Lucy Sprague Mitchell: Child Education Reformer and Berkeley’s First Dean of Women

By Deborah Qu

“It was naive, but it wasn’t as naive as it sounds.” — Lucy Sprague Mitchell on chasing her dream to expand career prospects for women

One hundred and fifty years ago in 1870, the UC Regents first declared that the university’s doors were open to women students, giving them the opportunity to pursue a higher education. Access to student facilities, housing, and resources were still far from equal for women. Thus began an era where thousands of young women pioneered for positive change, making their mark on the university, as well as transforming society at large. One of these women was Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the first dean of women from 1906–1912, and one of the first women instructors in UC Berkeley’s Department of English. Mitchell, an advocate for educational reform, had observed that “public opinion reacts very slowly. And there’s always been something that irritates me, and that is the voices against are so much louder than the voices for.” Yet her unrelenting optimism and her passion for education allowed her to introduce a more holistic framework for child learning and expand career prospects for women outside the limited field of teaching.

Lucy Sprague Mitchell in front of a chalk board
Lucy Sprague Mitchell at the Bank Street College of Education

Born in 1878, Lucy Sprague Mitchell grew up in a traditional household where any sort of play was seen as “a waste of time.” In a 1962 interview with the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, Mitchell recalls a multitude of happy childhood memories, but they were also mixed with conflicting feelings of unworthiness and loneliness caused by her family’s strict Puritan modes of discipline. It is possible that these childhood learning experiences were great influencers in her later experimental work in education. In her autobiography, Two Lives: The Story of Wesley Clair Mitchell and Myself, she explained how she believed that the entire learning process is not complete without the “intake” of experience transforming into an “outgo,” or some living, creative action caused from the development. Perhaps these mixed childhood memories had also inspired her to take positive action through childhood education reform.

After graduating from Radcliffe College, Lucy Sprague Mitchell was appointed as Berkeley’s first dean of women at only age 23. In her oral history, Mitchell recalled a conversation she had with the university President Benjamin Ide Wheeler. His instructions were “to find out what needs to be done and to do it.” While terrified and confused, this is exactly what Mitchell did. As dean of women, Mitchell did not succumb to the “motherly” role to students that was expected of her in the early 1900s. Instead her youthful perspective allowed her to expand beyond the traditional housing and counseling needs to truly connect with students at Cal. She initiated community trips, poetry readings, and sex education discussions. She organized Parthenia, which she fondly called greek for “women of the Parthenon,” a performative showcase about various historical women and imagined female characters.

Women performing in costume 1923
A Thing of Dust, Parthenia, 1923. University Archives.

In her oral history, Mitchell reflected on why she wanted to leave her role as dean of women; Mitchell explained that her interests truly were rooted in education, not administration. During her years working with women students, she had become, she says, “extremely concerned about the lack of professional training for women excepting in the field of teaching. She explained how “not everybody is equipped to be a teacher, nor wants to be a teacher.” At the time, Mitchell found it jarring that over 90 percent of the women students she surveyed had planned to become a teacher after graduation. While Cal was progressive for its time, teaching was the most socially acceptable profession and “the only thing that the University offered to women.” In retrospect, Lucy Sprague Mitchell believed that her real reason for requesting a leave from Berkeley “was to try to explore different fields of work that women could enter and for which the University could train them.”

This disaffection inspired innovation. Lucy Sprague Mitchell brought the issue of limited education for women to six social organizations in New York, completing statistical fieldwork from women working in nursing, to labor legislation about city tenements, to public schools. Her exposure to public school education had such a profound effect on Mitchell that she became an educator resource for teachers throughout 1922–1955. She began developing experimental methods about childhood education and classroom procedure that promoted creative expression and holistically fulfilled a child’s emotional, physical, and mental needs. Her emphasis on “relationship teaching” and “active learning” over memorization helped shape the way for “social studies,” a course widely studied in American classrooms today. Her focus on the learning environment was unorthodox at the time, and it led her to new paradigms of using childhood maturity instead of age to measure emotional intellectual development. She founded Bank Street College of Education in New York as a graduate student teacher training institution in 1916 based on this same philosophy.

Deborah Qu
Deborah Qu is an undergraduate research assistant with the Oral History Center

From my perspective as an undergraduate student at Cal, Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s life story teaches me that to truly orchestrate change, we should not just be focusing on the various problems of the present, but rather dreaming about all the future potential. The oral history interview allowed Lucy Sprague Mitchell to recount the early dream she had formed working with Cal students in her late 20s: to provide opportunities for young women to pursue rich and nuanced fields of study. This dream certainly did not go to waste. As a young college woman with a wide selection of majors to choose from, I am grateful that she and many others helped pave the way. Reflecting on this vision for women, Lucy Sprague Mitchell said, “Now that sounds very naive. It was naive, but it wasn’t as naive as it sounds.”

Deborah Qu is a first year undergraduate student who intends to study psychology. As a part of the celebration of 150 years of women at Berkeley, Deborah is researching the Oral History Center’s vast archive to identify women in the collection with a relationship to UC Berkeley.


Howardena Pindell: Artist, Teacher, and Social Observer

Howardena Pindell is a painter and mixed media artist, as well as a professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She earned a BFA from Boston University in 1965 and an MFA from Yale University in 1967. Pindell worked at the Museum of Modern Art from 1967 to 1979, where she held several positions, including exhibit assistant, curatorial assistant, and associate curator. She cofounded the A.I.R. Gallery in 1972. Pindell has taught in the Department of Art at State University of New York at Stony Brook since 1979.

