A retired Oregon pastor notes in a new book that a Jewish Holocaust survivor was Martin Luther King’s German-language PHD exam tutor at Boston University in 1950s

A Holocaust survivor was Martin Luther King’s German-language PHD exam tutor at Boston University when King was studying for his doctorate in systematic theology in the early 1950s, according to a new book by retired Oregon Methodist pastor Milo Thornberry.

Thornberry, 73, worked with the same tutor when he was studying for his PHD in 1965 at Boston University, he told me, and on pages 28-29 on his recently-published memoir “Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror,” Thornberry explains how he came to know that his tutor was also the man who tutored Martin Luther King some ten years ago in Boston.

While Thornberry cannot recall the man’s name, he is sure he was a Holocaust survivor who lived in the Back Bay section of Boston and he is sure he was King’s tutor in the early 1950s. For two reasons: one, because his PHD advisors at Boston University, Per Hassing and Harold DeWolf told him so, and two, the tutor once showed Thornberry a concentration camp number tattoo on his arm and said he had been an inmate at Auschwitz in the 1940s.

The gentleman, who is now dead but whose name might surface one of these days — once this news article reaches out to a crowd-sourcing platform — was in his 60s when he tutored the young Martin Luther King in his small Back Bay apartment in Boston, Thornberry told me when I interviewed him recently by email.

King was in his early 20s, while his tutor, who had been an inmate in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, was in his 60s, Thornberry said.

How did this come about? According to Thornberry, one of MLK’s professors recommended the German-speaking man to King as an excellent German-language exam tutor.

“[That tutor] knows how to get students ready for the exams,” Harold DeWolf told Thornberry in the mid-1960s, when he was stuyding in Boston, and DeWold recommended the tutor for Milo, adding that the same man had been MLK’s tutor as well.

The tutor lived in a small apartment with his wife in the Back Bay section of Boston, and that is where King went for his tutoring sessions with him, according to Thornberry.. It was in September of 1951 that King began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University. His dissertation, “A Comparison of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Wieman,” was completed in 1955, and the Ph.D. degree from Boston, a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology, was awarded on June 5, 1955.

One day, according to Thornberry’s memoir, published in 2011, when the heat from the radiator of the tutor’s apartment was turning the room tropical, he once rolled up his sleeves and it was then that Thornberry saw a blurred serial number on the old man’s left forearm. When Thornberry asked his tutor about it, he said that yes, he had been an inmate at Auschwitz and was gratefulfor liberation by Soviet forces.

Although the tutor was a talkative man, Thornberry told this reporter, he never again spoke of Auschwitz again. Did King ever see this tattoo on his tutor’s arm? One is left to imagine so.

The tutor, according to Thornberry, was small in stature, thin, with a head of gray hair, and it was believed that he come to the USA from Germany after the war. “He spoke English with a German accent and usually tutored graduate students in German, although he also tutored PHD students in French, Thornberry told me.

Thornberry told me that the tutor’s apartment in the Back Bay section of Boston was small, and that he had a wife who would serve coffee and then disappear into another room. He would have been in his mid to late 60s in the mid 1950s when he tutored King, Thornberry said.

When the tutor was asked about his memories of MLK when he was his student for the off-campus tutoring sessions, he told one of the Boston University advisors who was also Thornberry’s advisor: “Ah yes,he was a good student, that Martin!”

King’s PHD advisor at BU, Harold DeWolf, who died in 2002, also told Thornberry that King was not a social activist when he was studying for his PHD at BU. When asked by Thornberry if that characterization of King in his early 20s was true, the tutor told Milo: “Yes, Dr DeWolf is right, and he would know better than anyone else. Maritn avoided those [activist] organizations. He was here [at BU] to study, and that’s what he did. Oh, he and Coretta went to an occasional concert, but he didn’t let anything distract him from what he was here for, including preparing for his German language exam.”

The tutor also told Thornberry, according to his book: “When Martin was here as a student at BU, I kew I would be reading about him in the newspapers someday, he had that charisma about it already, but I just didn’t know it would be so soon. Within six months of getting his doctoratee, he was leading the Mongomery Bus Boycott!”

The New York Times or the Boston Globe might want this story, but first we need the name. We might have a story here! If….we can nail down the man’s name, country of origin, and the dates of his birth in Europe before World War II and death in America sometime last century.

So, if any readers out there in cyberspace now the name of this tutor in Boston, please contact this reporter at danbloom@gmail.com


FOOTNOTE: from Dr Milo Thornberry

Dear Friends,
I am a graduate with a Th.D. in Missions/Ecumenics/World Religions from Boston University School of Theology in 1974. Although separated in time by about ten years, Dr. King and I had the same tutor to help us prepare for our language exams. When he tutored me (in French) he was in his 70s and lived in Back Bay. He was a holocaust survivor and told wonderful stories about Dr. King when he was at BU. Alas, I cannot remember his name. I am wondering if you know or know how I can find out? I doubt that the tutor had any official relationship to BU. He was recommended to me by my major professor, Per Hassing. Harold DeWolf also knew him well. Unfortunately, both of these men are dead.
Although I never shook Dr. King’s hand, I participated in the Civil Rights Movement and the Sit-In Movement in Dallas. I have written a book, Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror, in which the influence of Dr. King and his tutor on my life are recounted.
Your response would be greatly appreciated!

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