The death of Gershon Hundert hits me hard along with legions of friends, colleagues, and students as well as loving family. It seems wrong that at a moment of such national crisis when Gershon’s presence would have been a steadying comfort and reminder of goodness, his great heart should have given out. But I’m thankful for the time he was among us.
Gershon often reminded me of how we met. In 1975 McGill University’s young department of Jewish Studies was interviewing candidates for a joint position with the History department, and after much negotiation, Gershon had been invited to Montreal as the last candidate on our short list. Following his “job talk,” the joint committee decided to meet right away and make him the offer. As chair of Jewish Studies, I was greatly relieved and so afraid he might consider a position elsewhere that, knowing he was leaving that day, I drove to the airport to catch him before the flight. This was BC (Before Cellphones), and what Gershon attributed to my kindness was actually my eagerness to ensure that he would take the job then and there.
Joint academic appointments give professors access to more students but also involve more committee work, interaction with two sets of colleagues, and satisfying the demands of two disciplines. As a historian specializing in Polish Jewry, Gershon was already balancing two vast subject areas whose uneasy interaction had ended in the elimination of one, the Jews, in the territory of the other, Poland. He thrived on these challenges. Institutionally, he gave Jewish studies a prominent presence in one of McGill’s finest departments; intellectually, he brought the history of the Jews of Poland into the forefront of Jewish studies.
He was the ideal teacher; he had taken his first graduate degree in education before he moved to history. Kind-hearted by nature, he might have yielded too much to the personal needs and entreaties of his students had it not been for his even stronger commitment to the need for truth and accuracy as the basis of his discipline. He wasn’t quick to offer opinions as some academics tend to be, but when it came to subjects that he had thoroughly researched he could be fierce in separating established facts from speculation. His students knew how much he respected them even as he taught them to respect the study of history.
I myself learned from him something essential for my teaching. The Yiddish literature I taught describes mostly the hardships of Jewish life in Poland, and even liberal writers like I.L. Peretz and Sholem Asch, who greatly appreciated Polish culture, present more adversarial than pleasant conditions. And the Shoah obviously darkened everything that had gone before.
Gershon asked the more basic question: How had Jews lived for almost 1,000 years so relatively well in Poland, on relatively good terms with local rulers, able to sustain a vibrant independent culture? His first book about Jews in the Polish town of Opatow richly answers that question with fascinating information about the economic value of Jews to the nobles who owned the towns, and advantages they enjoyed as a result. I came to see why a popular proverb called Poland “heaven for the nobility, hell for peasants, and paradise for Jews,” and why he could write without irony about “Jews and other Poles.”
Gershon’s most ambitious project and greatest gift to scholarship is his edition of the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. A project of this size is usually undertaken by a team of editors; he involved dozens of researchers in all the fields of Jewish Studies, but his oversight and overarching vision guided all us contributors. He identified the categories to be covered and adjudicated details about what and who should be included or—more painfully—left out. From our first discussions I realized how important this resource would become.
The Encyclopedia’s importance rests also on Gershon’s insistence that it be put online simultaneously with its publication in book form. I was present at the YIVO advisory meeting to finalize the terms of his contract, and marvelled at how firmly Gershon presented his demands. Institutions that invest great sums in a project are often understandably jealous about maintaining control over distribution. Nonetheless, when Gershon made this a condition of employment, the directors agreed to make it freely available—and so it remains.
I think he would agree that over many years our very best time together was our annual nightcap during the conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS). Over my vodka and his scotch—in moderation—we went over some of the lectures we had heard and shared professional concerns. We were by no means politically aligned, but I can’t remember any sharp arguments over many years of conversation. Not all that much gossip either; the time was too short and too precious to waste. The academic decline of the AJS pained us both but as president of the American Academy for Jewish Research 2014-2018, Gershon continued guiding part of the field he did so much to advance.
One moment as his colleague stands out for me. Pressure from students and the Jewish community had forced our department to organize a course on the Holocaust. Since none of us specialized in this area, we designed and collectively taught an interdisciplinary curriculum. One year we ended with a symposium where several of us addressed larger questions about the relation of Jews to the nations. Challenged by student questions, we were trying to explain what had kept Jews together as a people when suddenly Gershon burst out: “It was blood!” How uncharacteristic this was you can only appreciate if you knew how gently he usually spoke and what a liberal, rational man he was. No one commented on the outburst, and we continued as though there had been no interruption, but how I appreciated that moment! The murderers had pursued us as family, and Gershon cut through our intellectualization to say, yes, and that’s who we intend to remain.
The memory of our learned, wise, and passionate friend will remain a blessing.
Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard University.