The Trials and Triumphs of Leon Dostert.

I’ve been wanting to post this article from the Occidental Magazine since I got the physical copy a year and a half ago (I’m an alumnus), but it takes the good people at Oxy a long, long time to put issues online. At any rate, here it is; it starts with Dostert’s creation of the simultaneous translation system that made the Nuremberg trial possible, then goes back to his scrappy beginnings:

Dostert was born on May 14, 1904, in Longwy, France, a fortress town near the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg. His father disappeared early on, and his mother died when he was very young, leaving his aunt and grandmother responsible for his upbringing. He later cited his humble beginnings as the driving force behind his ambition.

In late August 1914, during the opening battles of World War I, the Germans marched into Longwy after a devastating bombardment that left the fortress and parts of the town in ruins. Ten-year-old Dostert was forced to attend German schools for the next four years, ­effectively beginning his education in foreign languages. He proved so adept at German that when he was put to work after finishing elementary school, he was relieved of his duties loading cargo and given a cushier job as secretary to a German officer and translator between the Germans and the French. He remembered translating the Germans’ request for a light bulb and feeling such a thrill when the lights came on that he decided then and there to study languages.

When American soldiers arrived in 1918, Dostert quickly picked up English and became a “mascot” for an Army regiment stationed in Longwy. Among the soldiers was Henri St. Pierre ’21, who was so impressed with the French teenager that he arranged for him to emigrate to California in the spring of 1921. […]

In fall 1963, he joined the Occidental faculty as professor of French and chairman of the foreign languages department:

As he did wherever he went, Dostert changed the status quo during his six years at Oxy. At his suggestion, the department was renamed the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics. He initiated a master’s program in 1964, established a special program for teaching English to Spanish-speaking students, and pushed his younger colleagues to launch Oxy’s modern-day study-abroad program—which today is a vital component of the undergraduate experience. […]

In November 1967, Dostert was the subject of a collection of essays and articles ­titled Papers in Linguistics in Honor of Léon Dostert, prepared by fellow linguists as a tribute to his many achievements in the field. In his dedication, Professor William M. Austin of the Illinois Institute of Technology wrote of his longtime Georgetown colleague: “There is hardly a major linguist today in this country or Europe who does not know him personally, hardly a segment of linguistic endeavor that has not been touched by his thought, guidance, or initiated programs.”

Unfortunately, he retired in ’69, while I was there but still a math major; the next year I transferred to the department he essentially created, but (being distracted by life and the Vietnam War) I never learned anything about him at the time. Now, all these years later, I’m very glad to learn his story, and I encourage you to read the linked piece and do the same.


  1. Heinrich R. Blutvergießen says

    “A fortress town near the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg” – France learned the hard way to defend herself from the bloody, devastating raids by these aggressive neighbours, and only the outbreak of war between her two tormentors, a war that resulted in the current division of Luxembourg into a Belgian western half and an eastern rump state, permitted France a respite that lasted long enough to complete fortification of her border, unlike the previous three attempts when half-finished fortresses were razed in Luxembourgian / Belgian incursions. Even after completion, the surrounding French countryside remained depopulated for several more decades until the northern neighbours weakened and relations between the three states improved, though ethnographers as late as in 1912 found local lore vividly remembering the horrors (such as in the popular rhyme “Visit from the east (i.e. Germany) – hunger and plague; visit from the north (i.e. Belgium / Luxembourg) – rape and death”), with attitudes toward people across the border correspondingly bitter. To this day, dialectal divides in the region reflect this former depopulation.

    I think the wording of that sentence in the Occidental Magazine may be slightly misleading. At the time of Dostert’s birth, Germany was the threat rather than Belgium and Luxembourg, so I’d imagine people thought of Longwy first and foremost as a fortress town near the northern end of the Franco–*German* border going south from Esch.

  2. But if you look at a map, it is in fact near the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg, much nearer than to Germany.

    Interesting facts about Longwy: in German it’s Langich, in Luxembourgish Longkech, and the inhabitants are known as Longoviciens.

  3. Heinrich R. Blutvergieben says

    Yes. If you look at a map showing the state of borders as of 2017, Germany is about 27 miles away from Longwy, as the crow flies will readily confirm if you ask them politely. But from 1871 to 1920, Germany was only six miles (less than 10 km) away from Longwy’s citadel. So while it was not as close as Luxembourg and Belgium are, it was much nearer then than it is now.

    I apologize for not posting anything that’s more on topic. Thank you for your patience.

  4. Ah, my apologies, I should have thought to check a map from the period! And no need to apologize; in the first place, I love picky details like that, and in the second place, I’m happy for any and all comments.


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