Carnegie Mellon University

Ilsedore B. Jonas

May 26, 2022

Obituary: Ilsedore B. Jonas Was an Influential Teacher of German Language and Culture

By Allen R. Scudder and Abby Simmons

Ilsedore (Barkow) Jonas, known as “Doris,” professor emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Modern Languages, died Oct. 5, 2021, in Munich. She was 101.

Jonas taught German studies at CMU from the early 1960s to 1988. In 2020, the Department of Modern Languages established the Ilsedore B. Jonas Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement in German Studies, presented annually to the German studies student with the highest GPA.

“Doris’s extraordinary personal warmth and her strong professional support were the main reasons my teaching career in German at Carnegie Mellon got off to such a good start,” said Christian Hallstein, emeritus teaching professor of German. “The years we were colleagues in German were truly ‘golden years’ for me. She put her whole self into her teaching, and her students readily and gratefully acknowledged that.”

Ilsedore B. JonasJonas was born Aug. 31, 1920 in Stettin, Germany, now part of Poland. It was here in 1937 that she met her future husband, Klaus W. Jonas, at a dance. After completing her final graduation exams, she went to Heidelberg University where she studied German and Romance languages and culture, as well as art history, receiving a degree in language translation in 1942. Through the war, Jonas continued her studies in Berlin, Munich and Würzburg. Jonas and her husband married in 1945 and soon emigrated to Switzerland. They arrived in the United States in 1948.

The Jonases focused much of their professional attention on the literature of Thomas Mann, the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. They were invited for tea with Thomas and Katia Mann in New York in 1952, where they established a long professional relationship and friendship with the Mann family.

Klaus accepted a position to teach German studies and language at the University of Pittsburgh, much like the position Ilsedore obtained at CMU shortly thereafter. She was among the few female faculty members at the university at that time. Ilsedore also completed a doctorate in German at Pitt in 1967. The Jonases enjoyed attending the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh Opera, and their university schedules allowed them summers in Europe for extensive academic research into the main subject of their professional interest. During this time, Ilsedore worked closely with her husband on the five-volume definitive bibliography of Thomas Mann’s works and all secondary works written about him. An English volume was later released under both of their names.

 Apart from her collaborative work with her husband, Jonas found her own specific direction.  Cultivating an ever-deepening appreciation for literature and art, and sharing this with her students, were her life’s work.  As important to her was an understanding of the cultural context of the writers themselves, and of how their work was related to the music, art and dance of their times. Her dissertation, “Thomas Mann und Italien" (Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, Heidelberg, 1969), exploring the intersections of the writer’s work and Italian culture, was later published in English as “Thomas Mann and Italy” (University of Alabama Press, 1979). At CMU, one of her outstanding classes, “German Literature of the Romantic Period,” wove in the works of contemporary painters and composers with the plays and novels that were the subject of the course to give a fuller, more nuanced, picture of the culture of the time. 

Jonas maintained an academic acquaintance with Thomas Mann, as well as extended members of the Mann family, and with W. Somerset Maugham, until the writers’ deaths. Later she focused her academic interests on the work of Klaus Mann. Her interest in all the arts, in addition to literature, led her to a study of the relationship between the actress Eleonora Duse and the poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, for whom Duse was a muse. Her research was published as “Rilke und die Duse” in 1993 by the prestigious Insel Taschenbuch.

Jonas and her husband amassed a significant library of literature, predominantly by and about Thomas Mann, but also including several other early 20th century German and English writers. This extensive library was given to the University of Augsburg and earned the couple a Medal of Honor from the university. In 2002, the Jonases established an endowment (Die Zauberberg-Stiftung zur Förderung der Thomas-Mann-Forschung) to support further academic research on the author, and to underwrite the “Zauberberg-Gespräche,” a program of lectures. This support is intended to encourage young people to continue the foundation’s work and to make publication of this additional work possible. In 2012, the endowment financed an exhibit in Lübeck called “Personal Memories” of Thomas Mann.

At the close of the Munich Olympics in 1972, Ilsedore and her husband bought an apartment in the Olympic Village, and upon their mutual retirements in 1988, moved permanently from Pittsburgh to Munich. In Munich, she was able to take full advantage of the many cultural events the city offered and was a regular attendee at the opera, museum shows, and lectures. An active member of the Goethe Society, she attended lectures and meetings, and also traveled with them to visit locations that were significant to the writer.

Newspaper articles were published in Munich to commemorate her 100th birthday and one points out that she was undoubtedly the oldest person alive who knew Thomas Mann and the Mann family personally. Intellectually curious and mentally sharp to her last day, she enjoyed a large circle of professional and personal friends, including some students from CMU whom she taught as early as the late 1960s. Jonas is buried in Oldenburg, Germany, next to her husband.