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Henry J. Abraham, UVa professor, scholar of Supreme Court history, dies at 98

WASHINGTON — Henry J. Abraham, a Holocaust refugee who became a leading historian of the U.S. Supreme Court and was an inspiring teacher during nearly 50 years on the faculties of the University of Pennsylvania and later the University of Virginia, died Feb. 26 at a hospital in Charlottesville. He was 98.

The death was confirmed by a son, Peter Abraham, who said a specific cause had not been determined.

Abraham was 15 when he came to the United States from his native Germany in 1937, without speaking a word of English. As a U.S. Army intelligence officer during World War II, he helped uncover documents used to prosecute Nazi war criminals during the postwar Nuremberg trials.

Driven by a deep appreciation for the rule of law in society, he became a scholar of U.S. legal history, writing authoritative books on Supreme Court appointments, the history of civil rights law and a comparison of the judicial systems of England, France and the United States. His books were continually updated in new editions and came to be seen as classics by legal scholars.

His scholarly work brought Abraham in close contact with about 25 Supreme Court justices, and he formed close friendships with several, including William J. Brennan Jr., Lewis F. Powell Jr., Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

One of Abraham’s books, “Freedom and the Court,” sold more than 100,000 copies when it was published in 1967. Revised most recently in 2010, it is considered a definitive study of civil rights law and was praised in the Los Angeles Times in 2003 by former White House counsel John W. Dean as “a foundational, scholarly (but not technical) work for those interested in the Supreme Court’s treatment of individual rights.”

Abraham’s 1974 book, “Justices & Presidents” — republished in its fifth edition in 2007 as “Justices, Presidents and Senators” — examines the history of appointments to the Supreme Court, from the presidency of George Washington to George W. Bush’s.

In 2004, the conservative Weekly Standard magazine revealed that Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe’s 1985 book about the selection of Supreme Court justices, “God Save This Honorable Court,” included numerous passages taken without attribution from Abraham’s 1974 edition of “Justices & Presidents” — sometimes word for word.

Much of Tribe’s book reflected the conclusions and interpretations of Abraham, but the plagiarism scandal did not come to light until almost 20 years after Tribe’s books was published. At the time, Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz defended his colleague, calling the Weekly Standard article a right-wing attack on Tribe.

“Abraham sat on this story for 20 years,” Dershowitz said in 2004. “If he had a gripe, he should have written to Larry 20 years ago.”

Abraham told the Weekly Standard, “I was aware of what Tribe was doing when I first read his book. But I chose not to do anything at the time. I’ve never confronted him — and I was wrong in not following it up. I should have done something about it.”

He called Tribe, one of country’s foremost constitutional scholars, “a big mahatma” who “thinks he can get away with this sort of thing.”

A Harvard investigation charged Tribe with “a significant lapse in proper academic practice” but found that any plagiarism was unintentional.

Henry Julian Abraham was born Aug. 25, 1921, in Offenbach am Main, Germany. His father sold leather goods, and his mother was a homemaker.

With the rise of the Nazi Party, Abraham’s mother grew concerned about her children’s safety in Germany because the family was Jewish. Henry Abraham, who had been subjected to beatings in school, was sent to live with relatives in Pittsburgh in 1937.

His father, despite being a decorated German veteran of World War I, was arrested on Nov. 9, 1938, an infamous night known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi forces and mobs rampaged through the streets, breaking windows, ransacking businesses and burning synagogues.

Abraham’s father spent two months in Dachau concentration camp before being freed. Abraham was later reunited with his parents and brother in Pittsburgh, but several other relatives died in the Holocaust.

After working as a stock clerk and bookkeeper, Abraham was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and became a U.S. citizen soon afterward. He entered a language-training program at Kenyon College in Ohio and was later sent to Europe, where his fluency in English, German and French was useful in conducting interrogations of prisoners of war.

At the end of World War II, he was assigned to an Army unit in Berlin, where he helped obtain and analyze German documents that were used at the Nuremberg trials.

He used the G.I. Bill to return to Kenyon and was roommates for a time with future movie star Paul Newman, whose “major interest was applied anatomy,” Abraham later quipped.

He also formed a soccer team at Kenyon with another student, Olof Palme, who later became prime minister of Sweden and was assassinated in 1986.

Abraham graduated at the top of his class in 1948, received a master’s degree in public law and government from Columbia University a year later, then received a doctorate in political science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1952. He published his first book in 1955.

As a child in Germany, one of his teachers suggested that he become a lawyer, a rabbi or a teacher. He decided to pursue teaching and was a political science professor at Penn for more than 20 years.

In 1972, he joined the faculty at Virginia — which had rejected his graduate student application in the 1940s. In his class on constitutional law, Abraham recognized that many of his students had hopes of studying law.

“Look at the person on your left and look at the person on your right,” he said, one former student, the biographer John Aloysius Farrell, recalled in an interview. “Two of the three of you are not going to be lawyers.”

Despite that formidable opening-day introduction, Farrell said Abraham brought humor and sensitivity to his lectures, teaching students “how to marshal your evidence, how to locate and use precedent.” He developed such a loyal following that some of his students dubbed themselves the “Tribe of Abraham.”

In 1983, Abraham received the university’s highest award, and an annual lecture series at the UVa law school is named for him. He formally retired in 1997 but continued to teach adult-education courses until recent years. In 1959 and 1960, he had a Fulbright fellowship to Denmark, where he helped establish a political science department at Aarhus University. He was also a special emissary for the State Department, speaking in more than 60 countries.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, the former Mildred Kosches, a UVa librarian, of Charlottesville; two sons, Philip Abraham of Richmond and Peter Abraham of Virginia Beach; and four grandchildren.

During his military service in Germany at the end of World War II, Abraham returned to Offenbach am Main, where he attended the first service held in a synagogue that had been destroyed on Kristallnacht.

“It was a wrenching, incredibly moving service, highlighted by the reintroduction of the saved Torah, carried by the old caretaker and two American Jewish soldiers into the small adjoining building, where the service took place,” he said in a memoir written for his family.

In 2017, Abraham was living in Charlottesville during the violent rallies of white supremacist groups whose chants included, “Jews will not replace us.”

“To be attacked again all over again was painful,” Abraham told the Kenyon alumni magazine, in an article published this year. “There’s so much hatred, so much misunderstanding still, so much anger in people.”

He said he hadn’t seen anything like the Charlottesville rally — “these miserable creatures with their flags” — since leaving Germany 80 years earlier.


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