David A. Frick
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures
1955 – 2022
Born in Dover, New Jersey, on October 28, 1955, David Frick grew up mostly in the Midwest. He was proud of his father, a scholar of theology, religion, and philosophy, who served as the President of Findlay College and then Elmhurst College, and his mother, Ruth Hudson Frick, the first lady of Findlay and Elmhurst. A 1973 graduate of York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, Frick received his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in 1977. He earned his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale University in 1983. First appointed as an Assistant Professor at Berkeley in 1982, he continued to serve the University as Professor until his retirement in 2020.
Frick enjoyed a reputation as the world authority on the cultural history of Eastern Europe in the early modern period, particularly on the culture, religion, languages, and literary traditions of the borderlands region occupied by present-day Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Russia (an area that roughly corresponds to the territory that was referred to in medieval Latin as “Ruthenia”).
An imaginative, inspired, and demanding teacher, he taught undergraduate and graduate courses ranging from the “Early Modern History of Eastern and Central Europe,” “Medieval Orthodox Slavic Texts,” and “Galicia in History and the Imagination” to “Czesław Miłosz’s Twentieth Century” and “Post-Communist Polish Literature.” His offerings ranged from Freshman seminars, such as “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Ukraine, Russia, Poland” and “Travelers: Fiction, Travelogue, Memoir,” to the graduate workshop “Literary Translation: History, Theory and Practice.”
As a scholar, Frick is remembered and valued for his methodologically innovative, cross-disciplinary work that connects philology and history. Decades of his meticulous research came to fruition in his 2013 study, Kith, Kin, and Neighbors: Communities and Confessions in Seventeenth-Century Wilno (Cornell University Press). The book has subsequently appeared in Lithuanian and Polish translations. A dense, archival reconstruction of daily life in the multi-ethnic, multi-confessional city of Wilno (today’s Vilnius) in the seventeenth century, this magisterial study reveals the human networks (in family, trade, and daily interactions) that the city residents created both within their own groups and across boundaries of ethnicity, religious confession, and culture. Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians, Jews, and Tatars–– who worshiped in Catholic, Uniate, Orthodox, Calvinist, and Lutheran churches, a synagogue, and a mosque––are among the book’s protagonists.
This remarkable book and Frick’s numerous research articles together comprise a sustained effort to evaluate impartially, and in their historical contexts, the strategies—some peaceful, some not so peaceful—that allowed this highly mixed community to maintain equilibrium in an era when most multi-ethnic and multi-confessional cities were unable to find a modus vivendi.
To use Frick’s own phrase, he explored the ways of coexistence based on the principle of “tolerating the intolerable” (the title of an article of his published in Belarusian in the Minsk journal The Political Sphere). Needless to say, Frick’s work has significance beyond the academy in today’s world.
The reception of Frick’s Kith, Kin, and Neighbors (book reviews; radio, television, and on-line interviews; invited public lectures, discussions, and conferences dedicated to the book; and more) has been exceptional for this highly specialized field, crossing disciplinary, institutional and national boundaries. The review in the April 2014 American Historical Review begins: “David Frick has produced a book that is destined to become a classic.” And so he did. It is also a work of great social impact.
In October 2013, Frick was invited by the US Embassy in Lithuania and Vilnius University to give a book tour, and he presented public lectures in three Lithuanian cities, including an inspired address to a packed crowd of academic and municipal notables in the historic aula (auditorium) of Vilnius University, which is a very special honor. On this trip David Frick, a Berkeley scholar who authored the most significant book to date on the history of the city of Wilno/Vilnius, served as an American cultural ambassador to Eastern Europe.
Frick’s book received a number of prestigious awards, among them, the Kulczycki Book Prize for the Best Book in Polish affairs, the Joseph Rothschild Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies, and the Przegląd Wschodni Award from Warsaw University for Best Book in East European History Published by a Foreign Scholar. He was awarded many academic honors in support of his research including, among others, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, Guggenheim, and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation research fellowships. In 2021, David Frick was recognized with the Benedykt Polak (Benedict of Poland) Award for his lifetime contribution to the interpretation of Polish culture around the world.
It is remarkable that David Frick’s first book, Polish Sacred Philology in the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation: Chapters in the History of the Controversies (1551–1632), which appeared in the University of California Publications in Modern Philology in 1989, was translated into Polish and published by Warsaw University in 2016. Frick’s study of the key figure in the confessional debates of seventeenth-century Ukraine, Meletij Smotryc ́kyj, which was published by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute in 1995, was translated recently into Ukrainian. This is clear evidence of the continuing impact and relevance of his scholarly contributions over more than twenty-five years.
Frick’s translations were a major component of his scholarly work and a significant contribution of his cultural mission. He prepared the first-ever English edition of the complete Polish letters of Fryderyk Chopin, which he accompanied with learned scholarly annotations. As one reviewer (Jeffrey Kallenberg) put it, this volume will “allow the Anglophone audience unfettered, nuanced access to the composer’s distinctive Polish voice.” In 2017 Frick received the Michael Henry Heim Prize in Collegial Translation for the best translation of a work of scholarship (for his translation of an article by the Polish scholar Jakub Niedźwiedź).
Frick’s translation from Polish of Jerzy Pilch’s hilarious satirical novel, A Thousand Peaceful Cities, was awarded the 2011 Northern California Book Award for Fiction in Translation. When Pilch made the Best Fiction Books of the Year for 2012 list in the Kirkus Review (for his collection of short stories, My First Suicide, also translated by Frick), Pilch, who had won many Polish literary awards but was then new to the American literary scene, credited his translator: “My stroke of luck was that in spite of the untranslatable character of my prose, I found an exceptional translator.” He told the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza: “David Frick is a very curious man.”
Indeed, David Frick was a very remarkable, very unusual man. His colleagues and students remember him not only for his tremendous knowledge, unswerving dedication to scholarship and pedagogical acumen, but also for his distinctive wry humor, gentle self-irony, and strong but always well-considered opinions.
David Frick died at home (in Richmond, California) on December 10, 2022. His untimely death interrupted his work on a collaborative project with poet Robert Hass, translating Czesław Miłosz’s poetry into English. This edition will soon appear in print.
David Frick is survived by his daughter, Lillie J. Frick; her mother, his former wife, Ingrid Plajzer-Frick; his brother and sister, Daniel Frick and Susan Frick, as well as nieces, aunts, uncles and cousins.