Pindell
Howardena Pindell, c. 2017

Pindell’s interview is the first in a series of oral histories with prominent African American artists for the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. These oral histories complement the GRI’s ongoing work to collect, preserve, and interpret the art and legacies of these artists. 

Pindell was born in 1943 and grew up in segregated Philadelphia. Thanks to the support of her parents and her demonstrable talent, Pindell had a great deal of exposure to art early in life. She went on to study at Boston University and Yale University, then moved to New York in the 1960s. In New York Pindell began working at the Museum of Modern Art while also continuing to paint. She recalled, “…I was working five days a week, and I was used to having natural light, and I didn’t have natural light.” As natural light is so important to  a painter, and her work schedule cut into daylight hours, Pindell started experimenting with mixed media in these years  – a practice she has continued to expand.

Perhaps Pindell’s best-known work is Free, White and 21, a video performance piece from 1980 that is a commentary on her experiences with racism and sexism. Listen to Pindell recount the logistics of creating the piece.

Free, White and 21 also relates to many of Pindell’s ongoing challenges with racism in the women’s movement and the art world at large. Though she was a cofounder of A.I.R. Gallery in 1972 – the first artist-run gallery for women in the United States – as an African American woman, she often felt marginalized in discussions about how to expand opportunities for women artists. 

Pindell also spoke at length about her work as a professor of art, and her approach to teaching. Having been academically trained, she worked with many different professors and knew what teaching styles she would and would not emulate. Further, she saw working with students as important to her practice as a working artist. Pindell explained, “I think teaching helps me a lot, just so it keeps me fresh, because I can help the younger students – and in some cases, older students – with their work with formal issues. That keeps me informed about how I should think about my work, as well.”

Pindell’s story highlights the challenges of being a working artist, the importance of teaching others, fighting racism and sexism in the art world and beyond, as well as the long-overdue recognition of African American artists.

To learn more about Howardena Pindell’s life and work, check out her oral history

 


OHC Director’s Column – March 2020

From the Director — March 2020

From all of us at the Oral History Center, we are wishing you our best in these challenging times. We hope that you’re doing your best to get through the coming days, and above all, you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy.

In a recent oral history, George Miller discussed the idea of the dreaded “Black Swan” event that might strike at a moment’s notice, leaving destruction and disruption in its wake. But Miller has artfully crafted a healthy sense of informed detachment and thus always used these events as an opportunity for learning and reflection. Perhaps the greatest lesson from the Black Swan events he experienced in the world of finance was that we always came out the other side — maybe a bit bruised but ready to face another day. So, as many of us sit at home, self-isolating, I invite you to take a break from the constant news feed of what is happening right now and instead spend some time in the past. Delve into the OHC archive of transcripts and recordings and expose yourself, for example, to many individuals who achieved great things in their lives but who each experienced Black Swan events of their own. Trial and turbulence, patience and perseverance. 

Photo of Campus Women for Peace
Campus Women for Peace, 1964

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the most remarkable of these stories come from women we’ve interviewed, in particular those women who broke glass ceilings in the workplace and the realm of politics. We’re currently developing a database documenting the hundreds of women we’ve interviewed over the years who were connected to the University of California — as part of the 150 Years of Women at Berkeley celebration. And we continue to contribute to this history with plenty of recent interviews, including female students who were active in the SLATE organization on campus in the 1950s and 60s. And then many more interviews with women who persevered while working in support of the arts (Kathleen Dardes), the environment (Michelle Perrault), and public service (Anne Halsted). You’ll see a handful of those stories referenced in this newsletter but I encourage you to just jump in, browse the collection (our Projects page is the best way to do this), and allow the thousands of life stories we’ve collected give you reassurance, perspective, and company.

Finally, we’ve made the decision to postpone our annual Oral History Commencement in which we invite our interviewees to campus for a lively celebration of oral histories completed in the past year. We still want to express our gratitude to our narrators, so stayed tuned.

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center

 


“They Got Woken Up”: SLATE and Women’s Activism at UC Berkeley

HUAC Protest
In 1960, San Francisco police officers used fire hoses against SLATE students and civil rights activists protesting a hearing at City Hall of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The police action was front page news, including in the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo: Cindy Kamler

For students across the country, college is a time of political awakening. And perhaps no other university has earned its reputation for radical student politics quite like UC Berkeley. Indeed, mid-century political activism around civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the Free Speech Movement has shaped how students, faculty, and administrators experience life at Berkeley today.

However, one important part of Berkeley’s political history that often gets left out of the conversation is the New Left student political party SLATE. SLATE — so named because the group backed a slate of candidates who ran on a common platform for ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) elections  — operated between 1958 and 1966, and ignited a passion for politics in the face of looming McCarthyism and what many perceived as the University of California’s encroachment on student rights to free speech. These students translated political theory they learned in the classroom to action, even when it went against University policies. Perhaps SLATE’s most important ideological contribution to Berkeley’s campus and to other social movements is the “lowest significant common denominator.” This concept allowed the group to form a big tent coalition between Marxists, liberal Democrats, and others by only choosing political positions and actions that the whole group could agree on. As a result, the group became involved with civil rights, labor organizing, and anti-war protests on campus and across California. Most notably, in May of 1960, SLATE and other student activists protested the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings at the San Francisco City Hall. In response to the peaceful sit-in, police blasted students with fire hoses and dragged them down stairs before placing them under arrest. This event was emblematic of SLATE’s commitment to activism, even when it came at personal risk.

