Remembering Professor Robert Szulkin

Professor Emeritus of Russian Literature 

Robert Szulkin joined the Brandeis faculty in 1962. At the time, he was still working on his PhD in the Slavic department at Harvard. Before graduate school, he had worked as a newspaper reporter for The Boston Globe, where he covered Khrushchev’s trip across the U.S., and as a translator in various capacities, including of Russian scientific texts for the American Meteorological Society. But there’s more: He worked as a trucker’s assistant, a lathe operator, a salesman of “fine women’s apparel” and a copyboy. At Brandeis, he went on to an illustrious career and was beloved by faculty, by administrators and, especially, by students. More about that in a minute.

Bob was extraordinary in so many ways, not the least of which is that some major facts of his biography, including his actual birth date, were in doubt. Nor did he ever receive much formal schooling. His wife, Sylvia, described how Bob “managed to make his way from a gulag, to a DP camp, through a series of urban-American refugee enclaves in Brooklyn and Boston. ... He never attended school until he enrolled in the Lincoln School for Immigrants at the age of 15. From there, he was sent to the Roxbury Memorial High School for Boys.” This makes his entry into BU as an undergraduate and then Harvard as a graduate student all the more astonishing. Bob was generally very humorous about these many dubious facts or gaps in his biography, but, in fact, they were the result of his family’s terrible experiences during World War II, which included the death of his baby sister on a train. When his sister died, Bob’s father bribed the train conductor to let the family off the train. After they had buried the little girl, the family happened upon a village peopled by Tolstoyan pacifists, where they spent about a year, and then they moved westward, ending up in an American DP camp. Bob did not like to speak of these events but speak of them he did on occasion. In an act of profound generosity, Bob used to go to certain courses that were studying the Holocaust, often with his colleague Steve Berko, from physics. These occasions were immensely difficult for Bob, but he fulfilled this obligation year after year.

His own preferred modus operandi was humor; his favorite writers were those who laced a tragic worldview with wild humor, writers like Gogol, Olesha and Babel, who viewed the world with “laughter through tears.” So did Bob. And his recent funeral was an occasion that would, no doubt, have inspired his tears and his laughter. Unlike Huckleberry Finn, however, he was not able to attend his own funeral. His wife, Sylvia, and his two sons, David and Daniel, spoke so vividly about Bob that the large audience in attendance was both laughing and weeping.

Bob’s scholarly career included writings on Gogol, Olesha, Kazakov and Okudzhava, as well as numerous translations. Over his long career at Brandeis (he retired in 2000), he served on almost every important committee within the university (the Senate, the budget committee, the tenure board), and he was a first-year adviser and the chair of the Joint Program in Literary Studies, to name only a few such positions. He was a longtime chair of the Department of German and Russian (also known as the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures; now known as the Department of German, Russian and Asian Languages and Literature). During a tumultuous period, he served as a beloved dean of students and was the inspired director of the Sakharov Archives, back when Brandeis was in proud possession of this remarkable archive. He stood then at the intersection between a large, impassioned (even rowdy) group of émigré Russian intellectuals and a university that embodied noble ideals but was hard-pressed for cash. He always managed to articulate the concerns of one group fairly and fully to the other. To top all this off, in addition to the many courses in Russian literature, poetry and drama that he offered, and his sought-after course in the University Studies program, “Charting the Void,” Bob offered courses in Yiddish. Irv Epstein reminds us that Abe Sachar wrote about him in his history of Brandeis: “Earlier instructors of Yiddish were ‘old-fashioned pedagogues,’ whereas Bob was ‘an easygoing, unruffled, witty Old World émigré’ who ‘brought his own personality into his teaching.’”

I have had the engrossing bittersweet pleasure of reading through Bob’s file. It is fascinating. From it emerges a series of snapshots of Brandeis in the ’60s through the end of the 20th century. There are letters, usually witty, from administrators, colleagues, scholars in the field and, above all, students. Many of you knew Bob, too, as well as his close friend and colleague Ed Engelberg, who died suddenly shortly after Bob. Do you remember what it was like to walk across the campus with Bob? When we would leave Shiffman to head down the hill, students would literally flock towards Bob from all quarters. He knew them all. They adored him. Statements like the following (from seven students chosen almost at random) are absolutely everywhere in his dossier:

1. “[His course was] difficult for me, but Szulkin is so great and never made me feel as ignorant and incompetent as I really was.”

2. “This course is absolutely fantastic, great, etc. First professor I’d take anything with.”

3. Our Nobel Prize-winning student Rod MacKinnon once told me Bob was one of his all-time favorite professors.

4. “Students,” wrote another, “are always welcomed in his office. Here, on an informal basis, one can comfortably seek advice, discuss any subject, or relax for a few minutes with a cup of coffee or a game of Russian Scrabble.”

5. “It is a pleasure to write papers for Dr. Szulkin, for he evaluates each idea, no matter how different from his own, perceptively and reasonably, and comments accordingly.”

6. Another student — who studied music, film and education, and who, as a sophomore, was considering transferring — wrote, “Upon careful, very careful consideration, I came to the ultimate conclusion that if there was one aspect of Brandeis life that compelled me to continue here it was Mr. Szulkin. … He had proven to me that I could trust and function in the realm of academia.” This student did indeed go on to become an academic.

7. Another, who went into business, wrote, “My favorite book was ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ where Dean Szulkin revealed to us the true meaning of never being forgotten as long as we remained in someone else’s thought. I do not recall a student ever missing a single lecture in our class. The wisest words Dean Szulkin spoke to me occurred one spring afternoon prior to graduation. I had been accepted to Columbia University School of Business. My dream of an MBA was so close at hand. The only catch was I received no financial assistance and the $20,000 might have been $20 million. I once again sought out Dean Szulkin’s time, which he gave me with a smile. After telling him my dilemma, he simply said, ‘Don’t you know that is the challenge of business school … figuring out how to pay the bill. Don’t worry, if you figure it out … you will succeed.’” She did!

