Thursday, December 3, 2009

Biographical Memoirs: Erica Reiner

Biographical Memoirs: Erica Reiner, by Martha Roth, PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY VOL. 153, NO. 3, SEPTEMBER 2009.
ERICA REINER was born 4 August 1924, in Budapest, to Imre,
a young lawyer, and Clara (née Ehrenfeld), both from well-to-
do modern Orthodox Jewish families. Erica and my mother,
Anna Reiner, close fi rst cousins, spent school vacations together either
in the country at my mother’s or in the city at Erica’s. My mother talked
about the elegance of Erica’s Budapest home—the Fräulein teaching
French and German to Erica and her sister, Eva; shopping at the best
stores; always the best schools. At university in Budapest, Erica studied
French literature and Semitics. Her father was by then a prominent
lawyer, and later a member of the Judenrat in the ghetto. Even during
the darkest days of 1944–45, when Jews were restricted and then pro-
hibited from public life, Erica refused to stop attending classes; she
simply removed her yellow star and went to lectures. Although many
members of the Reiner family, particularly of the older generation,
shared the fate of most Hungarian Jewry, many of Imre’s immediate
and extended family whom he had brought into the shrinking Budapest
ghetto (including my mother), survived long enough to see liberation.
In 1948 Erica received her licence from Péter University in Buda-
pest, and went off to Paris to continue her studies in French literature.
There she lived with her mother’s brother, Michel Gyarmaty, who was
the artistic director of the Folies Bergères. Michel’s apartment, like his
stage sets, was elaborate, gilded, and baroque, and he introduced Erica
to a new and exciting life in postwar Paris. In addition to giving her the
decorating and entertaining style for which Erica became famous at the
University of Chicago in Hyde Park, two important events in those
years shaped her life. First, when Erica realized that she and later her
family would not return to Hungary and that a career in French litera-
ture would elude her in Paris, she switched her studies to Semitic lan-
guages and linguistics, and began studying with Professor Jean Nou-
gayrol. Second, the twenty-four-year-old Hungarian beauty had a tragic
love affair. Her Spanish lover, an engineering student, eventually re-
turned to Spain; but he left her with a deep commitment to his Catholic
faith, which Erica made her own. As devout a Jew as she had been be-
fore, in Paris she turned her passion to Catholicism and remained a de-
vout Catholic for the rest of her life...

And see also:

Her History of the CAD: An Adventure of Great Dimension: The Launching of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary

In Memoriam Erica Reiner, 1924–2005 appeared in the Oriental Institute 2005-2006 Annual Report

Obituary from the University of Chicago News and Information Office: Erica Reiner, 1924-2005, Published Jan. 3, 2006

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