Lewy, Ernst (1881–1966), linguist, was born on 19 September 1881 in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), the youngest of ten children of Jacob Lewy, a merchant, and Julia Lewy (née Bielschowsky). The family background was Jewish. Lewy attended the König-Wilhelms-Gymnasium in Breslau where he obtained his Abitur (leaving certificate) in 1899. He studied at the universities of Breslau, Munich and Leipzig, receiving his Ph.D. in Breslau in 1905 with a thesis on old Prussian names (Altpreussische Personennamen). His subsequent move to Berlin University brought him in contact with a number of Germany's foremost linguists, among them Wilhelm Schulze, Celtic scholar Heinrich Zimmer (qv) and Franz Nikolaus Finck (author of Die Araner Mundart). His Habilitation (Zur finnisch-ugrischen Wort- und Satzbildung), the second doctorate required in German academia, in 1910 followed extensive research in Hungary and concerned an area that was to become his main research focus: the generally lesser known Finno-Ugric languages. But his interests went beyond narrow linguistic fields; he was fascinated by comparing structures and words between a huge array of languages and held dear Wilhelm von Humboldt's ideas about language and its influence on the mental development of peoples. Lewy was also interested in literature and was the first to edit the works of Jacob Michael Reinhold Lenz, an eighteenth-century writer of the German 'Sturm and Drang' movement, published in four volumes in 1909. In the spring of that same year Lewy got married, to Hedwig Ludwig, who was also from Breslau and came from a protestant family. They had two children: their daughter Esther was born in January 1911, and their son Georg in May 1922.
Following the purchase of a provost's house in Wechterswinkel, northern Bavaria, the family lived there, Lewy renting rooms in Berlin during term time. Due to a deformed foot, he was not able to serve in the first world war and withdrew to Wechterswinkel, later taking part in linguistic studies with Russian prisoners of war and collecting folk tales. Lewy's lectures in Berlin were attended by Walter Benjamin, whom he impressed strongly and who years later tried to persuade Lewy to join a project to found the journal 'Angelus Novus', a project later abandoned.
After the first world war, Lewy's academic position in Berlin was precarious. Wilhelm Schulze, who had the chair in linguistics, tried to obtain a professorship for Lewy from the early 1920s, but it took until 1925 before he was appointed – though as extraordinarius, without tenure and without extra remuneration. He was only paid as a part-timer for his teaching. Some financial relief came in 1929 when he was given the prestigious research award of the Harry Kreismann foundation, which came with 10,000 marks. It was only in July 1931 that Lewy was appointed to the coveted tenured position of associate professor (beamteter außerordentlicher Professor), which came with an appropriate salary. But the new-found security did not last long. Lewy was suspended in May 1933 following the introduction the previous month of the Law for a Restoration of a Professional Civil Service, some weeks after Hitler's rise to power. The law was intended to expel from public service anyone of 'non-Aryan descent' as well as anyone who could be seen as a political opponent of the regime. Lewy qualified for neither of the two exemptions most commonly granted following Hindenburg's intervention: the Frontkämpferprivileg (for active service during the great war) or being tenured before 1914, but he was seen as an Ermessensfall, that is, a case which requires individual judgement. Thanks to a campaign supported by his colleagues Julius von Farkas (director of the Hungarian Institute at Berlin University, where Lewy's professorship was situated) and Max Vasmer (director of the Institute for Slavic Studies), Lewy's international standing and contacts (for example, Emil Nestor Setälä, linguist and former Finnish minister for foreign affairs) were emphasised to the new rulers in the education ministry. It helped that Lewy was seen as the only academic representative for Finno-Ugric languages. He was reinstated in March 1934, but not for long. From January 1936 he was pensioned off and received only 45 per cent of his former salary. Lewy later gratefully remembered that it was at his wife's insistence that urgent steps were then taken to emigrate, thus saving his life.
While his wife and son found temporary refuge in Switzerland, Lewy stayed in Copenhagen for some time in 1936 and then planned to move to the Basque country (previously he had lived for almost two years in San Sebastian) and then move to England if support could be found. Accordingly, he sent his books to Barcelona (a move he came to regret as they became unavailable to him due to the outbreak of the Spanish civil war and only some were returned to him after the second world war). A grant from the London-based Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL), partly instigated and later also funded by British Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, helped him to concentrate on one major piece of research. It is likely that Irish contacts such as Osborn Bergin (qv) and Canon Patrick Boylan (qv), obtained during the time they all studied together in Berlin, helped behind the scenes, and in June 1937 Lewy arrived in Ireland, staying at first mainly in the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon, County Clare. His wife and son joined him in February 1938 and the family moved to Dublin, where his daughter also joined in autumn 1939.
One needs to keep in mind that Lewy's extensive linguistic abilities (as indicated in his questionnaire for the SPSL, where he stated that he could speak German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Hungarian, Finnish, Mordvine, Mari, Basque – and had a reading knowledge of Latin, Greek, English and Sanskrit) only included a small amount of spoken English and no Irish. His fascination with Celtic languages led him to learn Irish to the degree that it featured on several occasions in his linguistic publications. His knowledge of English no doubt improved during his long stay in Ireland, but when he gave his first lecture at University College Dublin (UCD) in January 1939 there were comments that he seemed more at ease in the Irish language than in English. Nevertheless, he continued to lecture in UCD and covered European languages, comparative philology, and courses about Sanskrit, Old Slavonic and Finno-Ugric languages – generally with few students, but the courses were kept on during the war and provided him with a basic income.
Lewy did not socialise much, but kept in contact with other exiles in Ireland such as Ludwig Bieler (qv), who was a colleague at UCD (and one of the few who walked the long way out to Lewy, who had moved to Rathfarnham outside Dublin) and also with Irish contacts from his time in Berlin. His main work Der Bau der europäischen Sprachen, was published in 1942 by the Royal Irish Academy (and was brought out again by Max Niedermeyer Verlag in Tübingen in 1964). In it he attempts to characterise eighteen European languages and to point towards typological aspects of each and connections between them.
After the end of the war, the question of returning to Berlin arose for Lewy, who in 1945 was 64 years old. His feelings towards returning were ambivalent, but there is no doubt that he would have welcomed the invitation. This only materialised in September 1946 (despite a decision to reappoint him in 1945) but did not lead to anything, due partly to oversights and the newly forming political interests (including those of his former student Wolfgang Steinitz who himself had academic – and political – ambitions), and partly to Lewy's age, state of health and financial considerations. In February 1947 Lewy was appointed to a newly created professorship in linguistic science at the Royal Irish Academy. It took another fifteen years before he was also made an honorary member there. Already in 1950 he had been elected as a corresponding member of the Academy of Science in Berlin, following the proposal of Wilhelm Wissmann, who, together with Wolfgang Steinitz, was also instrumental in publishing many of Lewy's articles in book form, as Kleine Schriften. The collection, published in 1961, includes some 160 articles, reviews and obituaries, covering over 700 pages.
On 25 September 1966, less than a week after he celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday, Ernst Lewy died in the house where he had lived since the 1940s, in Woodtown Park in Rathfarnham, Dublin. It was here that he had received and often accommodated young scholars, who came to learn from him.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).