Vera Lachmann, Ph.D.

Work at Figaro was only part-time.  The rest of the day was spent at Brooklyn College, where I had made a resolution to be a much more serious student.  And so it came to pass.  Unexpectedly I met some incredible teachers who were going to influence the rest of my life.  I believe I could have attended any elite university in the country and not have had the kind of experience I had at humble Brooklyn College.  Possibly this was due to the fact that the professors’ primary responsibility was teaching.  Publishing was not emphasized the way it is today, and “publish or perish” was not the rule at Brooklyn.  Small classes and gifted teachers were the rule .  Lecture halls with 800 to 1000 students were unknown, and  all the professors were wonderfully accessible.

The remarkable Vera Lachman

Among my most memorable professors was the remarkable Vera Lachmann.  I didn’t know it at the time, but her doctoral dissertation, done in Berlin at the same time as Hitler was rising to power, dealt with the Icelandic Sagas.  I also didn’t know that after Jewish children were denied public schooling in Nazi Germany, she organized and taught at a school for about sixty Jewish children in Berlin.  She also helped many of these children flee to other countries, and in 1939 fled Germany herself.  I knew that she had spent some time in England teaching Latin, and now she was at Brooklyn College, teaching a required Greek and Roman classics course and a few other things.  She also taught Classical Greek, Greek mythology, and Greek theater. During the summers she ran her own summer camp, where parents on visiting days were sometimes shocked and/or amused by the performance of Lysistrata by their little boys.

I fell under Vera’s spell, although our first contact was rather embarrassing, as she had to wake me from one of my classroom naps.  Her class was the last of the day, and she spoke English with a German accent which was sometimes difficult to follow when I felt drowsy.  Whatever the reasons or the excuses, I really had difficulty staying awake, and when I told her my story of the job, late bedtimes, and so on, she understood, but suggested I not do it again, and I didn’t.

I began studying Greek under Vera Lachmann, and then I took whatever other courses Lachmann taught.  Under her guidance, (and that of Ethyle Wolf, another classicist in the department) I read and learned from the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes.   Most importantly, she taught me the Greek concept of κάλοσ κάί άγάθιά, which translates as the quest for the good and the beautiful, but which was also to be achieved in one’s own being as the development of the good, the true, and the beautiful in the self.  As far as I was concerned, Lachmann embodied that concept.  Does all this sound like hero worship or religious revelation?  Probably, but I’m really proud of having known Vera Lachmann during those years at Brooklyn College, and I was not alone in how I felt about her.  Suddenly Brooklyn College experienced an efflorescence of Greek majors, men and women who later in life went on to staff the classics departments of universities throughout the country.  Absolutely amazing what one great teacher can do!


About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the "Final Solution" by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.
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11 Responses to Vera Lachmann, Ph.D.

  1. Rick Jones says:

    Your conservative nemesis, Victor Hansen Davis, is a classicist. He has taught Greek and Latin for over 20 years. He received his PhD from Stanford.

  2. AlexLevy says:

    I don’t have a nemesis. Stanford is also a pretty good school, although I have reason to prefer Columbia.

  3. Bob Newmark says:

    Thank you so much for your reminiscence about Vera Lachmann. I took many a class from her when I was attending Brooklyn College from 1962-1966, mesmerized by her recitation. It could have been Homer, 19th century European short stories or ancient Greek tragedies or comedies, in English or in Greek, you could feel the emotion in her intonation. I also spent some days at Camp Catawba in Blowing Rock North Carolina digging a trench for my room and board.
    Even though I was a chemistry major, I must say she was the most unforgettable teacher I had in Brooklyn College.

    • Alex Levy says:

      Thank you for your kind comment. It reached me in Crete, where things conspire to remind me of the early speeches in Theuciditis “PeleponesianWars,” and Vera. We were furtunate to have her as a teacher. I remember her sitting cross-leggedon a corner of her desk and saying in the course of a discussion of Socrates that her only regret was that she had to accept payment for teaching. We were indeed fortunate to have been her students!

  4. Edie Schnitzer says:

    I took Vera Lachmann’s course on Greek and Roman mythology. It was one of my favorite classes.

    I graduated in 1960.

    • AlexLevy says:

      I believe I also graduated in 1960, or my wife did, and I might have graduated in ’59. But who can remember so long ago. . . We might have been in the same Greek and Roman Mythology class!
      But Vera was quite a teacher! I remember her sitting on her desk, legs crossed, and telling us that the only thing she regretted was that she had to accept money for teaching. I never quite understood her admiration of Socrates, the father of all totalitarian government, but Plato did tell a good story while asking way too many questions without answers.

  5. davd wilzig says:

    I too fell under her spell but at Camp catawba, a camp in Blowing Rock, N.C. founded by Vera for displaced boys who attended ( in my case for free) after the war.
    Coincidentally, I too am a grad of G.W.H.S.

    • AlexLevy says:

      I knew about Catawba, but didn’t anyone who had attended it. I knew Vera strictly through Brooklyn College, and she was quite a teacher! Is the story of a performance of Lysistrata for parents’ day true, or was it just a myth? I would have like to have been there! Where were you displaced from?
      And thank you for contacting me.

    • AlexLevy says:

      I was not a GWHS grad, of course (I attended Seward Park). I just taught there, but through this blog have established contact with several GWHS alums. As a matter of fact, I met with them at Ft. Tryon Park earlier in the year. I you want a few names, I can give them to you. What years did you attend George Washington?

  6. Beverly Flank Schindler says:

    Hello, At this very moment, I’m writing a profile piece on Vera. And I’ve been stomped since I began it, several weeks ago. For me, she was the Pied Piper. A spirit so gentle and quiet that she had no human form. But of course, she did! I just am failing to capture it.
    I cry when I think of her. I took her undergraduate and graduate classes. And tutorials in German at her 2nd avenue home.

    • AlexLevy says:

      Had no idea that anyone was still interested in Vera, but good to know. How come you’re writing a piece now, at this late date? I don’t think I was as involved with Vera as heavily as you were. When I found myself in her Greek and Roman culture class, I was the most ignorant of the ignorant. I had just returned from military service in Panama, and was a completely raw youth. I was also working a full time job, and often found myself quite sleepy by the time I got to her class late in the afternoon, during an M or a P period (from 5 to 7 PM). Simply put, Vera opened the world for me.

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