HomeCommunityHospitality

Eulogy for Franz Baermann Steiner

FRANZ BAERMANN STEINER

A Eulogy by Prof Jeremy Adler

Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford , 19 October 2014

Franz Baermann Steiner achieved the rare distinction of attaining eminence in two separate fields. He was both a notable social anthropologist, whose short book on Taboo introduced a generation of students to the advanced study of the discipline, and a fine poet, whose work was admired by some of the best writers of his time. Yet despite his undoubted talent, he was a tragic figure, who did not live to witness his success. Iris Murdoch, whom he intended to marry, called him "one of Hitler's victims". She also described him as a "cheerful, happy person, very tender, very full of feeling", and then went on: Though so terribly sad and wounded, he was one of the best people I ever met, with a remarkable capacity for enjoyment. He was gentle and good and full of spirit and imagination.

We remember Franz Steiner today as a man who rose above his suffering in his poems and other writings and whose
scholarship helped to lay the foundations of modern social anthropology.

Franz Baermann Steiner was born in Karlín, a suburb of Prague, just over a century ago, on 12 October 1909. Prague
was Kafka's city and Steiner belonged to the same German-Jewish minority as Kafka. Like his great predecessor, he was born into an assimilated background, but found his own path to Judaism. He adored his parents, Marta and Heinrich
Steiner, and his younger sister, Suse, who was born in 1913, and to Franz's lasting grief predeceased him in 1932. His interest in sociology was awakened by reading Karl Marx; but his allegiance to the world revolution was tempered by
Zionism, and after a period of study in Jerusalem he came to regard himself as an "Oriental in the West". He lived in the house of Hugo Bergman, who was a founder-member of Brit Shalom, a liberal group of German Jews that sought econciliation with the Arabs. This was the tenor of Franz Steiner's Zionism and of his first published essay, Orientpolitik.

Upon obtaining a doctorate in the German University of Prague, he went to Vienna to study ethnology. After this, he moved to London to study participant observation with Malinowski, and put this method into practice on his only field- trip, a short expedition to investigate the Roma in sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. Having completed his field-trip, he returned to England to continue his studies, but upon the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he found himself a refugee, isolated and friendless. Thanks to the good offices of a retired classicist, Christopher Cookson, he came to Oxford after the outbreak of hostilities, and began his long association with Magdalen College. Whilst living in England, he remained politically active in Jewish circles, and
entered into the ambit of Orthodoxy. We believe that he worshipped in the Jewish Community in Oxford.

To obtain a post, he needed a second doctorate, and as a form of penance for the enslavement of his people, he elected to write "A Comparative Study of the Forms of Slavery". To compound his misfortune, however, the first version of his thesis and all his notes were lost on a train journey. The loss almost broke him. It took him years to reconstruct his dissertation, after which he was rewarded by a Lectureship in Social Anthropology at Oxford.

Franz Steiner's poetry is deeply connected with his scholarship. He prided himself on being a poeta doctus – a learned poet. His poetics were as simple as they were profound: "The poetry that I write," he observed, "is something between a poem and a prayer." Nowhere was this truer than in his great meditation Prayer in the Garden. At a key point in the poem he commemorates the death of his parents in the camps:

O both of you
The sufferings you went through.
My light and grief are that you were
What you have been in me was horribly perverted
Darkness more than grief extinguishing I must bear
Because from you, so pale already and so frail,
The monster's clutches could not be averted.
For your sake I recovered from your death,
And now this darkness, now this light
And other light 
At the time of my ripeness
Together merged into my inwardness.
Witnesses, witnesses,
Join me in what I speak, be near me now.
Let me speak truthfully.

Steiner's achievements as an anthropologist could not mitigate the underlying tragedy of his life – his grief over the Shoah and the loss of his parents in the camps. For many years he suffered from a serious heart condition and finally succumbed to a heart attack on 27 November 1952. Only a very few people attended the funeral, including Paul and Laura Bohannan, Elias and Veza Canetti, my parents H.G. and Bettina Adler, and Iris Murdoch.

There was no family to erect a tombstone. His friends dispersed. Iris married. The Bohannans devoted themselves to his works. My father, his literary executor, did the same. So it finally fell to me – with the support of Richard Fardon – to stand in for Franz's decimated family, as he had once stood in for mine, and to take the belated step of arranging for his tombstone. A monument meant little to the generation that had witnessed Auschwitz. We however need more tangible memorials.

Go to top