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Remembering Gerhard Weiss (1926-2019)

October 16, 2019

Professor Emeritus Gerhard Weiss

Professor Emeritus Gerhard Weiss
Gerhard Weiss in 2004

Gerhard Weiss arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1956 and remained here until his retirement in 1998, after which he held various administrative positions for three more years. Weiss was known on campus for his wise and humane leadership of several departments and units, including the formation of the merged department (German, Scandinavian & Dutch or GSD) that would eventually become the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. He was honored with numerous awards, including the Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of German and the University of Minnesota President’s Award for Outstanding Service. Beyond Minnesota, he served as president of both the American Association of Teachers of German (1982-83) and the German Studies Association (1999-2000).
Cherished by his students for his vivid presentation of the history of German culture, Weiss had a talent for storytelling that grew from lived experience. He was born in Berlin in 1926, the child of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother. Asked in a 2002 interview for the GSD Magazine what it was like to grow up in Berlin during the war years, Weiss responded with characteristic frankness: “In 25 words or less? It was very hard. In many ways, it was traumatic; yet in many ways, it was very normal. Reading my mother’s notebooks from that time, you find reflections on the sheer horror of what was happening mixed with comments about doing the laundry.”
Philosophically Weiss then observed that “one grows up fast in circumstances such as these. It very much shaped my entire life. Against that context, every other problem I’ve encountered in my life has seemed trivial.” After the war, he and his parents emigrated to the United States. Weiss served in the US Army, which opened a path for him to pursue graduate studies at Washington University, St. Louis, and then the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met his wife Janet and completed his doctoral studies. The Weiss family soon moved to Minnesota and became a vital part of the community here. 

At the University of Minnesota, Weiss emerged as an advocate for the integrated approach to interdisciplinary studies of literature, history, and language that would become the field of German studies. His efforts paved the way for many institutional partnerships, including valuable exchanges with the Humboldt University in East Berlin and a program of visiting professors supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which continues today. His commitment to international education, which opened up opportunities for students, is described in a 1999 interview for the University of Minnesota Sesquicentennial Diversity Project. His broad intellectual interests and commitment to academic freedom surface in a 1994 interview that also details many connections to the library, which led in later years to serve on the Friends of the University Libraries board.
Students mentored by Weiss remember him with deep appreciation. Mirko Hall (now a professor of German studies at Converse College), explains that “Gerhard Weiss was one of the most beloved professors of my undergraduate and graduate years in the department. At once the consummate German gentleman-scholar and unassuming American patriot, he shone brightest as a dynamic and eloquent teacher of the best that the German cultural tradition had to offer. Gerhard’s ever-caring presence, unfailing kindness and generosity, and deep concern for every student were the hallmarks of his gentle humanity. The last icon of a now bygone era, he will be remembered with great affection by all.”
One of his graduate advisees, Leo Riegert (now an associate professor of German at Kenyon College), recalls being questioned about his use of the word “interrogate,” and how Weiss asked him whether “investigate" or even “discuss” would be better. Riegert writes: “He didn’t say so, because he reluctantly spoke of his own experience, but perhaps someone who survived Nazi Germany had a heightened sense of what ‘interrogate’ might mean. I didn’t use the word then and I haven’t since, at least not in that figurative way. In a profession often prone to large egos, Gerhard lived his life with grace and compassion. The humor and enthusiasm he brought to his discipline, his classroom and his colleagues provided me a model of the scholar, teacher, and mensch I strive to be.”

In retirement, Weiss remained professionally active and in close contact with the department, generously accepting invitations to return to the University of Minnesota campus. When Professor Leslie Morris brought him into her large lecture class on the Holocaust, he would speak about his experience as a boy in Berlin. As Morris explains, “Not only was he an eyewitness to the events unfolding in Germany, but as the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, he occupied a particular position and was able to discuss the complexity of history writ large and his own personal story. Particularly memorable for my students was that he would always come to class with a small bag that contained the yellow star of David he had been forced to pin to his clothes, his passport with his name altered according to Nazi law and with the large J stamped across it, and other documents…. As was always the case, Gerhard’s deep sense of humanity, kindness, and openness came through in these meetings with students, and I know these encounters with him left an indelible print for the many students he touched with these visits.” 

Reflecting on how his colleague and friend Weiss ultimately persuaded him to come to Minnesota, Professor Emeritus Jack Zipes observes that “he was a wise and shrewd man with great integrity and a profound sense of fairness. And there was always a twinkle in his eyes. I shall miss him very much. I shall miss his stories about how he endured the Nazi period and then came to the US to lead one of the finest departments of German in America.”

The StarTribune’s obituary offers additional biographical details. The funeral service will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, November 16 at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Gerhard Weiss Fellowship in German Studies for graduate students or the Gerhard and Janet Weiss Scholarship in German for undergraduates through the links above or mailed to the University of Minnesota Foundation, PO Box 860266, Minneapolis, MN 55486.