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The Napkin Artist

Remembering Yiddishist, linguistics scholar, Holocaust survivor, and painter Edward Stankiewicz, who died this year

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(All art Edward Stankiewicz, courtesy of the author)
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In April, there was a belated memorial service in the parlor of Pierson College Master’s House for Edward Stankiewicz, linguistics scholar, Yiddishist, painter, and napkin artist. He died on the last day of January after several turbulent years, at 92. A student played the violin and the room slowly filled with a few aging students and loyal friends, a rabbi from Hillel, some elderly Slavicists and mathematicians, his son, and his daughter-in-law. The remembrances made me think of the kind of tribute made by public-school boys honoring a beloved teacher who had flogged them often and hard, for their own good. Stankiewicz was that way. As his son, Steve, explained, “He had no tolerance for what he considered stupidity, which included most people he ever came in contact with.” He was also the most polyglot person I’ve ever encountered—fluent in 14 languages: Polish, Yiddish, German, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Latin, Italian, French, English, and to a lesser degree Spanish, Bulgarian, and Romanian.

Stankiewicz was a friend, and for a while he and his wife Florence became surrogate grandparents for my children after our family relocated to New Haven from the Chicago area in 1991. He came to many birthdays and Hanukkah parties, gracing us with his elegantly tart turns of phrase and his dashed-off napkin drawings, caricatures of those who sat around our dining-room table. He especially liked subjects who had curly hair and protuberant noses, providing interesting lines for his nimble pen. While Florence was alive, he could still appear stoutly natty; he always wore a suit and tie and had a husky, throaty laugh. I can imagine that in the 1950s, as a young intellectual refugee, he must have been quite debonair.

I quickly learned what he liked: Jewish cooking (latkes), poetry (Mickiewicz), classical music (Carmen). He had learned to play the mandolin when he was a teenager in Warsaw. He loved Polish tangos, and he liked to sing. At a party in the 1980s, Stankiewicz and Victor Erlich together sang the Internationale in Polish. He also took great pride in his contribution to the University of Chicago’s Latke-Hamantash debates:

A Jew develops from the cradle
A craving for a knish and knaydl.
He’ll glorify the gefilte fish,
But I, I love the latke dish.

Stankiewicz watercolor

Long after he retired from Yale’s Slavic Department, he enrolled in local painting classes and went on road trips with his watercolors, capturing picturesque scenes of remote New England villages. He had his favorite restaurants, not formal, but haimish, where the waiters would kibitz in whatever language was on the menu. He reserved his highest praise for those who mastered the fine points of Yiddish, “So-and-so,” he would say, “spoke a beautiful Yiddish.”

He didn’t like: much of what was new (which drove his son and daughter wild); Noam Chomsky, whose concept of the “Language Acquisition Device” he considered beneath contempt; incorrect pronunciation of consonants that ought to be geminated in Italian (though his own pronunciation of English could be hilarious); the wrong-headed notion that Yiddish is a dialect of German. He had been a bystander in the battle of the unfinished Yiddish dictionary, which pitted those who said the aleph should be maintained in words where a syllable ends and the next vowel comes in versus scholars who wanted to eliminate the silent aleph, or schtuma aleph, when it occurs in the middle of a word and use pointilation instead. His tales of more current and personal academic wars could be wearying.

Stankiewicz’s scholarship, his Studies in Slavic Morphophonemics and Accentology, for instance, was beyond esoteric, but when he was 80 years old he published at last a book that was accessible: My War, Memoir of a Young Jewish Poet. Stankiewicz was a survivor of Warsaw, the Lvov ghetto, Igrenie (a death camp in the Ukraine), and Buchenwald. Up to that point he had said very little to anyone about those experiences—releasing his memories for others to comment upon wasn’t easy. He called it “My War,” of course, because it was his personal experience of the enormity of history, but it was significant that he chose to make it proprietorial and, even then, left out much personal detail. Unlike most Holocaust memoirs, Stankiewicz’s did not begin with family, but rather with school: “I was completing grade school in Warsaw in 1933 when Hitler came to power,” he writes, and he goes on, “My class’s year of ‘maturing’ coincided with Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II.”

In fact, his quest for an education (coinciding, of course, with the annihilation of just about everything and everyone surrounding him) provides the structural underpinning of the book. Stankiewicz left Warsaw almost immediately after the German invasion and made his way to Lvov where he reluctantly enrolled in the Jewish Department of a pedagogical institute. The following year he entered the university in Lvov, with the hope of beginning his studies in classics. The program was a disappointment but he became a member of the Writer’s Club, and in Lvov he met many Yiddish Poets: Debora Vogel who had been Bruno Schulz’s close friend, Yaʻaḳov Shudrikh, Samuel Imber, Dovid Hofshteyn, Perets Markish, and Itsik Fefer as well as the Polish poets Piotr Rawicz and Frank Stiffel. He had some wonderful things to say about the poets. Shudrikh, he said, wrote poems “that were full of late autumn leaves, of sick birds, and of a love that is gone and wears down the heart.” Stankiewicz also tried his hand at writing Yiddish poetry, and his book includes all six stanzas of an understandably morose ballad that he must have written in 1942.

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I read the memoir some years ago and found it mesmerizing. highly recommended.


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Napkin Portraits

Drawings by Edward Stankiewicz
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