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Jonathan Hess’ memory will be honored in conference held by GSLL department

Jonathan Hess

Photo contributed by the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies.

April 9 will mark one year since the untimely passing of one of UNC’s distinguished professors, Jonathan Hess, a professor of Jewish history and culture and chairperson of the Department of German and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the time of his passing. 

To commemorate the life and legacy of Hess, a collective from the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies as well as other UNC faculty and scholars are hosting a three-day conference from April 13 to 15 in his honor.

Current Director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies Ruth von Bernuth, who is a professor in the Department of German and Slavic Languages, shared her memories of professor Hess and the reasoning behind the conference.

“(Professor Hess) was my mentor, he was chair of the Jewish committee (Carolina Center for Jewish Studies) when I applied; he ran the entire process,” von Bernuth said. “I would say he mentored me during my entire career at Carolina, and he suggested me and directed me towards becoming the second director.”

Eric Downing, distinguished professor of German, English and comparative literature at UNC said Hess has left an “incalculable” impact at UNC and he had a “magical sense of humor.” Von Bernuth said Hess left an incredible impact at UNC, and almost everyone would say he was the best teacher in the department. 

“I think we were all so shocked when he passed away,” von Bernuth said. “We said we have to do something, and I think the only way to commemorate him really is to do a scholarly conference because he would have hated us to just sit together and mourn.”

The conference has been in the works for 10 months, and von Bernuth and Downing have been key members in its planning. Downing said a multitude of people requested to give talks and participate in the event, which is set up as a series of speakers and round table discussions.

Downing said the first night will include a keynote speaker and lecture, followed by a formal dinner on Franklin Street. 

“Then we’ll have two days of panels, papers and roundtables that engage more than 60 of Jonathan's former colleagues, students and scholars working in the field of German-Jewish studies,” he said. 

Emma Woelk, one of Hess’ former graduate students, said she is looking forward to the conference because it gives everyone who was personally impacted by Hess a way to express their appreciation for all of the things he did to shape his department. Woelk will be one of the panel speakers at the conference.

Woelk said that she was not in Chapel Hill last year to mourn with the people who understood the huge loss for his family, his students and the program. “So I look forward to being able to get together with other people who share the respect and appreciation for him that I think anyone who got to work with him would have, and to get to be in a space that’s so devoted to the kind of research and subject matter that connected us all to Jonathan,” Woelk said.

As far as admittance, Downing said the conference is open to everyone who would like to attend with no registration.

“It’s open to everybody,” Downing said. “It’s free and open to the public, and we just hope for a really good crowd.”

Von Bernuth said this event is a great way to honor Hess, a professor and mentor who directly impacted her life and the lives of many students and faculty at UNC and across the nation.

“I think there are not many model administrators and scholars who can do both at the same time,” von Bernuth said. “I hope that we can share this with everyone in the room – young scholars, older scholars, and that we always can take the way he did administration and scholarship as an example and continue his work in the future in his field and beyond.”


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