In recent years, the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library has conducted a series of interviews with members of SLATE to keep alive memories of the group’s influence on ideology and political infrastructure at UC Berkeley.

An essential part of SLATE’s story is the contributions of its women members. SLATE operated at a time before the women’s movement, but its work became an important introduction to political organizing for a generation of women students at Berkeley. These women were dedicated members of the group, but often felt sidelined in SLATE leadership. And yet, their work helped to change political culture and campus life at Berkeley. Three of these groundbreaking Berkeley women are Cindy Lembcke Kamler, Susan Griffin, and Julianne Morris. 

Cindy Lembcke Kamler was just a freshman when she connected with SLATE in the spring of 1958, drawn in by the political ideals of the group dominated by male upperclassmen and graduate students. Susan Griffin and Julianne Morris were among the second generation of SLATE activists and joined the group around the same time in 1960 — after the famous HUAC protest.

All of these women came from politically left families who feared encroaching McCarthyism. Griffin and Morris also had connections to Judaism. These backgrounds helped ignite a political consciousness in these women that led them to SLATE.

Certainly Kamler, Griffin, and Morris’s oral histories contribute to the larger archive of SLATE history, but they also speak specifically to their experiences as women in this group. For instance, Griffin and Morris recalled instances of feeling marginalized and of being left to do what Morris called the “scut work,” like mimeographing fliers and cooking for hungry activists. This work, while essential to maintaining operations, felt to them like gendered tasks. For her part, Kamler doesn’t remember gender discrimination in SLATE. She insisted, “Oh, no, I never made coffee or any of that stuff.” And yet, Griffin recalled that several years later at a meeting of SLATE women in the 1970s, 

“We were recounting how there was this prejudice against us and we were never allowed to have leadership positions. And husbands and boyfriends and guys from SLATE showed up at this meeting and started making fun of us and broke the meeting up. They thought that was the end of the story. Little did they know, [laughs] that was just the beginning of the story.”

These tensions came to a head at a 1984 SLATE reunion in which women newly empowered by feminism expressed displeasure with the way they had been treated while working for the campus political group. Many of the men denied there had been discrimination, but others took it to heart and sincerely apologized. Morris explained, “There were a lot of women who were really angry about how it had been. I don’t know that I was angry, in the sense that I really felt it was a different time and one can’t judge one time by another. But there was no question that that’s the way it was, and that’s what kind of was accepted.” Watching these events unfold, Kamler recalled, “I was just sitting there stunned. I didn’t do any of that stuff. I ran for office, I got elected, I was chairperson.”

Indeed, while there may have been invisible barriers for many of the women involved in SLATE, there were still opportunities to grow as individuals and leaders. Kamler ran for second vice president in the spring of 1958 and lost, but ran again for representative-at-large in spring of 1959 and won. She also served as the chair of SLATE for some time, helping to shape the group’s platform and activist agenda. Even Griffin and Morris were encouraged to run for ASUC office in the early 1960s, and had to learn how to campaign and feel confident in public speaking. Morris especially found running for office to be a formative experience. She remembered,

“And that was, for me, a big experience, because as I said, I was shy in terms of speaking out and I didn’t think that I could do it. And Mike Miller kept urging me to do it and saying, ‘You can do this. I’ll help you if you want, but you can do this! You’re going to be able to go to all of these fraternities and talk to them about ROTC. I just know you can do it.’ So I did it, and I really was very frightened about doing it, and I actually did fine. So that was, for me, kind of a breakthrough, that I was able to do something like that, because it wasn’t easy for me at the time.”

But as their lives became less centered around the UC Berkeley campus, these women drifted away from SLATE. Kamler married and left the group after the spring of 1960. Griffin and Morris had decreased their participation in SLATE or left campus entirely by 1964. And yet, as their oral histories reveal, the experiences these women had as Berkeley undergraduates in this student political party shaped their perspectives about politics and activism for years to come. For both Griffin and Morris, this activism took shape as involvement in the women’s movement. Griffin explained, “The guys may not have known it, but they were training feminist activists in all that period.” 

Thinking about the longer arc of SLATE’s impact on the lives of its dedicated members, Morris recalled of a reunion in the 1990s: 

“One of the things that we did was that we went around as a group and talked about what our lives were like now. And no one in that whole group went into business. Everybody was an organizer, a teacher, a social worker, a psychologist. It was so interesting that this group of people kind of, in some ways, stayed true to what we all went through in college. It really formed our lives.”

But most importantly, what these women learned from their time with SLATE was the importance of building and sustaining community in activist groups. For Morris, joining SLATE helped her find a place where she belonged. Griffin pointed to organizations of politically like-minded individuals as ways to create belonging and “joy” through an almost spiritual experience of protest.

And yet, the political work of Cindy Lembcke Kamler, Susan Griffin, and Julianne Morris wasn’t just personally fulfilling. For these individuals and generations of other women students, their political activism at UC Berkeley left an indelible mark on the campus. In thinking of this legacy, Morris reflected, “…it was one of the first…of the Left student movements. And I think it influenced a lot of people in that regard…I’m not at all sure that the Free Speech Movement would have happened without SLATE.” She concluded, “I think we were very successful in those years. We got a lot of people elected to the campus political organization, and I think people started thinking, at Cal, a little differently. They got woken up in a way that perhaps they would not have been.” 

