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Susan Philipp Oral History Interview, August 7, 1991

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Judith Berlowitz: This recording was made in Corvallis on August 7, 1991. The interviewer is Judith Berlowitz. The interviewee is Susan Philipp, Mrs. Kurt Philipp. OK. When did you and your family come to Corvallis?

Susan Philipp: We came September 1962.


JB: Oh, that's later than I suspected. What brought you here?

SP: Kurt was offered a job at the university in the history department, and that's why we came. Like that.

JB: Where did you come from?

SP: Immediately, we came from Germany, because Kurt was on a Fulbright scholarship for a year, and he got the job while he was in Bonn. And before that we were in Kansas and he had just finished with his coursework, and we were looking for a job, we had two kids, so we decided we would come here.

JB: Well that was my next question. Who were the members of your immediate family at that time?

SP: So there was Kurt and myself and Lillian and Michael.


JB: How old were the children?

SP: Mike was four and Lillian was two.

JB: Let's get a little more background. Where were you born?

SP: I was born in Germany, and Kurt was also born in Germany. But we both left when we were rather young. I left when I was three years old, because our family was deported to the camps in France, and Kurt left -- it was a fluke with him. Every year his family sent him to Switzerland because he had asthma attacks. And that year when he was supposed to return to them from Switzerland, his parents had a chance to leave Germany. It was, you know, the proverbial "last boat." 00:03:00That's what it was. It was in 1938, and it was the last chance they had. There wasn't enough time to get him back from Switzerland, so they took off for Cuba, and they left him in Switzerland with a family during the entire war years.

JB: I see. How did you two meet?

SP: Oh we met here in the US. Because we arrived, Kurt was 17 when he came to New York, when his parents finally came to the US, were finally able to get him over here, and my sister and I came after the war. And we were still children. I was 12 years old when I came to the US.

JB: Where were you and Kurt married?

SP: In Denver.

JB: And when was that?

SP: 1957.

JB: So you weren't exactly a new bride when you came here.

SP: No I wasn't a new bride. We already had two kids.


JB: That's right. Five years later. What would you say was the approximate population of Corvallis when you came, do you remember?

SP: Gosh no, I don't remember. Oh, wait a minute. No, I really don't, because we always talked about the population at OSU and the population -- somehow we always kept them apart. We just . . . it was certainly a lot less than it is now. Corvallis was much smaller.

JB: That's what I was going to ask. The main difference between Corvallis of yesteryear back there and . . .

SP: It was a lot smaller

JB: Geographically as well as . . .

SP: Geographically, yes, it didn't extend the way it does now. It was much much smaller.

JB: Approximately how many Jewish families were here at the time when you arrived, roughly?

SP: Roughly, I would say the ones that we knew about -- there were about 13, 15 00:05:00families tops.

JB: Would you say that among them there were diverse approaches to Judaism?

SP: Yes, very definitely.

JB: Some very traditional and some not so?

SP: We were the only ones who were traditional. I don't remember anyone else at all. Everyone else really was -- I don't think they would have come here otherwise. I mean, I really don't. I think in those days, people, if you were, you tended to remain where there were lots of other Jews. But we didn't, we were the exception. We came here even though . . . But when we got the job offer, and this was all over the phone, you know, Kurt asked about . . . he was talking to 00:06:00George Carson, the head of the department at the time, and he asked him, before he even asked what his salary was, "What is the situation regarding Jewish life in Corvallis?" There was a long silence. Because you know, George didn't expect anything like that. And he says, "Well you know, I'll tell you, I really don't think there is any. You'll have to find out." We called the rabbis in Portland to find out, and indeed there wasn't. But there was Portland not too far away, so we thought, we'll just take a chance. We'll come here for a year. And we'll see how it is. But there really wasn't very much here at all.

JB: So it's been 30 years, just about. How did you feel being part of a very small minority here, being Jewish?

SP: I don't think I gave it very much thought, to tell you the truth. Because as 00:07:00long as we were able to do what we wanted to do . . .

JB: Religiously or . . .

SP: Religiously. I'm only talking religiously. As long as we -- and we were. We were. We really never had any problems. It didn't really affect me very much. It affected me to the extent that socially, we couldn't be as close as we wanted to because we couldn't eat at anybody else's house. But then once we explained, people did accommodate us, very well as a matter of fact, but still . . . I lacked a little bit in that area. But it never bothered Kurt at all.

JB: Because of observing the dietary laws. Well what was the most difficult adjustment you had to make to this community?

