Helena Eilstein (1922–2009): A Polish Female Philosophy Professor — In Albuquerque New Mexico?
Of the many people who have influenced and inspired me in my over 60 years, one of the most unusual and yet important ones was Helena Eilstein. I took a graduate seminar on the Philosophy of Science she taught in the fall of 1978 at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque New Mexico (where I grew up and lived for about 30 years).
At that time it was relatively unusual to have any female professors in any subject. Yet, not only was Eilstein a woman, she had been born in Poland in 1922 and had become a prominent professor there before moving to the US about ten years prior to when I took her seminar. Though I did not realize it at the time, she was a refugee forced into exile in 1968 by the Communist Polish government as part of a program of persecuting the few Jews that still survived in Poland after WW II.
That Eilstein was a relatively recent immigrant was obvious from her thickly accented English, but her cheerfulness, energy and acumen betrayed not a trace of over 50 years of what must have been a difficult and disappointing life up to the time of her arrival in Albuquerque. She would have been still a teenager when the Nazis invaded Poland. I have no idea what led her to Albuquerque.
To be sure, some people are fascinated by the Southwestern desert of New Mexico, but Albuquerque in particular was, at least at that time, anything but fascinating: drug trafficking from Mexico made its crime rate frightening. Besides, based solely on the difference in its climate from that of Poland, it is arguably the least likely place in all the world to find anyone from Northern Europe. For that reason, but also because of the realities of the Cold War of the 20th century, Eilstein happened to be the first person — let alone professor — I met from Poland or anywhere else from what is now Eastern Europe and Russia.
I never saw or even communicated with Eilstein after taking her seminar, other than briefly running into her at a State Fair a few years afterwards. I therefore do not know what led her to return to Poland (other than the obvious change in its government and an apology issued in 2000). Nevertheless, in retrospect I now realize she had an impact on me far beyond what one might otherwise expect from a one semester seminar.
I sharply disagreed with her views on many issues and yet she respected me nonetheless. It surely must have seemed odd for her, having been persecuted for being Jewish even though she was, when I knew her, if anything an atheist, to have a young American ‘man’ (I was only 24 at the time), argue that she was overly optimistic about what modern science had to offer. She nonetheless favorably read a term paper I wrote arguing for the validity of the spirituality of early 19th century German idealism and its relevance to science.
It has only been in the past decade that I came to realize that such spirituality is relevant as well to a range of issues, especially the issue of women’s rights. That issue never came up in her seminar, yet I have to believe she would have had much to say on it. Even though my personal experience in being married and having raised two now grown daughters largely shapes my view on that issue, I nonetheless wanted to write this post to pay homage to the fact that Eilstein influenced me in ways she never knew with regard to it.