In Memoriam: Edward Stankiewicz

 

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, Feb. 10, for longtime Yale faculty member Edward Stankiewicz, considered one of the leading Slavic linguists in the world, who died Jan. 31. He was 92 years old.

The service will be held at 2 p.m. in the Pierson College master’s house, 231 Park St. A reception will follow.

Stankiewicz was professor emeritus of linguistics and the B.E. Bensinger Emeritus Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

“[T]here is hardly a Slavic language or a topic in Slavic phonology and morphology with which he has not dealt in a novel and provocative way,” noted a Festschrift produced on the occasion of Stankiewicz’ 60th birthday. “His work in Slavic accentology, unquestionably the most difficult aspect of Slavic grammar, has earned him the reputation of the leading specialist in this field.”

Born on Nov. Nov. 17, 1920 in Warsaw, Poland, Stankiewicz had just graduated from high school — where he was the “official school poet” —when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. After the Germans bombed Warsaw, his parents arranged for him to flee alone to Russian-occupied Lwów to continue his studies. It was the last time he ever saw his mother and siblings, who were all killed during the Holocaust.

In Lwów, Stankiewicz earned money by painting portraits of Communist leaders Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, and attended university there. He also wrote Yiddish poetry and joined a group of Jewish literati called the Writer’s Club. After the Germans bombed Lwów in 1941, he began a life on the run after spending some time in a military barrack following a roundup of Jews. To survive, he took on painting jobs and restaurant work.

Eventually, he was confined to a Jewish ghetto, where he worked in a leather factory and secretly forged working papers, birth certificates and other documents for Jews. He spent two years in the ghetto before he escaped to Dniepropetrovsk. After being caught and beaten by the Gestapo, he was transported to Buchenwald in the summer of 1943, remaining there until the camp’s liberation.

Stankiewicz recalled his ordeals during the war in his book “My War: Memoir of a Young Jewish Poet,” published by the University of Syracuse Press in 2003. In an interview with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar (now YaleNews) that year, he recounted how he had previously told only a few close friends about his wartime experiences. The book, he said, resulted from a series of interviews with him conducted with him by his daughter, Barbara Handler, about his past. The Jewish Press called the memoir a “simple, unpretentious recitation of [Stankiewicz’s] past that lays bare the unfathomable cruelty of the Holocaust and the central importance that chance and hair-trigger timing played in his survival.”

After the war, Stankiewicz worked as an interpreter for the American army and later studied in Rome. He emigrated to the United States in 1949, earning advanced degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard University before joining the Yale faculty in 1971.

“I shall always remember the late 1990s, when Edward would visit our house to give lessons to my daughter Sara on Latin and linguistics,” recalled Harvey Goldblatt, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, in a letter to colleagues announcing Stankiewicz’ death. “On those delightful Saturday afternoons … all Edward ever wanted as ‘payment’ was a glezel tei (‘a glass of tea’) and a piece of cake, and he was happy. Each time he visited our home, his eyes would light up and shine upon seeing his fellow Italian speakers — my wife Madi and my daughters Sara and Elena. That is something I shall never forget.”

In his interview with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar, Stankiewicz recalled how a friend credited his survival during the Holocaust with his ingenuity. “I possessed two abilities — I could write poetry and I could paint — and these certainly helped me at times,” reflected Stankiewicz. “But so many outstanding writers, poets, and painters died. Four million Polish Jews died and about 20 million Russians, maybe more. I am alive because of luck — bloody luck.”

In addition to his daughter, Stankiewicz is survived by a son, Steve Stankiewicz.