In memoriam John Neubauer

John Neubauer, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of Amsterdam, died on 5 October 2015 after a brief illness. He died peacefully at his home, surrounded by his family. John will be greatly missed.


2 thoughts on “In memoriam John Neubauer”

  1. With the kind permission of the authors, here are the speeches given at the memorial service for John Neubauer by his daughter Eva, Thomas Elsaesser and Vivian Liska:

    Our Rabbi from Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings recently sent a message to my father, with whom he had developed a close understanding. He quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “We end all our most important relationships in the middle of a sentence.” My father was determined until the end to perfect the sentence he was in the middle of writing.

    Many of you know about the sad and rapid decline my father experienced since his diagnosis of ALS at the end of May of this year. It was truly heartbreaking for those who knew and loved my father to see him lose the ability to do and experience the things he loved – taking endless evening walks with my mother every night, hiking mountains and climbing steep rocks with close friends Tinus and Uwe in Tenerife, and training for yet another marathon in Amsterdam, Budapest or New York…

    But I’m going to describe to you all the beautiful aspects of my father’s core being that he was able to retain until the very end – all the things for which I am so very grateful. Because through all the sorrow and grief that I’m feeling about losing him, I’m also so very thankful that my recent memories of him capture what was essential to his being. His joy in celebrating his 50th years of marriage to my mother in December of last year, being feted by his daughters, son-in-law and five grandchildren in Captiva Island, Florida. His drive to finish one last book about music and literature, writing the concluding chapter with great urgency until all hours of the night only a few days before his death. His desire to maintain and continue to cultivate his deep and rich relationships with friends and colleagues from around the world, exchanging emails until the afternoon of his death. And his deep pride in, love of and support for his family. Especially for his beloved Ursel, worrying about whether she could figure out how to access their bank accounts or keep track of her keys, or pull off her Chinese-Dutch art and poetry collaboration next week in the middle of all the recent stress.

    Over the past few months, I called my father every single day on my 18 minute morning walk from Grand Central Station to my job in Manhattan, and over the cacophony of New York City traffic we talked about everything under the sun including updates on his health, my push to carry out our tentative and ever-changing plans to gather the family once again for a trip to Florida or a holiday feast in Amsterdam, the mundane aggravations of office politics at my job, my sense of purpose when I felt that my job rose above those challenges and made a small contribution to something good in the world, my worries about and celebrations of Jordan and Leah’s progress into adulthood, reports on Doug’s new job with a Danish architect designing the last World Trade Center tower, and my hopes and dreams for the future. With the bittersweet knowledge that these everyday chats would someday soon be cut short, they became a touchstone to me. And while I believe the calls were a comfort to him as he dealt with the cruel suffering inflicted by his disease, they were equally important to me. There was nothing like the feeling of my father’s deep love and validation.

    I felt the generosity and strength of his love from a very young age. During his first trip back from Princeton to Hungary to proudly present his father Apu with his firstborn granddaughter, during our nightly family dinners which he never missed despite his hectic university schedule (and which he probably on occasion would have liked to skip when Nikki and I were obnoxious teenagers), during my college application process when we were both so ecstatic that I was accepted into Amherst and able to follow in his footsteps at his revered alma mater, when his daughters got married and eventually produced five grandchildren. And despite my parents’ declarations that they liked to experience the family in small doses, I know that he was fiercely proud of his family and took great joy when we occasionally interrupted the peaceful, cultured life he lived with Mom to descend en masse and surround him with our messy, boisterous, and loud presence, full of our love and laughter.

    The fact that my father was such a “mensch,” so generous, kind and sensitive, was shaped in great part by his response to his childhood and early hardships. Having been born a Jew in Budapest in 1933, sent to the ghetto during the war, experiencing his parent’s divorce and then his mother’s death of cancer at age 13, left mostly alone as a teenager while his father was otherwise occupied, and having to escape his forced service in the Hungarian army by fleeing during the brief uprising against the Communists in 1956, my father chose to build a life of stability and purpose that transcended borders, built on pursuits of higher meaning, like scholarship, love, friendship, and enjoyment of art and music. He knew that all else was transient and subject to fate. As a refugee who fled to America and got the opportunity to study, build a new life, and experience a purposeful intellectual life, my father knew how lucky he was. And although he was not a religious man, he fully embraced the concept of gratitude. To repay the debt he felt for the opportunity he was given, he recently established a scholarship fund at Amherst dedicated to opening doors for today’s refugees, even corresponding directly with current Amherst foreign students to get a sense of their experiences and needs.

    I dreaded the day my father would no longer be able to communicate over the phone, but he could not imagine living one day unable to work on his life’s project – that sentence he was always in the middle of formulating. And as difficult as it was to come to Amsterdam last Saturday knowing the choice he had made, there was such beauty in accompanying him on his final walks in Amsterdam under sunny skies down to the Amstelfeld, around the corner and back. Propelled by his own two feet, making one of his famous wisecracks about how it didn’t matter that my mom had made the one of the most dry and inedible pizzas ever on Sunday night because it made it easier for him to say goodbye, and able to embrace us all with the warmth and strength of his final hugs and kisses. It is with enormous, fierce love and gratitude that we continue to hug you back Dad.

