Soulful scholar of Low German remembered
Jack Thiessen, the sharp-witted Mennonite scholar and storyteller whose deep love of Low German led him to produce a definitive reference work on the distinctive dialect, died in hospital last Sunday, Oct. 9 after a period of declining health. He was 91.
Ernie Braun, a Tourond-based amateur Mennonite historian, said his longtime friend and colleague was a “larger than life” figure whose work had scholarly depth and raconteurial flair.
That winning combination was often on display while the two men lunched together at local restaurants.
“Our conversations really would have been hard to follow for the diners around us. Jack moved from English to Low German to High German, often in the same breath,” Braun said.
“The stuff that he told me over lunch was often the stuff that you could write novels about. I already miss those lunches.”
A farm boy born and raised “behind Grunthal” in the hamlet of Gnadenfeld, Thiessen graduated from Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna and United College in Winnipeg.
Answering an ad for an English teacher, he arrived in the German city of Kassel, where he taught high school while pursuing graduate studies. He earned a PhD from the University of Marburg, writing his dissertation on Mennonite Low German, one of several languages he spoke fluently and the closest to his heart.
Not content to be confined to the ivory tower, Thiessen’s globetrotting travels took him to Northern Canada, Indonesia, South America, and most of Europe.
“He knew everybody, from Billy Graham to Prince Philip,” Braun said. “Everywhere that Jack went, he sort of rose to the top.”
Between 1957 and 1959, Thiessen crossed the Atlantic Ocean 42 times on ships owned by Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate and one of the world’s richest men.
The ships ferried European emigrants to Canada and Canadian students to Europe. Thiessen, employed as a program director, oversaw cross-cultural orientation and recreation activities for passengers aboard the long voyages.
Braun said it never took long for Thiessen to make friends, including among the celebrity class.
“He was likely the only Canadian to be invited to American actress Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco.”
Thiessen’s experiences provided him with a lifetime of anecdotes, which he skillfully deployed in verbal and email conversations with friends and in irreverent, incisive letters to the editor of this newspaper, which arrived densely packed with literary and historical references.
“He had sharp comments on local matters, international politics, religion, and whatever else was fodder for the mill,” Braun said. “He tended to speak in superlatives. He was often lavish in his praise, just as he was caustic in his criticism.”
In 1961, Thiessen returned to Winnipeg to teach at United College, directing the German department for 15 years. He also chaired the board of the Manitoba Arts Council and was president of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
Thiessen lived for a while in Tourond before settling in New Bothwell with his wife, Audrey, in 1991.
Thiessen spent much of the 1990s as a freelance writer, translator, and researcher for academic and popular publishers. He also wrote short stories in Low German and English.
In 1999, he completed his first comprehensive two-way Low German dictionary. The book, which stretched to 500 pages, was republished in 2003. After more than a decade out of print, a revised and expanded edition, overseen by Braun and Gerhard Ens, a history professor at the University of Alberta, was released in 2019.
Like many Plautdietsch speakers, Thiessen prized the language’s near-untranslatable glosses, most evident in its humour and turns of phrase.
In the dictionary’s original preface, Thiessen wrote that he strove to “embody a time and culture” by including Low German adages, aphorisms, etymologies, and cultural practices alongside his definitions.
That richness set the dictionary apart from others, Braun said.
“Really his dictionary is more of a Mennonite encyclopedia of language and culture, than strictly a word book,” Braun said. “He was interested in the soul of Low German and the Low German culture.”
Over the years, Thiessen heard from many readers who delighted at rediscovering a near-forgotten word or phrase in the pages of his dictionary.
Thiessen was keenly aware that Plautdietsch bound Mennonites together through migrations and hardships. Braun said Thiessen often remarked that Mennonites are only really at home in one country: the country of Low German.
Thiessen told this newspaper in 2019 that he “feels more at home in the world” when he speaks Plautdietsch. Asked for his favourite Low German word, Thiessen chose Leef’tolijch, which his dictionary defines as one who is lovable, gracious, or amiable.
Thiessen also excelled at satire and irony, which led to collaborations with a new generation of emerging Mennonite writers.
Steinbach writer Andrew Unger consulted Thiessen’s dictionary often while drafting his award-winning 2020 novel, Once Removed, which explores themes of cultural preservation and is peppered with Low German words.
“When asked by readers how on earth I came up with the Plautdietsch spellings, I’m always proud to say, ‘I’m a Jack Thiessen man,’” Unger, who also writes The Daily Bonnet, a Mennonite satire website, said in an email.
“There were even a few phrases that I directly asked him in emails to help me out with. So far, no one has pointed out any Low German errors in the book and I have Jack Thiessen to thank for that.”
Unger met Thiessen in 2019, at the relaunch of his dictionary.
“Not only is it a remarkable achievement to write a dictionary of a language that had once been unwritten,” Unger said, “but Jack’s definitions often have a flair and personality that match the man himself. It’s a valuable and useful work, but also one of the most entertaining dictionaries I’ve ever read.”
The two writers kept in touch by email and collaborated on a Daily Bonnet article written entirely in Plautdietsch.
Thiessen’s funeral service is Friday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. at Elim Mennonite Church in Grunthal.