To learn more about these activist women at Berkeley and the history of this early student political party, check out the Oral History Center’s SLATE Oral History Project.


Kathleen Dardes and the Global Impact of the Getty Conservation Institute

The Getty Oral History Project includes interviews with individuals across the spectrum of the Getty Trust, including the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), which does international work to advance the field of art conservation. Of the four programs in the Getty Trust, the GCI stands out both for its scientific collaboration with other Getty entities, and its dedication to sharing conservation information worldwide. Kathleen Dardes’ lengthy career working in various GCI training programs is emblematic of this mission.

Kathleen Dardes is the head of Collections at the Getty Conservation Institute. She studied art history and classics at Temple University in the 1970s, and then went on to study art conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art in the 1980s, specializing in textile conservation. Dardes then worked as a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She joined the GCI in 1988 as the senior coordinator for the Training Program.

Kathleen Dardes
Kathleen Dardes

When Dardes joined the GCI in 1988, this Getty program was only three years old and trying to establish itself in the field. Dardes recalls working to build credibility as an international art conservation organization, and struggling against “skepticism” about this new Getty entity:

“I think part of it had to do with the fact that we were so darn rich, and we could buy pretty much anything we wanted and could do anything we wanted, and we weren’t beholden to anyone except our trustees. That gave us a certain freedom, which I think was sometimes resented in the broader field. So we had to prove ourselves.”

Part of the way the GCI proved itself was investing heavily in the international training programs Dardes helped create to share conservation best practices worldwide. These included the idea of preventive conservation, or delaying the deterioration of objects through procedures like managing collections environments. Dardes explained the need for this training, saying, 

“In the field, you’d hear these funny stories about people making all sorts of elaborate measures to control environments in a gallery space or storage area, but the roof was leaking [laughs] or there was a pest issue or something. So we were looking at the small details, and not the larger system that the museum is.” 

In recent years, the GCI has undertaken a project called MEPPI or Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative. Dardes explained that the GCI and several partners worked hard to establish much-needed photograph preservation courses throughout the Middle East to help institutions protect these collections. This project included many challenges, not the least of which is political instability. In her interview Dardes shared the inspirational story of one MEPPI participant’s dedication to conservation, even in the midst of the Syrian Civil War:

“When we arranged a follow-up course in Lebanon, which was open to people from throughout the region, one of the participants in Syria, at great personal risk, got on a bus with her father, who was there to protect her, and took a bus from Syria to Beirut. Took her two days to do that, a trip that normally takes half a day. Couldn’t fly because it was too difficult to go to the airport, too risky, but came to Beirut to be with her old colleagues and take a course—which we all found absolutely stunning. But that’s how committed she was, not only to the course itself, to the collections she was in charge of, but also to the network that was forming. She wanted to see her old colleagues and be involved in this thing called MEPPI. So it sounds very pollyannaish, but it was a wonderful thing. People who don’t often have the opportunity to be involved in projects like this don’t take them for granted. It was something that we all thought was remarkable.”

Though she has not explicitly used her skills as a textile conservator while at the GCI, Dardes has found opportunities to engage with the larger implications of cultural heritage around the world. Indeed, being a part of the Getty Trust has opened global opportunities for her—and the GCI—to share and teach conservation best practices on an incredible scale. 

To learn more about her work with the Getty Conservation Institute, check out Kathleen Dardes’ oral history!


From the Archives: Irvin Shiosee

By Miranda Jiang

Miranda Jiang is an Undergraduate Research Apprentice at the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She is a UC Berkeley history major graduating in Spring 2022.

Miranda image
Miranda Jiang

“I just can’t go out there with my Indian costume, because when I do that they might think, you know, oh, here comes a savage Indian.” — Irvin Shiosee

In 1942, Irvin Shiosee, a member of the Laguna Pueblo of the Southwest, moved with his family to Richmond’s boxcar village. Along with many members of the Acoma Pueblo, members of the Laguna Pueblo moved to this village (often referred to both as the Santa Fe Indian Village and the Richmond Indian Village) beginning in the 1920s. This migration followed a verbal agreement with the Santa Fe Railroad in California, which promised them employment in railroad maintenance and construction.  

As part of the “Rosie the Riveter” project, the Oral History Center has conducted over 250 interviews with individuals who lived in the Bay Area during World War II, including people who lived in Richmond’s boxcar village. In his 2005 interview, Shiosee recalls his childhood there: he describes rows of around sixty boxcars placed along the railway, each housing one or more families. The children’s playground was a small “swamp” where they would take makeshift rafts and search for tadpoles. Among other anecdotes, Shiosee describes how his father built his family an oven to make sure they didn’t “lose any of [their] traditional food,” such as sweet “Indian pudding” made in the oven overnight.

Shiosee image
Irvin Shiosee during his oral history interview.

Shiosee’s life within the village often seemed like a separate world from life outside and public school. Whereas day school at his old reservation was with other members of his tribe, at Peres Elementary School, there were Richmond-area children of many ethnicities. He had to learn English through Dick and Jane, and indigenous students were only allowed to speak English. He describes how students would “squeal on [them]” if they heard Shiosee or other Pueblo kids speaking Keresan. Subsequent punishments included standing against the wall or completing chores such as wood-chopping and cleaning the bathroom. 

