Alumni Notes


Elisabeth Rotermund

Elisabeth Volckmar Rotermund, director of German House for 24 years, was born on May 2, 1921, in Rio de Janeiro, where her father worked as a journalist. Until 1930, she and her brother spent every second year in Germany, the native country of their parents. Elisabeth stayed in Germany with relatives from 1930 to 1935, but when political conditions grew ever more ominous, she returned to Brazil. There, she ended her high school education, but in 1939 traveled again to Germany. Her father had stressed that it might be a long time before she could see her friends there again. Three months later, she left Germany once more. In her words, "the political situation was too threatening."

Legally separated from her husband in 1952–Brazil had no divorce law at the time–Elisabeth emigrated to the United States with her young children, Manfred and Renata. After teaching German at a private East Coast school, she joined the staff at Oberlin in 1962.

Elisabeth arrived in Oberlin when foreign language study was flourishing and German House, founded in 1956, was prospering remarkably. Located in Webster Hall between the Conservatory and the Methodist church, it housed 30 students, but lunched and dined 70 to 80 daily. Meals were served by student waitresses and waiters, the diners dressed formally, and conversations in German buzzed at every table. Within the dorm itself, the language code likewise prevailed. Cultural events were varied, lively, and well attended.

Elisabeth maintained and nourished this enviable state of affairs as long as the Zeitgeist allowed it, which, in fact, was fated to be a relatively short time. The activist Oberlin of the Vietnam and Watergate eras was soon to see its decline.

After a brief interlude in Old Barrows, Elisabeth moved with her wards to the new Max Kade German House in 1969. Here, she made the transition from traditional "house mother" to a more narrowly defined assignment as faculty-in-residence. During this era, the College saw greater diversification in its foreign language offerings, but also the removal of the language requirement. With it came both a gradual weakening of German enrollments and the dorm ethos that had held sway in the "old days." Students wanted emphatically to do their "own thing" and in the language of their choosing. This period also saw the introduction of same-floor coeducational living, unisex washrooms, and, eventually, the closing of the language house dining halls. To these and other shifting challenges to her work at Oberlin, Elisabeth adjusted successfully.

Above all, she brought to her position a rich multicultural background, which included fluency in four languages and a heightened sensitivity toward German history in the 20th century. This latter quality she owed in large part to her international as well as her home upbringing. It represented her firmest inner convictions and became apparent not only in discussion with her, but also in her guidance of the cultural program at German House. Nowhere in the dorm ambiance or activities was there a hint of the false romanticism that typified the popular tourist image of Germany long after the downfall of National Socialism, which had perverted the German cultural heritage for its own destructive ends. Elisabeth would have no part of the thoughtless folksiness naively cultivated by German clubs on campuses less prone to critical thinking than Oberlin.

By nature, Elisabeth was a low-key, outwardly shy person, soft-spoken to the point where she could be almost inaudible. Without doubt, this posed an obstacle to her effectiveness in the dorm as well as the classroom, where she mainly taught beginning and conversational German courses. But what she lacked in verve, she compensated for through her steadfast devotion to her students and her readiness to spend nearly unlimited time with them individually. Especially in the dorm, students felt she knew and understood them as others did not. She made herself available to them beyond the call of duty and, in changing times, cheerfully applied the principle of "live and let live." In her well-informed political views, she was decidedly liberal, and students appreciatively noted that she supported varied life styles as long as they were not disruptive.

Elisabeth's students responded to her with loyalty and affection. Long after leaving Oberlin, students wrote to her and visited her whenever they returned to campus. Her graduate assistants, recruited annually from Germany, displayed this same warm attachment to her. On her summer trips to Germany, which increased as she solidified her financial situation, Elisabeth was welcomed by several of them as a guest in their homes. She said on retiring: "The students I've had contact with have been most important to me. What makes me happiest about my job are the lasting friendships I have had through the years."

During her retirement at Kendal, Elisabeth remained the avid reader she had always been. Whoever was familiar with her personal library knew of her discerning tastes and interests, most particularly her interest in contemporary German fiction. She also swam regularly as long as her health allowed it. But after having weathered a protracted personal crisis at the College, in time she began to fade physically and emotionally and required assisted care. Above all, it was the visits by her children that cheered her.
Elisabeth died at Kendal on October 26, 2 Denes Koromzay 1913-2001, at age 81. Her life was a modest one, but her contribution to the College during a quarter-century of service was far larger than the records will show. To this, her colleagues and, most tellingly, her former students will bear testimony.

Sidney Rosenfeld is a professor emeritus of German. This Memorial Minute was adopted by a rising vote of the General Faculty of Oberlin College on April 16, 2002.

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