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Harry Markowicz, Holocaust survivor and Professor Emeritus, passes away

October 2, 2020

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We are sad to report the passing of Harry Markowicz on September 15, 2020 at home in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was 83 years old. A Holocaust survivor, a pioneer in ASL linguistics research, and a revered memer of the Department of English, Harry was named Professor Emeritus in 2009.

Harry Markowicz was born on August 9, 1937, in Berlin, Germany, but spent much of his formative years in Belgium as a “hidden child.” According to his wife Arlene, “Harry’s parents smuggled the family across the [German] border into Belgium in 1938. Without papers, the stateless family survived [World War II] by going into hiding. At various times Harry, his older sister Rosa, and his brother Manfred were separately cared for by a priest and by sympathetic Gentile families willing to risk their own safety by pretending that the children were their own. In hiding, Harry was known as Henry Vanderlinden, while his parents hid in an apartment in Brussels with whitewashed windows that made it appear vacant.”

The family subsequently settled in Seattle, Washington. At the University of Washington, Harry studied French literature. This led him to understand the role of language in the development of a person’s identity, which soon became a major interest in his life. While pursuing a master’s degree in linguistics at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia in 1970, Harry drew an analogy between sign language as the primary language for communication among deaf people and the role that Yiddish played in Jewish people’s lives in Europe. He sent his paper, “Some Sociolinguistic Considerations of American Sign Language,” to Dr. William C. Stokoe, H-’88, director of the Linguistics Research Laboratory (LRL) at Gallaudet. Stokoe invited Harry to work in his lab. Harry’s research as a member of the LRL led to many publications and presentations concerning the role of ASL in the American Deaf community.

Photographs from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Photographs from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 1975, Harry was invited to move to Paris to work with the famous French sociologist Bernard Mottez. Mottez, intrigued by Harry’s research, wanted help to understand the findings and implications of American sign language linguistic and sociolinguistic research as applied to the French sign language. At that time, most deaf people in France were still being educated in an oralist tradition, favoring speech alone as the mode of educating deaf students. For the next five years, the pair traveled extensively in French-speaking Europe, promoting the view that French Sign Language (LSF) was a true language that once had been and should again be accepted as the most natural way for deaf people to communicate. They are credited, along with International Visual Theatre, the French deaf theater, with catalyzing the movement in France for the recognition of French sign language. Largely as a result of their efforts, deaf adults began to teach in sign language and the profession of sign language interpreting was developed in France.

In 1979, after Harry’s sister Rosa attended the first international gathering of Holocaust survivors in Israel, Harry realized that he, too, was a Holocaust survivor even though he had not lived in concentration camps. As a result he developed a long-lasting interest in studying the Holocaust and trying to grasp the meaning of his own and others’ experiences during World War II.

Harry returned to Gallaudet in 1982 as a faculty member in the Department of English. He challenged his students with ideas and reading assignments aimed at provoking strong reactions. He then channeled that engagement into class discussions and written exchanges. Over the years, these written exchanges evolved from communication via handwritten dialogue journals in the early 1980s, to discussions typed in class via linked computers, to email exchanges via the Internet with hearing students at Talpiot College of Education in Tel Aviv, Israel. The complex technology involved in making these intercontinental communications possible proved to be of great interest to fellow academics at national conferences such as TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language). At a meeting of the Center for Integrated Teacher Education, Harry and his Israeli colleague, Dr. Elaine Hoter, won second prize in an international competition on the use of technology in education.

Recalls English department colleague and long-time Honors Program director Dr. Shirley Shultz Myers, “Harry shared generously in an academic setting his experiences as a hidden child survivor of the Holocaust. Creating an Honors Seminar on the Holocaust, he used his relationships with other Holocaust survivors and scholars to create a series of presentations that were open to the campus community and that were filmed for the Gallaudet video archive. His own experiences and insights made the presentations and readings so meaningful and memorable to the students who participated in the course and others who came to the presentations.”

In retirement, Harry was officially recognized as a Holocaust survivor by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He contributed many stories that were published on the museum’s website. He also met with visitors to the museum and told his story in several public, hour-long “First Person” interviews, all available with captions on the museum website and on YouTube.

Harry is survived by his wife of 43 years, Arlene Markowicz, and their son Michael. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, no public services are scheduled at this time. Memorial donations can be made in Harry’s name to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org.

2 October 2020

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