Yale Bulletin and Calendar

April 27, 2001Volume 29, Number 28

Dorothee Metlitzki

Dorothee Metlitzki dies; scholar
played role in Israel's founding

Dorothee Metlitzki, 86, professor emerita of English and an important figure in the founding of the State of Israel, died on April 14 in Hamden, Connecticut.

Professor Metlitzki was a scholar of Middle English, medieval Arabic language and literature, and Herman Melville. Her scholarly books include "Celestial Origin of Elpheta and Algarsyf in Chaucer's 'Squire's Tale,'" "Melville's 'Orienda'" and "The Matter of Araby in Medieval England." She continued her scholarly output long after her retirement from teaching.

Born in Germany, Ms. Metlitzki spent her early years in Russia. After her father, an international trader, was imprisoned during the Russian Revolution, her mother embarked with the family on a two-year flight that eventually brought them to Lithuania. There, Ms. Metlitzki's father rejoined the family, after being freed from prison by his own employees.

At age 17, as the Nazis were coming to power, Ms. Metlitzki went to England and enrolled at the University of London, graduating seven years later with a B.A. and two M.A. degrees, one in medieval English and the other in classical Arabic. One of her classmates in the Arabic program was Abba Eban, who later became the first foreign minister of Israel.

In London, Ms. Metlitzki became active in the Zionist movement, working with such figures as Eban, Golda Meir and Moshe Sharet. She went to the Middle East shortly before World War II, and spent the next 15 years there. She helped found the English department at Hebrew University, founded an Arab Women's Self-help Organization and became deeply involved in the creation of the State of Israel. Among her associates at Hebrew University were philosophers Martin Buber and Gershon Sholem. After the establishment of the state in 1948, she served as a kind of informal ambassador, traveling extensively to speak about Israel's ideals.

These travels brought her to America in 1954, where she enrolled in the newly formed Ph.D. program in American studies at Yale. She earned the degree in four years and began teaching in the Department of English at the University of California at Berkeley. When she was promoted in 1964 to the rank of associate professor, she became only the second woman to be tenured in that department.

In 1966 Professor Metlitzki returned to Yale, where she taught as a lecturer for 10 years. After the publication of her book "The Matter of Araby in Medieval England" in 1976, she became a professor of English. At Yale, too, she was the second woman ever to be tenured in the Department of English.

Professor Metlitzki retired from teaching when she reached the age of 70 in 1984, but continued to teach seminars in Ezra Stiles College, where she was an active fellow throughout her Yale years. She was director of the Mellon Senior Forum in Ezra Stiles College from its inception in 1988 through 1998.

Professor Metlitzki married the Arabist Paul Kraus of the University of Cairo in 1943, but he died shortly after their marriage. She then married the Egyptologist Bernhard Grdseloff, with whom she had a daughter, Ruth. He died of cancer in Cairo in 1950.

Professor Metlitzki was known among her students and colleagues as a stimulating conversationalist, whose interests ranged from philosophy to theology to the major intellectual currents and political events of the 19th century. She was a master philologist, skilled in the history and structure of eight or so languages.

"She seemed to have all the major literatures at her fingertips, and with the exception of the sciences, about which she freely confessed her ignorance, there was hardly a subject in which she was not curious, well-informed and able to speak pointedly," says Traugott Lawler, professor of English at Yale and long-time friend. "She was reticent about the details of her rich life, but one always sensed that her thought carried the weight not just of her deep and wide reading but of a life intensely lived."

Marie Borroff, who was the first women to be tenured in English at Yale, said of her colleague and friend, "Perhaps the quality that most stood out in Dorothee Metlitzki was the passionate intensity she brought to her experience of life and literature alike. This intensity, together with her warmth, her seemingly boundless learning, and her readily responsive sense of humor, gave her a unique personal magnetism that will long be remembered by her grateful students and missed by her devoted friends."

Alex Schenker, professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures, who was her neighbor for many years, said, "I vainly tried to persuade her to write her memoirs. Now I can only regret that I didn't have a tape recorder in my pocket during all those encounters, planned and unplanned, in a college dining hall or at departmental functions, at home or in the backyard."

Professor Metlitzki is survived by her daughter, Ruth Grdseloff, of Berkeley, California. A memorial service was held on April 18 in the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.


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