Shiosee also encountered stereotypical perceptions of indigenous people through his interactions with other children. On the first day of school, the teacher couldn’t pronounce his last name while introducing him to the class. He could see the surprise on his classmates’ faces upon hearing that he was an “American Indian boy.” The media only represented people like him in stories of “cowboys versus Indians,” so to these American children, indigenous people were the enemy. 

“So that’s how they saw me,” he says, “as a savage Indian, I guess.” 

Neither did the administration show much support. Children viewed him as a figure from fables and histories, and they would come up to pat him. When he whacked their hands away, teachers would send Shiosee to the principal’s office where he would be disciplined for fighting.

As Shiosee grew older, he became more and more aware of two separate realms. In his life outside the village, he knew he would face hostility if he showed his Pueblo identity. He describes walking to junior high school in the morning: 

“I had to take off my Indian costume and hang it on this fence that I had to go through, and then put on my street clothes… ” 

Yet despite going to school in an English-speaking environment and being pressured to assimilate, Shiosee remained closely connected with his culture and language. At the end of the interview, Shiosee describes his relationship with English and Keresan:

“English language to me is like I’m copying somebody. It’s not my natural language. The language that I speak comes from my heart on to you, you know. But to imitate somebody is not really from the heart. It’s coming from the mouth.”

In 1982, the Santa Fe Railroad shut off the power to the village. Although Richmond’s boxcar village was populated for around 60 years, it is now a relatively little known piece of Bay Area history. It has been documented in a number of writings, including essays by emeritus Oregon State University professor Kurt Peters (see “Boxcar Babies: The Santa Fe Railroad Village at Richmond, California, 1940-1945”). An event at Richmond’s Native Wellness Center in 2009 included three former inhabitants of the village as speakers, two of whom have interviews with the Oral History Center. 

The boxcar village no longer exists physically, nor does it seem present in the Bay Area’s public consciousness. Although the inhabitants of the village attended local schools and events, and were spatially near other Bay Area neighborhoods, the Pueblo people preserved their culture and ways of life within the Richmond boxcar village. Ensuring knowledge of the Pueblo’s long history in the Bay Area is an important step towards recognizing what Shiosee already states in his interview: that rather than being faraway relics of history, he and his people are part of the present.

As a first step to learning more about the lives of Laguna and Acoma Pueblo people at this remarkable settlement, I encourage you to view the Rosie project’s compilation of interview segments related to the village. I further recommend reading and watching the full interviews, such as Irvin Shiosee’s interview.

 


Never Forget? UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center documents memories of the Holocaust for researchers and the public

“It’s too late now because there’s nobody I can ask.”
— Katalin Pecsi, child of Auschwitz survivor

The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is on January 27 of this year and 41% of Americans don’t know what Auschwitz is — including a whopping two-thirds of millennials. A recent survey found a stunning lack of basic knowledge in the United States about the Holocaust — defined by the US Holocaust museum as “the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews” that decimated the Jewish population in Europe. Almost one million Jews were killed in Auschwitz alone, the largest and most infamous of the death camps. With fewer and fewer Jews who experienced the Holocaust first-hand alive to tell their stories — the youngest survivors with memories of the camps are in their eighties and nineties today — the cry of Holocaust remembrance not to forget depends on a clear historical record.

Throughout the Oral History Center’s vast collection of interviews are more than 200 that reference the Holocaust. While there is no specific Oral History Center (OHC) project dedicated to documenting the Holocaust, interviews can be found within projects about food and wine, arts and letters, industry and labor, philanthropy, and more. Furthermore, our oral history collections about the history of UC Berkeley include memories of the Holocaust and its impact, including projects about the Free Speech Movement, the student political party SLATE, and faculty interviews. These oral histories document memories of the Holocaust from a multiplicity of perspectives, from the first-hand experiences of Jewish refugees who fled from Europe before it was too late, to Americans who first heard about the atrocities after the liberation of the camps. The Jewish narrators in particular talk about how the Holocaust was the driving factor in their careers, philanthropy, Israel advocacy, and political activism. These oral histories may be particularly interesting to scholars as they provide a different lens for looking at the Holocaust, capturing the histories of those who were being interviewed for other reasons, but nonetheless spoke about the impact of the Holocaust on their lives.

There are oral histories in the collection that preserve the experiences of Jewish refugees who managed to flee Europe before it was too late and build new lives for themselves in the United States. Alfred Fromm fled Germany for the US in 1936 and went on to build a successful wine distribution business; he became a philanthropist supporting numerous educational, cultural, and Jewish organizations, including UC Berkeley’s Magnes Museum. In 1939, violinist Sandor Salgo had a sponsor in the United States but was denied a visa from the US consul in Hungary, who said the Hungarian quota was filled until 1984; Salgo cried to a patroness that he would probably die in a concentration camp and she was able to intervene on his behalf; his brother died in Auschwitz. Berkeley Mechanical Engineering professor and dean George Leitmann escaped Nazi-occupied Austria in 1940 at the age of 15, a few years later to return to Europe during WWII as a US Army combat engineer. He was in the second wave of soldiers who liberated Landsberg Concentration Camp, and later served as a translator during the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. All these experiences influenced his scientific area of study in control theory — measuring risk, probability, and how to avoid catastrophe.

“We certainly got there in time to see the smoldering bodies they were trying to burn and the skeletons. That probably hit me more than it hit the rest of the guys, because here my father was still missing. I still had hopes to see him among the DPs [displaced persons].” — George Leitmann on the liberation of Landsberg concentration camp. His father did not survive.

