WERRELL: Remembering lunches with a friend

After I sat with him one day at lunch — he seemed lonely — I began to walk Professor Edward Stankiewicz, 88 years old at the time, from the Timothy Dwight dining hall to his office after lunch. Over the next year and a half, the trip gradually took longer and longer, though his office, carefully decorated with his sketches and paintings and books, each of which he pointed towards and lovingly detailed, was only about a block away.

After saying goodbye to Roseann at the front counter — “Bye, Rosie!” “Bye, Ed! See you tomorrow.” — we would make our way through the maze of backpacks and chairs and out the door. Professor Stankiewicz, passionate professor of linguistics and Slavic languages and literature that he was, relished quizzing me along the way.

“Spell my name.”

“STAN-KIE-WIC-Z.” I had made a jingle to remember.

“Where does your name come from?”

“My parents,” I muttered. Professor Stankiewicz chuckled and corrected me as I moved a couch out of our way: From the Ancient Greek “Alexandros,” my name means “defender of men.”

“What is the ablative plural of ‘haec’?”

“Huius?” If I didn’t know this at 9:20 in the morning in Latin class, I certainly couldn’t summon it up extemporaneously.

I wrote down his response to my clueless stammer following the last question: “Despite the fact that you are utterly incapable of speaking Latin — you cannot even decline ‘lux,’ part of our own college’s motto! — I still think of you as my student.”

“Though if you were my student of Latin,” he added parenthetically as we made our way through the doors and into the courtyard, “I would fail you. No question about it.”

One particularly nice day after lunch, I had a surprise for him as we sat on the bench halfway between the dining hall and the front gate with my stereo.

Sitting in the sun that afternoon, we listened first to a favorite recording of mine: Dame Joan Sutherland singing an excerpt from Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable.”

“It is a remarkable trill, yes,” said Professor Stankiewicz, shaking his head and squinting sourly in the sun. “But she’s a songbird. She shows off.”

I disagreed, and reluctantly switched to Bizet’s “Carmen,” his favorite. Sitting up, Professor Stankiewicz conducted our way through the overture, watching a few TDers play volleyball in the upper courtyard. One player offered him the ball, asking if he wanted to join. Professor Stankiewicz laughed and shook his head, saying, “Another time.” He interrupted himself then to inform me that the orchestra was preordaining the discord of the gypsy and her soldier: “Listen to the strings, Alexander. They tell us everything.”

We skipped to the “Habanera,” with Victoria de los Angeles singing the gypsy lead. “No, no. She is Spanish, Defender of Men. The ‘g’ is hard — it’s Victoria de los AnGeles,” he corrected me before the soprano even had a chance to draw a breath.

The next week in the dining hall, I sat back in my chair and watched as Professor Stankiewicz, giggling, sketched a galloping horse on a paper napkin. Master Thompson, a friend of his, sat across from the two of us and was spitting out all numbers of unprintable profanities in all numbers of languages. Between laughs, Professor Stankiewicz turned to me and translated phrase after phrase, each more colorful than the last.

This delight in languages, in art and in teaching was how Professor Stankiewicz lived most of his life. It was because of these gifts, he told me, that he was able to delight in anything at all. Trapped behind the barbed wire of Buchenwald after a torturous four years on the run from the Gestapo — painting Soviet propaganda and waiting tables for a living, forging false documents so that other Jews might live — Professor Stankiewicz’s mind roamed up and out of the concentration camp as he painted, discussed philosophy and art with those few other prisoners who were able to imagine and escape to a more decent place, read books from the Buchenwald “library” and wrote poems in both Polish and German. From even before the day the U.S. Army liberated those sent to Buchenwald to be forgotten, when he volunteered to work as a translator for the Army, to the days I spent with him, Professor Stankiewicz was a devoted teacher who cared for each of his many students.

I last saw Professor Stankiewicz a few days before his 90th birthday, when his mind no longer roamed free, when he was no longer the man I had met a year and a half before. His teaching and his friendship meant a great deal to me, Latin dropout that I am.

Alex Werrell is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at william.werrell@yale.edu .

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