Scope and Contents
Helga Herz's apartment was cleared out after her death and some of her papers were sent to the SCPC in 2012. There were comprised of four boxes of periodicals, most of which were in German and were so torn and brittle that they had to be discarded. The small amount left was added to the small collection of Alice Herz papers that were already at the SCPC.
Alice Strauss Herz was born in Hamburg, Germany on May 25, 1882, the child of a middle-class Jewish family. She married Paul Herz, a chemist and soldier, with whom she had two children, a son and a daughter (Helga, born on August 9, 1912). After the death of her son and husband, Alice began intensive study of the Nazi movement. In order to escape its threat, in 1933 Alice fled to Switzerland, and then to France, with her daughter. There Alice worked as a news correspondent, while Helga earned a degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, and became a teacher of languages. After Germany invaded Paris, the pair were placed in a detention camp by the French for being German nationals; they were released, after three weeks, at the time of the French armistice. Alice and Helga left for the United States soon after in 1942.
Alice and Helga took up residency in Detroit, Michigan, where Alice worked for some years as an adjunt instructor of German at Wayne State University, and Helga earned a degree in library science from the University of Michigan and became a librarian at the Detroit Public Library, where she served for 34 years. They petitioned for, but were denied, U.S. citizenship due to their refusal to vow to defend the country by taking up arms. Helga later reapplied and was granted citizenship in 1954.
Both Alice and Helga were activists for peace. In her later years, Alice joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) and later the Unitarian Church. More and more she became concerned over the actions of her adopted country and felt compelled to do something drastic. She took note of the monks in Vietnam who immolated themselves as a bodily witness against war, and Alice decided to do the same. On the evening of March 16, 1965, on a Detroit street corner, Alice set herself on fire in an act of protest against the actions of the United States in Vietnam and in relation to the global arms race. Alice died of her burns 11 days after the incident. Her sacrifice led to an outcry around the world and her memorial brought people from a variety of backgrounds to honor her. In particular, the Detroit Women for Peace took the actions of Alice as a push to protest and demand peaceful change.
After her retirement in 1978, Helga headed the library at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University, where her work has been compiled as the Helga Herz Peace Archives. She received the Spirit of Detroit Award and other accolades for her tireless volunteer work; she was active with the Detroit Branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom for many years.
Helga filed for reparations from the German government for the large family property in East Berlin that had been seized by the Nazis. She won the appeal in 2000 and sold the property, donating the proceeds to the German Branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Helga moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, several years before her death to be near family members. She died on February 27, 2010.