Spencer, Hanna 1913-

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SPENCER, Hanna 1913-

PERSONAL: Born December 16, 1913, in Kladno, Czechoslovakia; married Elvin Y. Spencer, 1942; children: Erica, Martin. Education: German University in Prague, Ph.D. (Germanistics), 1937.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of Modern Languages, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario N6A 3K7, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Academic and author. Instructor at Olomouc High School and Elmwood School, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; University of Western Ontario, professor of German, 1959-79.

MEMBER: Canadian Association of University Teachers of German, Humanities Association of Canada, Heine Society, Internationaler Germanisten Verein, Canadian Federation of University Women, Unitarian Fellowship of London, Ontario.


Dichter, Denker, Journalist. Studien zum Werk Heinrich Heines, Peter Lang (Las Vegas, NV), 1977.

Heinrich Heine, Twayne Publishers (Boston, MA), 1982.

Hanna's Diary, 1938-1941: Czechoslovakia to Canada, McGill-Queen's University Press (Quebec, Canada), 2001.

SIDELIGHTS: Hanna Spencer grew up in Czechoslovakia between world wars I and II as the daughter of non-practicing Jewish parents. When German Chancellor Adolf Hitler invaded her country, she lost her job; shortly afterward she escaped to England and, eventually, to Canada, where her family joined her in August 1939, just days before war broke out. She kept a diary throughout this transition period and eventually published it in 2001 under the title Hanna's Diary, 1938-1941: Czechoslovakia to Canada.

Spencer's diary was actually begun at the request of her Christian lover, Hans Feiertag, a musician and composer whose career—if not his very life—would have been in danger if their relationship had continued once the Nazis took power. The diary was a way to "fill the gap" during their time of separation which they believed would be temporary.

Hanna's Diary, begun in 1938, tells Spencer's story as she and Feiertag realized they would have to stop seeing each other. Except for a fleeting meeting on the street where they could not acknowledge each other, and a secret meeting in the woods that Spencer recorded as a 'dream' to protect her lover should her diary fall into the wrong hands, she and Feiertag separated. As it turned out, they never met again. It was not until fifty years later that Spencer learned Feiertag had been drafted into the German army and had not returned from the Russian Front. His musical manuscripts survived the war and are now housed in the Gustav Mahler Room at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada.

Spencer's entry permit into Canada stipulated that she work in her uncle Louis Fischl's glove factory, which she did. Eventually, thanks to intervention by Senator Cairine Wilson, she was able to return to her former profession as a teacher at Elmwood School in Ottawa. One of her colleagues at Elmwood was Edith Spencer, who introduced her brother, Elvin, to Spencer. They were married in 1942. Elvin Spencer's career as a research chemist took the family—soon to included children Erica and Martin—to many parts of Canada, from Ontario to British Columbia, from Quebec to Saskatchewan, and eventually to London, Ontario, where they lived after 1951. Here Spencer was able to resume her academic pursuits.

In the meantime, the old diaries lay forgotten in a wooden box used as a foot stool under Spencer's desk. It wasn't until sometime in the 1990s, when Elvin Spencer suggested she translate the diaries from German into English for their grandchildren, that Spencer brought her writing out of the box.

Spencer began teaching German language and literature at the University of Western Ontario in 1959, where she remained until she retired as professor emerita in 1979. She also wrote and published two books about Heinrich Heine, a German poet and journalist. The first, Dichter, Denker, Journalist. Studien zum Werk Heinrich Heines, was published in 1977, two years before Spencer retired. It contains a collection of essays on various aspects of Heine's writing, verse as well as prose. One of the essays points to and documents Heine's kinship with Nietzsche—now a generally accepted fact but regarded as controversial at the time. In Richard C. Figge's German Quarterly review, he commented that "one comes away from this incisive and gracefully written collection with renewed appreciation of the uncomfortable complexity of Heine's thought and personality and his achievement as a writer of verse and prose."

Spencer's Heinrich Heine was published in 1982 and focuses on the same subject, albeit in an entirely different way. An introduction to his life and writings, it is part of a Twayne series of compact volumes devoted to the biography and critical analysis of world authors. George F. Peters, in the Rocky Mountain Review, called the book "informative and thought-provoking."

The work has eight chapters: one devoted to Heine's biography and the remaining seven arranged chronologically and topically. Spencer focuses on Heine's unique way of expressing religious, personal and social views and feelings while allotting relatively little space to the politics underlaying his writing. Spencer also translates Heine's prose into English, along with quotations and titles English readers would otherwise miss. Peters mentioned that the book differs from some other treatments of Heine in that "Spencer remains calm and objective, scrupulously avoiding the ax-grinding which tends to accompany evaluations of Heinrich Heine."



Chatelaine, December, 2001, Sally Armstrong, profile of Spencer.

German Quarterly, January, 1980, Richard C. Figge, review of Dichter, Denker, Journalist. Studien zum Werk Heinrich Heines, pp. 123-124.

Rocky Mountain Review, 1984, George F. Peters, review of Heinrich Heine, pp. 104-105.


McGill-Queen's University Press Web site,http://www.mqup.mcgill.ca/ (September 7, 2002).

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