Dr. Peter Stenberg (1942–2022): A Tribute

By Thomas Salumets and Lena Karlström

We mourn the passing of our much loved and respected colleague, teacher, friend and father figure, Dr. Peter Stenberg, Professor Emeritus.

In the memory of those who knew him well, Peter was a free and kind spirit with an unmatched passion for sharing his love of literature and music. It was “impossible not to like him,” as someone close to Peter recently remarked.

Photo credit: Lena Karlström

Peter was born in Brooklyn, NY to German-Swedish parents. In 1969, he joined what was then the Department of German at the University of British Columbia. He became Department Head in 1995, a position he held for twelve years. In the period following his formal retirement, Peter continued to stay engaged in his work as a public intellectual.

Over a lifetime of teaching, he brought a wonderful sense of humour into the classroom. It meshed so effortlessly with his wit and sharpness of mind, always probing and critical, but never lacking in warmth and playful openness. Not burdened by jargon and theoretical reflection, Peter’s relaxed teaching style drew generations of students into the many courses he taught. Matching his own wide-ranging interests, the terrain he introduced into the classroom was often unusually broad but at the same time rich in surprising connections. One of his former students captured the creative quality of his personality and unconventional approach to teaching well when she wrote:

“In a seminar on Nordic myths, Stenberg included Richard Wagner’s The Ring as part of the syllabus, together with Icelandic sagas and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. It is a testament of Stenberg’s pedagogical vision, which was eccentric in the best sense of the word (eclectic, imaginative) and interdisciplinary, that this seminar also included Laxness’s Independent People and an Ingmar Bergman film.”

Peter will also be remembered for his refreshingly lighthearted but effective style as administrator. With Peter as Head, the Department left behind more traditional curricular and disciplinary approaches and entered a phase of exciting renewal. Peter guided the Department through this challenging period of growth with a “genuine collegiality and professional fairness,” as, speaking for many, one of his former colleagues noted. He was also a fierce promoter and protector of the Scandinavian Studies Program at UBC. Seeing it grow over the years made him immensely proud.

In a fundamental way, one might say, his administrative touch and foresight also mirrored his own wide-ranging activities as a scholar and public intellectual. The multiple recipient of the prestigious Humboldt fellowship and  Swedish Institute award, Peter nurtured and drew inspiration from his global network of prominent writers, journalists, translators, publishers and editors. His many publications and a Festschrift (2007) honouring his life-time achievements bear witness to his international stature and broad scholarly interests. Among his most important publications are his Journey to Oblivion (1991), a monograph detailing the fate of Yiddish and German cultures in Eastern Europe, and an anthology illuminating the complex and easily hidden world of Jewish authors writing in Swedish (2005), which, in part, he also translated from Swedish into English.

What, then, was Peter’s real source of strength? What inspired his deeply rooted adventurous drive, joyfully receptive disposition and openness to the world? Next to his devotion to books, perhaps it was his other great passion, his closeness to nature. No stranger to more remote places like the West Coast Trail, Peter also made the most of the UBC Vancouver campus location, regularly hiking down to the beach before or after class. This much is true: It was the love of his life, Rosa, who kept him in balance and, in no small measure, allowed him to become the extraordinary man he was.

Rest in peace, Peter.

Our deepest condolences to Peter’s four children, Rachel, Erik, Charlotte and Josh and his grandchildren, Anja, Anders, Kai and Max, and his wife Rosa.