German prof brought passion to history, culture

Dan Murtaugh

German Prof. Geza von Molnar, a respected scholar and beloved teacher, died Friday, July 27 at Evanston Hospital from complications related to a heart attack. He was 69.

Von Molnar, who had been teaching at Northwestern since 1963, was preparing to begin his final year teaching classes, said Barbara von Molnar, his wife of 43 years. She said he was the happiest he had ever been this summer — excited over the prospect of teaching for another year and glowing after publishing what he thought was the definitive article about German philosophers Goethe and Kant.

Besides German philosophers, von Molnar specialized in medieval thought, Western literature of the Romantic Era, and Jews and Germans, a subject with which he had an especially close relationship.

Von Molnar grew up in Nazi Germany never knowing he was Jewish. He was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1932 to a German-Jewish mother and a Hungarian-Catholic father. Because of complications stemming from Hitler’s rise to power, von Molnar’s parents never told him of his Jewish ancestry.

Von Molnar often said he worshiped Nazi soldiers as a young boy and especially enjoyed missing school because of air raids.

In 1943, von Molnar’s father sent him to live with a tutor in a small Hungarian town so he would be safe from the fighting. But when Russian troops invaded the town, von Molnar fled. He reached the Bavarian Alps, where a Nazi general gave von Molnar marching orders that allowed him to travel in Germany without being hassled by Nazis.

“The commander knew about (von Molnar’s) cultural background,” Barbara said. “He just happened to be a nice Nazi general.”

Von Molnar left Germany for the United States in 1947. He enlisted in the Air Force from 1950 to 1954 and then earned a bachelor’s degree in German and philosophy from Hunter College. He received his master’s degree in German and his doctorate in German at the Humanities Honors Program from Stanford University in 1966.

Barbara said she and her husband initially had a difficult time adapting to Evanston after living in California.

“We were beach bums and (California) was gorgeous,” she said. “We walked on beach, saw sunsets, drank gallo wine in 99 cent bottles. We were the original hippies before Joan Baez came along and Ken Kesey started experimenting with acid.”

But after a rough start, which was compounded by Prof. von Molnar’s heavy workload, Barbara said she and her husband grew to love Evanston. She said he enjoyed walks through the botanical garden and along Lake Michigan. He was also fond of the couple’s Mediterranean house in Wilmette.

“He liked champagne in the summer. We would sit, just the two of us in the back yard drinking champagne,” Barbara said. “He loved his birds, taking care of them, feeding them. He was like Dr. Doolittle surrounded by bunnies in the back yard.”

Besides Barbara, von Molnar is survived by two daughters, Karen and Anina; a brother, Stephen; and a granddaughter. The university is planning a public memorial service for the fall.