Versatile actor and writer who found peace in the west

Peter Jankowsky: May 9th, 1939 - September 18th, 2014

Peter Jankowsky: valued as a stylist in a language not his own. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Peter Jankowsky: valued as a stylist in a language not his own. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Peter Jankowsky, who has died aged 75, was an actor, a teacher, a book reviewer for this newspaper, a photographer, a writer and translator in both German and English.

Much of the work he did for Irish culture was unknown here. He was, for example, the translator and the recorded voice heard by the German audiences that flocked to Riverdance.

He also published in Germany translations of the work of many established Irish poets, including Michael Longley and Michael Hartnett, and he had an instinct for detecting genius in the young, as in the case of Davoren Hanna, who died aged nineteen in 1994, or Sarah Berkeley, shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2010, whose verse he translated in 1989 when she was still a teenager.

As an actor, Jankowsky was seen in more than 40 countries playing the lead role of the Nazi spy Dr Hermann Goertz in the 1984 RTÉ/Channel 4 TV drama series Caught in a Free State, written by Brian Lynch, about German spies in Ireland during the Emergency.

Accident

He got the part almost by accident, having first been hired as a translator. None of the cast were aware, until informed by Jankowsky, that he had also worked as a professional actor in Germany .

After Caught in a Free State Jankowsky briefly continued a career in television, playing the role of a German photographer in four episodes of Glenroe, again written by Lynch. He meanwhile continued to be an inspirational teacher at the Goethe-Institut in Dublin, where he worked for more than 30 years.

He did occasionally play cameo roles on screen, for instance as the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria in Her Name Was Lola, Anne Roper’s 2006 docudrama about Lola Montez, and in Louis Lentin’s No More Blooms (1997) and Grandpa, Talk to me in Russian (2008).

His stage acting was confined largely to one-man shows devised by himself to illustrate the work of his favourite German writers, notably Goethe and Kafka.

‘Sunday Miscellany’

Jankowsky was best known to radio audiences as what this newspaper called “the man with perhaps the most distinctive Sunday Miscellany voice of all”.

The then producers of the programme, Martha McCarron and Tim Lehane, immediately recognised and nurtured his talent, not least as a stylist in a language not his own.

At his funeral McCarron recalled that she would “jump for joy” when she got a new piece from him. Unfortunately, when she and Lehane left RTÉ, the station also soon found Jankowsky surplus to requirements. However, a number of his contributions can be found in a Sunday Miscellany anthology edited by Marie Heaney and in his own memoir, Myself Passing By, published in 2000 and described as “a profound example of the romantic German tendency to find the good in the foreign, and as such ... perhaps the best book ever written by a German about Ireland”.

Jankowsky was born in Berlin in 1939. During the war both his father and stepfather were killed and Peter himself was lucky to survive: in the spring of 1945 a bomb landed “half a dozen steps” from where he was playing. Shortly afterwards, a demented 14-year-old boy, probably one of the unfortunates the Nazis drafted into the army in the last months of the war, tried for no reason to kill him.

These experiences, and seeing prisoners from Auschwitz being whipped by their guards as they were moved towards Germany in the face of the Russian advance, decided the course of Jankowsky’s life and thinking.

The guilt of the war and the fate of the Jews, in particular the murder of the poet Paul Celan’s family and his suicide by drowning in Paris in 1970, were constant reference points in his mind.

Journey to the west

Jankowsky said that the further west he went, particularly to Clare Island, Co Mayo, the more he “felt strangely at rest, even at home … as if I had come at last to where I had always been, and from where there was nowhere else to go”.

Peter Jankowsky is survived by his widow, the painter Veronica Bolay, his son, Aengus, his daughter-in-law, Irina, and granddaughter, Mila.