Bodies at Landsberg Concentration Camp
Photo of Landsberg Concentration camp taken by Professor George Leitmann on day of the liberation. Photo courtesy of George Leitmann

The one collection of interviews that addresses the Holocaust in the most detail is that of the the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation Leadership. Here can be found the oral history of William Lowenberg, a Holocaust survivor, number 145382 of the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing complex. His interview details how as a teenager luck, good health, and his own survival strategies enabled him to survive his harrowing journey through extermination camps, the Warsaw Ghetto aftermath, and a death march, until he was liberated from Dachau concentration camp at the age of 18. After an attempt to go home (like so many, his house had been taken over), Lowenberg eventually settled in San Francisco, where the Jewish Family Services Agency helped him secure a job collecting rent for a realty company. He went on to become a major figure in industrial real estate in the city. Lowenberg gave back to the agency later, serving on the same committee that helped him, in the 1970s finding jobs for Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. Of his life dedicated to philanthropic and political activism on behalf of the Jewish community and Israel, Lowenberg reflected, “I feel that Jewish survival depends on the Jews.”

“I was young, healthy, and I kept clean. I kept as clean as I could all of the time.” — William Lowenberg on his survival strategies

The OHC collection also includes interviews of those who were present for the liberation, like Berkeley History Professor Emeritus Richard Herr, who was serving in the Signal Intelligence Corps and visited Buchenwald shortly after the liberation. He describes the displaced persons wandering the streets, survivors in their striped pajamas, the pile of dead bodies. “I was told they’d died after the liberation. They’d just been in such poor shape. They were just skin and bones. It was terrible.”

The collection also includes interviews of those who didn’t directly experience the Holocaust, but heard about it through family, friends, teachers, even work acquaintances. Oral histories are unique in that they can include off-hand comments and asides that illuminate an era. Six million — two thirds of Europe’s Jews perished — but three million survived and many dispersed to other countries including the United States. Narrators would encounter these survivors, the tales of depravity would sear in their memories, and the narrators would sometimes make offhand remarks. Other narrators provide more details about the many facets of the Holocaust — resistance and the underground, escapes, refugees and displaced persons, concentration camps, the murder of entire families — such as the oral histories of Laurette Goldberg, who taught music at UC Berkeley; Berkeley MBA Ronald Kaufman; wine writer Mike Weiss; winery manager Morris Katz; economist Lester Telser; poet Carl Rakosi, and Berkeley student activist Danniel Goldstine.

Women and children on the way to gas chambers
Hungarian Jews on the way to the gas chambers, Auschwitz. Photo courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum photo archive. From Hungary, Katalin Pecsi’s mothers’ entire family were killed.

Among these are the oral histories of children of Holocaust survivors, including Berkeley History Professor Emerita Paula Fass, Paula Kornell, and Katalin Pecsi. All of them attributed their careers to their parents’ experiences. Growing up in Hungary, Katalin Pecsi knew her father had survived Auschwitz, her uncle Buchenwald, and her paternal grandmother Dachau; but had been told they were political prisoners because of their affiliation with the Communist Party. She later learned that she was Jewish, that her mother’s entire family had been killed in the Holocaust, and began to question what she had been told. “When I was a child I was told that they were political prisoners because they never told me that we were Jewish… but I’m not sure that’s true that they arrived as political prisoners. I don’t know, it’s too late now because there’s nobody I can ask.” Learning about her Jewish heritage combined with her longing to know about her own family propelled Pecsi into a career in Holocaust remembrance, becoming the director of education at the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center.

“My parents were both survivors of the concentration camps. They had lost families. Not just their parents and siblings, but in fact, husbands, wives and children. They were married to other people, and my mother had a son who was taken from her when he was three. My father had four children who were all taken away and died in Auschwitz. One of the things that’s very, very clear is that I became a historian because of it. I became a historian because history was always around.” — Berkeley Professor Paula Fass

“What the concentration camp [Dachau] instilled in my father was just the beauty of life, and I think he helped to instill…was the beauty of a vineyard or of a vine growing, or beauty of your garden or the beauty of winemaking.” — Paula Kornell, winemaker

The OHC collection includes numerous oral histories that touch on narrators’ reactions to learning about the Holocaust. Interviewers for the Rosie the Riveter World War II Homefront Collection, for example, frequently asked narrators, who came from many walks of life, when did they first learn about the Holocaust and what was their reaction. Like Beatrice Rudney and Bud Figueroa, narrators interviewed for the Rosie the Riveter collection generally responded that they learned about the horrors of the genocide after the war, sometimes mentioning newsreels (films of piles of naked corpses, survivors of skin and bones). Other narrators, sitting for longer life-history interviews, addressed this issue when talking about their childhoods. Oral histories of Jewish narrators reveal more knowledge about what was happening during the war itself, particularly those whose families housed refugees, or who received letters from family with news of mass killings — 13 family members gone — or whose letters from family in Europe just stopped one day, such as former Dean of Berkeley Law School Jesse Choper, Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Howard Schachman, Laurette Goldberg, Lester Telser, as well as Quaker activist Gerda Isenberg. Schachman observed, “I was certainly aware of what was going on to the Jews in Europe…. I doubted those people who claimed they weren’t aware of the Holocaust — it wasn’t called the Holocaust then.”

