As I recollect my relationship with Dorrit Cohn, what I come up with is not a continuous narrative, but a chain of discrete moments, encounters, and images. I knew Dorrit from a distance — the distance separating a very young graduate student and a senior scholar. When I began to assemble these encounters, and to recollect some of our conversations, I realized that they added up to something truly significant: the enormous impact she had on my life.
Our first conversation was a phone call from Dorrit when I was living in New York City, trying to decide whether to come to Harvard for graduate school. When I did come to Harvard’s German Department in 1987, Dorrit had already been assigned to be my advisor. This was the beginning of a warm and supportive relationship that lasted for almost twenty years.
It was a bit of a rocky start. In her seminars, which required us to read very, very long German novels, many of my essays were, unfortunately, still works in progress — I was still a work in progress, in those years — and my main memories of those days are of listening to her patient critiques and reading her neatly penciled-in corrections and comments.
When it came time to select a director for the dissertation, Dorrit did not take this for granted; it was raised very seriously in the Café Pamplona, where Dorrit told me that she planned to retire at age 70. Did I still want to work with her? The conversation stands out in my mind, since Dorrit didn’t often share her personal life. Another such exchange occurred when I was preparing for job interviews. Dorrit told me how difficult it had been to apply for jobs in academia as a divorced mother of two.
Of course, most of our conversations were about my dissertation. Dorrit took advising extremely seriously. Drafts were returned promptly, always with careful line editing and elaborate notes. I was writing about the problem of memory in turn-of-the-century Vienna. It was a large and diffuse topic, and we disagreed about the scope and structure of the thesis. As much as Dorrit shaped my understanding of modernism, memory, and genre, she also taught me about the need for balance, or what she called “symmetry,” of the thesis as a whole. Our meetings took place in a Cambridge cafe, in her Boylston Hall office, and in the summer, in her apartment on Mt. Auburn Street or in her home on Cape Cod.
Dorrit played an important role in my coming together with my husband Michael Prince. Michael was already teaching English at Boston University when we met each other by chance in Harvard Square on a Sunday morning in May 1991. Over our first coffee, we spoke about Dorrit’s 1969 article on the “Change of Person in Kafka’s Manuscript of The Castle.” Michael, usually a scholar of the British Enlightenment, happened to have written an essay about Kafka’s pronouns in which he disagreed with Dorrit’s theory. Michael hadn’t remembered my name from a prior encounter, but luckily he remembered that I was working on German modernism. Dorrit became very fond of Michael; I sensed that she couldn’t quite believe I had found myself such a fine husband.
Dorrit and I had a wonderful personal connection over all things Viennese — cakes, chocolate, art, music, and an ever-present sense of nostalgia and mystery. Dorrit grew up in an assimilated Viennese Jewish family, which, at the insistence of a wealthy uncle who had immigrated to South America, left Austria on February 3, 1938 — one month before the Anschluss. When Ruth Kluger published Still Alive, her memoir of a Jewish childhood in 1930s Vienna and during the Holocaust, Dorrit said simply that she read the book in one sitting. I wish I had taken the cue and asked her more directly about her own experiences. Now I read as many memoirs of Austrian Jews as I can get my hands on and think often about all that I don’t know about Dorrit’s Vienna years.
We connected, more obliquely, around Jewish culture. Whereas she seemed to find my religious observance — keeping kosher, not going to classes on the holidays — somewhat puzzling, she always encouraged my interests in Hebrew Bible and Jewish literature. When I had the opportunity to do research in Israel, she initiated a number of important contacts.
In my own work, I most value the example Dorrit set with her integrity, modesty, and precision in teaching, advising, and scholarship. She was respectful and generous with her time, and she never overstepped. She had high standards for us both, and she never faked it. From the very start, she pushed me to sharpen my ideas and to keep clear the boundaries between ideas. Terms and concepts had precise meanings and were to be used with great care; I tended to see much more of the gray haze between them, and I think I still do.
In later years Dorrit and I occasionally played tennis on the Harvard courts, but not often, because I was not nearly good enough for her. I visited her apartment with my young children, and she dined with us once in our home in Newton. Our very last lunch was at a restaurant in Harvard Square. I didn’t have tenure yet and my book was not yet published, but she was very pleased that both of those achievements were imminent. Dorrit was still very much still Dorrit.
It recently occurred to me that Dorrit taught us all an important life lesson: how to deal with change. This connects perhaps with her innate understanding of boundaries. She decided when it was the right time to retire; I also remember her telling me, “This will be my last trip to Europe.” I recall when she explained that in her retirement (and old age), she figured out that translation was the ideal kind of work for her. When she retired in 1995, she learned ancient Greek so she could read Plato’s dialogues in the original. Less well known is the fact that she contributed large sums of money to charity throughout her life, sponsoring children through organizations such as CARE.
In tribute to Dorrit, I end with a Hebrew verse from Yehuda Amichai — a poet born in Germany in the same year as she — from his last book Open Closed Open:
Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.
More on Dorrit Zucker Cohn, 1924 - 2012
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Dorrit Zucker Cohn, 1924 - 2012." (Viewed on June 5, 2023) <https://jwa.org/weremember/cohn-dorrit>.
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