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John Herman Richard Polt
In Memoriam

John Herman Richard Polt

Professor of Spanish & Portuguese, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

John Herman Richard Polt was born Hans Pollatschek on August 20, 1929, in the small city of Aussig an der Elbe (Ústí, Czechoslovakia). Before World War I Aussig had belonged to the province of Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Afterwards, it lay in the Sudetenland, an entirely German-speaking community in the new country of Czechoslovakia, and John’s native language was German. His father Friedrich Pollatschek was a secular Jew and a lawyer; his mother Elizabeth Lederer was the daughter of a converted Jewish father and a gentile mother. John and his sister Renata were baptized as Lutherans. The family lived a comfortable upper-middle-class existence.

The oral history interviews1 that John, his mother Elizabeth, and his sister Renata completed for the San Francisco Holocaust Center in 1996 are touching documents that show how the story of John’s family was framed by the convulsions that shook the world in the first half of the twentieth century: World War I, the rise of Hitler, and World War II. 

After Hitler became Reichskanzler in 1933, steps were taken to ensure that some of the family’s wealth was securely invested abroad. In 1938 John’s maternal uncle, returning from a visit to Germany, told his father that he had seen German troops massing at the border and that, if they were planning to leave Czechoslovakia, they should do it soon.

In September 1938, just before Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in Munich and returned to London to proclaim “peace for our time,” John and Renata’s parents pulled the children from school, packed suitcases, and fled to Switzerland. John was nine at the time, and he decided that he wasn’t going to go, since he was starting fourth grade. Renata was six, just starting first grade. The children were unhappy because they had to leave their toys behind, except for some little animal figures.

Less than a month later Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, and immediately Nazi racial laws were put into effect. Almost all of John’s paternal relatives were murdered – his word – during the Holocaust and many of his mother’s as well.

The family spent six months in Lucerne, Switzerland, until John’s father was able to obtain entrance visas to Cuba. The family left Switzerland in April of 1939, before the start of World War II, first to Paris, and then to La Rochelle, where they took passage to Cuba on the British steamship Reina del Pacífico, traveling first-class.

In Havana they lived in a rented villa for a year-and-a-half until they were able to get visas to the U.S. In the interim John and Renata went to Miss Phillips' School in Havana, a private American school. They studied English in the morning. John would then take Renata home and return to study Spanish in the afternoon. He always said that it was that early experience in Cuba that led him to take up Spanish professionally.

The family flew to Miami on September 23, 1940 – John remembered the date and the flight – on a Pan Am Clipper flying boat. Then it was on to New York and an apartment in Forest Hills, Queens.

It must have been during this period that the family changed its name. Hans Pollatschek became John Herman Richard Polt. His father had offered a $5 reward to whomever could come up with a new name. His mother won, after considering various possibilities based on Pollatschek. She spent the money on strawberries for the family.

After two years in Queens the newly-baptized Polts moved to Lake Placid, in the Adirondack mountains, and that’s where John graduated from high school in 1945, at the age of 15, partially on the strength of passing New York State Regents examinations in German and Spanish. His father decided that he should go to Princeton University, N.J., for college, because it was a good school and it was in a small town, far from big city temptations. Just after his sixteenth birthday John was sent off to become a freshman at Princeton.

John graduated from Princeton in 1949, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a degree in politics and foreign affairs, with the idea of joining the U.S. Foreign Service—except he couldn’t, because he had not been a naturalized citizen long enough. What to do? He had continued to study Spanish at Princeton and had even taken a seminar with the distinguished Spanish scholar Américo Castro, himself a refugee, from Spain. Graduate school looked appealing.

His father agreed to stake him to a year at the University of California, Berkeley, since the family was then living in Santa Barbara. He joined Berkeley’s program in Romance languages and literatures, taking his M.A. in 1950, and continuing on into the Ph.D. program, which, however, was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953, 17 days after he and Beverley Hastings were married. He spent his two years of service at Fort Banks, MA, in the Boston area.

