09 August 2009

Oregon: Eugene oral history project

A Jewish oral history project in Eugene, Oregon is preserving the memories of residents.

According to the Register-Guard's August 5 story, the Lane County Jewish History Museum is collecting oral histories of Eugene Jewish residents to document the area's Jewish history.

Similar projects could be duplicated in any Jewish community.

Arriving in Eugene a half-dozen years apart from each other, Elizabeth Siegel and Hilde Geisen remember the days when the city’s population was barely 35,000, and few Jewish families lived here.

“It was unusual to be Jewish,” acknowledges the German-born Hilde, who was barely 18 years old when she arrived in Eugene in the late ’40s, a survivor of the Holocaust.

Elizabeth, raised in Astoria, moved to Eugene in the mid-’50s with her own young family.

Their stories, along with a dozen others, have been preserved by the Lane County Jewish Oral History Project and are archived along with 300 oral histories of Jewish Oregonians at the Oregon Jewish History Museum (OJM). The state’s Jewish community is just 1.01 percent of Oregon’s population; after Portland, Eugene has the second largest population.
The Lane County project was started by Temple Beth Israel member Lee Miller in response to Senior Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankins’ concerns about the loss of Jewish histories as elder members passed away.

“Every time someone dies, we feel the loss of them, but also the loss of their stories,” explains Ellen Todras, co-coordinator of the local project.

Transcribers interview the oldest community members first.
The story focuses on the now recorded memories of Elizabeth Siegel and Hilde Geisen. The inclusion of these stories in the archives means their memories will always be remembered.

Siegel's story includes Russian and Lithuanian parents and begins in New York. It covers her father's secondhand and junk business, as well as some anti-Semitism in Astoria where maybe six families lived. It covers her love and talent for singing and music, teaching ballet to young children. They joined the Portland community for high holidays.

She met her husband in 1949, and was engaged that year.

Nevertheless, having made a commitment to promote her talents, Elizabeth sang and danced her way through auditions in New York City. Television star Ted Mack asked her to join the Ted Mack and Original Amateur Hour Tour, and radio talk-show host Arthur Godfrey offered her a spot on one of his programs.

After the frenetic schedule of singing lessons, rehearsals and auditions, Elizabeth decided she wanted to go home. “I didn’t think (show business) would work with being married. I was 20 years old. How could I know about life?”

The couple married in the Astoria synagogue, moved to Seattle and lived there for eight years before moving to Eugene. They became active in the Temple Beth Israel congregation. Elizabeth performed in Actor’s Cabaret, Very Little Theater and Oregon Festival of American Music productions.
She sang in the synagogue choir, was active in Hadassah and Sisterhood. Now 80, she still teaches tap dancing at the Eugene Ballet Academy. From a small Jewish community, there are now some 400 families.

Now in her 80s, Hilde Geisen is originally from Cologne, Germany. At 18, she arrived in Eugene in 1947, following two years in a Czechoslovakian displaced person's camp in as an orphaned camp survivor.

Following Kristallnacht, her parents began completing immigration paperwork to immigrate to Eugene, where her aunt and uncle lived - Trude and Ludwig Kaufman. However, they could not leave in time.

In 1941, her parents were transported to a camp near Lodz, Poland. Geisen was transported nine months later to a camp near Prague, where she was assigned to care for aged and sick people.
“The first few weeks, the old people died like flies,” Hilde says. “They got sick with malnutrition and diarrhea, and there was no medication.”

She says she survived only because her camp was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz and didn’t have any gas chambers. “It was like a transit camp,” where the inmates stayed temporarily before boarding trains to imminent death.

“It’s a miracle that I survived the war and another (miracle) that I was able to come” to America, Hilde says.
Eventually, she joined her aunt and uncle in Eugene. She learned the fate of her father in Lodz only 10 years ago; her mother's fate is still unknown.

Her aunt and uncle owned women's clothing stores and, after a few years living in Los Angeles and San Francisco, she returned and worked as a buyer for the stores.

She has many friends at the synagogue and around the world; lives half the year in Palm Springs and Israel, and travels to Germany and other countries. In Eugene, she volunteers in a nursing home in various capacities.

Read the complete story at the link above.

1 comment:

  1. Preserving Holocaust stories is essential to the future of our progeny. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world.

    Holocaust stories help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect future generations from making the same mistakes.

    I wrote a Holocaust book to promote the struggle against genocide. It presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical remediation.

    I praise all who record their Shoah experiences, or the experiences of family, friends and acquaintances. Such records show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope.

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, "Jacob's Courage"