Piper Brown-Kingsley: Learning the Importance of Personal Histories

Left: Claire Hitter, Right: Piper Brown-Kingsley working on cataloging oral histories at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Over the past five months, Claire Hitter (George L. Mosse Program Undergraduate Intern) and I have listened to, transcribed, and indexed one hundred different interviews from past and present, members of the Wisconsin Jewish community. These interviews were originally conducted in four different batches—the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and the early 2000s. The people in these interviews discussed topics and experiences ranging from escaping Nazi Germany to raising Jewish children in small Wisconsin communities. There were many fascinating interviews and I learned so much about Jewish life and Judaism. Here are a few interviews that really stood out to me.

  1. As a Milwaukee native, I found Fred Friend’s interview on July 22, 1954 fascinating. Listening to his recollections, I learned a great deal about the area in which I grew up. Fred’s father came to Milwaukee from Bavaria in 1854, where he worked in the clothing business with his brothers, who were the first of his family to emigrate to America and establish the Friend Clothing Company. Fred discussed the formation of Temple Emanu-El in 1870 and how his parents and uncles were some of its first members.[1] During the latter half of the 19th century, the Jews living in Milwaukee were primarily of German origin. The first synagogues of Milwaukee were reform temples and Fred was raised as a Reform Jew. However, in the first decades of the 20th century, Milwaukee experienced a wave of migration of Orthodox Jews from the Russian Empire; they arrived as a result of pogroms, increased discrimination against Jews, World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution. As a result, the Milwaukee Jewish community changed from having a primarily German Reform population to a Jewish population and institutions that were mainly Orthodox.
  2. As the George L. Mosse Program Undergraduate Intern, it was exciting to listen to the interview with George L. Mosse, himself. The Mosse History Program in History and the famous humanities building at UW-Madison is also named for him. On March 26, 1975, he gave a fascinating interview about his life. In it, he discussed escaping Nazi Germany fifteen minutes before a new law went into effect requiring special permission to leave the country, which he would not have received since he was Jewish. He also talked about coming to the United States and his academic career at the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview because I learned about the life of one of UW-Madison’s most famous professors who has left a lasting impact on the university.
  3. As a history major who enjoys learning about Soviet Russia, I found Mollie Putterman’s interview from September 17, 1976 to be very engaging. Mollie was born in a small Russian town in 1914. She discussed the conditions in Russia during World War I and her family’s experiences during the Bolshevik Revolution. Mollie talked about one of her sisters who was a revolutionary and a doctor, which according to Mollie was uncommon for a Jewish woman at the time. Mollie, her parents, and a several of her siblings came to America in 1923, but three of her siblings stayed in the Soviet Union. She described the process of communicating with her siblings through people in Poland and the experience of visiting them in the Soviet Union after years of separation. I loved hearing Mollie’s stories about her rebellious sister and enjoyed getting a first-hand account of what life was like during the early years of the Soviet Union.
  4. Finally, of lasting interest was the interview conducted with Dr. Martin Jack Rosenblum, a former professor of poetry and music professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which he gave on September 4, 2003. His father came to Appleton, Wisconsin from Sweden. Dr. Rosenblum discussed his father’s experiences with antisemitism while simultaneously running stores in Appleton and Chicago and how he came to the United States. He talked about his childhood and Jewish upbringing, and how they shaped his music and artwork. Dr. Rosenblum’s interview was engaging because he told a variety of stories about his childhood and his father. By the end of the interview, I felt like I had a connection with Dr. Rosenblum from hearing his family stories and opinions.

Listening to these interviews over the past several months has been an incredibly enriching experience. As a history major, I have primarily studied the history of the United States and Soviet Union at UW-Madison. Before I started this project, I had very little knowledge of Jewish history and the Judaism. I loved being able to explore this area of history through oral interviews. During my time at UW-Madison, I often learn about different periods of history through the lectures of professors and readings. Listening to people talk about the process of obtaining kosher meat in a small town without a kosher butcher or how and why they left Europe and came to America is a much more personal and engaging way of learning history. Sometimes the time periods I study seem distant and removed because I live in a time with cars, computers, smartphones, electricity, and television. Hearing people talk about their personal experiences throughout the project closed the distance that I occasionally encounter in my studies and reminded me that everyone has a unique, personal history that is shaped by religion, location, and larger events going on in the world, which later generations will study. The subject I study is about so much more than the major wars and world leaders of the time period. While the experiences of someone like Mollie Putterman may not appear on one of my history exams, her interview and all of the ninety-nine other interviews are crucial for documenting history, leaving evidence and stories of the past.

2018 - Piper Brown-Kingsley[1] According to the Milwaukee Jewish Museum, the congregation was founded in 1869 and the Temple Emanu-El in 1872.

Piper Brown-Kingsley is currently working towards obtaining her B.A. in History and English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her studies focus on Soviet Russia, the French Revolution, and creative writing. She has been placed on the Dean’s List during her time at UW-Madison. Piper is a George L. Mosse Department of History Undergraduate Intern and is excited to learn more about Jewish history.

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