SP: The most difficult adjustment? I really don't think I had to make many. If I 00:08:00had to, it wasn't a difficulty for me, let's put it that way. I did adjust. It wasn't really a difficulty, because the community, I felt, made quite a few adjustment for me. So it was a two-way.

JB: I see. Of course the children were young when they came here, but I was wondering how they felt about being a minority, such a small one.

SP: Well once they started going to school, there certainly were -- problems came up. I don't know if I'd call them problems or questions. Especially since the teachers at that time had never run across Jewish kids. Now there were some 00:09:00other Jewish kids, but because they weren't observant in any way, they didn't stick out, they didn't have any problems, it was fine. So in that sense, the teachers were very taken aback when I came suddenly and I said, "My kid can't have this and this, and can we talk about substituting certain foods, and if you have to take a field trip, how about not on a Saturday," or this kind of thing. And I must say that the cooperation was absolutely tremendous. And not only was it tremendous, the teachers learned a lot. They took it as a learning experience. So we, even though we were pioneers in it, I think that it was a very positive thing always. And then the kids who came after our kids I think 00:10:00had an easier time because of it. Because for the first time the teachers had an awareness that there are other kids. They told us they had never had that experience before. Especially around Christmas time, they never realized that kids may feel uncomfortable before that. But I must say that we really cooperated, and it was a good experience.

JB: Did the teachers use this new knowledge as a learning experience for the children in their classes?

SP: Exactly. For the children in their classes. They asked me to bring things, you know. Of course we always thought of Hanukah. Hanukah was the big thing because they right away associated it with Christmas, so it was very easy. And they certainly used it as a learning tool for the kids.

JB: Did you and Kurt sense any prejudice against Jewish people?

SP: No, we never did. We never did. And we never made any bones about it either. 00:11:00Everyone knew exactly what we were and where they stood with us.

JB: Did you find non-Jewish people at all knowledgeable about Judaism?

SP: Not at all. When we first came in, they knew practically nothing, nothing at all.

JB: Did you and Kurt get asked to speak about Judaism? Tell me about that.

SP: Well I'm not very good at speaking to groups, so I left that to Kurt. And he talked to just about every church, every school in the town.

JB: At their behest?

SP: At their behest, of course. And he was asked very often. I remember the first two or three years, oh maybe even longer, when there wasn't a week that went by that he didn't talk to some group or another. Also I might add, other groups in the town not connected with the schools or churches -- civic groups. 00:12:00He did. And that was very good.

JB: So you've already spoken about observing the dietary laws, and that requires consumption of kosher meat, and I'm wondering how you managed that. How did you get kosher meat in those days?

SP: The kosher meat -- for a number of years we just ordered it either from Los Angeles, and it was flown in by air freight, and then we also used to get meat from Seattle, and it came the same way, either with a freezer truck and so on. And we were the only -- there was one other family in Portland and us. And we were the only ones, if you believe it or not, in the entire Northwest, who ordered kosher meat. So it was -- that aspect of it could be a little hairy. But in later years what we've done, there are now something like 60 families in 00:13:00Portland who order kosher meat, it's a co-op, so we have joined them. And now there are generally in Corvallis maybe three or four families, and the meat gets delivered by truck from Chicago into a huge parking lot in front of the synagogue of Portland. 60 families arrive by car, if you can imagine. Now in winter, it's really -- it can be pouring, and it's dark, it gets early dark, and everybody will leave their lights on outside the cars, the beams, and people are scurrying frantically, trying to find their particular meat order. Nobody comes as far as we do. We have two hours to drive, and one winter I remember Kurt was 00:14:00bringing all the meat for the other people, at that time there were eight families, and our car was absolutely loaded. I didn't go with him because there wasn't enough room for someone else. He had chickens on the roof of the car. And it was the worst weather that we've ever had, and he was driving on I-5, bringing it to Corvallis for all of us. He was returning from Portland and in the middle he heard a big thump. And there, the chickens that were on top of the car fell down in the middle of I-5, cars scooting by like crazy . . . he stopped and he ran back and picked up I think 20 packages, dodging traffic, rain pouring down. He came back and said, "I don't think I'll ever do it again." Well he did it anyway, but it was one of the worst trips we ever had, that was the only bad 00:15:00experience. That's the meat business.

JB: So I know at that time there was not a rabbi in this community, and I'm wondering who conducted weddings and funerals, baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs?

