Family of the late history professor Peter H. Amann said Holocaust 'left its mark on him'
Over a decades-long career highlighted with many distinctions, Peter H. Amann taught European history as few could, filtered through the perspective of a Jew who helped his family escape war-torn Europe ahead of the Nazis as his relatives were put to their deaths.
The Austrian-born Amann suffered several beatings from his Nazi-sympathizer peers as an adolescent, and most of his extended family perished in the Holocaust.
“He would talk about it, but he preferred not to think about it,” said Amann’s wife, Jean Apperson. “But it left its mark on him. He had nightmares about it.”
Amann, who would go on to a decorated career as a history professor at several colleges including the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a published author, died June 14 at his home in Manchester. His death came after a six-month struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was 85.
Amann was an Ann Arbor-area resident since the mid-1970s, first on the Old West Side and then Pittsfield Township, before settling in Manchester. He became a professor at U-M Dearborn in 1968 and was believed to have retired in the late 1980s, his family said.
“The man reinvented his history courses every single year of his teaching life, reading new books, preparing new lectures, and devising new essay questions, no doubt to the benefit of his students,” said his daughter, Paula Amann, in an email announcing his death.
During his long career in academia — he also taught at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Oakland University in Rochester and the State University of New York at Binghamton — he published several scholarly books, including “The Corncribs of Buzet: Modernizing Agriculture in the French Southwest.” Most were on the topics of French history after the revolution — particularly the changes in the country’s agriculture, Apperson said.
“He was an historian,” she said. “He tended to pay more attention to facts than he did feelings. Although he leaned in my direction — I’m a psychologist and psychoanalyst — he always had a sense of humor, and we shared an interest in etymology. Words were always interesting. We spoke French, he spoke German as well, we always paid a lot of attention to words.
“Even in his darkest moments, he would always think of a pun or a joke. He could always turn things in a lighter direction.”
Amann’s family initially fled Nazi-occupied Vienna to Paris, where they settled on the tony Champs-Elysee, said Eva Irrera, his 81 year-old sister. Amann’s father worked as a translator for several well-known French writers, who helped the family find lodging despite having little money, Irrera said.
Shortly thereafter, fearing the approaching Nazis, the French evacuated children from the city, and Eva and Peter were sent to Switzerland, where they stayed with different families before reuniting with their parents in France along the Atlantic coast. The family would eventually travel south to Montpellier, where Amann began helping his family earn a living by embroidering belts, Irrera said.
It was during a trip to the nearby city of Marseille that Amann’s father made a fateful mistake.
Urged by friends who had already escaped Vienna for the United States to look for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which was helping evacuate refugees, Amann’s father instead walked into a local Quaker office.
“It was the first time my father said literally that anyone seemed to care,” Irrera said.
The Quakers told him they could provide passage to the U.S. if the family could come up with half the roughly $700 fare for the boat ride and shepherd more than 50 Jewish orphans who had to leave their parents behind.
The Amann family would eventually scrounge together the money, mostly through donations, and make its way to Lisbon, Portugal, where they would set sail for New York City. The family stayed in Quaker housing there for a few weeks, then decamped for a Quaker colony at Haverford, Pa.
Amann was born in Vienna, Austria on May 31, 1927. He received a degree in economics from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1947 and received his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1953 and 1958, respectively.
At Oberlin, Amann met his first wife, Enne Niemi Amann. The two would remain married for 55 years until her death in 2003.
He married Apperson in 2004, and the two enjoyed at least seven trips together back to France, she said.
In his later years, Amann devoted himself to bird-watching and furniture making. He took a liking to working with cherry wood, and was making a cherry wine rack when he died.
“He had an ingenious charm that people found very appealing and a lot of people cared a lot about him,” Irrera said. “It had to do with his own special way of being. He didn’t try to impress them, but he was loved by a lot of people.”
In addition to his wife and sister, Amann is survived by three children: David Amann, a television screenwriter and producer in Pacific Palisades, Calif.; Sandra Amann, an art conservationist with Amann + Estabrook Conservation Associates in New York; and Paula Amann, a writer and editor in Silver Spring, Md.; and three grandchildren.
A private memorial service is planned for family and close friends. Contributions in the name of Peter Amann may be made to the University of Michigan Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Barack Obama re-election campaign, or the Democratic National Committee.