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Elisabeth Koffka papers

Identifier: CA-MS-00359

Scope and Contents

The Elisabeth Koffka Papers encompass a series of letters written to Janice Tarlin, Smith Class of 1931, a former student of Koffka's. Spanning from 1937 until 1943, the letters were written almost monthly, besides a number of wider gaps including a 4 month period following Kurt Koffka's death in 1941. Much of the correspondence addresses trips and travel, including that of Tarlin and Koffka to each other's homes in New York City and Northampton, respectively. Other frequently addressed topics include Kurt Koffka, Elisabeth's history courses, families and friends in their social circle (the Nielsons and Koehlers), Koffka's feelings about travel, isolation, and rural America, and in later letters, news and events relating to World War II. The general file at the beginning of the collection includes a copy of Figures in the Carpet, a rough transcription and tapes of an oral history conducted with Elisabeth in 1977-78, and photographs.

Dates of Materials

  • 1937 - 1978


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

Smith College retains copyright of materials created as part of its business operations; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Smith College, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Elisabeth Ahlgrimm Koffka was born in Germany in 1896. Her father was a teacher at the secondary school level in Germany. Both of her parents died of cancer within 2 weeks of each other in 1928. Koffka had a younger brother, who went on to study agriculture and became a researcher of fertilizers at Gertingham University, and sister, who was a co-director of the progressive Albert-Schweitzer Gymnasium in Hamburg. Koffka herself attended a special select school in Germany, taking mathematics, Latin, history, and German language. From 1916 to 1918 she attended Marburg, Munich, and Kiel Universities studying philology. She eventually chose intellectual history as her major discipline at Geissen University and wrote a thesis on one of Kant's pupils. There she met her future husband, Kurt Koffka, pursuing work in psychology. After obtaining her PhD, she went to Berlin where she worked briefly at the Berlin branch of the Chicago Tribune. She was disinterested in politics, and in 1924 spent a single year teaching at Cornell University. Her husband, Kurt, received offers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Smith College, choosing Smith when the William A. Neilson research chair was founded. She lived in London and Paris for a number of years in the 1920s, and began writing poetry regularly.

Her relationship with Koffka was considered a scandal in the small town of Geissen; they married in 1928 after his marriage and divorce from Mina Klein. Klein agreed to a 3 year divorce from Koffka, who then married Elisabeth, divorcing her and remarrying Klein after the 3 year period ended. Koffka then obtained another final divorce from Klein and remarried Elisabeth in London. (Elisabeth) Koffka joined her husband in Northampton, MA, and was hired as a history professor at Smith College in 1929, a position which she held until her retirement in 1961. Her major teaching field was General European History.

Koffka was in Europe at the time World War II broke out, and had difficulties returning to the U.S. as she was still a German citizen; she did not obtain her American citizenship until 1940. Kurt died in November of 1941, though Koffka later stated that the great number of complications in their marriage prevented her from undergoing a significant depression. In the following years, she spent much time visiting various friends, especially the Nielson family. She had a close relationship with her dog, the spaniel Jolly. Koffka eventually stopped teaching at Smith when her salary decreased, and was offered a professorship at the University of Rochester but declined. In 1978, a group of Koffka's friends collaborated to publish a volume of her poetry written throughout her life, entitled Figures in the Carpet. Koffka died at the age of 98 in 1994.


0.458 linear feet (2 containers)

Language of Materials



Professor of History. Contains correspondence of Elisabeth Koffka.

Other Finding Aids

An index of letters is available.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The oral history was donated by the interviewer Margee Greenberg Michaels in 1987.

The Elisabeth Koffka correspondence was donated to the College Archives in 2008 by Jeff Tarlin, the great nephew of Janice Tarlin, to whom the letters in Koffka's collection are addressed.

Related Materials

A larger collection of Koffka's papers is held by Lawrence University Archives.

Processing Information

Please note that prior to 2018, folder inventories were not always updated when new material was added to the collection. As a result, folder inventories may not be complete and folder numbers may be incorrect.

Finding Aid to the Elisabeth Koffka papers
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Finding aid prepared by Hilary Buxton, Amanda Lineweber.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2018-12-10: Updated to conform to DACS and added boxes
  • 2020-08-18: Added EK oral history, updated extents
  • 2021-10-25: Updated immediate source of acquisition and removed restriction on oral history

Repository Details

Part of the Smith College Archives Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063