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Horst S. Daemmrich, an author and influential German professor at Penn, dies at 91

Literature “transports readers into unexplored realms,” he told students in 1979, “that not only exist in a different universe but are also simultaneously present in the world we live in."

Dr. Daemmrich was passionate about literature and animated as a speaker, and students who did not major in German still took his class.
Dr. Daemmrich was passionate about literature and animated as a speaker, and students who did not major in German still took his class.Read moreCourtesy of the Family

Horst S. Daemmrich, 91, of Flourtown, a popular and influential professor, prolific writer and reader, and former chairman of the department of Germanic languages and literatures at the University of Pennsylvania, died Friday, Nov. 26, of congestive heart failure at home.

Dr. Daemmrich taught at Penn from 1981 to 1998, chaired the Germanic languages department for a decade, and published more than a dozen books and many articles on German literature and related topics.

An engaging lecturer whose classes were also popular with students who did not major in German, he won several awards, including Penn’s 1990 Ira H. Abrams Award for teaching that was “intellectually rigorous and exceptionally coherent.”

Former students said it was impossible to exaggerate his enthusiasm for literature and its construction, and one said his eyes “truly sparkled” when he got going on a favorite passage from Goethe’s Faust.

“Read and you will discover beauty and truth, contemplation and action, aesthetics and ethics,” he told Wayne State University students in a 1979 commencement address. “Reading will open realms that remain closed to us in ordinary life.”

In 1994, Dr. Daemmrich and his wife, Ingrid, a professor of English and literature at Drexel University, honored their fathers by establishing the annual Arthur M. Daemmrich and Alfred Guenther Memorial Prize for Penn graduate students who excel in German and comparative literature.

Dr. Daemmrich’s research and teaching focused in part on comparative literature, and he and his wife cowrote several books. Themes & Motifs in Western Literature: A Handbook, published in 1987, was translated into many languages and is still used as a reference guide in college classes.

“His ability to recall in detail what he had read, and to analyze it in relation to other works, has been a lifelong inspiration,” said his son, Arthur.

Before arriving at Penn, Dr. Daemmrich was an award-winning professor of Germanic languages and literature at Wayne State in Detroit from 1962 to 1980. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1964.

Born Jan. 5, 1930, in eastern Germany, Dr. Daemmrich was 9 when Germany invaded Poland, and the ravages of World War II descended on his hometown of Pausa. His school was bombed, and he watched from the attic of his house as tanks and marching soldiers went by in the street.

In 1947, after the war, he protested for free expression in Soviet-occupied East Germany, and, facing arrest, fled to West Germany by sneaking through guarded fences and woods. Later, in a self-published memoir, he wrote: “A bullet from a Russian rifle whistling over your head makes a high-pitched sound. I learn a new lesson: the bullet you hear will not hit you.”

Dr. Daemmrich finished high school in West Germany and worked at a U.S. Army base. He married Emma Karolina Besl and they had daughter Ursula before they divorced. Seeking education and a new start, he set off on a freighter for the United States in 1953.

He settled in Detroit with an aunt who sponsored him and worked as a department-store salesman while attending college. He became a U.S. citizen in 1959 and married Radcliffe graduate Ingrid Guenther in 1962. They had daughter JoAnna and son Arthur and were scholarly collaborators over the next 56 years, until her death in 2018.

Away from work, Dr. Daemmrich liked to vacation with his family near Lake Michigan and tend to his yard in Flourtown. He made it to every one of his son’s Little League baseball games. He dabbled in watercolors during retirement, attended symphonies, and enjoyed birthday parties and visits to the zoo with his grandchildren.

He liked to read mysteries but continuously stressed the importance of what he considered literature’s greatest works.

“He thought that the answers to the big questions are in literature,” said his daughter JoAnna.

In addition to his daughters and son, Dr. Daemmrich is survived by six grandchildren, his former wife, and other relatives.

A service is to be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 8, at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church, 411 Susquehanna Rd., Ambler, Pa. 19002.

Donations in his name may be made to the University of Pennsylvania’s German department, 2929 Walnut St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104.