It is no surprise that Bob was the second person to win the Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring. Each of us probably has had a teacher whose presence still looms over our left shoulder — who edits with us; detects verbal flabbiness, sloppy thinking; and then gives genuine encouragement. Bob has been that person for hundreds of students.

I will now speak personally for a minute — and not of Bob’s performances of magic tricks at my daughters’ birthday parties or of the pleasure of occupying his former office, where his cheerful presence still lingers. How many of us have been lucky enough to have another kind of presence in their lives — one who hovers over the right shoulder, perhaps, and who is, steadily, the ideal professional colleague and friend? These days, I guess, we call it a mentor. Bob was that for me — as he was for numerous faculty, administrators and even presidents of Brandeis. He urged us to listen carefully, to suspect people — not of the worst, but of the best — to be willing to keep on standing up for our convictions. He also always helped his friends to seek out the humorous side of things. No matter how dark, how ironic, how outrageous any situation — a dollop of humor always enriched his words, exercised my mind and compelled me to take a fresh look.

Once, at a very dark period in my own life, he comforted me with a shocking truth. “It will get even worse than this,” he said, “before it gets better. You think you are being strong, but you need to be much stronger.” This gentle, brave, funny man was also a truth-teller, and perhaps that is what his students also sensed in him. Bob read everything and read it carefully. I always looked forward to talking with him about my own work and waited for his thoughtful critique. Once, when he was lecturing, I heard him say, “My job is to talk to you for 30 minutes. Your job is to listen. If you finish first, raise your hand.” No one ever did!

— Robin Feuer Miller
Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities

Chair, Department of German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature 

Robert Szulkin died in March 2016. Having taught Russian language and literature as well as Yiddish since 1962, he retired from a 38-year career at Brandeis in 2000. In addition to being an excellent teacher with a fine classroom presence, his service to Brandeis included years as chairman of the German and Russian department, dean of students, and director of the Sakharov Archives during the time they were housed at Brandeis. He also found time to write English subtitles for the Yiddish film collection in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

Dr. Szulkin was born in Eishishok, Lithuania, in 1935, and was given the Hebrew name Reuben. The family was fortunate in that the father had moved them to the neighboring shtetl Raduń after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which placed them on the Soviet side of the border during the German and Soviet invasions of Poland and Lithuania in 1941, thereby escaping the annihilation of the Jewish community in Eishishok. After the family had spent time in a Soviet camp near Arkhangelsk, they were put on a train with other Jews to be sent to Uzbekistan. After the death of Bob’s sister, his parents bribed a guard to let them jump off the train in a field, where they buried the dead girl. They were subsequently found and taken in by a family of Old Believers. Here began Bob’s lifelong involvement with the Russian language. After trials too many to be recounted here, his family came to the U.S. in 1949 and settled in the Boston area.

Bob had no formal education until he came to the U.S. yet managed to enter Northeastern University and, after transferring to Boston University in his junior year, earned a BA in Russian literature. He worked as a journalist for The Boston Globe at night while attending school and covered Khrushchev’s visit to America for that newspaper. He began his teaching career at Brandeis in 1963 while working on his doctorate in Russian literature at Harvard. He successfully completed the doctorate in 1968, his thesis entitled “The Artistic Prose of Jurij Karlovich Olesha” and written under the direction of Vsevolod Setchkarev, one of the mid-20th century’s leading scholars of Russian literature. While at Harvard, in addition to Setchkarev, he studied with such luminaries as Roman Jakobson, Kiril Taranovsky and Wiktor Weintraub.

We met during my freshman year, 1962-63. He was first a teacher, then a mentor, then a lifelong friend. A voracious reader, Professor Szulkin was a thoroughly engaging conversationalist with wide-ranging interests, but literary narrative was his true forte. It guided his approach to all subjects. He regularly traveled to give talks for a program entitled “Literature and the Professions,” geared toward people in the business world, and the medical and legal professions. Bob and his partner Sandy Lottor gave an annual three-day program for the Minnesota judiciary for 25 years. When Bob was no longer able to travel, the Minnesota judges voted to establish the Sanford Lottor and Robert Szulkin Institute for the Study of Literature and the Judiciary. The program, on how literature can shape our approach to ethical issues, which Bob and Sandy had trained some of the Minnesota judges to give, is still running six years after Bob had to step down.

Despite having to deal all his life with the various bodily afflictions resulting from hardships suffered as a child during the war years, he cultivated a large circle of friends, colleagues and students who admired him either as teacher or as dean. Even in retirement in Falmouth, Massachusetts, he continued to read, to lecture to local groups, and to write. Although in constant pain in his last years, he began to work on translations of Russian and Yiddish works that have remained unknown to most English speakers. Professor Szulkin completed a translation of the only Yiddish science-fiction novel, “Oyf yener zayt Sambatyon” (“Across the River Sambatyon,” 1929), by Lazar Borodulin; I hope to see it published. At the time of his death, he was working on a translation of “The Book of Death,” the memoirs of Sergey Arkadyevich Andreyevski (1847-1919); he had completed the first 40 chapters of Volume One.

Bob is survived by his wife, Sylvia, a remarkable woman with a great career as a lawyer after having taught high-school English in Medford, Massachusetts, for a few years, and by his sons, Daniel and David. Nicholas Racheotes, professor emeritus of history at Framingham State, and I were present at the funeral to bid him farewell. Others could do him more honor in writing about him than I can, but in their absence I offer this reflection for one of the finest human beings I have ever known and whom I sorely miss. Peace be upon him.

— Jeremy Paretsky ’66 

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