Gerda Lerner was a recent refugee and only 21 years old when she wrote these words for her teacher in a 1941 Los Angeles writer's workshop:
"I've lived under six different governments; I've been a student, a nanny, a housemaid, a research worker, a salesgirl, an office worker; I've worked in a factory and I've worked in hospitals; I've been in prison and I've gone to the opera twice a week. I've been married, divorced and am now married again. I've supported myself for the last three years. Four years ago I used to have a governess, because my father thought it was proper . . . "
Lerner's life became not one whit less fascinating over the next six decades. She went on to raise a family, become a key player in the women's movement, and, at the relatively advanced age of 38, begin a serious academic career in which she pioneered the previously unexamined field of Women's History.
Lerner founded the nation's first master's degree in Women's History in 1972, and in 1981 established a doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is now the Robinson-Edwards Professor of History, Emerita, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.
All her life, historian Gerda Lerner has been not just a survivor but a fighter.
In her new memoir, "Fireweed: A Political Autobiography," she illuminates the private history that led her to become one of the foremost scholars in her field. The purpose of her memoir, Lerner writes, is to reveal what made her the kind of scholar she became-the person behind the profession. Accordingly, "Fireweed" ends in 1958, when her academic career begins.
As a piece of self-analysis and self-revelation, the book is honest and compelling. But because Lerner's life is so tightly linked to major world events, the book succeeds as a piece of history as well. Lerner, as a historian, takes great care to place her life in the context of her times, sometimes using snippets of news stories as they related to her life. The overall result is enlightening, personal, and moving. Standout themes and events include:
- A vivid and horrifying description of the Nazi thrall in Austria. "The Germans had to be educated in violent anti-Semitism; the Austrians erupted with it spontaneously," writes Lerner, a Jew, of her countrymen (Lerner became involved in the resistance movement). "Within weeks of the Anschluss the situation of Jews in Austria was far worse than that of Jews in Germany five years after the Nazi takeover." Her upper middle-class family fled to Liechtenstein, where her father had set up a business.
- Her six weeks in a Nazi prison , which "were the most important events of my life-they gave it a meaning and a shape I have ever since tried to comprehend." In particular, the experience with her cellmates taught her that "if you wanted to survive you could not do it alone and you had to fight with all your strength to keep some sort of social contract. That is what I learned in jail . . . . and it has marked all my life irrevocably."
- Her complex relationship with her mother, the artist Ili Kronstein. Lerner managed to get a U.S. visa while her family remained in Europe. Many relatives perished in concentration camps; her parents and sister dispersed throughout Europe, finding precarious "safe harbor" in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and elsewhere. Ili's letters to Lerner alternately begged her, frantically, to "do something" to get her to America-which was impossible, given the rigid quotas on immigrants-or joyously described the artistic unfolding she was experiencing for the first time, away from her husband and social constraints. Kronstein died of multiple sclerosis in Switzerland after the war. Lerner's pain over failing to understand and connect with her before her death remains with her, she writes, to this day.
- Coming to terms publicly with her Communist past. "I want to be honest with my readers, my students and my colleagues, honest about who I am, who I was, and how I got to be who I am. I neither regret nor disown my political past," she writes. She and her husband Carl Lerner, a film editor and director, were involved in left-wing activities ranging from struggling to unionize the film industry and resisting the Hollywood blacklist to grassroots work in the civil rights movement.
Continue to read Lerner's interview with Joan Fisher, Editor of the "Wisconsin Academy Review" magazine.