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In Honor of Professor Emerita of German Marion Faber

Marion Faber in front of bookshelf

President Valerie Smith shared the following message with the campus community on May 4, 2020:

Dear Friends,

With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Marion J. Faber, the Scheuer Family Professor Emerita of Humanities and Professor Emerita of German, died peacefully at her home in Swarthmore on Thursday from complications of pancreatic cancer. She was 76.

After a 30-year career at the College, Marion remained in close contact with her colleagues, especially those in Modern Languages and Literatures. They remember her as an accomplished and respected scholar of German language and culture, a wise and trusted administrator upon whose counsel many relied, a talented musician who loved her grand piano, and a loyal and supportive friend. 

Marion is survived by her husband of 44 years, Stephen Hannaford, their two daughters and sons-in-law, and three grandchildren. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, any contributions be made to the Chester Children’s Chorus or to HIAS Pennsylvania, two organizations that Marion supported and worked with.

I invite you to read more below about Marion and her numerous contributions to our community.


Val Smith

In Honor of Professor Emerita of German Marion Faber

A deeply admired and prolific scholar, Marion J. Faber, the Scheuer Family Professor Emerita of Humanities and Professor Emerita of German, died Thursday, April 30, at age 76.

Faber introduced generations of students to the German language and its rich culture. A gifted and enthusiastic teacher, she loved her students, and they adored her in return.

“When I think of Marion, I think of one of the finest colleagues I have ever worked with,” says John Hassett, the Susan W. Lippincott Professor Emeritus of Modern and Classical Languages. “She will be remembered for her kindness and sensitivity toward others, her ability to get people to work harmoniously together, her engaging sense of humor, and her incredible human warmth.”

“If Marion’s straight talk was famous around campus, her piercing questioning and often somewhat bemused reactions to newbie idealism was legendary,” says Sunka Simon, professor of German and film & media studies. “When she retired, I didn’t know how much I would miss her as a sparring partner for engaged curricular and scholarly dialogues.”

“She had been a musician since childhood, and in many aspects of her life she revealed the rigorous discipline of someone who accomplishes what she sets out to do and does it with an artist’s sensibility,” says Professor Emerita of Spanish Aurora Camacho de Schmidt. “It is hard to think of somebody so accomplished, and yet so unpretentious. Her presence among us was a great gift.”

A Southern California native, Faber was born to second-generation Russian (father) and Romanian (mother) Jewish parents. She once described her youthful knowledge of German history as “sketchy enough” and her idealism “great enough” that she was unconcerned about going to Hanover, Germany, as a high school exchange student in 1960. At the time, she thought, “We must not hold grudges,” and that in Germany she would find “delights” such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and schlagsahne (whipped cream), the first German word she ever looked up. She returned with a hunger, she said, “not only for whipped cream, but also for castles, classical music, and a sense of history.”

Faber continued to study German, returning to Europe twice to live and study in Freiburg im Breisgau and in Vienna, and ultimately earning a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. In 1979, she joined Swarthmore’s faculty and published her dissertation, Angels of Daring: Tightrope Walker and Acrobat in Nietzsche, Kafka, Rilke, and Thomas Mann.

During Faber’s 30-year tenure at the College, she taught German literature and culture and developed interdisciplinary courses in film & media studies, women’s studies, and comparative literature. Also in that time, Modern Languages and Literatures (MLL) doubled in size and put a greater emphasis on cultural courses.

“I’m the luckiest person on earth to have landed at Swarthmore,” Faber once said. “It fits me to a ‘T.’ I most appreciate the students — they give me energy. They’re intellectually enthusiastic and serious, witty, and almost invariably a pleasure to teach.”

By all accounts, the feeling was mutual. “Several times I saw Marion’s students in German literature leaving the seminar room fired-up, discussing whatever topic they had addressed in class, and I was sure they would go on speaking about the issue for the rest of the evening and maybe later,” says Camacho de Schmidt. “Marion told me recently that, in fact, she could never go to sleep after her seminar, being so fired-up.” 

Faber’s scholarship reflected her expansive interests in German history and culture — especially literature and music from the 18th century to the present. Her translation of Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Mozart (1982) was a finalist for the American Book Award. She also translated and wrote an introduction for the poet Sarah Kirsch’s The Panther Woman (1989) and translated and edited Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1998). 

However, it was an earlier translation of the existentialist German philosopher’s work that brought Faber even greater acclaim. With the College’s then-humanities librarian Stephen Lehmann, she translated Human, All Too Human by Friedrich Nietzsche (1984), a 350-page book of his aphorisms on everything from women and art to religion and politics. Faber also wrote annotations and an introduction. The volume took three years to complete, received much praise, and became a bestseller. 

