In Memoriam – Dr. Odette Jankowitsch-Prevor

International diplomacy in Vienna goes about its business largely behind closed doors. For many who live here, the work and the people who do it are invisible, and only occasionally cross the invisible wall into the life of the city. Dr. Odette Jankowitsch-Prevor was one of those.

An Austrian born in France at the outbreak of World War II, Dr. Jankowitsch-Prevor rose to become an internationally renowned nuclear lawyer who helped to make a safer and more secure world than the one in which she was born. As Senior Lawyer and Head of Section at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), she provided the legal expertise to the drafting of several of the key international treaties to promote nuclear safety and nuclear security.

I first met Dr. Jankowitsch-Prevor in 2005, three years after she retired from the IAEA. The iconic “Odette” had long since become a legend in diplomatic circles, a person of great charm and towering intellect, characterized by a former boss, Piet de Klerk, as a “Pillar of the House, …and a paragon of style and grace.” Given the stature of her reputation, I had expected someone taller, but even in her highest heels, she was only 156 cm – each centimeter a witness to a life which began in the horrors of the Holocaust and ended peacefully on 28 Feb. 2021, in her home in Vienna. She is survived by her son and twin grandchildren.

Dr. Jankowitsch-Prevor first set foot in her motherland when she was nearly ten years old. Graduating from the Lycee Français de Vienne, she earned a Doctorate in Law from the University of Vienna, before going on to become a Senior Fellow and Lecturer on International Law at the NYU School of Law. Among her decades of service in the United Nations system including the CTBTO, UNESCO and UNIDO, Odette served with the IAEA between 1987 and 2002 first as a Senior Legal Officer and later as Chief of Protocol. She served as the Legal Secretary to the Expert Group, which drafted and negotiated the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Management. 

After her retirement in 2002, she served as an esteemed member of the International Nuclear Law Association and an expert consultant to the IAEA’s legislative assistance program in Eastern Europe as well as in the Middle East and North Africa. She lectured regularly on nuclear law at the International School for Nuclear Law in Montpelier, France; the Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and the Energy and Research Institute in New Delhi, India. Among her many co-authored publications, most well-known is her twelve-volume treatise, “The Third World Without Superpowers: The Collected Documents of the Non-Aligned Countries”. 

Yet these are merely the professional achievements of a distinguished career, and only a fraction of the story of her life. Dr. Jankowitsch-Prevor was born on Sept. 9, 1939 just days after Hitler’s annexation of Poland and a year after her father, Enrich Prevor, had rescued his wife Grethe from a Nazi concentration camp. Together, her parents escaped to the south of France, where Odette was born.  She grew up speaking French – forbidden to speak German in public lest the family’s identity be revealed to the Nazi sympathizers who surrounded them. When the Nazis took over France, her parents escaped again – this time with a young child in hand, a child who was terrified by the night and by “the knives that silenced the dogs” whose barks could at any moment have ended their journey to the Swiss border. 

When the war ended, Mrs. Prevor insisted the family return to Austria, which they did in 1948. Odette  married young and travelled to England and Senegal with her diplomat husband. Losing her parents early in her twenties, she spoke of feeling like an orphan until she met the Senegalese “mothers” who embraced her; these were the first members of her global family and the beginning of her life-long love of Africa.

The best “souvenir” of her time in New York, she told me, was the birth of her son, Olivier. Although often critical of America’s “delusional sense of exceptionalism,” she was always proud to be the mother of a true New Yorker. While her son was the love of her life, her greatest professional passion was teaching. More than the subject matter, she valued the meeting of minds with her young Arab and Asian students, especially the young women. The coming generations were the fuel that kept her engine going well into her late 70’s.  She inspired as her students aspired and in those shared moments, brought the world closer together.

Among her friends is a veritable Who’s Who of modern diplomatic history, including former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, whose efforts to bring peace to Israel and Palestine she both supported and admired, as well as former Austrian President Heinz Fischer and former IAEA Director General Hans Blix. She accompanied her friend and former IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed El Baradei and his wife Aida to Oslo when he accepted the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.  On the passing of his friend and former colleague, El Baradei said “all of us who were privileged to know Odette will miss her terribly – her wise counsel, her sarcasm, sense of humor and above all her humanity”.  

Ultimately, Dr. Jankowitsch-Prevor’s most enduring legacy was her belief in the oneness of the human race and the equality of all human beings. Proud as she was of her high-profile friendships, she was equally devoted to her friends in other walks of life, the waiters and waitresses, students and staff and especially the refugees and immigrants she helped in her later years. She was petite and often profound, eloquent and always elegant. She possessed a laser-focused intellect, as decisive as the knives she once feared. Her insights were often laced with sarcasm, her wisdom was wedded to her wit.  Her brilliant mind shone brighter because of what many of her friends described as “her beautiful soul” – one that despite surviving the horrors of the Holocaust had emerged full of love for humanity. She refused all ethnic and religious labels but embraced every faith, race and civilization. She travelled the globe and marveled at its cultures and languages – making many of them her own. 

In a real sense, she was the best of Europe. In her final years, she worried that the rise of autocracy and militant populism would once again threaten the region and the world. In her life story, is a reminder to work for peace and to cherish our common humanity so that this century does not have to relearn the lessons or relive the horrors of the last.