A few years ago, responding to one of those “getting to know you” memes, I listed the ten most influential people in my life. One of them was Peter Bochow, the man who taught me German.
A few people contacted me after that. It seems that like me, they had Googled his name, but unlike me, they had actually found an online reference to him — my blog — and to a man, they wanted to know if I had heard anything more about him. Mind you, this man was a remarkable teacher by any standards, so I’m not surprised that people who had also learned German from him, as I had, would remember him after all these years. Who could forget his memorable demonstration of when the verb “to go” takes the accusative, and when it takes the dative? (To illustrate, whenever you told him to go to the blackboard using the dative, he’d start to climb on top of the blackboard.) Or the “pretty little green car” (a Matchbox car) that he used to illustrate how adjectives work in German?
He was as remarkable a person as he was a teacher, broadminded to an extent unknown in the world at that time. His English was practically flawless; it took me over a year to decide that he was, in fact, a native German, and not just an American who spoke German very well. Over time, a sort of friendship developed between him, my husband, and me, and we would meet regularly even outside of class for a beer and conversation, in German, of course. He would tease me relentlessly about the sole glass of milk I had drunk one evening before class (“Milch?! Pfui!”), and in retaliation, my going-away present to him when we left Germany was a milk can. He never spoke much about his youth, but there was one memorable class when he talked about his “open-air classroom” when he was ten or eleven — that was in 1945, and the “open-air classroom” was a school that had been bombed to smithereens. I learned when his birthday was (today), I remember when he met his wife, and I remember when his children were born.
Over time, as too often happens, we lost track of one another. He had children and a couple of jobs, teaching not only for the University of Maryland but also for IBM in (I believe) Wiesbaden. We had children, and moved fairly often with my husband’s job, and in one of those moves, lost our address book. It happens. But when all these inquiries came my way after my blog post, I looked up first him, then his family members, and found an address for his daughter. I sent her an e-mail, explaining who I was and what my interest in him was, and asked if she could bring me up to date on his life. She wrote back, rather coolly, and told me that he had died in 1996, and hoped that the information was what I was looking for, “even though I don’t know you.” Well, no. But I knew you as a baby, Toots. I did write back to request his date of death so I could commemorate him, but never got an answer.
All lights go out, eventually, but this is one that truly grieves me. He was a smoker when we knew him; I guess it got to him eventually, even though he did give it up, I hope permanently. I don’t know if he was remotely religious, or if he even believed in God; but clearly, God believed in him enough to give him a gift for language and teaching, and in terms of the parable of the talents, this is someone who took his five talents and made fifty out of them. I hope he is parked at Bach’s feet, enjoying The Art of Fugue as it has never been heard this side of eternity. Lacking a date of passing for him, I can’t commemorate it; but on this day that would have been his birthday, I offer this prayer: May your memory be eternal, Peter Bochow!