The Search for a Missing Dialogue: The Life of Botanist Dr. Theodor Philipp Haas

Myself examining a personal letter of Dr. Haas prior to translating it from German to English at the archives of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation


The Search for a Missing Dialogue: The Life of Botanist Dr. Theodor Philipp Haas

Museum Studies Intern at Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation – Fall 2019

Botany can pertain to more than the study of plants — researching botany can provide a lesson in history and geography but also an intimate insight onto how one looks at the world. The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation houses boxes of letters written to and from Dr. Theodor Philipp Haas, personal photographs, and unpublished research. Haas was a well-respected botanist in Munich whose many accomplishments in botany were distinguished by his travels and remarkable experience as a Jewish scientist escaping the rise of the Nazi Regime. As an intern, my role was to translate and research as well as provide contextual footnotes in order to fill gaps in the personal history contained in Haas’s archives. Working with these documents required reading in both German and French. Some of the German documents are handwritten in Sütterlin, a form of traditional German handwriting that has not been traditionally taught since the second half of the nineteenth century. During my internship, I applied my knowledge of languages and my ability to read Sütterlin while also diving into botany, a topic previously foreign to me.

Though imprisoned in the Dachau Concentration Camp, Haas was released after six weeks because of the visa he obtained before his imprisonment. Haas was placed on the List of Displaced German Scholars, a list composed of prominent scholars who were threatened by the Nazi regime in 1933. The list aimed to help scholars leave Europe and continue their work in a country not threatened by the Nazi Party. Haas left for the United States and ultimately received a position at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, becoming a well-known figure in botany.

This was just one aspect of Haas’s life that I learned about in my internship. His notes and letters provide a raw account of his story and trips he made while fleeing Germany through Asia — specifically Kobe, Japan, which was not a common port to the United States from Western Europe — before entering through San Francisco. His documents provide an intimate glimpse into a man’s life and love for plants that often were a lifeline for Haas to find hope and meaning despite all the pain and loss he endured. Through his descriptions of the plants he studied and his travels, it became clear that botany was his way to identify with the changing world around him and remain true to his past and identity.

Working directly with the material I am translating in the archives, and closely with the documents I have received access from the Arolsen Archives in Germany as well as multiple archives and academic institutions Haas was affiliated with in Munich, I am able to help fill in missing pieces in his life trajectory, and help the public better understand Haas not as a botanist but as a human being.

  • Academic Interns
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh