John Torpey, editor of the Press’ Politics, History, and Social Change series, writes a tribute to Aristide Zolberg, who passed away on April 12. The Press published Professor Zolberg’s book, How Many Exceptionalisms?: Explorations in Comparative Macroanalysis, in 2008.
Ary Zolberg changed my life. I was working on a book about the history of passports which, although addressing migration issues was not my primary purpose, forced me to learn something about migration. I knew nothing about the topic at the time, so I cast about for some guidance in the literature. A book called Human Migration: Patterns and Policies, and edited by the distinguished world historian William McNeill, seemed like a good place to start. I read a few of the papers in the volume, feeling relatively unmoved, until I read the 45 pages under the name Aristide Zolberg, of whom I had then never heard. It was a tour de force, unlike anything I had read in a long time: enormously erudite, gracefully written, immensely illuminating. I quickly sought out other writings of his, which often were buried in edited volumes and not necessarily easy to find. They were all like the first paper I had read – clear, insightful, powerful. This Zolberg guy was someone I had to get to know.
Then, as fate would have it, I did have the good fortune to get to know him – in a two-installment, transatlantic seminar that spread over two years in the mid-1990s. He led the seminars with great charm and wisdom. But then there were the parties. Here was this, well, not young guy wearing unbelievably cool African print shirts, dancing with the girls, and telling great stories. My favorite was this: Ary came to the United States shortly after World War II and promptly went into the army. He was shipped off to El Paso, Texas, where he had a lot of time on his hands as a resident of the base. So, he thought to himself, “I’m in the military. It’s time to read War and Peace.” So he did, carrying it around the base with him to take up in spare moments. “But most of the guys with whom I was in the service,” he said, “had never seen any book that big that wasn’t the Bible. So they called me ‘the Preacher’.”
That was especially funny to me because, soon after we first met, he had described himself as my “co-religionist” (I was raised Catholic). And I’m thinking: How could this guy, who just had to be Jewish, be my fellow Catholic? Well, that’s a longer story, about being a “hidden child” (from the Nazis, of course) in Belgium during World War II. As part of his “cover,” he would indeed eventually be confirmed in the Catholic Church – along the way learning English by reading National Geographic with the German soldier billeted in the town where he was “hiding.” Did the German soldier know? Ary thought he did. Far from a hardened Nazi, the guy had been living in the United States and only conscripted as a result of an ill-fated return to Germany during the war. Another great story, full of the strange twists and turns of history and fate. Ary understood – from hard-won personal experience and from a lifetime of learning — that history was like that.
Indeed, given his personal history, it’s hard to see how his scholarly work and his life can really be separated. He was personally insulted by racial discrimination and animus, but also had a more level-headed view about what to do about them than many people preoccupied with the problem. He was always a source of wisdom, whatever the topic. He was a humane, wise, generous scholar, the like of which we do not see much anymore. I will miss him, but I will certainly not forget him.