North American Scholar

SELIGSON, Gerda Kroner

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1909-03-23
  • Born City: Freiburg im Breisgau
  • Born State/Country: Germany
  • Parents: Richard Jakob, professor of philosophy, and Alice Marie Kaufmann Kroner
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 2002-06-01
  • Death City: Ann Arbor
  • Death State/Country: MI
  • Married: Rudolf Seligsohn, a rabbi, March 1935
  • Education:

    Study Classics, French & Pedagogy at Heidelberg, 1926-7; Kiel, 1927-9, Göttingen, 1929-30; Berlin, 1930-2; B.A. Birkbeck Coll, U. of London, 1945, M.A. Teachers’ College, Columbia U. , 1955;

  • Professional Experience:

    Teacher Latin, Frimley & Camberley County School, 1943-5; English, Brearley School, (NY) 1947-55, Tower Hill School (Wilmington, DE) 1955-6; asst. prof. classical studies, U. Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1961-6; asso. prof., 1965-73; professor, 1973-9; vis. prof., Rutgers, 1963-4; Lawrence U., 1979-81; U. Iowa, 1981-2.

  • Publications:

    “General Meaning and Its Place in Syntax,” CO 37 (1959) 17-18; “Rules for Metaphrase,” CJ 56 (1960) 61-3; Viktor Pöschl, The Art of Vergil: Image and Symbol in the Aeneid (trans.) (Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1962); “The Structural Approach: The First Decade,” CO 58 (1964) 97-100; “First Principles of Latin Prose,” CW 60 (1966) 78; Latin: A Structural Approach with W.E. Sweet & R.S. Craig, rev. ed. (Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1966) REVS.: CW 61 (1967) 29-30 Hayden; “On Reading Latin,” with Glenn Knudsvig, CO 51 (1974) 52-5; “Teaching Figures of Speech,” CJ 73 (1978) 337-41; “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” CO 57 (1979) 36-7; “Student Performances of Classical Comedies in Greek and Latin,” with James Fanto, CO 56 (1979) 110-14; Latin for Reading: A Beginner’s Textbook with Exercises with Ruth S. Craig & Glenn Knudsvig (Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1982); “Latin at Michigan 1951-1981,” in Latin Linguistics and Linguistic Theory: Proceedings of the First International Colloquium in Latin Linguistics Amsterdam April 1981, ed. Harm Pinkster, Studies in Language Comparison Series 12 (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1983) 295-300; “Relief is in Sight: Observations on Greek and English Grammar,” with Daiel J. Taylor CJ 80 (1984) 157-8; “Reflections on Latin Textbooks from Great Britain,” CO 70 (1992) 39-41; Greek for Reading with Susan C. Shelmerdine & Ariel Loftus (Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1994). REVS.: CW 89 (1996) 508 Cynthia King.

  • Notes:

    Gerda Seligson’s father (1884-1974) was an eminent neo-Hegelian philosopher who founded the journal Logos in 1910 and edited it until 1938. His most famous work is Von Kant bis Hegel(1921-4). Of Jewish extraction, he had become a Christian who held positions at Freiburg (1919-24), Dresden (1924-8) and Kiel (1929-34).Her mother’s family were wealthy textile manufacturers who could support the studies and the years in which anti-Semitism kept Richard from positions he was well qualified for.

    Gerda Kroner received a superb education starting as the only girl in her gymnasium class, where she was so advanced that she was employed as a tutor at the age of nine. After graduation she studied at Heidelberg, and then Kiel, where she developed a passionate attachment to Eduard Fraenkel (1886-1970). At Kiel, where she also studied under Felix Jacoby (1876-1959), she also discovered her Judaism. 

    She followed Fraenkel to Göttingen for one semester before realizing that she had done so for the wrong reason and quickly moved to Berlin, where she studied under Werner Jaeger (1888-1961), along with a fellow student, Viktor Pöschl (1910-97). Jaeger saw her through her state exams, which she passed within a day or so of the Reichstag burning (27 February 1933). She discovered the Jewish community in Berlin and also her future husband, who was studying classics at Berlin and Judaica at the Jewish Theological Seminar.  

    Her father was dismissed from his position at Kiel under the April 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums). In that month he took his daughter Gerda to a Hegel conference in Rome, after which he returned to Breslau alone while she stayed on in Rome, eventually becoming the governess for the archaeologist Ludwig Curtius (1874-1954), the director of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome. She returned to Berlin in Fall 1934 and married in the spring of the next year.

    Her father emigrated to England in 1938 and Seligson followed in February 1939 while her husband remained in Germany. The Blitz was on in London, so Seligson was packed off to Shropshire and then to Warwickshire, where she worked on a farm picking potatoes and doing other chores with such enjoyment that she actually considered becoming a farmer and laying aside her dreams of teaching, but her experience as a nine-year-old tutor had confirmed in her the desire to be a teacher, as she put it, “from day one.” 

