Hans Eichner 1921-2009

He fled the Nazis, and was tormented by the fact he made his living studying and teaching German

Hans Eichner 1921-2009Hans Eichner was born on Oct. 30, 1921, in Vienna, Austria. He was the second of two boys, after Fritz, born to Sandor and Valli. The family lived in Vienna’s predominantly Jewish Leopoldstadt district. When Hans was quite young, perhaps six years old, his father committed suicide after years of quarrelling with his brother, Hans’ uncle. Hans’ mother needed someone else to take care of her and the boys and she remarried—to a man who constantly shirked his responsibilities, “somebody he couldn’t respect,” Hans’ wife, Kari Grimstad, says.

In March of 1938 Hitler’s German Nazis annexed Austria. In November came Kristallnacht, a night of coordinated violence against Jews across Germany and Austria. Most of Vienna’s synagogues were destroyed. “He and a buddy decided they couldn’t stick around any longer. They got out,” Grimstad says.

Hans and his friend made it into Belgium, where the Jewish Aid Committee fed them and arranged passage to England. As Hans was boarding the boat, the ticket agent balked: there was no entry stamp for Belgium in his passport, so how could he leave? He thought quickly. “If I don’t have an entrance stamp and you don’t give me an exit stamp, we’re even, and I can board.” And on he went to England.

But in May 1940, Britain rounded up thousands of Germans and Austrians as enemy aliens and deported them to Canada, Australia and the Isle of Man. Jews were shipped with Nazi sympathizers indiscriminately. Hans Eichner found himself in an internment camp in Australia. There the internees set up an informal university. Hans, whose work in Vienna had been various forms of manual labour, studied Latin, English literature and mathematics.

Back in England at the end of the war he enrolled in German studies at the University of London, progressing quickly to earn a doctorate. In 1950 he accepted a one-year position at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. On the boat up the St. Lawrence River he fell in love with the Canadian landscape and decided this was where he wanted to live.

From Queen’s he went in 1967 to the University of Toronto where he became chair of the German studies department. His studies of Friedrich Schlegel and Thomas Mann made him a noted scholar around the German-speaking world. He also shone in the classroom. “Hans never went ‘um,’ ” says Grimstad. “Instead you’d get silences,and that could be unnerving if you were a student sitting across the table from him. And eventually you would get this perfectly articulated answer.”

He had been, by his own admission, a ladies’ man, but his third marriage, to Kari Grimstad in 1985, lasted. He moved with her to Rockwood, outside Guelph, where she taught at the university. But he liked to do his writing in his cottage on a little island he’d bought in the Rideau Lakes of eastern Ontario.

All his life Eichner was tormented by the fact that he made his living studying and teaching German, the language of the people who terrorized the Jews of Central Europe. “It was his language too, you know,” Grimstad says. “He did not grow up speaking Yiddish or Hebrew. And yet it was also the horrible language of the Nazis too.” Partly to come to terms with that conflict, and partly to chronicle the vanished Jewish community of early-20th-century Vienna, he finally set about writing a novel in German after he retired from the University of Toronto. The resulting work, Kahn & Engelmann, was published by a small press in Vienna in 2000. It won good reviews and, a year later, was released in a mass-market paperback edition by Rowohlt, a large publisher, to strong sales.

Kahn & Engelmann follows three generations of a family much like Eichner’s as they fall in love, quarrel, prosper and, eventually, face the awful reality of the Holocaust. But many of Eichner’s Canadian friends, including his own adult children from an earlier marriage, couldn’t read enough German to enjoy it. Stephen Henighan, a colleague of Grimstad’s, was running the books-in-translation program at Biblioasis, a small Canadian literary press. With help from the Canada Council, Biblioasis arranged to produce an English-language edition of Kahn & Engelmann.

The first critical notice was a rave, calling it an “astounding, ambitious work.” Eichner, whose health had been failing for two years, saw the review and held an advanced reader’s copy of the English translation. “He was really delighted with it,” Henighan says.

On April 8, 2009, Hans Eichner died in his sleep. Three days later the first print run of Kahn & Engelmann, in its luminous new translation by Jean M. Snook, arrived from the printer. 


Kari Grimstad will read from the book on May 27, as part of Toronto’s Authors at Harbourfront Centre series.