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College of Arts and Sciences

Department of German and Russian

Harry H Kahn Memorial Lecture

The Harry H. Kahn Memorial Lecture Series

The Harry H. Kahn Memorial Lecture series presents an annual lecture in March/April of each year, the first having been given in April 1990. This is an endowed lecture series in memory of Professor Harry H. Kahn, a former chairperson and professor of German from the Department of German and Russian here at the University of Vermont. The Department of German and Russian, in conjunction with the UVM Miller Center for Holocaust Studies, presents this annual lecture on a topic related to Jewish culture and history, which honors the work and interests of Professor Harry Kahn. An endowment established in Prof. Kahn’s honor by family, friends, colleagues, students, alumni, and various members of the University of Vermont and Burlington communities funds this annual lecture event.

The following introductory remarks about Prof. Harry H. Kahn were given by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, former and long-time chairperson of the Department of German and Russian (1977-2008), at the beginning of the first Harry H. Kahn Memorial Lecture on April 30, 1990, and have also been given in a slightly abbreviated format at the beginning of all the subsequent Kahn Lectures.

Professor Wolfgang Mieder:

Before introducing tonight's distinguished speaker, let me mention a few words concerning the person whom we are remembering during this special event.

When Professor Harry Helmuth Kahn arrived in the United States in 1940 from his native Germany, he had left behind a political regime of intolerance and horror. Under the inhuman Nazis policies there was no possibility for a dignified existence anymore in the small village of Baisingen in the Black Forest where Harry Kahn was born on June 20, 1912, into a devout Jewish family. Having obtained an M.A. degree in Education in 1936 at the University of Würzburg, Harry Kahn taught in the public school system and served as the District Supervisor of Jewish schools in Northern Württemberg from 1935 until his forced departure from Germany in 1939.He had escaped the concentration camp and certain death literally in the last moment.His emigration odyssey led him first to England, then a year later to New York, where he married Irene Levi, who also had barely escaped Nazi Germany from the small town of Horb only a few miles away from Baisingen. The Kahns arrived in 1944 in Burlington, Vermont, and started a new existence for themselves and their two children Hazel and Max. The horrors of the evil Third Reich lay behind them, but Vermont and its landscape were reminiscent of the Black Forest mountains and became a beloved new home for Harry until his death on November 29, 1987.

Upon his arrival in Burlington, Harry became the principal of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue Hebrew School, and in 1948 he started his employment as an instructor of German at the University of Vermont. In 1951 he earned a second M.A. degree in German from Middlebury College and became assistant professor in 1952, received tenure in 1958, advanced to associate professorship in 1969 and became full professor of German in 1974.When Harry Kahn retired in June of 1977, he did so as a highly respected, trusted and admired chairperson of the Department of German and Russian (spring 1973 and 1975-1976). Realizing what suffering had been brought to his family and friends by the Nazi murderers, one can not help but admire Harry Kahn's commitment to teaching that very language and culture to American students for thirty years. How much pain and grief must this work have meant to him particularly during the first years of his employment at the University of Vermont! Harry's influence on many students toward a better understanding of this incomprehensible period of tyranny, horror and death is one of the invaluable contributions he made during his long tenure at this university.

Harry Kahn's commitment to excellence in teaching is legendary, and he also gave much time to his Jewish students as the director of the Hillel Foundation from 1948 on.In 1952 he succeeded in starting an elementary and intermediate Hebrew program and taught these courses almost to his retirement. The commitment to Harry's Hebrew courses, as they became known, remains very strong, and it is indeed comforting to know that Hebrew, and now also sometimes Yiddish; are being taught in a Department of German and Russian. It is one of Harry's legacies to have made this seemingly absurd combination of languages and cultures possible. It is, of course, also a clear indication that Harry Kahn had a vision throughout his life that perhaps an improved humanity is teachable and attainable.

His vast knowledge of Biblical and modern Hebrew, religion, the history of Judaism, the Old Testament and philosophy led him to teach courses in the Departments of Religion, Philosophy and History in addition to his Hebrew and German courses. Who today would, in this age of overspecialization, be able to teach courses at the university level in five disciplines? Harry's drive to gain ever more knowledge in this broad array of fields is well documented by the intellectual rigor of his last sabbatical in the spring of 1974. At the age of sixty-two he enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and took courses in Modern Hebrew, Old Testament, the History of Jews in Moslem Countries, and the History of Anti-Semitism. Upon his retirement, Harry Kahn began to distribute his beloved and huge personal library to his many friends. Many of us have on our shelves books that contain an "ex libris" card inscribed with "Harry and Irene Kahn". Among my treasures are Harry's four volumes of Thomas Mann's Joseph Stories, in which literally every page is covered with Harry's detailed notes, comments and reflections. It is well-known that Thomas Mann employed the technique of "leitmotifs" in his novels, and Harry Kahn's marginal comments give us a good idea of what his own guiding "leitmotifs" were.

Those "leitmotifs" which Harry repeatedly noted include such concepts as "education", "knowledge", "reason", "rationality", "intellect" and "wisdom". While these reflect Harry's sincere commitment to teaching and learning, he also noted again and again that out of this must grow a "consciousness" of "sin" and "guilt", which in turn should lead to an increased "maturity", "responsibility", "justice", and "truth". Harry also often underlined the word "dream" in these novels, and by quoting just a few additional nouns that he or Thomas Mann used on these pages, we sense what this dream was: a "life" full of "tradition", "dignity", "compassion", "beauty", and "love".The Biblical maxim of "faith, hope (and) love" is a fitting epitaph for this great teacher and scholar. It is his exemplary service to the University of Vermont and the Burlington community and his insistence on finding "humanity" even in the gravest and darkest times that are the legacy of our former colleague and friend Professor Harry Helmuth Kahn.

Last modified March 18 2010 02:20 PM

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