“I understood it during the war. There were always leaks of information of what was happening. Some people would escape from the concentration camps and come back and tell it.” — Jesse Choper, Dean Emeritus of Berkeley Law

The oral histories provide researchers with information about the range of feelings people had when they learned about the atrocities in the camps. Many of these are short responses to a direct question, such as in the Rosie the Riveter collection. Daniel Levin recalled a “sickening feeling;” DeMaurice Moses described being “inured to savagery by that time;” and as David Dibble remembered it, “You have to sort of genuflect and say, true, it was the worst thing that ever happened. And it was.” Some narrators recalled how other people talked about the Holocaust, and these interactions were indelible moments for them. Berkeley alumna and student activist Susan Griffin recalled an incident about four years after the war where her fellow Girl Scout Brownie troop members were laughing, saying Heil Hitler, and making the Nazi salute. She recalled the driver pulled over, emotional, and scolded that they must never do so again; and her grandparents, whom she described as “passive anti-Semites,” explained to the six-year-old “what an evil man Hitler was.” Berkeley History Professor Emeritus Larry Levine recalled being “shocked” when he was an undergraduate five years after the war ended, and an English professor told the class, “Don’t let the Jews tell you they are the only ones who have suffered.”

Some of the oral histories provide a glimpse into how the Holocaust affected Jewish Americans in the Baby Boom generation, living in its shadow. Berkeley alumna and student activist Julianne Morris, Adrienne Asch, and Wayne Feinstein recall how the Holocaust was something they always knew about, part of the culture. As Feinstein put it, “The first twenty or thirty years after the Second World War I think the Jewish community was in shock. And I grew up in that environment.” He described the Holocaust as “the primary motivation” for his lifelong dedication to Jewish education, cultural programs, and support for Israel.

“You couldn’t be a Jew in post-Holocaust America without knowing about the Holocaust. I mean, you grew up, you knew about the Holocaust, you knew about Israel.” — Adrienne Asch, disability rights activist and professor of bioethics

Massive pile of clothes
Scene after the liberation of the Auschwitz camp: a warehouse of clothes that belonged to women who were murdered there. Photo courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum photo archive. Berkeley Professor Lloyd Ulman felt horror after seeing piles of teeth on a visit to Auschwitz.

Finally, at least a few oral histories describe how narrators reacted upon visiting death camps as tourists years, even decades, after the end of the war. Through visiting these camps in person, these narrators came face to face with the scope of the horrors. Berkeley Economics Professor Emeritus and past director of the Institute of Industrial Relations, Lloyd Ulman, along with Marty Morgenstern, past director of Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, were taken to Auschwitz on a work trip to Poland. Ulman recalls how Morgenstern went outside and “put his head between his legs. He thought he was going to throw up or faint.” Ulman recalls “terrible things like seeing a whole collection of false teeth” [taken from the dead for their gold fillings] and feeling the “horror” that General Eisenhower had felt upon seeing the camps. Annette Dobbs also lived through the war but the enormity of the Holocaust really hit her when she visited Mauthausen Concentration Camp outside of Vienna in 1971. Expressing the sentiment of many of the narrators who spoke about the Holocaust, she said, “That day I made my own personal commitment to spend the rest of my life to see that nothing like that would ever happen to my people again.”

January 27, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.


OHC Director’s Column – January 2020

From the OHC Director:

The staff of the Oral History Center wishes everyone a happy and productive 2020!

After a long winter’s rest for the Berkeley band of oral historians, this year has jumped off to a running — and even wild —  start. 

For one, we have begun the unveiling of our lengthy life history interview with four-term California Governor Jerry Brown. Done in partnership with KQED Public Media, this oral history also serves as the first interview conducted for the relaunched California State Government Oral History Project, a project of the Secretary of State. Read more about the interview background and context — or the interview itself. Here’s the page that serves as clearing house for all information about and coverage of this important oral history

We are in the final phases of preparing a number of new interviews for release in the coming weeks and months, including new releases for our projects with: the Sierra Club, the East Bay Regional Park District, the Presidio Trust, San Francisco Opera, the founders of Chicano/a Studies, and the Getty Trust African American Artist project. 

Along with our usual oral history work, we are preparing for our annual Introductory Workshop (Leap Day! February 29th) and Advanced Summer Institute (August 10–14). Applications for the Introductory Workshop and Advanced Institute are both now open. 

Come back in February for a more substantive column from your’s truly. Until then, back to that reservoir of unread emails!

Martin Meeker, Oral History Center Director


UC Berkeley Oral History Center: Jerry Brown Oral History

“Jerry Brown, I found, to be a man with a largely unwavering set of core values and principles who sometimes appears to choose contradictory ways in which to express those drives.”
— Director Martin Meeker, Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, reflecting on his experience interviewing Jerry Brown

Bancroft Roundtable: Thursday, February 20 at noon in the Lewis-Latimer Room of The Faculty Club
Brown, Behind the Scenes: Contending with Governor Jerry Brown and His Oral History 
In this presentation, OHC historians Martin Meeker and Todd Holmes will provide the behind-the-scenes story of a remarkable interview with a singular Californian and offer an initial perspective on how this oral history might influence our understanding of California and its political culture.

