Professor Lucjan Lewitter

Historian of Russia and Poland

Saturday 10 November 2007 01:00 GMT

Lucjan Ryszard Lewitter, historian: born Krakow 1 June 1922; Assistant Lecturer in Polish, Cambridge University 1948, Director of Studies in Modern Languages, Christ's College 1951-64, Lecturer in Slavonic Studies 1953-68, Tutor 1960-68, Professor of Slavonic Studies 1968-84 (Emeritus), Vice-Master 1977-80; Fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge 1951-2007; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 19 September 2007.

Lucjan Lewitter was a conscientious, open-minded historian and fine academic, without whom the Department of Slavonic Studies of Cambridge University, which he headed from 1968 until 1984, could not have achieved its widely respected and envied status among similar departments in the United Kingdom.

Lewitter came from an assimilated middle-class Polish-Jewish family. He was born in Krakow, the cradle of Polish independence, a city where Józef Pilsudski's legions were formed in 1914 to fight the Russians on the side of Austria-Hungary. His father was a barrister and soon after Lucjan's birth the family moved to Warsaw. It was there that the boy acquired most of his secondary education, but in 1938 the family moved to England where Lucjan Lewitter attended the prestigious Perse School in Cambridge.

From there, Lewitter went on to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a BA in history before going on to write a thesis on the Jesuit theatre of 17th-century Poland, which was completed in 1951. While still a doctoral candidate he found employment under the wings of Professor Elizabeth Hill as Assistant Lecturer in Polish in the Department of Slavonic Studies. Acting as Director in Modern Languages at Christ's from 1951 to 1964, he advanced to full Lectureship in Slavonic Studies at the University in 1953, a position he held until 1968. Then, upon the retirement of Professor Hill, he was elected to a Chair, and continued as Professor and Head of the Slavonic Department until 1984.

I joined the Department in 1969 and from the very beginning enjoyed his benevolent attention as well as professional help which eventually developed into a lasting friendship. Recognising my extensive contacts with Polish writers, Lewitter encouraged me during my first year in Cambridge to travel to Poland with the specific purpose of inviting Antoni Slonimski to lecture at Cambridge. He enjoyed Slonimski's witty, lively prose style and fine poetry and he collaborated with me in writing an official invitation to Slonimski, who was at the time blacklisted for his "oppositionist" outspokenness. After some bureaucratic prevarication and a "deal" with the Polish Cultural Institute, we pulled off the "Slonimski coup" and in 1970 the 75-year-old writer visited Cambridge and was reacquainted with his old émigré friends in London.

Lewitter was a competent, skilful head of department; he never tried to impose his will on his colleagues but patiently heard out all arguments and usually chose a compromise solution. He spoke excellent English and his politeness, elegant demeanour and subtle sense of humour turned him into an epitome of traditional Englishness. I, for one, used to say to foreign visitors: "If you want to see a true English gentleman in Cambridge, you must meet Lucjan Lewitter".

He chose early retirement to devote himself to more writing and travelling, often spending his holidays in France. When, during the mid-1980s, his daughter Olivia lived in Bologna, Lewitter frequently visited Italy. He also returned to Poland more than once, for the last time probably in 1996, on that occasion in the company of his daughter.

After retirement he continued to frequent Christ's, Milton's college, where he was first Tutor, and then, from 1977 to 1980, Vice-Master. Running the department and undertaking college duties did not leave him much time for writing, though he managed to publish a number of articles in scholarly journals, mostly on 17th-18th-century Polish and Russian history. Another interesting article, on Pilsudski and Dmowski and the events of 1905, was published in the London-based Polish journal Wiadomosci. In 1987 he and the Byzantine scholar A.P. Vlasto translated and edited a book by Ivan Pososhkov entitled The Book of Poverty and Wealth.

Lewitter had recently been working on a biography of Peter the Great. The manuscript is almost finished and it is hoped it will be published eventually.

George Gömöri

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