Archive for August 23rd, 2019

Au revoir to Yale’s Alexander Schenker: “intelligence,” “quick wit,” and “the ability to understand the soul of another human being.”

Friday, August 23rd, 2019
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A postwar life at Yale. (Photo: Andrzej Franaszek)

Author and Slavic scholar Alexander Schenker died today. He was 94. The Kraków-born scholar was deported to a Soviet labor camp in 1940, after the fall of Poland in World War II. As he put it, “As if answering my childish prayers, World War II interrupted my general education in the ninth grade of Polish high school. As a result, I had to spend my formative years outside of Poland.”

He studied at a university in Tajikistan, then left the Soviet Union in 1946 and studied at the Sorbonne, followed by graduate studies in Yale’s Department of Linguistics, receiving a Ph.D. in 1953. He taught at Yale until his retirement in 1995.

A Facebook tribute from Andrzej Franaszek, author of celebrated biographies of Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert (translated from the Polish by Alla Makeeva Roylance):

“Alexander Schenker has died, or rather, Olek, as he was called by those who knew him. His biography covers a whole chunk of the last century. From his life in Kraków during the 1920s and 1930s, the war flung him deep into the Soviet Union. A few years later, luck brought him to the States, then to his studies in Paris, and later a return to the East Coast, settling in New Haven, with decades of work at Yale. He was a Slavist, the author of textbooks. The last book, which apparently is being published by “słowo/obraz terytoria” [the name of a publishing house] is about the monument to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. He was a man blessed with a gift of selflessness. A close friend of Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert; he also knew a good many Polish artists. He was veritable fountain of wit, but at the same time he possessed something much more important – psychological insight, empathy, the ability to understand a soul of another human being. His combination of intelligence and quick wit made him the perfect embodiment of the best Polish-Jewish cultural amalgam. In recent years, he came to Krasnogruda [Miłosz’s birthplace, now a conference center], on the invitation of Krzysztof Czyżewski; he began to work on his memories, and he also had a chance to talk about Herbert in front of Rafael Lewandowski‘s camera, so we will see him again in the fall – or at least his image, a specter of him. A very important person in my life. Kind, profound, I owe him a lot. If only for the  fact that eighteen years ago, in New Haven, Olek and his wife Krystyna made me feel like a family, invited me to their beautiful house in the woods – hosted, uplifted, mentored me. And many more such guests were there before me (and what guests! even Jerzy Turowicz) and after …”

I knew him from my work with him on his essay, “Wanderer,” in my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszAn excerpt:

“I knew that Miłosz was superstitious; therefore, I never dared mention a possibility of his being nominated for the Nobel, although such a speculation circulated quite openly by then. Still, I was confident (and for good reason, as it turned out ten years later) that a simple comment on the “nobelization” process did not warrant a jinx from whatever dark forces were at play. Therefore, I allowed myself to remind him how important it was to have good English and Swedish translations of his work. As an example, I cited the case of a Bosnian writer, Ivo Andrić, who received a Nobel just a few years after his Bridge on the Drina appeared in a Swedish translation. I did it deliberately because I was satisfied neither with the quantity nor with the quality of existing English renditions of Miłosz’s poetry, which, unlike Herbert’s or Tadeusz Różewicz’s, does not lend itself easily to translation. Although clear as crystal in his prose, in his poetry Miłosz makes his exposition denser and emphasizes the phonetic aspect of the verse, especially in his frequent references to the language of bygone centuries and to dialects. The fact that, even in the loosely fitting garment of the English tongue, Miłosz achieved such an enthusiastic following among international readers and literary critics is yet another measure of his greatness.”

My last correspondence with him was on November 15, 2012. I had just suffered a nasty spam attack on my email account. I was mortified. My entire mailing list received an email purportedly from me, under the subject header: “Hey about careers in online marketing?” The body of the text included some cheesy story about hard work poorly remunerated, and urging clicks to a scammy website so that the recipient can say goodbye to bad jobs forever. The most witty and rueful reply to me was from Alexander Schenker, a former inmate in a Soviet forced labor camp:

“Mine was even worse – It was cold and I was paid in kopecks, Alex”

Postscript on August 24: An email from Prof. Susanne Fusso of Wesleyan University: “I would probably have left graduate school after one year if it hadn’t been for Alexander Schenker. He listened to me (a blessing in itself), gave me a stipend, and gave me a job. I will always remember his kindness. My deepest sympathy to his family.”