Victor Erlich, a path-breaking scholar of Russian literature, died November 29. He was 93.
Erlich was born in Petrograd, Russia, in 1914, the scion of a scholarly Jewish family. His maternal grandfather was renowned Jewish historian Simon Dubnov and his father was Henryk Erlich, a leader of the Jewish labor union known as the Bund.
In 2006, Erlich published a memoir of his early years, “Child of a Turbulent Century.” In a review for the Forward, Winston Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert wrote, “Victor Erlich has added magnificently to our sense of what once was, and will never be again.”
Erlich was 3 when his family moved to Poland and took refuge from the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. He grew up around the artistic and intellectual luminaries of Eastern Europe, including Marc Chagall and Bundist leader Victor Alter.
When the Nazis invaded Poland, the family fled again, this time to Lithuania. Most of Erlich’s relatives were killed, but Erlich made his way to New York in 1942, going through Moscow, Japan and Montreal.
He joined the U.S. Army and was sent back to Europe as a soldier. After narrowly surviving the war again, he attended graduate school at Columbia University, studying Slavic languages under Roman Jakobson, an influential Slavic linguist.
Erlich became recognized as a major scholar of modern Russian literature with his 1955 study, “Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine,” which remains a classic in the field. His other subjects included Gogol and Russian modernism.
In 1961, Erlich became chair of the Russian department at Yale University, where he remained until his retirement.
“He encompassed a great deal of culture — Russian, Polish, Jewish, European — so he was like a walking, talking resource for those of us who were younger,” said Greta Slobin, a professor of Slavic literature who studied under Erlich and maintained a friendship with him. “He was a representative of the cosmopolitan Jewish culture that had been destroyed in the Holocaust.”
Erlich was married to Iza Sznerjerson Erlich, a social worker and psychiatrist who died in 1997. He is survived by his sons, Henry of Oakland, Calif., and Mark of Jamaica Plain, Mass., and by their families.