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Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes
The Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes, awarded in May by MIT's Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, are named after Ilona Karmel, novelist, poet and Senior Lecturer in the Program for many years. Throughout her teaching career Karmel's outstanding contributions to creative writing at MIT were her inspirational teaching and relationships with students. Karmel's books are the novels Stefania, and An Estate of Memory, and a book of poems co-written with her sister Henia Karmel A Wall of Two.
Ilona Karmel Zucker
1925 - 2000
Ilona Karmel taught as a Senior Lecturer in the Writing Program from 1978-95. She had a profound influence on many of her students. Cheston D. Buchanan (SB 1994 in civil engineering) is a case in point. Karmel urged him to apply for a List Foundation Fellowship to complete his novel Pike. "She was really inspirational," said Mr. Buchanan, who went on to do graduate work in creative writing at Boston University on a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship. "She's the whole reason I applied for these fellowships."
Born in Krakow, Poland, on August 14, 1925, Ms. Karmel spent the war years in the Krakow Ghetto and in Buchenwald. During these years, she composed her first literary work, a collection of poems written in Polish entitled Songs from Behind the Barbed Wire. These poems are included in A Wall of Two (2007) whose co-translator, Fanny Howe, once taught in the Program.
After three years of convalescence in Sweden from injuries sustained in Buchenwald, during which she learned English by correspondence, she immigrated to the United States in 1948. She studied at Hunter College in New York before transferring to Radcliffe College, where she obtained her BA and was a protege of the poet Archibald MacLeish. While pursuing her career as a writer, Ms. Karmel taught in day care schools, beginning a teaching career that continued during a 10-year stay in Germany, where she worked in an orphanage. On returning to the United States in 1978 with her husband, the physicist and philosopher Francis Zucker, she was appointed to a Senior Lectureship in the Writing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she remained until retirement in 1995.
Ms. Karmel began her career as a short-story writer. Her story Fru Holm won the Mademoiselle College Fiction Prize for 1951. Her first novel, Stephania, published in 1953, drew on her experiences in a Swedish hospital after the Second World War. Her 1969 novel, An Estate of Memory, based on life in Buchenwald, is considered one of the most powerful accounts of the Holocaust, distinguished by a rare lucidity, humanity, and candor. A Boston Globe review in 1969 said that Karmel "has raised the Jews' suffering...beyond its grisly accumulation of fact, beyond mere dramatic documentation, into art. In so doing, she has made a classic statement for humanity."
The Washington Post wrote that "Miss Karmel has the courage and the craft to spell out that we are writing subsequent chapters to the history of human debasement." Recently rediscovered by a new generation, An Estate of Memory has been reissued in paperback and was published in German translation in 1997.
In 1994, her passionate commitment and generosity as a teacher earned her a Dean's Award for Distinguished Service, and in 1995, the Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes competition was named in her honor.