SP: OK, the bar mitzvah that I remember, and there was -- no, I don't believe there was any rabbi -- that was Ze'ev's oldest son, Danny, had his bar mitzvah. And what we did was, by that time we had quite a few more people in the community, we rented a room or arranged to have a room at OSU, and that's where we had his bar mitzvah. And it was a do-it-yourself thing. Kurt did something, 00:16:00Ze'ev's father who came from Germany did part of the service, and that's how it was done. And most of the things that we did were conducted as a do-it-yourself kind of thing. We didn't have marriages that I can remember. You know if anybody did get married, they went out of town or they went to Eugene or Portland. We had brit milahs, you know. Our son, our youngest, Howie, came, and the mohel came from Seattle, that was the first time, the first bris we ever had in Corvallis.

JB: The ceremony of circumcision.

SP: Right.

JB: What did you do about observing the high holidays? Where did you go for those services.

SP: Well we didn't have Beit Am of course, and there were not services, so we went to Portland, because believe it or not, in Portland they needed Kurt, 00:17:00because he knows how to read from the torah, and it's a specialized thing, not everyone can do it. And they needed somebody in Portland to do it. So we've been going for the last 30 years, all the time, and also, other families here went to Salem for many many years. There are some who went to Eugene, but not as many as went to Salem. I know for instance the Konicks went, and the Lannys, they did go.

JB: All right, let's think back in the timeframe that we're talking about here now, up to 1964. Let's stay behind 1964. OK. At that time, were lesser holidays observed here?

SP: Not at all. As a matter of fact, when we first came, not even -- with the 00:18:00exception of maybe two or three families -- no one knew about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, which are, as you know . . .

JB: In '62?

SP: No. Nobody knew about that, really they didn't. With the exception of two or three families who did. But otherwise no one was aware of it, because we didn't have a community, there was nothing there. We would know, well yes, we know this person is Jewish, but the only time we really got together was if there was something going on at Hillel at OSU. That was more the center than anything going on here in town.

JB: Was that a going organization when you arrived?

SP: When we arrived, Dr. Ellison, who was in the history department, and who retired just before Kurt [came]-- in fact Kurt took his position, he was the Hillel director. And as a matter of fact, Kurt was asked to take his place to be 00:19:00the new Hillel director, which he did. But there weren't many students at that time either. There were perhaps 10.

JB: Tell me a little bit about Hillel, what its function is and so on.

SP: Well, Hillel is the student organization, a national student organization for Jewish students. It's a focus for them to be for social, religious, cultural events. That's what it is.

JB: And those were the kinds of events that were planned and carried on?

SP: Yes. Here, they mostly took the form of inviting speakers, not for religious holidays or festivals at all. It was strictly secular, cultural . . .

JB: Did members of the Jewish community attend these various lectures?


SP: They did. They did, because it was the only thing that was going on at that time. That was really when we met.

JB: Did non- Jewish people attend these also?

SP: Very few. Some did but I don't even remember a non-Jewish person attending. But we're talking of a very small group here. We're talking if we got 15 people, we thought this was a great attendance.

JB: I see. I've heard a great deal about a group of 13 women, of whom you were one, who were the movers and shakers of the small Jewish community that you've been describing. So tell me how the ladies originally got together, what activities they organized.

SP: OK. Well we were all moms at home with very small children. And our kids were pretty much of an age. Mimi's kids played with our kids, and the Cavistons 00:21:00were there, and they were all one age. And there were about 20 kids all together. And we became concerned that these kids were growing up without any kind of Jewish education, and that's what we really thought of first. Before we thought of any adult group, we were really concerned with the children. Now the educational -- how should I say -- the books, the educational material, the curriculum, not even curriculum, but all the things that you need to educate kids with, materials, were really not available the way they are today. There was very very little available. What there was available was available in the 00:22:00large cities, but not out west. This was really far out. And so finally we decided that perhaps what we should do was join a large national organization, an organization that focused on education, and in this way we could become educated and we could get the material for our kids. And this is what pushed us to get together.

JB: Excuse me one minute. Were you meeting regularly as a group?

SP: No, this was [casual]. I would talk to Mimi, we would talk to another one. We were friends by that time and we got together fairly often. We would meet at 00:23:00the swimming pool, you know, our kids were taking lessons, and on a very informal basis. And then - how did we decide on Hadassah? We decided on Hadassah because it was a national organization, it was not a religious organization per se, it was something, an organization that anybody would be comfortable with, and it also had a large amount of educational material. We did look into B'nai B'rith and other organizations. We just thought this would be good because also, it had to do with Israel, and some of us were interested in Israel at the time, although none of us had been there yet. But this seemed to be the right one.

