A chapter re. Prof. Dr. Erich Vogt of TRIUMF Fame, UBC - by Jack Thiessen

During the compilation of the definitive Mennonite Low German Dictionary, my life's work, I encountered attitudes known to every lexicographer: amusement, derision, "Is that all they teach at the universities?" or "What good is a dialect to anyone?"; but there was the occasional exception. Such were the source of inspiration but more importantly the accumulated repository of original material, the mother lode, the essence of speech.

Since all languages can and should trace their origins to the mother of all language, the dialect, and since such obviousness escapes most, the exceptions constitute the word gleaner's aim and objective like no other.

Peter A. Vogt, an erudite scanner of existential vistas and father to TRIUMF, namely Prof. Dr. Erich Vogt, UBC was my lucky star with whom I became acquainted during the pursuit of my professional hobby in 1961. I had recently returned from Germany, Marburg more explicitly, which has a long and memorable history of excelling in the arts and specifically in dialect research. Mr. Vogt was operating a business in in Steinbach in which he plied his trade but also his hobbies: he was a compassionate wit of rare order whose propensities had prepared him well for a smart-assed Ph. D. of recent vintage. Within minutes this remarkable savant informed me of the interaction of Jews and Mennonites in the Old Country, in Russia; he had experienced such interaction from a vantage point of objective interest, known as a person with no agenda and less attitude. From there Mr. Vogt (we remained on a formal basis of collegial respect and address all our lives; we knew what we were doing), took me for a walk into the past comparing Yiddish, the everyday language of Jewish neighbors ("while on the Sabbath the Jew put on a tie to his shirt and switched to Hebrew, the language of God" so said Peter Vogt, "while we Mennonites tied a careful loop on our mainly black ties, switched to High German, the language God preferred on holidays.")

At the time I was not academically degenerate enough to dismiss originalities, nor to disrespect organic home-grown learning. Peter Vogt knew this; he was a man of extreme astuteness, the other attribute I came to associate with him was a patrician gentleman, ein Herr, whose sovereign, indeed fierce aristocracy of the spirit had been honed on the anvil reserved for those who knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Mrs. Vogt whose kindly eyes and maternal decency corrected more human vagaries than most faith healers, had prepared a Mennonite Vaspa, the Sunday afternoon lunch vested and prepared with expertise blessed by historical wherewithal and generosity. But all the while Mr. Vogt kept on unscrolling a remarkable mind with abundant footnotes to arrest any guest at his table which he transformed from a coffee table with Tweeback, butter and confiture accoutrements to a virtual Table Ronde of Ideas at which any scholar, but above all music lovers, and above all the disciples of Richard Wagner, would and could have celebrated a homecoming of welcome and understanding of family.

To be perfectly mundane: before the unspoken benediction of the day was pronounced at the Vogt home, presided over by Peter Vogt Senior, patriarch and father of Erich of TRIUMF, all references to af kappores, toom kappores gohne, (and all stemming from or related to Yam Kippur, atonement) had been included in my dictionary not yet written. Father Vogt was one of those unspoilt men of learning whose very presence pollinated every mind and soul, worthy of his presence.

At a later social session, and much more, Mr. Vogt pondered why we Mennonites had such a variety of synonyms for underlings, hired men, joe-boys, day laborers, footmen, flunkies. errand boys, gophers et al. He knew the reason full well: Mennonites felt commissioned to lord it over their neighbors, if need be. We quickly agreed that terms like Pauslocka, Schetjbenjel, Biepritscha, Tjnajcht, Factotum were universal to the dialect and to our social order, of our establishing.

Before that session was over Oohmtje Peeta Vogt came up with a term, namely Beckmesser, from the Wagner opera "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" and pondered its origin, claiming, as he did, that Beckmesser best described a somewhat incompetent errand boy, Schetjbenjel, he said.

That term did not leave me and probably gave a committee nodding assent for a prestigious scholarship awarded me many years down the line. This is that story which I shared with Mr. Vogt Sr. and which afforded him many a smile and gentle laughter.