After leaving the Army John received his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1956 with a dissertation on the Argentine novelist Eduardo Mallea, published by UC Press in 1959 as The Writings of Eduardo Mallea. He was immediately hired by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese as an instructor, the lowest rung on the academic ladder. He stayed at Berkeley for the rest of his career, progressing through the ranks until he took early retirement in 1992. He served as associate director (1964-65) and then director (1968-70) of the UC Study Center in Madrid and as chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese from 1974 to 1978. His service to the department and the campus was exemplary: three terms as one of the Berkeley Division’s representatives to the statewide Academic Assembly (1970-73, 1980-83, 1989-91); on the committees of Academic Freedom (1977-80), Library (1983-86), Admissions and Enrollment (1992-95); and 10 years on the Committee on Memorial Resolutions (2001-2006, and as chair, 2006-2011).

On ceremonial occasions John always wore his blue blazer with the coat-of-arms of his department. Its motto, “peor es meneallo,” from Don Quijote, is the equivalent of “let sleeping dogs lie,” and, appropriately, the coat-of-arms depicts a sleeping dog. It appealed to his sense of humor, which was gently ironic and frequently self-deprecatory.

The focus of John’s research changed almost immediately from Latin American literature to Spain’s late eighteenth-century neo-classical authors, particularly the statesman, jurist, and essayist Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos and the poet and dramatist Juan Meléndez Valdés. John was a scholar in the classic Berkeley tradition, focusing on literary history and the preparation of critical texts and anthologies. Jovellanos and his English Sources: Economic, Philosophical, and Political Writings (1964) was followed by an edition of Los gramáticos: historia chinesca of Juan Pablo Forner (1970 and then a return to Jovellanos, with a biography, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1971), and, at the end of his career, by an edition of his literary works (1993). His comprehensive anthology of Poesía del siglo XVIII was published in 1975. John then turned his attention to Meléndez Valdés, collaborating with his friend and colleague Georges Demerson (U. de Lyons) on an edition of Meléndez’s Poesías selectas: La lira del marfil (1981) and Obras en verso (1981-1983).

These major works were accompanied by some 20 searching articles on topics ranging from moral phraseology in early Spanish literature to a study of San Camilo, 1936, by the modern Spanish novelist Camilo José Cela, and by almost 40 pungent reviews. Because of his language background John was frequently asked to review studies in German.

John’s flair for language also led him to interest himself in translation, with an early effort being Juan Bautista Alvarado’s Vignettes of Early California, published by the Book Club of California (1982). A decade later he translated Cela’s San Camilo, 1936, and the Collected Stories of the Cuban-American author Calvert Casey (1998). That was the same year he began to collaborate with his Berkeley colleague Jerry R. Craddock on the Cíbola Project, the latter’s decades-long endeavor to edit and translate the basic narrative sources of the Spanish explorations of the American Southwest. John’s first effort was Zaldívar and the Cattle of Cíbola (1999), edited by Craddock with a translation by John, including a verse translation of a passage from the epic poem by Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, on the conflict between the Spaniards and the Acoma Pueblo in 1598-1599. For the project’s online publications (2008-), John edited and translated three texts and provided translations for 25 more, always consulting the original documents.

John is remembered by his colleagues as un caballero a la antigua, a gentleman of the old school, always correctly dressed, with a jacket and the inevitable bow tie. Spanish and English, his third and fourth languages, were impeccable. For a while, after retirement, he took classes in Latin prose composition, and also re-entered the classroom to learn Hungarian.

He died on April 12, 2019. John is survived by his wife Beverley, his son Richard, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, his daughters Anne and Isa, and three grandchildren.

A paradigmatic twentieth-century life, but much more than that to his family, friends, and colleagues.

Charles Faulhaber
Jerry R. Craddock

1U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, The Jeff and Toby Herr Oral History Archive,