(December 15, 1918 - December 15, 2010)
To categorize Fritz Cocron into any type of human character would defy the man’s individuality. There was no one like him, and there never will be. It is the extraordinary story of an Austrian in the cultural foreign service of his country during his main career, until 1983, who willy-nilly spread his wings much further and ended his days in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Maybe the fact that the days of his birth and his death are identical suggests the special appearance of this noteworthy personality already. Born in the first days after the break-down of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy Fritz Cocron grew up and went to school in his hometown Ljubljana in Slovenia, to become in a sense a messenger between past and future, when no one knew what their presence was.
Even though Slovenian was not spoken in his traditional Austrian house he learned it well among his peers – so well, in fact, that he eventually studied Slavic languages altogether. Not only German remained the language with his parents but also French was used at home regularly as a language of European intellectuals and higher classes.
He explained it himself in an interview I conducted with him on April 7, 2005 , and to which I refer in this article repeatedly: “French was a must in our family. In the twenties (1920s) and thirties French was dominating – in this area of Europe at least. I had no English taught in school.” No wonder that his two dissertations he completed afterWorldWar II, were written in French – ‘La langue russe dans la seconde moitié du XVIIième siècle’ – at the Sorbonne, and in German – ‘Über das Fremdwort im Russischen’- at the University of Vienna. Thus he spoke French, Russian, Polish and Slovenian fluently, but he got along modestly, as he put it, in Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, and Bulgarian - with Old-Slavic as well.
English he studied at a later stage in his life and called it his sixth language according to his near native fluency in the other languages he knew, his native German included. So he prepared and studied in his young years for an academic life as a philologist. His life changed for the first time when he was called up to the German army in October 1940 – as an Austrian citizen now forced to join the Third Reich.
For almost six years he mostly served in Russia and toward the end of the war in France and French North Africa – and always as a military interpreter. His training as an interpreter for Russian took place in Berlin at the “Interpreters’ Company” from 1940 to 1941. With his comrades at thatmilitary institute he was asking himself why the “Wehrmacht” (German armed forces) had summoned over one hundred interpreter candidates in five classes when there was peace with the Soviet Union.
As everyone knows now, that peace changed soon into the most brutal warfare between the Germans and the Russians, which gave a clear answer to young Cocron’s and his peers’ question. He was sent to an infantry division attached to the German intelligence department, and his main task was to debrief prisoners of war in their Russian tongue.
He served in the vicinity of the Caucasus, but not in the high mountains thereof. He was, furthermore, spared having to go to Stalingrad. On their eventual retreat he and his fellow soldiers of the 198th infantry division came through Romania and, to their amazement, instead of going to Prague they were sent to the Spanish-French border.
That happened after D-Day (June 6, 1944), and soon thereafter he was taken prisoner of war himself by the French, and not by the Americans as he had expected. He was sent to Algeria and landed as he stated laughingly, in an Austrian POW camp: “There was an Austrian refugee in Algiers who had left Austria because of Hitler and had established himself on a very solid basis in Algiers by trading commercially with fruit.
He persuaded the allied military authorities to open an Austrian POW camp.” Thus Cocron and his fellow Austrians were treated rather civilized, and Fritz Cocron was allowed to teach French and Russian to his fellow Austrian POWs, in order to keep them and himself occupied meaningfully. Fritz Cocron survived the war with no sickness to his body or his mind.
He had never joined the Nazi party, nor ever sympathized with themovement, so that he could begin his studies in Vienna upon his return after the war and soon move to France. There his sensational professional career began. The Austrian government employed him as the young director of the recently established Austrian Institute in Paris where he spent the next decade, so successfully, in fact, that he was asked to take over the Austrian Cultural Institute in Warsaw after a short interim stay in Vienna. His stay in the Polish capital may have been his favorite event in his colorful career, because he took over a delicate task to officially mediate at times between the Poles and the Germans.
They, for a while afterWorldWar II, did not have an ambassador because of the preceding infamous war events. He fulfilled his tasks so well that he received a high order from the Polish Consul General in Los Angeles in the late nineties – long after his stay in Poland. He served already as a distinguished visiting professor at the University of New Mexico (UNM) after his last director’s post for Austria and its cultural institute in New York, when the Poles remembered him as a most human man in Austria’s diplomatic service around 1970, who said the right things at a wrong time, as the Consul General put it.
The ceremony took place in the President’s House of the University of New Mexico where Fritz Cocron, by now, had become a renowned visiting professor of history, political science and culture in particular for East European Studies. And he taught his courses in English but also at times in German at UNM’s German Summer School of New Mexico and in French at the former French Summer School of New Mexico. Fritz Cocron, who even had had a longer conversation in Polish with the Polish Cardinal Woytyla – years before Woytyla became pope – delighted his peers at this university for his professional caliber as a faculty member, so that he ended his time in NewMexico.
He always stressed the fact that his main career was in the cultural division of the diplomatic service, but that a dream came true for him when he could add his twelve years of teaching and lecturing in Albuquerque. In his more than a quarter century of living in NewMexico we - his friends and colleagues - got to know his three sons – Sascha, Stephan and George for whom he remained in America altogether after his retirement from the Austrian foreign service.
He had married late and appeared to his children more than a grandfather. Nonetheless he made it to a respectable 92 years of age, and saw them grow into their thirties and even forties, all of them citizens with talent, as he mentioned happily. When Sascha Cocron, his oldest son, became Honorary Consul of Austria in Seattle, Washington, a few years ago, his fatherly pride and satisfaction could be noticed as an example of the constitutional pursuit of happiness.
Yet Fritz made many friends and had a core group of Polish, Russian, German, Austrian, French, Croatian and American people who saw him as a fatherly example. As author of this article I include myself in this group, but there were others who took care of Fritz in a much more noteworthy way, such as Charles McClelland and Sheldon Hinchberger who were tireless for years in their devotion to him and in their help to his sons, especially Sascha and Stephan.
Maybe as a symbolic summary of this eulogy to Fritz Cocron I would like to mention the 90th anniversary of the Republic of Austria in 2008 which was celebrated by the international community at UNM and which coincided by one month with Fritz Cocron’s 90th birthday so that both, country and its man, were honored in one festive event. Dr. Wolfgang Renezeder, Director of the Austrian Press and Information Service at that time was delegated for this purpose by the Austrian Embassy in Washington D.C. to Albuquerque.
By the way, Fritz Cocron praised him for his excellent Russian. At this occasion we could thus recognize Cocron’s astounding achievements before a large crowd of well wishers. A letter by Andreas Stadler, the present director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, was read aloud summarizing and symbolizing the greatness of a man who thought he had lived a life on narrow gauge: “In all my positions I covered functions which did not correspond to the full extent of my titles.
For example, instead of a tenured professor I was a visiting lecturer, instead of a career diplomat I had an assignment limited to cultural affairs, a. s. f. Still it has been a fulfilling life.” Fritz Cocron was no quiet man, but he was modest, upright, dignified, and well liked by his peers. There may be a few contemporaries of his who do not condone this appraisal, but even there Fritz himself would have agreed, for he lived with his flaws, few as they were, as a genuine representative of his beloved Austria and of mankind all the while.