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Ilona Karmel Zucker, 75, novelist, MIT teacher

Ilona Karmel Zucker
Ilona Karmel Zucker

Retired MIT writing instructor Ilona Karmel Zucker, 75, a Holocaust survivor who used that experience as a basis for much of her writing, died at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge on November 30.

Ms. Karmel, who taught in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies from 1978-95, had a profound influence on many of her students. For example, she urged Cheston D. Buchanan (SB 1994 in civil engineering) to apply for a List Foundation Fellowship to complete a novel, which was published in May 1994. "She has been really inspirational," said Mr. Buchanan, who went on to do graduate work in creative writing at Boston University on a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship. "She's the whole reason I applied for these fellowships."

Born in Krakow, Poland, on August 14, 1925, Ms. Karmel spent the war years in the Krakow ghetto and in nearby labor camps. During that time, she composed her first literary work, a collection of poems written in Polish entitledSongs from Behind the Barbed Wire.

After three years of convalescence in Sweden, when she learned English by correspondence, she immigrated to the United States in 1948. She studied at Hunter College in New York before transferring to Radcliffe College, where she obtained her BA and was a proteg�e of the poet Archibald MacLeish.

Ms. Karmel began her career as a short-story writer. One story, Fru Holm, won the Mademoiselle College Fiction Prize for 1951. Her first novel, Stephania, published in 1953, drew on her experiences in a Swedish hospital after World War II.

Her 1969 novel, An Estate of Memory, based on life in a Polish labor camp, is considered one of the most powerful accounts of the Holocaust, distinguished by a rare mix of lucidity, humanity and candor.

A Boston Globe review in 1969 said that Karmel "has raised the Jews' suffering... beyond its grisly accumulation of fact, beyond mere dramatic documentation, into art. In so doing, she has made a classic statement for humanity."

The Washington Post wrote that "Miss Karmel has the courage and the craft to spell out that we are writing subsequent chapters to the history of human debasement." Recently rediscovered by literary scholars, An Estate of Memory has been reissued in paperback and was published in German translation in 1997.

While pursuing her career as a writer, Ms. Karmel taught in day care schools, beginning a teaching career that continued during a 10-year stay in Germany, where she worked in an orphanage.

On returning to the United States in 1978 with her husband, the physicist and philosopher Francis Zucker, she was appointed to a senior lectureship in the writing program at MIT.

In 1994, her passionate commitment and generosity as a teacher earned her a Dean's Award for Distinguished Service, and in 1995, MIT named the Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes in her honor.

Ms. Karmel was predeceased by her husband and is survived by a niece, Joy Wolfe Ensor of Ann Arbor, MI; a nephew, John Wolfe; and a sister-in-law, Lily Munford.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 13, 2000.

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