LESLIE BODI, 1922-2015
IRONICALLY, the destruction of the family printing business during World War II proved a boon to Leslie Bodi.
With the subsequent establishment of a Soviet regime in Hungary ensuring that there was no prospect of reviving the business, Leslie was free to do what he really wanted: study German language and literature at university and begin a career as an academic.
However, by the mid-1950s, the political situation in Hungary had further deteriorated. In the aftermath of the lost revolution of 1956, Leslie, his wife Marianne and their young daughter Anna migrated to Melbourne where a branch of his family had settled before World War II.
Leslie Bodi was the foundation Professor of German at Monash University from 1963 until his retirement in 1987. A key figure in German studies in Australia, he had a broad understanding of the discipline that included, alongside the traditional study of the language and its literature, the political, social and cultural history of the German-speaking lands.
He was born into a cosmopolitan and secular Jewish family in Budapest. There, and in Milan where he spent a number of years during his childhood, Leslie was educated in German schools. Barred from entering university in Hungary, he completed an apprenticeship in printing in anticipation of joining his family’s business. Leslie was swept more directly into the path of World War II in 1943 when he was conscripted into the forced labour system.
After moving to Australia, Leslie took up an academic position at what was then Newcastle University College, then joined the new Monash University in 1960 to establish the German program. The university, under its first vice-chancellor Louis Matheson, proved to be an excellent fit. Monash was vibrant and enterprising, with dynamic academics eager to implement new ideas that were bold and consciously different from the traditional models of existing Australian universities.
As foundation professor, Leslie was given free rein to develop ambitious curricula and to rapidly recruit young staff, many of whom completed doctorates under his supervision. His comprehensive knowledge of the literature and culture of the German-speaking lands, including the former German Democratic Republic, was complemented by his strong appreciation of emerging European writers and movements. This deep understanding, coupled with his great energy and enthusiasm, made Leslie an inspiring teacher and leader.
One of Leslie’s particular passions was books, and he seized the opportunity provided by the new university’s budget to order a great number of ‘‘necessary books’’ (very broadly defined) to build an outstanding collection. Leslie was equally passionate in arguing for other resources, and for intellectual values and principles, on various university committees and boards. Many colleagues fondly remember his elaborate protocols for sending chocolates to apologise for his occasionally overly vigorous representations.
Another tradition involved animated discussions with colleagues, students and visitors about academic, political, social and cultural issues, which took place over heart-stoppingly strong espresso coffee and Central European food at the Bodis’ house in the street bordering the Monash campus.
Leslie’s publications reflect his wide interests and his depth of scholarly research. He pioneered research on German-Australian connections, and in particular, on the writings of Georg Forster, who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage.
His long-standing interest in the Enlightenment in Austria (both the movement and the country were close to his heart) resulted in a major book which has become the standard work on the subject.
Leslie’s publications also include bibliographies of German Australiana and Melbourne library holdings of books on German culture, basic research tools which were previously lacking.
Leslie was made an Honorary Doctor of Letters at Monash and Doctor and Professor Honoris Causa at Budapest University. He was also the recipient of several awards, including the Officer’s Cross Order of Merit, Federal Republic of Germany; the Goethe Medal; and the Austrian Officer’s Cross Order for Art and Literature. He became an emeritus professor at Monash upon his retirement.
He is survived by his wife Marianne, daughter Anna and granddaughter Sarah.