Professor of four decades dies at 92

Edward Stankiewicz, a professor in Yale’s Slavic Languages and Literatures Department for 42 years, was a pre-eminent linguistics scholar.
Edward Stankiewicz, a professor in Yale’s Slavic Languages and Literatures Department for 42 years, was a pre-eminent linguistics scholar. Photo by Steve Stankiewicz.

Edward Stankiewicz, a Holocaust survivor who joined the Yale faculty in 1971 and pioneered the field of Slavic linguistics, died on Jan. 31 of cardiac arrest. He was 92 years old.

Stankiewicz emigrated to the United States in 1949, after internment in a Jewish ghetto and Buchenwald concentration camp, and served as a linguistics professor in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department during his 42-year tenure at Yale. A speaker of almost 20 languages, Stankiewicz saw language as a bridge between individuals of different backgrounds, those who knew him said. Friends and family remember Stankiewicz in part for his artistic ability and profound love of beauty, be it for art, music or the doodles he always drew on napkins and paper scraps.

“His erudition expanded far, far beyond his scholarship and linguistics,” Slavic languages and literatures professor Rita Lipson said. “His sense of beauty was great — he knew art exceptionally well. In his lectures, he was able to bring everything together.”

Stankiewicz worked six days a week, arriving at his office “impeccably dressed” in a tweed jacket or suit and tie by 10 a.m. every morning, Lipson said. Alex Werrell ’13, who came to know the professor over lunches in the Timothy Dwight dining hall, said his framed artwork and napkin sketches adorned the walls of his office, which was crammed full of a vast library of Slavic linguistics textbooks, many of which he had written. Julia Titus, a Slavic languages and literatures professor, said Stankiewicz developed the study of Slavic grammar.

Titus added that she helped Stankiewicz find undergraduates to serve as his research assistants because he treasured the chance to interact with Yale College students even after he stopped teaching courses. Lipson said these research opportunities for students were consistently more enriching than merely searching through a library for information.

“You couldn’t have a conversation with him without him teaching you something,” said Stankiewicz’s son, Steve Stankiewicz. Steve, now an artist, said his father taught him the principles of painting when he was a child, and his wide range of passions came through in every interaction he had with others.

Stankiewicz painted passionately, traveling up and down the Adriatic coast to create watercolor landscapes, Titus said. His work has been exhibited in the Whitney Humanities Center and in Ezra Stiles College, said Lipson, who used to serve as the Stiles dean.

His love of art manifested itself in not only his painting, but also his love of museums, his knack for doodling portraits and talent in singing and playing the mandolin, his friends and family said. Two colleagues described Stankiewicz as a Renaissance man.

“His sense of beauty permeated his life and everything, everything,” Lipson added.

Stankiewicz used his artistic talent to pay his way through school in the United Soviet Socialist Republic by working as a propaganda artist. Though he escaped from a Jewish Ghetto during World War II, he was eventually recaptured by the Nazi Secret State Police and deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust.

Stankiewicz published “My War: Memoir of a Young Jewish Poet,” an account of his experiences during World War II, in 2003. Barbara Handler, his daughter, said she pressed her father to record his experiences with the Holocaust.

“It was something that was important to me and I think became important to him as it went,” Handler said.

Though the memoir was his only personal work, Stankiewicz also published numerous scholarly books and monographs, including “The Accentual Patterns of the Slavic Languages” in 1993 and “Studies in Slavic Morphophonemics and Accentology” in 1979.

He is survived by his two children, Steve and Handler.

Correction: Feb. 12

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misspelled the name of Alex Werrell ’13.

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