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Between three worlds: the Odyssey of a Protestant German-Jewish Classicist: Friedrich W. Lenz

Hans-Peter Obermayer

This paper accords overdue attention to the career of a relatively unknown German refugee classicist, Friedrich Wilhelm Lenz. Although William Calder III mentions him once, as “olim Levy,” in the essay on American classical scholarship prefacing the Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists, edited by Ward W. Briggs, Jr. (1994), Lenz does not have an entry in the Dictionary itself. His name appears over twenty times in Obermayer’s 2014 Deutsche Altertumswissenschaftlicher in Amerikanischen Exil, but mostly in footnotes. Only Frederick Ahl’s introduction to Lenz’ Opuscula Selecta and a brief article in Wikipedia furnish obituaries.

            Lenz studied with the illustrious “triumviri”—Diels, Wilamowitz and Norden—in Berlin, receiving his doctorate in 1919. He published an impressive body of scholarly work, on Aristotle, Ovid, and Latin and Greek authors ranging from the first century BCE to the fourteenth century CR. In his sixties he supervised numerous graduate students in classics at the University of Texas in Austin. Throughout his life he wrote poems, short stories and novels in German as well as occasional, polished and witty, Latin verse.

            Nevertheless, although Lenz was highly respected as a scholar, he never received appointments as a “Privatdozent” or Professor at a German university, holding instead a series of positions as a secondary school (Gymnasium) teacher until 1933. Dismissed in September of that year from his teaching post by the Nazi authorities, he struggled to survive and support his family of four, suffering difficulties far more traumatic than those faced by most of his German Jewish colleagues.

After immigrating to the United States, he only managed to find employment as a temporary lecturer and research fellow at Yale from 1939 to 1942, and as visiting professor at Connecticut College for Women from 1939 to 1944. During these years, he applied continuously to various committees offering financial aid to academics, and was forced to rely on financial support provided by friends and colleagues at Yale. Finally, in 1945, he became head of the Foreign Languages Department at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he taught modern as well as classical languages. A visiting appointment at the University of Texas in 1953-1954 led to an association with its classics department. Once retired from Southwestern in 1960, he was able to spend the final nine years of his life pursuing his scholarly interests as a Research Professor there.

Lenz’ life shares certain similarities with that of Paul Oskar Kristeller, his own former student at the Mommsen-Gymnasium, Berlin. Like Kristeller, he initially tied to establish a new career in Italy, but was forced to leave within six months after Mussolini enacted “Leggi raziali” in September 1938. Both received strong support from Norden and a group of Yale professors, among them Norden’s friend G.L Hendrickson. By chance both even booked passage on the same ship from Naples to New York, and arrived in New Haven in February 1939. Kristeller, however, soon obtained a position at a major research university, Columbia, and eventually international renown for his work on Renaissance humanism.

I seek to reconstruct Lenz’ life and career through examination of archival sources, official and private correspondence, and personal recollections. My paper will address the state of research on Lenz; his time in Italy; the relationship between Lenz and Kristeller; Lenz’s efforts to seek help from international aid committees; and his years at Yale. Its goal is to illuminate his poignant experiences in exile, and to give this extraordinary scholar a voice.

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German and Austrian Refugee Classicists: New Testimonies, New Perspectives

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