Claire Hitter: Listening to the Past- How Oral Histories Keep Legacies Alive

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

From June to December 2018, I worked on a project at the Wisconsin Historical Society that brought history to life. I worked with my fellow George L. Mosse undergraduate intern Piper-Brown Kingsley to create abstracts and online records for archived oral interviews about Jewish life in Wisconsin; our goal was to make these interviews publicly available through the UW-Madison and Wisconsin Historical Society websites. Together, Piper and I created records for 100 interviews about Jewish life in Wisconsin. These interviews paint a vivid picture of the experiences of immigrants and most importantly the legacies of hundreds of individuals who chose to make Wisconsin their home from the nineteenth century until today. These individuals’ stories shed light on the true diversity of the Jewish immigrant experience and the members of the Wisconsin Jewish community. Furthermore, the experiences discussed in the interviews demonstrate how we can all create projects that will outlive us—from a summer camp to a safety supply company.

One of the most interesting and informative interviews I listened to was Lois and Allan Mecklenberger’s. Andy Muchin interviewed Lois and Allan on April 28, 2009 in Highland Park Illinois. Lois and Allan’s unique interview describes how Lois’ grandfather, a rabbi named Bernard Ehrenrich (affectionately known as “Doc E”) started Camp Kawaga in Northern Wisconsin. Doc E’s family immigrated to America from an area on the border of Austria and Hungary and arrived in New York. Doc E was inspired to open a camp after working with kids at playgrounds in New York, and at Camp Triplake in Maine. Although Doc E originally intended to purchase land in Maine to start a summer camp, coastal property out east turned out to be too expensive and instead he purchased property on Lake Kawagasaga in Minocqua, Wisconsin. The opening of Camp Kawaga in 1916 was more than a fun summer opportunity for Jewish boys. It was the direct transplantation of a coastal summer tradition, the “sleepaway camp,” from the eastern coast to the Midwest. Through this endeavor, Doc E made himself part of Wisconsin history.

Rather than copy sleepaway camps from the east coast, Doc E also embraced the culture of Northwoods Wisconsin. For example, he built relationships with local Native American tribes and showed his appreciation of their unique heritage by bringing their influence into many facets of his camp. Native Americans hosted Pow-Wows at Camp Kawaga, and taught campers about Native American culture, dress, and traditions. Doc E’s legacy far outlived him, as his family ran Camp Kawaga for 53 years. Camp Kawaga is still in operation under new owners to this day, and Lois and Allan’s grandchildren attend every summer. Even though Lois discusses quantitative information about the camp, what is most memorable from the interview is the camp songs she remembers and sings, camp romances reminisced, and the proud and affectionate way she tells of her grandfather’s accomplishment of starting a summer camp for Jewish boys in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

In addition to the Mecklenbergers’ story, I’d also like to highlight another interview where the legacy of Jewish life in Wisconsin was front and center. Marvin and Mildred (Golper) Conney’s interview portrays the humble beginnings of their family history and how the entrepreneurial and charitable spirit of their parents was passed down through the generations. They were interviewed on October 12, 2006 by Andy Muchin. Marvin and Mildred Conney are alumni of the University of Wisconsin, and both had parents and family who sacrificed everything to ensure their children’s success in life. Marvin’s father saw a need in the community of Ripon, Wisconsin and filled that need by starting in business in 1946 that provided safety supplies to vegetable canners in the area. As Marvin says in the interview, his father planted the seeds of something incredible and never got to see them flower. Marvin watered the seeds his father planted and, along with Mildred, he grew a small protective supplies distribution company into the Conney Safety Products Company. Just as Marvin’s father possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, so did Mildred’s. Mildred’s father immigrated to Milwaukee from Europe in the 1890’s, and by 1918 owned a shop in downtown Watertown, Wisconsin. When he died at a very young age leaving a young wife and three children, Mildred’s older brother dropped out of college to run the store. This provided Mildred and her sister the opportunity to live a life free from financial worry and pursue university educations. Mildred described having a strong interest in mathematics and ended up attending UW—Madison where she met Marvin.

Marvin and Mildred never forgot their roots and the sacrifices their parents made for them. They generously helped create the Mildred and Marv Conney Endowed Chair in Cardiology at the University of Wisconsin Department of Medicine. Their reason for donating to the Cardiology department? Three of their four parents died from heart problems. Their wish was to support the research necessary to prevent others from suffering from heart disease. Marvin and Mildred Conney’s interview tells us of their family history, but it also teaches us a crucial lesson about what it means to leave a legacy. Marvin’s father’s local safety products company and Mildred’s father’s shop existed long after the men who started them passed and provided for the Conney family for years to come. Marvin and Mildred, in turn, paid tribute to the spirit of their parents through their generous support of the University of Wisconsin—Madison in the field of cardiology.

Claire Hitter working on cataloging oral histories at Wisconsin Historical Society.
Claire Hitter working on cataloging oral histories at Wisconsin Historical Society.

The process of listening to oral histories is a research experience unlike any other. Oral interviews provide insight not only to the life stories of the individual being interviewed, but their personality as well. After listening to an individual’s interview, I felt like I knew them. Even though I did not know them, I gained an understanding of their lives and personalities, and heard stories that would have only reached the ears of their closest kin if the interview had never been recorded. Their oral histories are more telling than a personal diary, for I could hear the cracks in their voices when they talked about something meaningful to them and picture their smile or tears during long pauses. I have an immense amount of gratitude for the Wisconsin Historical Society and the team there that works to bring the oral histories of so many individuals in the Wisconsin Jewish community to life, as well as the interviewees who were kind enough to donate their time to tell their stories. When learning about Jewish immigration to America in a broad sense, there is a common narrative that they settled in places like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. However, there is so much more to the story than this common narrative tells. By listening to the experiences of Jewish immigrants and their descendants in Wisconsin, more depth is brought to the immigrant narrative and their immense contributions are woven into the fabric of Wisconsin’s history.

2018.05 - Claire Hitter

Claire Hitter is currently working on her B.A. in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Having recently studied European Jewish history she has developed an interest in the cultural expressions of Judaism. She is especially fascinated by individual stories and has enjoyed the opportunity to write biographical essays for classes. Claire has received Dean’s List recognition for three consecutive semesters and is excited to develop her interests and uncover fascinating stories in her position as the George L. Mosse Department of History Undergraduate Intern.


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