Memorial Minute: Read at the faculty meeting on October 28, 2002
In September 1968 Professor Dr. Eugen Kullmann joined the Religion Department. In the years that followed, his teaching ranged from courses in Religion, Philosophy, Hebrew and Aramaic, Greek, Latin and German literature. Blessed with a prodigious memory and a classical European education, Eugen brought to his classrooms breadth, depth and gentle humor. Students eagerly sought him out, and in one year he offered 9 courses. That does not count the numerous informal seminars and tutorials that met at his home overlooking the Kokosing River. There Eugen's students were nourished with Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides and Spinoza, the Bible, the wisdom of the rabbis, the Upanishads and the Qur'an, Hoelderlin, Goethe and Kafka, and they never left the Riverhouse, as it was called by his students, without being filled, as well, with Apfelkuchen and the occasional glass of Schnapps or good German wine.
Eugen showed, in his being and actions, that learning was for and about life. The image that one student had then, and continued to have of him as a teacher, and as a person, was of the sea, that large, that full of contradictions and power and stillness, those depths. It was not always easy sailing, but one could go to important places, no journey just the same. Our mentor came to class with three main points sketched either in his mind, or scribbled on a piece of scrap paper. Out of that skeletal blueprint the class was spun: depictions of death in the Psalms, the motif of yearning for Zion in the poetry of Jehuda Ha Levi, the God-intoxicated philosophy of Baruch d'Espinoza. Held captive in a kind of timeless vacuum we imbibed our teacher's wisdom. Our journey had endless detours, each one rich. Although some detours had the appearance at first of being somehow irrelevant, by the end of the hour the detours converged in such a way that we knew that we had been given a glimpse of eternity. More importantly we had been treated to a lecture that both focused on the concrete and esoteric, and opened up vistas to knowledge that would help us navigate in the world.
He was fond of animals (he had many) and children (he had none). In his lighter moments, yet not to be taken lightly, he offered a particular formula for measuring the worth of a religion: one should examine its attitude toward the poor, animals, slavery and children. Later he added women to the list. In his more serious moments he would say the measure of a religion is its attitude toward dying and death. Eugen came to us from the New School for Social Research and Bard College and, succeeding one of his own students, he was the second incumbent in the Jewish Studies position originally funded by the Danforth Foundation. For many years he led Shabbat and High Holy Day services at Kenyon and his leadership of the Passover Seder drew both Jewish and non-Jewish students.
Eugen's humanistic spirit, tragically nurtured in Germany, came from his parents. He was born on March 20,1915 to a Jewish family of merchants and landowners in the Catholic village of Erlenbach in the Pfalz, Germany. There he attended a Catholic primary school and then a humanistic Gymnasium in nearby Landau. One student remembers that Eugen described his family as very ecumenical, that his parents held it an honor to provide the carpets to be strewn before the outdoor altars for the annual Corpus Christi procession through the village. In 1934, at the behest of his mother who, with fortunate prescience, steered him away from Berlin, he left Germany for the University of Basel in Switzerland. There he studied philosophy, psychology, classical philology, Bible and Ancient Near Eastern languages, completing his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1941, with a dissertation titled "On the Aristotelian concept of prohairesis." (Beitraege zum aristotelischen Begriff der "prohairesis") In all Eugen studied there12 years, until he obtained a visa to come to the United States in 1946. He lost family in the Holocaust, but he never lost his fondness for his home village, and he carried into old age a love of Hoelderlin and Goethe, much of which he could recite from memory. He once said that he refrained from teaching about the Holocaust-the Shoah-because it would be too painful; but finally he introduced the Seminar on the Holocaust at Kenyon in 1978.
Philology was Eugen's first love, and his students will remember his oft-repeated question, "And what is the etymon of that word?" His favorite authors were Maimonides, Homer and Plato, Vergil and Horace, and he could repeat the odes of the latter from memory and quote from his works aptly on any occasion. Among philosophers, Aristotle and Spinoza were those in which he was especially expert. In English poetry, he liked Dryden's translation of Vergil, and Pope's translation of Homer best. In the Hebrew scriptures he preferred the Joseph stories in Genesis, Job, Qoheleth, and the prophets of Israel (especially Amos and Jonah). Many of his students went on to graduate work in one area of his expertise and now teach at colleges across America and abroad. Eugen taught in his home until January of this year, and then continued to entertain young students until his death in assisted living. He had frequent visits from former students and, until recent years, kept up a regular correspondence with teachers, colleagues, family and former students in the United States, Europe and Israel.
Eugen came to know the philosopher Martin Buber in the 1930's, at the Frankfurter Lehrhaus, the Institute for Jewish Studies. He once described Buber as "having passed through the libraries of the millennia and there was not the smell of a book on him," a description that could be equally applied to Eugen. In Basel he knew many renowned scholars and was highly respected for his erudition. It was there that he met Hermann Hesse, spending weeks at a time at the Hesse home in Montagnola. Eugen's modesty, however, precluded his making too much of these friendships. Similarly he did not boast about his writing. It was only after his death that we discovered how much he had written. Like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Eugen believed that, rather than a need for more textbooks, there was a need for more textpersons. He himself was a living textperson. Posted by the door of his home was a quotation of Rabbi Yose, found in the Talmud, "It is not the place that honors the person, but it is the person who honors the place." By his presence on this hill teaching for sixteen years, Professor Kullmann brought honor to this college.
Eugen Kullmann died on June 24th 2002.
Written and read by Miriam Dean-Otting
Professor of Religious Studies