Sarah Hirschman, Founder
February 25, 1921 – January 15, 2012
Born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1921, Sarah Hirschman was the daughter of Russian Jewish parents, Nicholas and Fania Chapro. The family moved to Paris in 1925, where Sarah attended the Lycée Molière. At 18, she studied Existentialism with Simone de Beauvoir, prompting a life-long interest in philosophy.
In 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, the family relocated to New York City. After studying philosophy at Columbia and Cornell Universities, Sarah moved to California, where she received a BA in philosophy and a master’s degree in French literature from the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1941, she married Albert O. Hirschman, a young German scholar who had lived in France for several years. While he served in the U.S. Army, she continued her studies, receiving a fellowship to Columbia. After the war, the Hirschmans lived in Washington, D.C., while Dr. Hirschman worked on the Marshall Plan. In 1952, with their two young daughters, they moved to Colombia, where he had been assigned by the World Bank to oversee that country’s economic development. Already multi-lingual (Russian, French, English), Mrs. Hirschman then became fluent in Spanish.
Returning to the U.S. in 1956, the Hirschmans lived in New Haven, Connecticut, and New York City, where Dr. Hirschman held teaching and writing positions at Yale and Columbia Universities. During this time, Mrs. Hirschman worked as her husband’s assistant during travels to South America, India, Thailand, and Africa. Her ability to speak Spanish was instrumental in her working with New York City resident Latinos struggling with a range of problems. She continued to work with Hispanic people after a move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Dr. Hirschman taught economics at Harvard.
Interested in ways to relate literature to the lives of impoverished, often illiterate people, Sarah Hirschman created Gente y Cuentos, a new way of learning and sharing great literature with those who had little or no formal education.
In 1974, Dr. Hirschman was appointed a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study. With the move to Princeton, Mrs. Hirschman continued her work with Gente y Cuentos, establishing the program in a series of New Jersey locations, including Trenton and Newark. Eventually, through her efforts, the program grew to encompass sites in learning centers, libraries, and prisons. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled the project to expand to other states across the country, and Mrs. Hirschman held workshops to train others in the program’s concept and method. She also set up a program in a barrio outside Buenos Aires. An English program, People & Stories, was added in 1985, and Mrs. Hirschman also began an inter-generational and inter-town (Princeton and Trenton) related project, a pre-cursor of Crossing Borders with Literature.
For her efforts in establishing, developing, and continuing People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos, Mrs. Hirschman received the 12th annual Leslie “Bud” Vivian Award for Community Service in 2008, presented by the Princeton Area Community Foundation. At the ceremony, she was aptly described as “a citizen of the world, who developed a way to invite those with basic literacy skills to enjoy and benefit from the same artistic works usually studied in college classrooms. She has included thousands of people in a world where the doors were previously closed.”
Mrs. Hirschman had been honored with awards from numerous other organizations, including the first Public Humanities Award from the New Jersey Council of the Humanities.
In 2009, her book, People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos, Who Owns Literature? Communities Find Their Voice Through Short Stories, was published, and has recently been translated into Spanish by Fondo de Cultura Economica, Argentina.
A fervent lover of literature, Mrs. Hirschman enjoyed reading the works of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Montaigne in their original languages, as well as a wide range of literature in English. She was a great admirer and patron of the Princeton University Firestone Library.