Peter Firchow, 70, U of M professor of British literature

  • Article by: BEN COHEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2008 - 10:11 PM

As a child, Firchow experienced the horror of World War II. As a professor, he wrote extensively and inspired students to live up to his high standards.

Peter Firchow, of Bloomington, was a native of the United States who spent much of his childhood in Germany during World War II.

He was born to a Costa Rican mother and German father. Before the war, Firchow's father, Paul, worked in New York and Boston for a German shipping company. Then he worked at the German Embassy in Washington

The family -- which included three American-born children -- left the United States for Germany when war began.

Firchow, his siblings and parents endured Allied bombings in Berlin, evacuation to East Prussia until the Soviet Army closed in and life in a displaced persons camp after the war.

The family found its way back to the United States, where Peter Firchow eventually became a University of Minnesota professor of British literature. He died Oct. 18 in Bloomington at the age of 70.

He had spinal ailments and respiratory problems.

After leaving the United States, Firchow's parents settled their family in Berlin, and Firchow's father worked as a translator for the German Army in Holland.

As the war wound down, the family was pressed into an ever-shrinking Third Reich.

"They were continually fleeing," said Firchow's wife, Evelyn, of Bloomington. Firchow, his mother and siblings found refuge in what is now the Czech Republic before heading to Munich at war's end. That's where Firchow's father found them, in a displaced persons camp.

They faced constant hunger, eating "only potatoes that were usually fed to the pigs," said Evelyn Firchow.

Firchow's father found work at the camp, and in 1949 the family resettled in Boston.

Firchow returns to U.S.

Firchow received degrees in English from Harvard, and in 1965, a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He joined the English department at the University of Minnesota in 1967.

Firchow examined British literature in the context of utopian dreams and schemes, including those imagined by the Nazis.

"Above all, he was a tremendous scholar," said Peter Reed, of Minneapolis, a retired University of Minnesota English professor. He said that for many years, Firchow was the most prolific author in the English department.

He wrote about 15 books, more than 60 articles and 100 reviews. He wrote about the works of George Orwell, H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, among others.

His books "Death of the German Cousin" and "Strange Meetings" examined British literature in the context of the rivalry of Britain and Germany from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s.

He had "conspicuous standards and expectations of people," said Reed. "He was extremely loyal" and he punctuated his quiet charm with a "big, boisterous laugh."

Firchow and his wife, a University of Minnesota professor of German, often entertained students in their home.

Richard Cretan, of Portland, Ore., a nonfiction writer, is a former student.

"He viewed literature as a means to understand our world and improve our world," said Cretan. "If you were a student of Peter's, you came to understand that literature wasn't simply fancy writing, but an inquiry into humanity."

When his daughter, Pamina, of Minneapolis, was a teenager in a Swiss boarding school, she struggled with Latin.

Over three summers, her multi-lingual father tutored her. "He was an amazing teacher for me," said his daughter, now a Ph. D. candidate in political science. "If not for him, I probably would have quit."

He retired from the university in the past year but continued to write.

In addition to his wife of 39 years and his daughter, he is survived by a sister, Christina Eiff, of Germany.

Services have been held.

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