Inside the Jerry Brown Oral History

Jerry Brown first gubernatorial portrait
First official gubernatorial portrait of Jerry Brown by portrait artist Don Bachardy, 1984

There are very few individuals who are what might be called a “shoe-in” for an Oral History Center life history interview. Governor Jerry Brown is one who easily qualifies. Brown’s career as an elected official began in Southern California in 1969 when he was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees and then continued for nearly the next fifty years through a succession of high offices; in 2018 he concluded his record fourth term as governor.

In forty hours of interviews, there are at least three main areas of study of the life of Jerry Brown, and politics much more broadly, that might be impacted by the contents of this interview from today’s vantage point: the historical trajectory of key social and political issues; the influence of creative and unique ideas upon Brown and his agenda; and what might be called the philosophy of realpolitik — of how politics really works, at least according to Brown.

The Jerry Brown oral history was made possible by funding from the State Government Oral History Program, A Project of the California Secretary of State, State Archives.

Dive Deeper

Dive deeper into the political life of Jerry Brown through the Jerry Brown oral history.

“20 Shades of Jerry Brown” UC Berkeley Podcast
“We had 20 interview sessions, and I would say that in those 20 interview sessions, we had 20 different shades of Jerry Brown,” explains Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker in UC Berkeley’s 9-minute Fiat Vox podcast, “Berkeley oral history project reveals 20 shades of Jerry Brown.” Get a taste of the oral history — hear Brown talk about the medfly invasion, Linda Ronstadt, and politics past and present. Martin Meeker provides insights into this “extraordinarily detailed, thoughtful, self-critical, broad, and sweeping oral history.”

Jerry Brown Interview History
For the historians at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, the question was not, “Should this interview be done?” but rather, “How might it be done at all?” Get the inside story about the making of this riveting 40-hour oral history from interviewer and Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker.

Governor Gray Davis Foreword to the Jerry Brown Oral History
When Gray Davis tried to have a hole in the governor’s rug repaired, Jerry Brown responded, “That hole will save the state at least $500 million, because legislators cannot come down and pound on my desk demanding lots of money for their pet programs while looking at a hole in my rug!” Find out why Gray Davis, the 37th Governor of the State of California, who served as chief of staff to Jerry Brown during his first two terms as governor (1975-1981), thinks Jerry Brown is one of the most consequential governors in California history.

California State Government Oral History Program
The Jerry Brown oral history is a part of the State Government Oral History Program and is the cornerstone of the re-launch of the program under California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. All of the oral history materials (recordings and transcripts) will be deposited with the California State Archives and available to users through their website as well.

Jerry Brown Oral History Transcript

Todd Holmes, Jerry Brown, Martin Meeker
(L to R) Oral History Center Interviewer Todd Holmes, Governor Jerry Brown, and Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker in January 2020

Read the transcript of the 40-hour oral history. In this oral history, the following topics are discussed at length: family background and upbringing; education, religion, and friendships; the political career of Pat Brown; college, seminary, and law school; California statewide elected offices, including Governor of California; campaigns for elected office, including for US President; election reform; taxation, budgets, and deficits; law, the courts, and criminal justice reform; immigration; the environment and climate change; education reform, charter schools, and higher education; Oakland, CA; popular culture, journalism, and political campaigns; political philosophy, theories of governance, and applied politics.

KQED Forum Podcast Featuring OHC Director Martin Meeker
Politics was the family business. The Democratic party was tribal for Brown. Listen as Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker, and KQED interview partners Scott Shafer and Guy Marzorati, talk about the unique political perspective and interviewing style of Jerry Brown.

Montage Jerry Brown
KQED Podcast: Inside the Political Mind of Jerry Brown

KQED Podcast: The Political Mind of Jerry Brown
From KQED: The Political Mind of Jerry Brown brings listeners the wisdom of the former Governor, Mayor, and presidential candidate. The Oral History Center’s Martin Meeker and Todd Holmes, and KQED’s Scott Shafer, interviewed Brown for more than 40 hours, covering the former governor’s life and half-century in the political game – and Brown has some lessons he’d like to share. Premiering January 8 with hour-long episodes on KQED 88.5 FM every Wednesday at 8pm through January 29.

 


David Lamelas: A Pioneer in Conceptual Art

New Transcript Release: David Lamelas

Signaling of Three Objects
Signaling of Three Objects by David Lamelas, 1968

In 2017, the Getty Center initiated the exhibit Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA, a multi-gallery art exhibition throughout the Los Angeles area that showcased the interconnections between Latin America and the Los Angeles. In its continuing partnership with the OHC, the Getty Trust sponsored oral histories with a few of the artists featured in the year-long exhibition. David Lamelas was one of the selected artists.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1946, Lamelas would earn international recognition over his career as one of the leading pioneers of conceptual art. He graduated from the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1963 and soon became a key member of the Instituto Torcuatro di Tella, a group that stood at the center of Argentina’s avant-garde scene. With political turmoil on the rise, he left Argentina in 1968 to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, stopping along the way to represent his home country at the famed Venice Biennial. There his installation, The Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels, garnered wide praise and attention, introducing Europe to the themes of time, communication, and media that Lamelas would explore in much of his work in the decades to come.

Over the next fifty years, Lamelas continued to push the boundaries of conceptual art. From photography and installations to an impressive array of films, he continually found new ways to explore the topics of media and popular culture, as well as his favorite themes of time and space. He also has continued to be a “citizen of the world,” often splitting his time between Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, and Europe. Indeed, such travel offered ample inspiration for his work. It also made him a fitting choice for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA exhibition.

For Lamelas’ full oral history transcript, please visit our website.