JB: Well B'nai B'rith is largely a men's organization, isn't it?

SP: Well they also have women, ladies' B'nai B'rith. It was mentioned but we 00:24:00thought, well, we will stick with that. Now you asked about something else that I wanted to talk about, and I forgot . . .

JB: I asked if you had regular meetings.

SP: Once we got organized, the 13 -- we needed to be 15 women to be organized.

JB: You fudged a little bit didn't you?

SP: No, what we did was we took the telephone directory, believe it or not, and we started looking up Jewish names. We found a couple of Jewish doctors in town. We started calling people, not only the Jewish doctors but anybody whose name sounded Jewish, and letting them know. And it was one of the worst jobs, I'll tell you, that I have ever done. And I have done a lot of things for Hadassah, but this was one of the most -- I just didn't like it. Because once in a while we would get somebody -- "Oh, yes, I'm interested." Fine, that's how we got more people in. But other times there were obviously Jewish people and they said, "If 00:25:00I would have wanted to associate with [unclear], then I would have made it my business to get together with you. Please do not call me again." These were doctors, these were people, you know, professionals, and I felt very uncomfortable like that. But this is what we were driven to. It's hard for me to believe that we actually did that, sitting here now 30 years later, but we did.

JB: But it shows the dedication you had, to, well, establishing some education for the children and all of that.

SP: And I remember Ruth was wonderful, because she knew all the medical people, and she said, "Among all these medical people, there have got to be some Jewish doctors," you know. Wonderful. And that's what we did.

JB: Before Hadassah was actually established, did you have representatives from 00:26:00various Jewish groups coming here for any purpose whatsoever, fundraising, whatever?

SP: I don't remember anybody coming for fundraising. I do know that Ruth was affiliated with Portland Jewish Bonds. You can ask her about it because I think she knows a lot more about it than I do. We did have people come. We would ask speakers from Portland to come down to talk with us.

JB: But that was after Hadassah was organized?

SP: I think even before that, because when Kurt was the Hillel advisor, he did get speakers, and I remember him asking Rabbi Geller and Rabbi Rose and other speakers that were available to come and talk to us. That was before Hadassah.

JB:: You mentioned earlier, to go back to something you said a long time ago, 00:27:00about observing the dietary laws, and being the only family in town that actually did that at the time. I'm curious to know if there were ever visitors here who wanted to partake of a kosher meal, and you were the only one who could provide that. Can you remember any of those incidents?

SP: We had a lot of interesting people because of that. We had, I don't know if I can remember all their names, but one famous person who did come through was Shlomo Carlebach. He was, this was in the '60s of course, he was a flower child. He is a rabbi who led a very loose life, you know, was a real hippy, and 00:28:00composed many nice songs, folk songs, and he was already quite famous at the time, and the university asked him to come, and he observed the dietary laws. And he came to our house. And I'll tell you, I won't say anything more about it because if this is taped and might go in the archives, I really don't feel like --

JB: We'll save that for after we've finished taping, OK? Are there any others?

SP: Then there were Israeli officials who were attached with the embassy in San Francisco. When they came, not all of them but some of them did want to have a 00:29:00kosher meal, and then they would stay at our house. And other than that, we had many travelers who came through. San Francisco at the time had a very very small Jewish community also. There wasn't a kosher restaurant between Los Angeles and Seattle. So we were sort of like the halfway mark -- halfway house. And we had many people come and stay and eat with us. Really, I wish now that I had kept a book, or, you know, a journal as to who had come, because many people were very very, really, truly fascinating. They enriched our lives.

JB: Well I would like you to fill in anything that you can think of about those years between -- although there really aren’t that many since you didn't 00:30:00get here till '62, you said -- '62 to '64, when this organization began to keep records. Hadassah. But I thought we might talk about -- I'll give you a moment to think -- about what were the most exciting and fulfilling events of those first few years, before there was an organization. I know you were a mom and what we would call, a long time ago, a homebody, but all your early years . . . SP: Before there was any organization? I don't know. I'd have to think about that.

[break in recording]

SP: When we arrived to Corvallis, we found a card in our mailbox from Ruth and Ben Goldberg inviting us to a get-together at their house. And I thought that 00:31:00was just really really nice, because it was the first Jewish contact that we had. And that says how Ruth and Ben were. I mean, they were very very hospitable, and they were really the center of the Jewish community, if you could call it that at the time, because it was so amorphous, it wasn't really together the way it is now. But they tried very hard, and they were wonderful to us. And this is how we met a lot of the people, the Orzechs and the Schechters, who were there at the time, and the Goheens.

