1948.

After the completion of their degrees at Chicago, both taught at several historically black colleges in the South, beginning with Philander Smith College in Little Rock. They joined the faculty in 1950, and in addition to starting a family—their three sons were all born during their time in Little Rock—they also became active in the city’s civil rights efforts. Having become members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1951, they both played a major role in securing access for African Americans to the city library that same year. Meanwhile, Georg, who served on the local NAACP board, played a major role in the writing of the report that served as the foundation for the effort to desegregate the city’s Central High School.

The Iggerses remained at Philander Smith until 1957, when they moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, to accept positions at another prominent historically black institution, Dillard University. They served on the faculty at Dillard, while also doing some teaching at Tulane University, until the 1960–61 academic year when, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, the couple traveled and studied in France and Germany. Their European sojourn was extended for an additional year when they were awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation.

They returned to Dillard following their travels but were soon on the move again. Iggers’s husband was offered a position at Roosevelt University in Chicago, while Iggers accepted a place on the faculty at the city’s Loyola University. They moved to Chicago and assumed their new positions in the fall of 1963. In 1965, the family moved to Buffalo, New York, where Iggers accepted a position as a professor of German literature at nearby Canisius College, while her husband joined the faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo as professor of European intellectual history.

In Buffalo, the couple became actively involved in peace-related activities during the Vietnam War, offering counseling on the matter of conscientious objection. However, for the most part, they continued their teaching and their scholarly pursuits, burnishing their global reputations. Wilma published a seminal study of Austrian writer Karl Kraus in 1967, followed by many articles on a range of Bohemian topics in German and Czech literature. Her major publications included the anthology The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, the English version of which appeared in 1993, and Women of Prague: Ethnic Diversity and Social Change from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, published in 2000.

In addition, they worked to bridge the political divide created by the Iron Curtain, organizing exchanges and travel with nations such as Poland, Hungary, and China. Iggers made a special point of establishing contacts with historians in her native Czechoslovakia, even the dissidents who had opposed the Communist regime. These efforts to bridge the international divide were recognized by her hometown, Horšovský Týn, which named her an honorary citizen in 2002, and by the Czech Foreign Ministry, which in 2004 awarded her the “Gratias Agit” in recognition of her efforts on behalf of the Czech lands.

Together, Georg and Wilma Iggers authored an autobiography. It was first published in Germany in 2002, and then a Czech edition was released in 2005. Finally, in 2006, an English edition of Two Lives in Uncertain Times: Facing the Challenges of the 20th Century as Scholars and Citizens was published by Berghahn Books. Chinese and Spanish editions appeared in 2008 and 2011, respectively.

Following their retirements, Wilma and Georg Iggers split their time between the Buffalo suburb of Amherst and Germany. Georg died in 2017, and Wilma continues to live in Amherst.

For additional information:
Buttcher, Helmut. “Witness of the Twentieth Century Honored Wilma Iggers Received the Prize Gratias Agit from the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs.” Czech Dialogue, July 8, 2004. https://www.cesky-dialog.net/clanek/1206-witness-of-the-twentieth-century-honored-wilma-iggers-received-the-prize-gratias-agit-from-the-czech-minister-of-foreign-affairs/ (accessed February 25, 2020).

“Iggers Bios.” Columbia State University. https://history.columbusstate.edu/events/Iggers%20Bios.pdf (accessed February 25, 2020).

Iggers, Georg and Wilma. Two Lives in Uncertain Times: Facing the Challenges of the 20th Century as Scholars and Citizens. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006.

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 02/25/2020