“Nietzsche has a bare, sparse manner that hadn’t been captured in the [1907] translation,” Faber told the Phoenix at the time. “We tried to be truer to the spirit of the original text.”

Until then, almost every other important work by Nietzsche had been recently translated. This book was important not just because it filled a gap in his work, Faber said, but because it “represents his coming of age as a man and a thinker. I think the world needed to see that part of him.”

As associate provost from 1989 to 1992, Faber helped create a new-faculty orientation program, co-chaired the Equal Opportunity Advisory Committee on Child Care, and for three years directed the Scholar-in-Residence Program of the Consortium for a Strong Minority Presence at Liberal Arts Colleges. She also chaired MLL from 1995 to 1998.

“All of us owe her and the other women on that [child care] committee a depth of gratitude,” says Simon. “Thanks to her efforts, funds were set aside that have been used to provide a child care subsidy for faculty and staff in recent years.”

In 1994, Faber translated the first English edition of Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The book of interviews with Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian women and girls helped raise awareness of the atrocities taking place during the ongoing war in the former Yugoslavia. Camacho de Schmidt remembers well Faber’s faculty lecture on the subject.

“She spoke as a scholar about the rape of women as an act of war, and as an advocate, inviting her audience to speak up about this crime,” Camacho de Schmidt says. “She was forceful, precise, and clear.”

Faber fearlessly took on other challenging topics. “While admiring many German poets and composers,” says Professor of German Studies and MLL Chair Hans-Jakob Werlen, “Marion also felt compelled to teach students about the dark side of German history and culture.”

In 1996, Faber noted that no class in her own formal education ever fully engaged with the events of the Nazi period, let alone attempted to place them within the context of hundreds of years of German civilization. “It finally became important for me as a Jew … [and] as a teacher of German,” she said, to “take the bull by the horns” and do it herself.

Faber described this undertaking in an article intended to help others do the same. Drawing on her deep knowledge of German culture, she designed a multidisciplinary course in which she examined its key forms, particularly Romanticism, and raised a fundamental question: Could the Holocaust have happened anywhere else, and is there something unique to German culture that resulted in it? 

To prepare, Faber went to Berlin, visited the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen and the Jewish cemetery in Weissensee, and spoke with historians and philosophers. She took pains to distinguish for her students between German culture and German people. The class, in which students studied history, poetry, memoir, film, and artwork, culminated in a final exam that essentially asked: Is there a connection, and what is it? Faber concluded that her students “wrestle thoughtfully with the possibility of seeing an overarching relatedness of the Romantic and Nazi ideologies.”

Faber’s curiosity and scholarly interests led to several collaborations with colleagues within MLL and across campus, including in biology, religion, and history. 

“Teaching with Marion expanded my intellectual horizons; I still assign readings and materials to which she introduced me,” says Robert Weinberg, the Isaac H. Clothier Professor of History and International Relations and chair of history, with whom she co-taught a course on the Holocaust several times. “I can only hope that some of the magic she displayed when parsing a text or discussing a film rubbed off on me. Indeed, I can still feel her presence in the classroom when I teach the course on my own.”

Faber also continued to work with Lehmann, co-authoring the acclaimed Rudolf Serkin: A Life (2003), about the revered Bohemian-born pianist, and translating a novella, The Tables of the Law by Thomas Mann (2010). 

Faber retired in 2009 but maintained an office in the Swarthmore train station. Her most recently published translation, and her final collaboration with Lehmann, appeared just last year in In This Hour: Heschel's Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile, edited by Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Helen Plotkin ’77.

“I remember most how Marion was so supportive of new ideas,” says Carina Yervasi, associate professor of French and co-coordinator of Global Studies. “She always looked for ways to connect MLL to other departments, and she was a huge supporter of Global Studies [established in 2019]. We had so many conversations about the interconnectedness of the world and how languages are at the center of that connection.”

When Faber retired, she said she preferred to precede details about her future plans with the words “I hope.” For instance, she hoped to get back into good shape on the piano. Beyond that, she said, “I hope to pursue my interests and to be useful.”

“Marion wore her erudition lightly,” Werlen says. “Her generosity, warmth, and love for colleagues and friends will be remembered by everyone who knew her.”

Reflecting on Faber’s passing, he cites a line from one of her favorite poets, Henrich Heine: “Das Herz ist mir bedrückt, und sehnlich” (“My heart is depressed, and yearning”).

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