Henry H. H. Remak – An Angel in Disguise – Processing Blog #6

The Henry H. H. Remak collection that I am processing here at the IU Archives can be thought of as a paper trail, evidence of a man’s life as a teacher, administrator, scholar, friend. The papers contained within are the results of a professional life, but for Henry the professional was almost always personal and the personal was often also professional. For this post I would like to focus in on just one file from the collection-in-progress. The file itself tells a particularly riveting story in which Henry Remak takes on the role of guardian angel for a young Burmese student.

The student I speak of, whom from here on out I will refer to as T, was born in New York City in the late 1950s but returned to Burma (now Myanmar) to live with her family, eventually attaining a degree in economics from the Institute of Economics in Rangoon, Burma and working as a teacher. For most of its known history, Burma has been a country overwhelmed by war and poverty. During T’s childhood and early adulthood, the situation in Burma was particularly dire and the country may have been at its most troubled state in centuries. It is no wonder then that T was desperate to leave her country in search of a better life, like so many other Burmese people during this time period. In a letter written to Frederic V. Grunfeld, a journalist and author who was Henry Remak’s brother-in-law, T described her situation: “The future here is very bleak for me and even my patriotism and idealism to serve my country and people has had to gradually be giving way to reality. I know I can’t contribute anything meaningful if I stay here any longer, except to teach. . . and show compassion and understanding and give moral support. . . ” Grunfeld, who had met T’s father in New York City in the 1950s, paid several visits to T and her family in the early 1980s. He seemed particularly entranced by T, describing her in a letter to Ingrid and Henry Remak as “an extraordinary young woman” who was one of the “brightest people” he had ever met. Grunfeld sent the letter hoping that something could be done for T, namely that she could get admitted to IU.

Letter from Remak to Economics Department
Just days after Grunfeld’s letter was received, Henry Remak brought T to the attention of IU’s Department of Economics and for the next year Remak and Grunfeld worked together to arrange for T to fulfill the necessary requirements she would need in order to apply for IU. From the start it was evident that without financial aid or an assistantship of some kind T would not be able to afford tuition, not to mention a life in the United States. Grunfeld contextualized her situation well when he pointed out that the average Burmese family lives on the equivalent of $50 a year. An additional concern was the fact that the Burmese government did not make it easy for anyone to leave Burma, even for educational purposes. The trip to the U. S. Embassy in Burma was in itself a dangerous, potentially fatal move for T. Nevertheless, in December of 1982 T sent in her application for admission to IU’s doctoral program in economics. She was accepted and promised an appointment as an associate instructor with a tuition fee remission, as well as a modest stipend for living expenses. Without having even met this young woman, Professor Remak, along with his brother-in-law, promised to cover any additional financial expenses over the four years that T would need to complete her Ph. D.

A letter from T to Henry H. H. Remak, 1983
T arrived in Bloomington several weeks late due to a delay in attaining her passport and visa, but when she did arrive Henry and Ingrid were waiting for her at the airport. The Remaks allowed T to stay with them for her first week in Bloomington, before she eventually moved into one of the residence halls here on campus. Henry and Ingrid assumed a very parental attitude toward T, allowing her to visit and even spend the night at their house whenever she needed to get away from campus. Henry even bought T a nice winter coat as a gift, as she came to the United States extremely unprepared for the harsh winter that was soon to come. Despite her lack of preparation and evident culture shock during her first couple of months at IU, Henry Remak described her as hard-working and able to make friends easily.

In a letter dated January 3, 1984 from Henry Remak to Fred Grunfeld, it was apparent that T was struggling academically, not merely struggling but almost failing. Remak posited that her academic troubles were a result of the study of economics in Burma being far behind that of the United States. Her professors were as understanding as they could be under the circumstances, but by August of 1984 T had lost her funding and failed her qualifying examinations, thereby making it impossible for her to continue with her doctoral studies. At this point, Professor Remak advised T to at least complete a master’s degree in the department, which would take her an additional year and required that she merely pass the necessary courses. At this point, Remak began loaning T money for tuition, rent, and basic living expenses that he did not have much hopes of ever getting back considering T’s troubles in academia and the economic situation in Burma if she were to continue her life there. Not surprisingly, Frederic Grunfeld felt responsible for T and had the intention of reimbursing Professor Remak for at least some of the money he had loaned T. However, there is evidence to suggest that Remak did not accept much, if any, of the money Grunfeld sent to Henry Remak, probably due to a difference in financial means.

The Remaks’ and Grunfeld’s willingness to assist T did not end there. Eventually, T was accepted as a doctoral candidate to another university’s Department of Economics. Even though she was no longer even associated with IU, Remak continued to advise and back her financially, serving as a guarantor who would cover a certain portion of her tuition if university funding or other means did not become available to T. Perhaps due to the financial and academic stress that her time at IU must have caused her, it seems that T did not end up continuing her higher education, at least during the span of this set of correspondence, which dates from 1982 to 1987. Rather, T seems to have found work on the east coast.

Letter from Remak to T in regards to the loan, 1987
In the last letter of this file, Remak responds to a thank you note sent from T in which she promised to someday repay Henry Remak for all that he had done for her. The response further illustrates Henry Remak’s generosity: “[R]epaying Fred and furthering your own continued education should be higher priorities for you than reimbursing us. Whenever you are in a position to repay us, we would like to donate at least half of the total sum. . . to an ‘Emergency Help for Foreign Students’ Fund [to be] set up here at Indiana University. . .” It’s not clear whether or not T ever fully repaid Fred Grunfeld or Henry Remak, but whether she did or not it is clear that Henry Remak was a man of remarkable character and kindness.