One of Alaska’s foremost historians has died. Claus-M. Naske passed away last week at age 78, after a long battle with cancer. Naske was a professor of history at the University of Alaska –Fairbanks who wrote or co-authored nearly a dozen books about Alaska history.
It’s only fitting that a man who survived some of the most violent cross-currents of history should develop such a passion for the subject. That’s what many observers believe drove Claus Naske to devote his life to history, including Julia Parzick, an administrative secretary at UAF who befriended Naske and worked closely with him throughout his years with the university’s history department.
“Claus loved history,” Parzick said. “He loved Alaska. He was a very prolific writer about Alaska. I should know – I was the one who typed most of the papers he gave and retyped his books for him!”
Naske was born in Europe’s Baltic region in the years leading up to World War II. When war broke out, his father was recruited into the German army, and he and his mother and sister fled. They wandered across Germany to escape the fate of his mother’s family, which was Jewish and had been captured and killed because of their faith.
A year into their journey, 9-year-old Naske was captured by the Soviets and spent the rest of the war as a slave laborer.
Afterward, the young Naske yearned to come to America – influenced, Parzick says, by tales of the Old West, as portrayed by Hollywood.
“He had this vision of the Saturday morning cowboy movies in the theater,” she said, “and he decided he wanted to come to the U.S. Or Canada.”
Naske wrote letters seeking a sponsor in the states, one of which found its way to a family in Palmer. He moved there at age 18, learned English while working at the family’s farm, and graduated from high school.
Naske went on to study history and political science as an undergraduate at UAF, where he met the woman who would become his wife. He and Dinah spent a few years teaching at Alaska Native schools in the Bush before they returned to Fairbanks. She taught school for decades here, and he returned to UAF in 1969, after earning a doctorate in history at Washington State University.
While doing research for his Ph.D., Naske discovered little-known documents that revealed an unwillingness by U.S. and Alaskan officials to help Jews fleeing Nazi persecution find homes in Alaska.
While at UAF, Naske wrote many accounts of the state’s history, including “Alaska: A History of the 49th State,” and biographies of the state’s first two senators, Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett.
Parzick says she was working with Naske on his memoirs before he passed away last Wednesday, in the place and with the people he loved most – “here in Fairbanks, at his home, with his wife, daughter, son and sister.”
The family is planning a memorial potluck for his here in Fairbanks, tentatively set for April 12th.