Alexander Schenker, helped make Yale a major center of Slavic studies
Alexander Marian Schenker, who helped establish Slavic studies at Yale and was a longtime faculty member in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, died on Aug. 21 in Branford, Connecticut. He was 94.
Schenker, who was known to his friends as “Olek,” began teaching at Yale after receiving his Ph.D. from the university in 1953, retiring in 1996. In a letter to colleagues and friends reporting Schenker’s death, Harvey Goldblatt, acting chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, described him as a “driving force behind the creation” of the department. Together with his colleagues Robert L. Jackson, Victor Erlich, Riccardo Picchio, and Edward Stankiewicz, he also helped establish Yale as “one of the leading centers of Slavic studies in the United States,” he added.
“It is of note that Alex was the only tenured professor at Yale without a high school diploma or a bachelor’s degree,” Goldblatt said in his letter. “Most important to me, he was my spiritual mentor, devoted colleague, and dear friend for almost half a century. To say I shall miss him is a grievous understatement! … I also wish to point out that Alex’s generosity to Yale students was the stuff of legends. Today, when we all proudly speak about the many achievements of our Slavic department, we must always remember Alex’s hard work and selfless devotion with particular gratitude. Much the same can be said regarding his many and important contributions to the welfare of American Slavic studies generally.”
Schenker was born in Krakow, Poland on Dec. 20, 1924. When World War II broke out, his family fled, but he and his mother were eventually arrested by Soviet police and sent to a Russian labor camp. They were freed in 1941 and spent the remainder of the war in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He studied at a university in Tajikistan and later at the Sorbonne. Once the war ended, Schenker and his mother sailed to the United States, where they were reunited with other family members who had escaped at the beginning of the war. The experiences of his family during WWII was among those featured in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibit “Flight and Rescue.”
Schenker matriculated in Yale’s doctoral program in linguistics in 1948. After earning his doctorate, he was hired as first as a teacher of Russian and then as a professor in the Slavic department.
Schenker’s books include “Beginning Polish,” “Fifteen Modern Polish Short Stories,” “Spoken Polish,” “The Dawn of Slavic,” and “The Bronze Horseman.” Over the course of his career, he was a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Learning and in 2013 was awarded the Cross of Valor of the Highest Degree from the Polish government for his service to Polish culture. He was instrumental in brining the Czeslaw Milosz Papers to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.
Schenker is survived by his wife of 49 years, Christina Schenker, their daughter Catherine Schenker, and his two sons, Alfred and Michael Schenker, from a previous marriage. He is also survived by four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held in October.