During my junior year, I took a German course in Goodrich Hall. I would often arrive early to stand outside the classroom, where Professor Doris deKeyserlingk was teaching another course in German. I was fascinated by her deep, rich voice and her amazing articulateness. Add to that my awareness that she had fled Russia in 1917 as a countess under the old czarist regime, had learned to speak Finnish, Italian, German, French and English fluently, had interpreted at the Nuremberg trials, and by our good fortune had ended up as a professor of Russian and German at Williams College. I knew I had to take a course from her. She was the epitome of living history.
Accordingly, and after a few deep breaths, I signed up for Russian 101 my senior year. I got some kidding from classmates that I would now flunk out of Williams after an otherwise successful run. Russian was simply too difficult. Moreover, the class was held at 8:00 am, a notorious hour for students to be drowsy, hung over, or both.
I bore all that in mind as I trudged off to my first class with Prof. deKeyserlingk, who also was frequently addressed as “Madame” deKeyserlingk. We spent the first few days mastering the Cyrillic alphabet, learning how to write the cursive version. She told us all not to worry, since many letters were shared by the English alphabet. Surprisingly this turned out to be a relatively easy task for most of us. Doris made the class fun by addressing us in the Russian manner (“Gospodyin Chambers,” for example) and directing us in Russian to open our books, look at the blackboard, close our books, write something down, etc. Of course we didn’t understand right away, but it didn’t take long to figure out what she was saying. When one of my fellow classmates protested that Russian was in fact quite difficult, Doris replied, “Well, just try learning English. The accents jump all over the place like a Russian monkey.” I thought of the word “entrance,” which, accenting the first syllable, means a doorway or similar. Accenting the second syllable means to captivate or enthrall. I could see what Prof. deKeyserlingk was getting at.
This is not to say that Russian 101 was any easier. I would go back to my room in Hopkins House and pound the homework into my tiny brain, not just to learn it all but because I was devoted to Prof. deKeyserlingk and did not want to let her down. She mesmerized me.
As we got to know each other a bit better, she allowed me to practice on the small Russian typewriter in her office. That is when she would tell funny stories on herself, as when, for example, she called Life Magazine from her home in Pownal to subscribe. Because of her deep voice, the mailing label on her first issue said “Boris” instead of “Doris.” She got a kick out of that.
I also remember the day that our classmate Mark Jacox, a Russian major, invited Prof. deKeyserlingk to the Greylock Quad for lunch. I was in line with them, and I could catch enough of what she was saying to realize that she was describing how the Russians had just put a dog into orbit. With my limited grasp, I couldn’t catch the humor of it all, but Mark was splitting his sides with laughter—and if you knew Mark, his laugh was one of the most contagious I’ve ever experienced. This was a side of Prof. deKeyserlingk that I loved to see—fun-loving, engaging, empathetic.
That senior year we never talked about her role as an interpreter in the famed Nuremberg trials, but when Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, released his book, Inside the Third Reich, in 1970, I sent a letter to Prof. deKeyserlingk, whereupon she responded with a postcard stating, “Thank you for reminding me of the most terrifying time in my life.” I subsequently saw her in Williamstown and asked her about that experience. She said the most horrific moment occurred when she had to take Goering or Himmler’s words in German, subsequently translated into Russian, and put them back into German. She didn’t have the benefit of the Nazi’s original words, so she had to approximate them. Upon hearing her, Goering or Himmler stood up in the accused box and shrieked angrily at her. She told me that even though she knew he was a prisoner and could do her no harm, the sight of someone who had wreaked such horrors absolutely shook her to her core.
At our class reunion in 1988, my wife Elspeth and I walked down to Prof. deKeyserlingk’s apartment on Hoxsey Street on the chance that she would be in. The first few knocks on the door went unanswered. We were about to turn away when the door opened, and there she was, in a bathrobe and hair curlers. We immediately apologized for coming unannounced, but she gave us a big smile and invited us in. We sat with her for about half an hour, talking about this and that, but nothing in particular. She seemed to enjoy herself, brightening with every minute. Given her advanced years, my wife and I knew that we would probably not see her again, and indeed that was the case. What a special experience that visit was.
It is very sad that the two brilliant Russian majors from our class, Mark Jacox and David Sloane, are no longer with us. They could have written far more detailed and appropriate reminiscences. I hope, however, that this account demonstrates how even one short year with such a remarkable human being could have great and lasting impact. I will never forget Doris deKeyserlingk.
– Bob Chambers