Beloved St. Olaf College professor dies at age 88
By Mary Jo Thorsheim
Special to the Norwegian American Weekly
The sun has set on the amazing life of Dr. Reidar Dittmann (1922-2010). Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Sun” (“Solen”) was a favorite, and he frequently used the projected image as a dramatic conclusion to his lectures on the art of Scandinavia. His strong personal faith was reflected in his observation that one could interpret the painting as a representation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The painting is part of a mural in the University of Oslo auditorium in Norway where Dittmann began his college education until it was interrupted by the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War II. In contrast to Munch’s bright painting of sunshine, part of Dittmann’s youth was spent in the shadows of Buchenwald.
Edvard Munch was his favorite Norwegian artist, and he also loved the nationalistic, realistic landscapes of the “father of Norwegian painting” J.C. Dahl. In the latter, he
regularly pointed out the inclusion of birch trees – symbols of the strength and resilience of Norway. Dittmann also showed strength and resilience throughout his life. The art of the Italian Renaissance and French Impressionism also held a fascination for him.
Dittmann was a beloved professor of art history, Norwegian, German, and co-founder of the International Studies program at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. He died
in hospice care on Dec. 29, 2010 at the age of 88. Born in Tønsberg, Norway, on Jan. 15, 1922, he lived in Norway until he immigrated to the U.S. in 1945.
Prior to emigrating, Dittmann was an active participant in the Norwegian Resistance when the Nazis occupied Norway during World War II. In November 1944, he was punished for this patriotic work for Norway by being incarcerated in a concentration camp – the notorious Buchenwald in Germany. His story has been told in a short
film “Prisoner 32,232” that was a project of the Minnesota Historical Society; it is in the Permanent Film Collection of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. JoAnn Magnuson, noted Jewish studies lecturer and scholar, comments that Dittmann was a “great hero of our generation.”
His daughter Lisa Dittmann recalls hearing this anecdote from Buchenwald that relates to her father’s background in music. During an interrogation by the Nazis, he was
confronted thus: “Since you are a musician, name the greatest German composer!” He thought a moment, and then named Mendelssohn (who was Jewish). The Nazi officers responded, “Who was Mendelssohn?” (not even acknowledging him because of his ethnicity). ”Wagner was the greatest!” they said. Unfortunately, another incident when he was slapped on the ear ruptured his ear drum, and he remained able to hear from only one ear, all of his life, Lisa recalls.
When he was released, he showed indomitable spirit by following his dream to study in America (specifically St. Olaf), arriving at St. Olaf in 1945 as a malnourished, seriously underweight young man. He could describe difficulties like his physical condition but quickly lighten the mood of his audience by interjecting a bit of humor. One particular incident that he recalled included his aversion to lutefisk. When the cafeteria was serving it as a special offering before Christmas, he thought that he could avoid eating it by going late to supper, after the lutefisk was depleted. Using this ingenious approach he entered the cafeteria, only to be greeted by the motherly cafeteria servers who tried to help him gain weight by serving him special food: “Reidar! We saved a plate of lutefisk for you!”
His undergraduate work was supported by a St. Olaf scholarship awarded to Norwegian students who had experienced the occupation interfering with their education. He majored in music both at the University of Oslo and at St. Olaf; his interest in music continued all of his life, but art history became his major focus. At the age of 50, he began work on the Ph.D. in art history. He received bachelors of music and art degrees from St. Olaf and masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Washington.
Art history was a personal and professional interest that brought pleasure and education to many. In 2002, the St. Olaf building that houses the college’s art, art history and dance departments and art galleries named in his honor. In 1977, the King of Norway awarded him the prestigious St. Olav Medal. Dittmann’s knowledge of the great artists of the world led him to the great art museums.
Beginning with a tour of 12 countries in 72 days in 1952, Dittmann had led travel groups of students, St. Olaf alumni, and others to Europe and across the globe, on a regular basis since 1954. His popular alumni art history tours to Europe concluded when he was 80 years old.
Dr. Reidar Dittmann, who had experienced some of the worst of humanity and the darkest of days, looked at the beauty of life in general, and the world’s art, music and literature in a unique way. He appreciated the arts with a special relish that he was able to inspire in others through his teaching, lecturing, writing, travel leadership and conversation.
This article was originally published in the Jan. 14, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.