All lexicographers have remarkable minds and prestigious memories in which they store some kernels of essence but as much or more of chaff. My mind was no different and when I first visited the university city of Göttingen, I knew that physics in its many facets was home there, also I knew that Mennonites maintained a small but venerable Gemeinde, Gemeinschaft and Gemeindschaft there. Also I knew that a virtually blind savant Dr. Crous, was the Mennonite Ältester there, also that he was the Universitäts-Bibliotheks-Direktor.

At the time I taught in Kassel, some forty kilometers distance and I boarded with one Familie Herbert Strauß. They took me along to Göttingen, their familial home, so that their boys, Herbert Jr., and Reinhard could resume friendships with former neighbours, the Heisenberg children.

At that time, autumn of 1955 Germans, including scholars of world renown were still impressed or at least nonplused by the Unschuldigen aus dem Wilden Westen, (Innocents from the Distant Frontier) and so I was pleased but not surprised that Werner Heisenberg, Professor und Doktor, and Nobel Prize Laureate of Quantum Physics invited me into his study where his adroit Frau served us coffee with Pflaumenkuchen (Italian Prune plum cake a favorite of God and men) and Schlagsahne, whipped cream. By the time that meeting was over I knew that men of science internationally know a lot more about discipline of the mind than their more-inclined to-conjecture-counterparts, the representatives of the Philosophische Fakultäten do. Also I remember that I was savvy enough to capitalize on Heisenberg's considerable interest in the Mennonitsche Heimatsprache, as he termed it. At the time I rarely used a curse word but I believe I summed up that experience with, "God damn, that fellow is sure smart; een jegrommda Donna!" is what I said.

Episodes like this amused Mr. Peter Vogt considerably but did not overly surprise him. The reason was and is simple. The Peter Vogts produced three university professors and a plastic surgeon and all men of note but none greater in Steinbach, and few in the world than their son Erich and Oohmtje Peeta Vogt knew this. The patriarch Peter Vogt was much too fair minded and clever to play favourites among his children but the stunning, indeed astonishing mind his second oldest son Erich came to demonstrate did not surprise him in the least.

But back to Werner Heisenberg. After I had demonstrated some organic command of dialects and my Muttersprache specifically in Marburg and in Kiel at their world renowned dialect archives, I was encouraged to apply for an Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung (Foundation) Scholarship for an upcoming Sabbatical.

The chairman of this prestigious scholarship was none other than Prof. Dr. Werner Heisenberg, who in 1973 at the time of my application maintained his residence in Göttingen but also one in Munich, home to the Max Planck Institute which he had relocated there. My interview with the Scholarship Committee was divided into two parts, once in Munich and one in Göttingen.

Werner Heisenberg remembered out meeting at his home in 1955 with astounding clarity, as did I. After brief pleasantries exchanged, he asked me if the physicist Erich Vogt from Vancouver, Canada. was known to me. I asked why, bitte, and he responded, in translation now, "For me nuclear physics in Canada and Kollege Vogt are synonymous."

Then the committee steered attention to Allgemeines, generalities, and Prof. Heisenberg took us for a brief walk into the field of music of which he had a command of fascinating facets. Heisenberg was an accomplished musician "Gottes Sprache, wenn überhaupt, an uns Menschen" he said. (God's language, if at all, to mankind is music.)

Since the chairman had introduced the theme of music, so to speak and his colleague Prof. Erich Vogt, I asked for permission to introduce Erich's Vogt's father and our Table Talks, Tischgespräche, is the term I used and smart-aleck that I was/am, I made reference to the father of the term, Martin Luther. "I concede that we scientists are often no match for the likes of which you represent, the Ideengeschichtler, but even I knew that Luther called his dinner meetings Tischgespräche" is the slam dunk which Heisenberg gently unloaded on my receding hairline.

It was at that oral point of the examination for the von Humboldt award that "we"concluded that Beckmesser was exactly as Mr. Vogt and I had agreed, and I was granted the research scholarship.

P. S. In the interim I had also applied for a Canada-Council Postdoctoral Scholarship which I also was awarded. However, since the physicist and president of my university Dr. Harry Duckworth considered the latter more prestigious, I was forced to make a decision. I made the wrong one.

© 2008 Jack Thiessen