Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on oral history techniques at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. While there, I met Ruth Frenkel, who has lived in Conway since 1958. (Full disclosure: her daughter, Ellen Kirsch, heads up Hendrix’s Crain-Maling Center of Jewish Culture and had coordinated my visit). When Ruth told me that her family had escaped from Germany in 1937 and settled in McGehee, Arkansas, I had to hear more. Fortunately, I had my equipment with me on the trip.
So, the next morning, I went over to Ruth’s house and conducted a short oral history interview.
Here is an excerpt:
Ruth’s uncle Adolph was not only in contact with his family, but he managed to visit Germany in advance of the coming war. According to Ruth’s telling, he already knew enough about conditions there to secure visas for the family before his trip.
Even with years of experience in the culture and history of Southern Jews, I have trouble shaking the assumption that rural Jewish communities were cut off from international news and the families they had left in the Old Country, whatever it might be. Stories like Ruth’s constantly remind me that many Jews in the American South, even in the years before television, were keenly aware of the challenges that Jews faced in Europe. While Jewish life in McGehee and other southern towns was marked by geographical isolation, the families who settled there participated in transnational Jewish networks, whether through international aid organizations, the Jewish press or, in this case, family connections.
Last week, we added the final (for now) video clip to the Oklahoma section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The interview excerpt comes from a great conversation I had with Paula and Malcolm Milsten last summer at Tulsa’s Temple Israel. Malcolm, a Tulsa native, and Paula, who moved there before marrying Malcolm in 1959, have both served as temple president. In the clip below, Paula and Malcolm recall a 1984 flood that seriously damaged Temple Israel, as well as the outpouring of support from the entire city in the aftermath of the disaster.
Malcolm, like many people who have contributed their stories to the ISJL Oral History Project, remarks on his congregation’s positive relationship with other local synagogues as well as the general community. These themes—inclusion and cooperation—are common in our interviews. Where someone from outside the South might expect to find stories of isolation, I find, more often than not, exactly the opposite.
The most common answer is that someone (a grandparent or great-grandparent) had a cousin or sibling who was already in the area. Many families have amusing, likely fictionalized tales of a newly arrived forebear getting off of a train at the wrong stop or landing in a small town by some other sort of accident.
In July, I interviewed Michael Korenblit, of Edmond, Oklahoma. He shared the story of his parents, Meyer and Manya Kornblit (the last name is spelled differently due to clerical discrepancies) and their immigration to the United States. There is much to say about Meyer and Manya, childhood sweethearts and Holocaust survivors who were reunited after World War II. They were married shortly after the war, and their oldest son, Sam, was born while the family was living in Eggenfeld, Germany. In the interview clip below, Michael tells how his family ended up in the small Jewish community of Ponca City, Oklahoma.
The clip is also available through the Ponca City article in our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The rest of Meyer and Manya’s story is recounted in Until We Meet Again, which Michael coauthored.
How did your family get to where they live today? Where did they come from originally?