Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born in Vienna in 1920 into a privileged Jewish family. Her father owned a large pharmacy; her mother was a free-spirited bohemian. When the Nazis rose to power, she was imprisoned and spent her 18th birthday behind bars in a cell with two young women arrested for anti-Nazi political work. While her jailers strictly limited rations for all Jews, her gentile cell mates shared their food with her. As Lerner writes in Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2002), “Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life I learned in jail in those six weeks.”
Her early experiences in Austria taught her how society could be manipulated, a lesson that she saw reinforced in American academia by her history professors and colleagues who taught as though the only figures worth studying were men. Her past experience, she said, helped her resist the pressure to conform to that academic model. The Holocaust also created in her a need to keep memory alive and her status as an outsider helped her to understand women as an out-group.
In 1939, Lerner made her way to New York where she worked a series of menial jobs. She was fired from one of them as a saleswoman at a Fifth Avenue candy store after she reported her employers to the Labor Department for paying their factory workers less than the minimum wage. As an author she wrote path-breaking books; as a teacher she built new curricula for a new field; and as a member of the historical profession she demanded equality for women within its ranks.
She married theater director Carl Lerner, an active member of the Communist party, and they lived in Hollywood until forced out by McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist. Husband and wife collaborated on the 1964 film Black Like Me, based on the best-selling book by John Howard Griffin. Together their activism ranged from attempts to unionize the film industry to the civil rights movement. Lerner, who joined the Communist party as well, began working with community groups to organize supermarket boycotts and neighborhood child care centers. “I wanted the world to be a just and fair place, and it obviously wasn’t, and that disturbed me from the beginning,” she told an interviewer. She wanted others to take up their own fights. Find a cause about which you are passionate, she urged, and never stop fighting for it.
Schlesinger Library is honored that Lerner chose it as the home for her papers in 1975. Her collection, which has come in many installments over the past 35 years, fills more than 25 linear feet with papers (correspondence, interviews, writings, lectures), audiotapes, and images. It will grow still larger and richer as her family works through the files she leaves behind in Wisconsin. Her papers are a lasting legacy, testament to a remarkable life and career. The Gerda Lerner papers focus primarily on her life in the United States and on her professional life as a historian and activist, but in interviews in the collection and in her powerful memoir Fireweed, Lerner opens a window onto the early years that shaped the woman and the historian she became.
Among Lerner’s many honors are 17 honorary degrees, including one from Harvard in 2008. She was also a frequent visitor to Radcliffe College and the Radcliffe Institute: she helped celebrate the Schlesinger Library’s 40th anniversary in 1984; in 2002, she spoke about Fireweed at a Library-sponsored event; and in 2003 she was a member of a panel entitled “Gender, Race, and Rights in African American Women’s History” that celebrated the Library’s 60th anniversary.
It is not surprising that Gerda Lerner, who understood the importance of primary material, documented her own life and career carefully, and the Schlesinger Library and generations of researchers to come are the beneficiaries.