SOMMER, FRANCIS ERICH (18 Feb 1890-6 Dec 1978), scholar, linguist, and polyglot of GERMAN origin, was born in Speyer, Bavarian Palatinate, German Empire (today Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany), son of Hans Sommer and Maria Katharina Hoffmann. His father died when he was three and, afterwards, he moved with his mother to Antwerp, Belgium. It was in Antwerp, at the age of nine that Sommer developed an interest in languages, beginning by learning Italian on his own. He then picked up Persian at age 16 and then went on to master Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese. By his university years, he had learned Russian, English, French, Spanish, Flemish, and Latin as well.
In 1912, Sommer moved to the RUSSIAN EMPIRE where he took up a job in the city of Kharkov (in present-day Ukraine), the first of many jobs calling upon his vast knowledge of languages. During his years in Russia, he also learned Ukrainian, Tatar, Polish, and Chinese. Russia’s entry into WORLD WAR I, the revolutions of 1917, and the subsequent civil war disrupted Sommer’s life. Disillusioned with the new Soviet Russia, he traveled to the Russian Far East and from there, left Russia permanently in 1921, going first to Japan. Along the way, he met and married Miss Alexandra Patrina, daughter of a noted Amur River businessman. They arrived in the United States in 1922 and had a son, Valery (later anglicized as Lary) in 1925. Sommer began employment with the CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY in 1926 as a Special Cataloguer in the JOHN G. WHITE SPECIAL COLLECTION. By his own account, Sommer spoke 14 languages and read another 34. Since the White Collection encompassed so many languages, he studied the script of 135 of them. He also worked part-time in the Music and Foreign Literature Departments of the library. After retiring in 1958, he returned to the library as a Consultant in Foreign Languages, a position that he held until 1965.
Sommer’s encyclopedic knowledge of languages served him well throughout his tenure at the library and earned him renown outside of Cleveland. Once he received a letter from Berlin in Chinese, Arabic, Gujarati, Armenian, and Kanarese. The author challenged him to answer in any language he wished, to which Sommer replied in 19 obscure tongues. Some materials in the White Collection, such as a rare 1915 chapbook on the Kurds by Yevgeny Baranov (the only known copy in North America), likely came from Imperial Russia to Cleveland via Sommer. In 1952, Sommer recorded his experiences in Russia during the fateful years of 1912-1921 in a memoir entitled Idyll, War, and Revolution: Across Russia in Ten Historic Years. It was published posthumously by the Cleveland Public Library in 2011.
Pietro A. Shakarian
The Ohio State University
With special thanks to Ann Marie Wieland and Pamela J. Eyerdam of the Cleveland Public Library for their input and assistance.
Sommer, Francis Erich. Idyll, War, and Revolution: Across Russia in Ten Historic Years (Cleveland: Cleveland Public Library, 2011).