JB: So actually, that's one of your fondest memories. And that was my last question then. What are your fondest memories of the years leading up to the 00:32:00formal organization of Hadassah, those few early years, as you look back?

SP: Just meeting these people, because Kurt and I had never, from the time we were married, we had never lived in a Jewish town. Our first experience, when we got married, we moved to Kansas, and you can erase this because it may not have anything to do with this, but we lived in a town of 3,000 people in Winfield, Kansas, where we were the very first Jews in the town. They became very liberal because the small Methodist college that hired him also hired that year its first black professor. And so you know I had never had Jewish friends after we 00:33:00were married. I never had this idea, you know. So when I moved here I thought, well this is going to be another Winfield, I'm not going to have any, I'll just get along with my Christian neighbors and that's it. So it was really nice to know that there were other Jews, even though they were not observant, but they were Jewish, I could talk about Jewish things and they would know what I was talking about, I wouldn't have to explain myself all the time. So yes, this was nice.

JB: Are there any anecdotes about the children and their life during those early years that you remember and would like to talk about?

SP: Well they were small, before '64, they were small, and Howie was born of course in' 65, that was our big event. Oh yes, as a matter of fact. No, that was 00:34:00Howie, that was later. But I might tell you anyway, just to give you an idea. Howie went to the OSU nursery school, they have a special program, early childhood, it was an excellent nursery school.

JB: Let's put this in time a little bit. What year was that?

SP: This was in '67.

JB: OK. We're a little out of our timeframe, but it's interesting material.

SP: It was even later. Probably '68 or '69. And the head of that program was Leslie Morris, who is a member of Hadassah. She's not Jewish but she's a good, good friend. And that's how I met her, as a matter of fact. And Howie -- well the kids ate lunch there, and so we right away ran up against this problem of 00:35:00what are we going to give Howie for lunch. Well they were just marvelous. The cook interviewed me. I didn't know, but they had their own cook there, and she interviewed me, and I told her exactly what Howie could have and what Howie could not have, and they were simply wonderful. They arranged special meals for him without ever making him feel that he was different in a negative way. He was different in a very positive way. And Leslie really used Howie as a wonderful way to teach the other kids. Another learning experience. So people have been absolutely -- whether it was in the public schools or . . .

And another thing I should say, because you did ask me how our kids felt. This is again much later, this was when Lillian was going to high school. She loved dramatics, the drama department or the drama club, and one of the things that 00:36:00worried her was that the performances were on Friday night and Saturday night, which would effectively cut her out. And she had been in the drama group about two years when Mr. Malango, her teacher, realized, why don't you ever want to take a part? She was always on the fringes, she would do the scenery, she would do the costumes. And even though she tried out and they wanted her to do it, she said she can't because of Friday night. He said, "Is that all the problem there is? Don't worry about it. We'll see to it that we'll have a performance that you can be in Saturday night, and we'll have somebody else taking the Friday night." They had never had that before. It had always been if you did it on Friday, you had to do it on Saturday. When Mike was in high school they wouldn't give an 00:37:00inch for him. These are the rules, these are the regulations, that's it, tough. But with her they really made an effort, and they saw to it that she would be able to take part on Saturday night rather than Friday night.

Mike preceded her in high school, and he did have a very hard time, because he was a chess player, and his team was statewide, because they won the state championship. And his coach gave him a very very hard time. This was only time in Corvallis that I can remember having to go to battle because of a religious problem. Because the coach would not let him partake, would not let him go to Portland, even though all his teammates wanted him to, which I found very interesting.


JB: I don't understand why.

SP: Because he would have had to, there was a problem because, you know, we don't drive on Sabbath. And there was a problem with food, but they had worked it all out, there were going to see to it that he had his food, they were going to leave earlier so they would get to Portland before the Sabbath started, and they were supposed to come back then on Saturday night, on Saturday afternoon, and Mike wouldn't have been able to come. In other words there were a whole bunch of problems associated with the fact that he is religious Jew, and the kids had worked it all out. But the coach would not go along with it. And it was really, we had to finally talk to the principal, we had to go through the superintendent of schools.

JB: Was that Wogaman at that time too?

SP: Uh huh. And Wogaman finally talked to the principal and the coach, and 00:39:00finally put it through so that he was able to go. But it was really a nasty kind of thing, and I had never experienced it before. Because we really had been spoiled. Everybody had been wonderful so far.

JB: It's a great record . . .