Rosey Pool (1905-71) exhibition

Black and white image of Rosey Pool 1905-1971. Rosey is sat at a table with a copy of one of her books and a cup of tea.
Rosey Pool (1905-71)

Our exhibition of Rosey Pool’s personal book collection is now open on the ground floor of the library (at the bottom of the main staircase), created by Assistant Library Officer, Elsa van Helfteren. 

The exhibition runs until April 16th. 

Rosey Pool was a Dutch-Jewish poet, teacher and anthropologist.  

Whilst training to become a teacher Pool became fascinated by African-American arts and culture. Pool went on to study cultural anthropology in Berlin where she wrote her final thesis named ‘The Poetic Art of the North American Negro.’ Whilst living in Berlin, she became involved in the city’s lesbian subculture and her partner Lena Fischer was arrested and never seen again. By 1938, Berlin had become too dangerous and Pool returned to Amsterdam. She found work as an English teacher in a school for Jewish children, one of whom was the then unknown Anne Frank, with whose family Pool became close. After the war Pool translated Anne Frank’s diaries into English for Otto Frank who chose Pool as one of the first people to share his daughter’s diaries with.  

Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, and by 1943 Pool and her family were taken to the Westerbork Transit Camp, the last stop before deportation to the concentration camps. 

Whilst in Camp Westerbork Pool returned to the African-American poetry she had studied and would recite poems such as Sterling Brown’s “Slim in Atlanta”. This poem about a law in Atlanta Georgia that prohibited African Americans from laughing provided a parallel for Pool who, alongside her inmates, was threatened with severe punishment if they were to show signs of merriment or laughter. Pool would recite the poems and songs of African Americans to other inmates every evening, they provided a prayer-like sense of unity for the inmates, the majority of whom were Jews, but who also included Protestants, Catholics and Communists.  

Whilst living in Westerbork, Pool became part of an ‘anti-Hitler coalition’ set up by a Jewish Communist from Dusseldorf called Werner Stertzenbach. The coalition consisted primarily of Social Democrats and Communists but membership was open to anyone who had ‘experienced the persecutions, prisons and concentration camps of the Nazi regime firsthand’. In other words, anyone within Westerbork was welcome to join.   

Of the more than 100,000 people that were deported through Westerbork, only 210 managed to escape, each an extraordinary case. Rosey Pool was one of these, as her anti-fascist track record meant she was deemed useful to the Resistance. On September 7th 1943, just as plans were being put into place for her escape, Pool’s name was called for transportation to Auschwitz. Just as the S.S were about to seal the door to the carriage and to Pool’s definite death, she bravely stepped out and pretended to be one of the Ordnungsdienst on transport duty. Her fluent Berlin accent and acting skills, with which she confidently excused her lack of armband, resulted in her escape from near death, and she was able to return to Westerbork.  

The opportunity for a second attempt at escape arose when the Red Cross announced an inspection of the camp and the image of having a library for the inmates was deemed helpful. Pool was given permission to leave the camp to collect books from the abandoned Jewish Lyceum, and this time was able to successfully escape.  

After the war, as a Holocaust survivor and activist fighting against segregation in the Deep South, Pool provided a unique connection between two histories, with her work showing where the experiences of European Jews and African Americans converged. Pool befriended many Harlem Renaissance writers, most notably Langston Hughes, who helped give Pool access to and understanding of Black America. Throughout their twenty-two-year friendship Hughes and Pool shared over 250 letters, postcards, clippings, and notes, within which Hughes would recommend writers, poets, artists and photographers, many of whom were African American. Pool’s collection of books, held here within the University of Sussex Library, includes both books by Hughes, and those he recommended, such as the photography of Marion Palfi who he deemed a ‘great example of African American life.’  

Isa Isenburg, Pool’s will executor and life partner, donated Rosey Pool’s collection to University of Sussex. Pool’s books, held within the Library Legacy Collection, and papers, held in the University’s Special Collections at the Keep are a fascinating insight into her transatlantic life as a Dutch Jewish Holocaust survivor who dedicated her life to the study of Black American culture.  

You can listen to audio recordings taken from the Rosey Pool Special Collection and find out more information about how to access both the collection at the library and the Keep. You can find Lonneke Geerlings’ biography of Pool’s life.

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