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  • Richard Byrne

John Spalek 1928-2021

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

Only recently did I learn that John Spalek - the great scholar of German exiles in the United States (and, in particular, Ernst Toller) - passed away in June 2021.

Spalek's legacy and achievements are impossible to distill into a tidy narrative. His voracious pursuit of the stories of those who fled Nazi Germany has deepened our knowledge of that experience immeasurably.

The Deutsche National Bibliothek has a wonderful tribute to Spalek on its page, so I won't reproduce the facts of his life and his achievements now. You also can watch a useful trailer to a 2012 film about Spalek -- The Suitcases of Mr. Spalek (Die Koffer des Herrn Spalek) here.

What I would like to relate is the personal generosity that Spalek showed to me in 2017 as a playwright working on Three Suitcases .

The play is rooted deeply in Spalek's scholarly concerns: the life of Ernst Toller, and the experience of German exile in America. The play examines the experience not only of Toller, but also Ilse Herzfeld Klapper Burroughs -- his secretary in 1939 and the first wife of Beat Generation writer William Burroughs.

I arranged through Spalek's son Rick to visit him in Philadelphia in 2017. I wanted to gain a bit more insight into Toller, but also knew from his work on exile that he had spoken on a few occasions with Ilse Burroughs in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Spalek's gait had slowed a bit when I met him at his apartment, but his mind still shimmered and sparkled with the joy of speaking about his lifelong interests. He didn't know about Ilse Burroughs' connection with William Burroughs, which he found fascinating. We talked for an hour before he stopped our conversation and said: " What would you like to see?"

I was flabbergasted as he led me back to a room in his apartment, and a file cabinet filled to the brim with his primary source research on Toller. But before he opened his treasures to me, Spalek told me with a twinkle in his eye that he had something he though I might want to look at.

He handed me a letter from September 1965, typed on onion skin paper. It was a letter addressed to him from Ilse Burroughs. It was the first tangible thing I touched that she had also held in her own hands. It was a sort of earthquake for me, as a writer, to hold it. I had searched for traces of Ilse for so long -- and here was a living document.

Spalek's pleasure in my reaction was palpable. It was that deep connection of searchers - and finders.

He left me to dig through the files for 40 minutes or so. I found so many fascinating documents in that time. Traces of Ilse's connections with Toller in 1933, at time of the PEN conference in Dubrovnik. A letter that Toller sent seeking a job for Ilse on her arrival in 1939, and an almost immediate terse rejection to his intervention on her behalf.

I read and took photos until I had to leave to make my bus back to Washington DC. We parted agreeing to speak again. I was surprised that he simply had files on Toller in his apartment after retirement from his work as a professor.

I probably shouldn't have been so dumbfounded. That seems now to be the essence of John Spalek. To be surrounded by these living documents.

I have discovered much more about Ilse in the subsequent four years -- including insights into why his efforts to record her story never bore fruit. But nothing has matched the electricity of holding a letter from Ilse at that key moment in my own quest.

John Spalek was a giant in his field. A great man who had time for fellow seekers. I only hope that my own work carries his endeavors a bit further down the path of illuminating the darkness of that moment, and making the voices of exile heard today.

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