A Talking Trove of Interviews as AJC Oral History Goes Online

Bella Abzug, Hank Greenberg, Golda Meir and Molly Picon Speak

Mr. Oral History: Milton Berle is one of the subjects of the interviews that the AJC collected.
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Mr. Oral History: Milton Berle is one of the subjects of the interviews that the AJC collected.

By Jon Kalish

Published March 07, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
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Ever wonder what Detroit Tigers’ slugger Hank Greenberg really had to say about anti-Semitism? Or how Congresswoman Bella Abzug felt about sexual discrimination? From the late 1960s to 1990, some 2,000 people were interviewed for the American Jewish Committee’s William E. Wiener Oral History Library.

Recorded on audiocassette, these interviews comprised more than 6,000 hours of taped material and included conversations with many prominent Jewish Americans in the worlds of politics, sports and the arts. Along with Greenberg and Abzug, some of the highlights of the AJC’s collection include interviews with Isaac Bashevis Singer, Golda Meir and Milton Berle.

This collection was acquired by the New York Public Library’s Dorot Division over twenty years ago. But only now is this treasure trove of Jewish history being made available.

Roughly half of these interviews have been digitized for preservation purposes. The full audio interviews are not currently avaible online. Visitors to the library can listen to them on cassettes, and excerpts of the audio recordings can be heard on AJC’s web site.

Charlotte Bonelli, director of AJC’s archives, said the interview with theater legend Molly Picon is one of her favorites. The actress spoke of her experience performing for Holocaust survivors after the Shoah and one appearance in particular where rain had caused the performance to be cancelled but the audience implored her to “Sing, sing, sing.” Picon also recounted a trip to Korea to visit American soldiers who gave her notes to call relatives when she got back to the United States.

“There’s something very wonderful about listening to these [oral histories] in the person’s actual voice rather than just reading [transcripts],” said Bonnelli. “You really get the flavor of the period and the character of the person. I think that often they were probably more relaxed than they may have been for a TV or radio interview.”


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