    For nearly 25 years, Janos has been a dearest friend to me, generous to a fault: forgiving, when he felt the common basis for mutual trust had been restored, and fierce in his convictions, when he felt he needed to stand his ground. He and Ursel were among the earliest persons to welcome me, when I came to Amsterdam in 1991, and they were the first to invite me into their circle of friends and colleagues – many of whom are here today. It marks this also as a special occasion – to be thankful for their openness and hospitality, and to remember the wonderful hours spent in spirited and stimulating conversation at Ursel’s dinner table – surrounded by her magnificent artworks, which provided our lively discussions with a serene and meditative frame.

    I often felt it as a good omen, that Janos was born in 1933 and I in 1943. So on his 80th birthday, I wrote to him: “the fact that you are always ten years ahead of me, has been a source of comfort and inspiration, giving me the (possibly illusory) confidence that the path ahead has been cleared for me.” The cruel illness that has taken him so unexpectedly from us, and this so soon after his 80th birthday, may have a lesson about such over-confidence. But if Janos was a model for me, it was in aspiring to acquire some of his gentleness and wit, some of his encompassing humanism and deep learning, and some of his aristocracy of the spirit and his humility towards others. And this path is now more luminously lit by Janos than ever before.

    What I shall remember about Janos with special gratitude is his smile. It fused the experience of age and the knowledge of life, with the boyish glee and spontaneity of youth. It had a puckish way of letting you know that he understood and was on your side, but with just a hint that another thought also crossed his mind – which made the smile once more enigmatic and richly suggestive, as if he was also listening to another, his inner voice, slightly more sceptical and tinged with irony.

    In retrospect – and thinking of the dignified way he said goodbye and took his leave – that smile has the higher wisdom of someone who has always accepted and even embraced that, in TS Eliot’s words, “what might have been and what has been/ Point to one end, which is always present.” Thank you, Janos, for what has been, and for smilingly reminding us to keep alive the possibilities of what might have been.

    And now it is my honour to read to you the words of farewell written by Vivian Liska, of the University of Antwerp who sends us these thoughts from Jerusalem:
    Jerusalem, October 2015

    With your soft voice still resonating in me from our last conversation, after a night rereading our mails exchanged over nearly twenty years and recalling wonderful moments shared as colleagues, fellow members of various commissions and committees, co-editors of the journal arcadia, and above all as friends, I’m overwhelmed by sadness but also by the awareness of the privilege to have known you. We met almost twenty years ago at a scholarly meeting in Leiden and I walked over to you to express my admiration of your book The Fin-de-siècle Culture of Adolescence on which I had based one of the first courses I taught as a professor of German literature – a course that I’m teaching, with variations, still today.

    One of our jours fixes and a highlight of my life as a teacher was your annual visit to Antwerp when you gave a guest lecture for this and other courses. I felt that I brought my students an exceptional gift. Your lively presence, your intellectual adventurousness, your enthusiasm inspired us all. These lectures and your talks at the many conferences we attended together, demonstrated time and again how an astutely critical and lucid mind can also be infused with passion: for literature, for theoretical reflection, for conversation about books, thought, ethics and politics, music, and life tout court. Your writings embody for me the finest we can achieve in our work as scholars, as readers, and intellectuals. Your exemplary way of combining meticulous attention to details of literary texts with a broad understanding of historical, political and social contexts revealed the driving force of your work: bringing out the potential of literature to oppose discourses of manipulative power and opening up possibilities of resistance and sites of freedom paired with ethical and political responsibility.

    Your critical oeuvre includes true milestones. Your work on Central Eastern European literature not only challenged received views but redrew the map of an entire region. Your book on Voice, Text and Music, which you struggled – and succeeded – to finish in the last weeks of your life, is a true masterpiece that enwraps your love of music with the rigors and incisiveness of authentic scholarly research and reflection.

    What I experienced in our shared work as editors of arcadia was less tangible, but nevertheless unforgettable: the exemplary way you dealt with articles that were sent to the journal we edited together for a decade. You attracted papers from all over the world, from Iran and China, from Pakistan and Egypt. They were often written in weak English. You devoted countless hours and days polishing them so that they could enter the scholarly conversation at the highest level. We once received a paper from a female scholar from a country where women had no voice; in her article she very cautiously expressed rebellion against her patriarchal environment. You were delighted, worked hard to straighten out the English and published it, despite the voices that were adamantly against doing so.

    Throughout the years of our cooperation and friendship I experienced how deeply the concerns that suffused your work were part of your being. Respect, fairness, generosity and a total lack of self-importance characterized your attitude towards your colleagues, your friends, your loved ones.

    Your admiration for Ursel’s work was boundless, as was your love for your daughters and grandchildren. You had strong opinions, yet always remained open to the thoughts and views of others, delighting in discussion and always ready to revise and reconsider your judgments. When there was disagreement you fiercely defended your position and then wisely sought compromise. But when you were faced with unfair behavior or abuse of power – whether in academia, politics or private experiences – you were uncompromising and fought tirelessly for anyone you felt had been slighted, even at the price of personal advantages.

    That is how I will remember you: strong and gentle, generous and fair, charming and fierce, full of wisdom, yet carrying through life this boyish smile and the rare and precious quality that Walter Benjamin called “Herzenshöflichkeit” – politeness of the heart. It manifested itself in everything, from your delicate letters of rejection to authors who had submitted work to arcadia, to your last messages, in which you said goodbye without pathos and sentimentality, expressing appreciation, care and a boundless love of life, which you left in such a dignified way, leaving us all bereft but also infinitely grateful for your presence in our lives.


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