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Remembering a mentor

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Prof. Geoffrey Hartman YALE UNIVERSITY PHOTO
Prof. Geoffrey Hartman YALE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Young as he was when he found refuge from the genocidal net tightening over the Jews of Europe, Prof. Geoffrey Hartman reflected in his memoir: “The shadow of the Holocaust often waylays me like the sudden darkness of a storm in the middle of a sunny day.” Despite that shadow – or perhaps because of it – Hartman brought light to many students and readers until he succumbed to cancer a month ago.

He was a master teacher. As complex and challenging as much of his scholarly writing was, he had the gift of inspiring students. He could open up a poem to a roomful of people who did not know they liked poetry. He could make a memoir speak in new ways, reading between the lines and reading silences. He could walk you through difficult and complicated ideas and make them understandable without simplifying. Even more important, he would make people understand why ideas mattered.

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Hartman was never my teacher in a formal, classroom way. He was a professor of literature at Yale University, and I did graduate work at Columbia and Brandeis. But he taught me things about reading, writing and thinking – and about commitment, truth and ethics – that have deeply imprinted my work.

When I was a graduate student, he was already a super-star academic. If you are not part of the university world, that very phrase might seem like a contradiction in terms. But he was part of a small number of professors whose innovative and powerful intellect shaped a generation of professors, graduate students and thinkers, and whose name was on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s footnotes.

His work emerged at the intersection of literary criticism and philosophy. When he gave a lecture at my university, there was a buzz in the air. Already then, he had a bushy white beard, looking every bit the éminence grise, although he was still in his 50s. I met him briefly, part of a crush of graduate students at his talk. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when our orbits again crossed, that he took me under his wing.

By that time, he was also serving as the first director of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, the first major project to collect videotaped recollections from Holocaust survivors and other eye-witnesses. At the age of nine, he had been among the many German children rescued from the Nazis by the Kindertransport. After the war, he ended up in the United States, where he later married a child survivor of Bergen-Belsen. The two helped found the Fortunoff Archive. And, over time, Hartman’s stunning intellect turned increasingly not only to Jewish memory but to Jewish texts. He also helped found Yale’s Judaic studies program.

Early in my professional life, I was among a cluster of junior professors presenting our research at a conference on Holocaust writing. After the conference, Hartman approached me and invited me to write a chapter in a book he was editing. The deadline was tight, and my chapter entailed several sets of revisions, all under the gun, so to speak. Mostly, what he wanted from me was boldness – to push further, to insist on ethics, to trust my intuition and my thinking.

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To meet the deadlines but have maximum work time in those pre-email days, I sent off my revisions via FedEx. I learned that I could buy a few extra hours if I drove to the airport to dispatch my envelope. That experience marked the beginning of a mentorly relationship that lasted many years, even through his recent illness. Eventually, I was privileged to co-teach a seminar for university professors with him at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

We are now at the shloshim – a month after Geoffrey Hartman passed away. This personal reflection is a form of hesped (eulogy) on behalf of a valued teacher. May his name be for a blessing.