FEATURE by Harriet Robbins
FIREWEED (A POLITICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY) is an eye-opener. Written by Gerda Lerner, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin--Madison, and published by Temple University Press (hdbnd, $34.50), the book is a testament to Lerner's commitment to social change and to her involvement in the history of our times.
Written with warmth and depth, FIREWEED offers a personal view of past, present and future. Born in Vienna to a well-to-do Jewish family, Lerner became aware at an early age of the world she lived in. She took part in the resistance movement that opposed the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1934, and was sentenced to a jail term by the Germans. Lerner managed to escape to the United States, only to encounter the hardships and problems caused by the Great Depression. Concern for the family she had left behind in Europe deepened her despair, but she kept struggling nontheless to make life better, not just for herself but for the working class.
She adapted to American culture and became a writer. After meeting Carl Lerner, who became her lifelong partner, they both became involved in left-wing activities. This brought them to Hollywood, where they worked to help unionize the film industry. They were blacklisted for this, but still remained committed to organizing community activities. From this grassroots experience, Lerner was able to write a history of the women's movement about which Grace Paley said, "Most people become historians by going to school day and night for years. Gerda Lerner became a historian by working in her youth in social justice and women's rights movements that became history. Then, in middle age, she went to school...and finally became one of our preeminent writers and teachers of women's history."
In this fascinating and readable autobiography, I found that my own life marched alongside Gerda's. Her years in Hollywood during World War II and the events she was involved in matched my own experience. I knew many of the people she writes about and took part in many of the same events and causes.
Did we ever meet? That I don't recall. But the stories she tells were part and parcel of my own memories and the spirit she reflects casts a glow over it all. To read this book is a life-enhancing experience. Here is a story of survival and a salute to the spirit of the human race. I am grateful to Lerner for refreshing my memory of the highly charged and dynamic times we lived through, and for her positive views of the challenges facing us today.
Life is beautiful, she reminds us. Let's not forget it as we strive to go forward in these troubled times and make a better future for ourselves.