Gerhard Weiss had a knack for telling stories. Not just any stories, but those from his experience as a Holocaust survivor and growing up in Berlin through the havoc of World War II.
He brought that rich history into his classrooms at the University of Minnesota, breathing life into the materials students were studying.
Weiss, a revered scholar and mentor, died Oct. 2 at his home at the Kenwood retirement community from complications of Parkinson’s disease, his family said. He was 93.
“He was always optimistic,” said his son John Weiss of Falls Church, Va. “And that’s one reason why he and his family survived the war. They never got down. It was always ‘things will improve.’ And even through his last days, he maintained this optimistic attitude.”
Weiss was born on Aug. 6, 1926, in Berlin to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother. He was in high school when the racial laws of the Nazi regime expelled Jewish kids from public schools, interrupting his formal education, his older brother Kenneth Wilde recalled. As a form of punishment, the government rounded up Jewish people, Wilde said, including Weiss and his father, to clear bombed-out buildings and remove rubble from the streets. Shortly after the war ended, Weiss and other Jewish children who were deemed “racially inferior” attended school in an apartment run by a professor from Berlin University who had lost his job. There, Weiss earned his diploma, said Fritz Gluckstein, who went to high school with Weiss in Germany and worked alongside him cleaning ruined streets and buildings.
Weiss and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1946 and settled in St. Louis. After a stint in the U.S. Army in Japan, Weiss earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Germanic studies from Washington University in St. Louis. He later received a doctorate in Germanic studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he met the love of his life, Janet Smith, who was taking his class. The couple were married for more than five decades and had three children. Janet died in 2010.
Daughter Susan Spencer said her father threw dinner parties and hosted intellectuals from German-speaking countries, an experience that led her to a career in writing.
“I thought that was just sort of a normal thing to do,” said Spencer, of Massachusetts. “And I didn’t appreciate what a wonderful introduction that was to the world of writing and ideas.”
In 1956, Weiss began his career teaching German studies at the University of Minnesota, where he also was the department’s chair for eight years. He led the department through the establishment of the merged German, Scandinavian & Dutch Department — now known as the German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch Department. He mentored new faculty and redefined how German studies was taught at the U, incorporating topics that went beyond language and literature to include urban studies and cultural history.
“He was extremely generous,” said Charlotte Melin, professor of German studies and the department’s chair, who was hired by Weiss 25 years ago. “He was really instrumental in bringing people together and the department together to work on large projects. … We all miss him very much.”
After his retirement in 1998 as a distinguished professor of German studies, Weiss continued to hold administrative positions for three more years. He influenced generations of students, some of whom have become scholars themselves. Weiss earned many accolades, including the Arthur Motley Award for exceptional teaching.
He is also survived by his son James Weiss of River Forest, Ill., and four grandchildren. Services will be held at 11 a.m. on Nov. 16 at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, 511 Groveland Av., in Minneapolis.