    Her father moved to America in 1940, where he eventually became professor at the Union Theological Seminary, and a colleague of both Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Her husband emigrated to England in 1939 shortly after his wife, bringing a number of Jewish school children with him, saving their lives. He joined the British Army, only to die of a sudden case of meningitis seven months after their only child, Elizabeth, was born. 

    With her husband dead and her parents in America, Seligson had to work. She taught in the London suburb of Richmond for the duration of the war, then resumed her classical studies in London, graduating in 1947.

    The wife of Reinhold Niebuhr mentioned that the prestigious Brearley School for Girls in New York needed a Latin teacher and Kroner suggested his daughter. The daughter of the newly installed ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Lewis Williams Douglas (1894-1974), was at Brearley. He quickly arranged a visa and Seligson was in New York within two weeks. She taught successfully at Brearley but disliked New York. While attending a meeting a Independent School teachers, she met Waldo Sweet (1912-92), who received a Carnegie grant to develop Latin teaching materials and invited Seligson to join him in Ann Arbor. Sweet invited her to Ann Arbor, but her Brearley superiors convinced her it was too late in the school year for her to take the position. She declined the Michigan offer, but her attendance at various workshops had made her known to a private school (“a DuPont school”) in Wilmington, DE, where she wrote her first Latin textbook. She began attending summer sessions in Ann Arbor in 1952 and became deeply involved in the active linguistics program there, supplemented by visitors like Henry Hoenigswald.  

    She was invited to teach under Waldo Sweet at the University High School in Ann Arbor in 1956. When the school closed in 1968, she became a full-time faculty member at the University. Her friend and student Jim White described her teaching as “relentlessly demanding, never dropping her standards for a moment but at the same time deeply sympathetic to the situation of the students and plainly on their side.”

    Following World War II (and later the Korean Conflict), the GI Bill allowed far more veterans to go to college than previously. One result was a huge growth in the size and scope of universities. The changing demographic of the student body also meant that many were not as prepared for college as pre-war students and so in 1956, for example, colleges, including the University of Michigan began for the first time to institute a language requirement and greater emphasis was placed on the introductory languages, since most pre-war students came to college with at least a couple of years of language learning. Consequently, there was a real shortage of introductory books aimed at college students and faculty who had been used to advanced classes and seminars were now obliged to either teach beginners or hire faculty who would. The University of Michigan turned over introductory levels to Sweet and Seligson, who became director of the Elementary Division of the Department, which taught introductory undergraduate courses and remedial graduate courses.  A number of books were written with older, self-motivated students in mind for whom the expository approach was more suitable than the inductive. These books featured exercises with the answers given elsewhere in the book so that students could test themselves. The most successful of these books was Latin: An Introductory Course Based on Ancient Authors by Frederic M. Wheelock. Waldo Sweet’s Latin: A Structural Approach was first published in 1957 and made Michigan (and its University High School) a laboratory for his methods, thanks to support from the Carnegie Foundation. Drawing on the structural linguistic and discourse analysis of Z.S. Harris (1909-92) and others, Sweet’s Latin offered an engaging new approach. Seligson contributed to the second revised edition which reduced the sentences by nearly one half, and expanded the vocabulary by half, expanded the self-tests. Michigan did not reprint her book on retirement, so when she went to Lawrence and Iowa, she had to make up her own exercises and the result was Latin for Reading with Glenn Knudsvig. Greek for Reading was based on the model of Latin for Reading. It contained 26 lessons and 5 reviews and maintained the linguistic approach to learning the language, again stressing the use of kernels. Reviewer Cynthia King felt that there were too few exercises and sentences to support the amount of grammar covered. 

    Despite her devotion to teaching, she is best known to many scholars as the translator of her fellow-student Viktor Pöschl’s highly influential Die Dichtkunst Virgils: Bild und Symbol in der Äneis (1950). The book, written by Pöschl in a self-imposed hermitage in Austria after service in the Schutzstaffel (SS) during World War II, elaborated on the images and motifs in Virgil’s epic much as did American New Criticism, which Bernard Knox was the first to employ in Classics. At some point Pöschl, now Ordinarius at Heidelberg, invited Seligson, whom he had known as a student at Berlin, to translate his work. She remembered Pöschl from her student days in Berlin and agreed to translate his book, but in the course of a 90-page interview about her life, conducted when she was 80, Seligson mentions neither Pöschl’s name nor the title of the book. “Many people in America don’t know me as a language teacher as much as a translator of that particular book, which I always think is kind of funny.” 

    As president of Beth Israel Congregation she was one of the first women   presidents of a conservative Jewish congregation in America, the summation of her long efforts to elevate the status of women in conservative Jewish life. 

  • Sources:

    “The Oral History of Gerda Seligson,” interview conducted by Enid Galla, ed. Elizabeth Johnson. Accessed from Center for Jewish History https://access.cjh.org/4535910#1Who’s Who of American Women 5th ed. (1968-9) 1086; James Tatum, "Mrs. Vergil's Horrid Wars," Arion 21,1 (Spring/Summer 2013) 3-46. Image: Tower Hill School (Wilmington DE) yearbook 1956

  • Author: Ward Briggs