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Konrad Haderlein
Konrad Haderlein

Konrad Haderlein was just passing through when he fell for the Prairies Add to ...

Canada was supposed to be just one leg of a post-university tour. Somehow Konrad Haderlein ended up making his home – and a remarkably eclectic academic career – in Saskatoon, where he passed away at the age of 80 on May 14 following a stroke. He will be remembered for his dramatic personality, staggering erudition, highly polished poetry, and for being Western Canada’s most learned beekeeper.

Konrad Georg Josef Haderlein was born in Berlin on Feb., 25, 1932, the first of Ludwig and Thekla Haderlein’s 11 children. The voice that would later boom from one end of the university arts building to the other received its first training, following intensely competitive auditions, in the Berlin Cathedral Boys’ Choir.

During the Second World War, Haderlein’s entire school decamped to central Poland to escape the bombing of Berlin. However, when he received a coded message from his family to return home, he slipped away from the school under cover of night and hopped a troop train back to Germany, returning as instructed to his grandparents’ farm in the traditional family seat of Kulmbach. He was 12 years old.

For many Germans, hardship was greatest after the war. Haderlein’s father remained in a Russian prison camp, making the 14-year-old primary breadwinner for his large family. Still he managed to attend school, the first in his family to go to an academic gymnasium instead of apprenticing for a trade. He was offered an apprenticeship to become a brewmaster, but knew he wanted wider horizons; and once he discovered history and literature, his thirst for knowledge was insatiable. He decided to follow up his gymnasium education with a university degree, and put himself through school with jobs as varied as a drafting internship for Siemens and fronting a big band with his fine tenor.

He graduated into a dismal employment market, and decided to go abroad, planning to work his way across Canada, Brazil and Australia.

Disembarking at Montreal in 1959, he found people waiting at the airport to offer work to new immigrants. He took a job in a fast food restaurant long enough to put together some money, then headed west, intending to seek employment in mining or oil. Arriving in Edmonton at the wrong time of year, he took a position in the music department of the public library, and used the library’s recordings of Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare plays to teach himself English. A University of Alberta professor noticed his accent and invited him to teach German as a sessional lecturer at the university. Haderlein accepted even though it meant a pay cut; soon he was both teaching and working on his MA in comparative literature, immediately followed by a PhD.

His doctoral thesis traced the phenomenon of the doppelganger, or the hero and his double, across the literatures of many times and cultures, which entailed learning a number of languages. It also, in those pre-computer days, meant searching for numerous typewriters. Remembers English professor Ron Marken, who at the time was a fellow U of A doctoral student, “he needed machines with Latin, Greek, French, Hebrew, Cyrillic [and]Gothic typefaces – seven in all, while I needed footnotes to read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.”

With his doctoral studies well begun, Haderlein accepted a sessional lectureship at the University of Saskatchewan. In Saskatoon he met Marianne Vangool, recently arrived from Belgium with her parents and siblings: like Haderlein, she was the eldest of 11. They were married in 1966, in plenty of time for her to type his thesis in 1970.

As a full professor, Haderlein taught introductory and advanced German as well as comparative literature, with a special interest in medieval texts. His first love, according to his son Lenz, was research – “delving into history or uncovering the layers of meaning behind the story in books or plays.” He could quote the great German and English poets by heart, and especially loved the theatre, particularly Shakespeare and expressionist playwrights such as Ernst Toller. Poetry he wrote in German, some of it reminiscent of Stefan George, began appearing in the German-Canadian Yearbook. He also continued to add to his stock of languages, learning Mongolian well enough to edit the Mongolian Review for some years.

Both he and Marianne thought about returning to Europe, and in 1974 they took a sabbatical in Germany with the express purpose of deciding where their future lay. At first, remembered Marianne, “it was so nice to be back, but then something happened.” Not all at once, but the realization gradually dawned that they missed the open spaces. They belonged in Canada now.

The decision, once made, was not questioned: Just as the literary doppelganger must eventually resolve in favour of either the hero or the double, so, recognized Haderlein, either his European or his Canadian identity must prevail. To the end of his life, he unhesitatingly identified himself as Canadian.

It was perhaps the Prairies that tipped the balance. He loved the outdoors, and in 1980 bought an acreage well out in the country. He was enthralled by the quality of light on the prairies, and by the way the vast open space relativized human thought and endeavour. In 1986 he published a volume of poetry, Saskatchewan klingt gut ( Saskatchewan sounds good), poems whose carefully polished language and vivid imagery explored the impact of this landscape. A second volume followed in 1990.

A man of great drive and strong opinions who loved to argue, Haderlein could be both irascible and intimidating. However when a campus-wide faculty strike erupted in 1988, he was a natural picket captain. Choosing for himself the code name Badger, he challenged even cars and trucks with his namesake’s fearless tenacity.

Named professor emeritus in 1999, Haderlein was thereafter frequently seen selling his excellent honey at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. Following a difficult recovery from heart surgery in 2008, he composed a cycle of poems, modelled on late medieval Swiss verses, in which Death addresses people in various occupations. He translated one of them into English:

Death - To the Poet

look at you scribbling in your hovel

instead of scraping with your shovel

i’m on my way with dirge and hearses

one puny stroke and no more verses

Haderlein leaves his wife Marianne and his son Lenz and his family.

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