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Elzbieta Ettinger, writing professor, novelist, dies at 80

Elzbieta Ettinger
Elzbieta Ettinger

Elzbieta Ettinger, a novelist, biographer and professor of writing who helped build the MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, died of heart failure in her home in Cambridge, Mass., on Saturday, March 12. She was 80 years old.

A native of Warsaw, Poland, Ettinger survived the Holocaust, escaping the Warsaw ghetto shortly before its liquidation; she then worked for the Polish resistance while maintaining a false identity as a Catholic Pole (she was also known by her wartime pseudonym, Elzbieta Chodakowska). Her experiences during the Second World War were chronicled in her first novel, "Kindergarten" (1968), described by the New York Times Book Review as a work "one reads with frozen attention."

A self-described rebel who believed in the promise of socialism as an antidote to social and economic inequality, Ettinger refused to be silent about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet-influenced Polish government, and faced repeated interrogations and professional black-listing during the early 1960s. She described post-war life in Poland in her second novel, "Quicksand" (1989).

Ettinger earned a Ph.D. in American literature from Warsaw University in 1966; she moved to Cambridge the following year and served as a Senior Fellow at the Radcliffe (now Bunting) Institute until 1974. She was known for her passionate and incisive lectures on modern Russian literature, as well as her outspoken critiques of the materialism, anti-intellectualism and racial prejudice that she perceived as dominant aspects of American culture.

From 1975 to 1996, Ettinger served as professor of writing at MIT, where she was named Thomas Meloy Professor of Rhetoric and Literature. A demanding and forceful teacher, she helped build the Institute's Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and was instrumental in bringing such writers as I. B. Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Elizabeth Bishop to the MIT community.

Ettinger's biography, "Rosa Luxemburg, A Life" (1987), was translated into several languages. It portrays the personality--the heart and mind--of a brilliant revolutionary who was murdered by her comrades. Love and politics are intimately interwoven throughout Ettinger's narrative.

Ettinger's controversial 1994 book, "Hannah Arendt-Martin Heidegger," interpreted the lengthy romantic relationship between the Jewish philosopher and her Nazi-affiliated mentor. In this work, described in the New York Times as "absorbing and cruelly fascinating," Ettinger was "unsparing in her exposure of both Heidegger's mendacity and Arendt's propensity for self-deception" about Heidegger, wrote the reviewer. Shortly afterward, the Heidegger estate published the full text of the Heidegger-Arendt correspondence.

Ettinger was at work on a full-length biography of Hannah Arendt at the time of her death. She is survived by her daughter, Maia Ettinger, of San Francisco.

A memorial service will be held at the MIT Faculty Club on Sunday, April 10, at 11 a.m. For further information, please call the MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at (617) 253-7894.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 16, 2005 (download PDF).

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