Daily Archives: February 20, 2024

 Jewish Student Experiences in Wartime at Oregon State University 

During fall term 2023 Dr. Kara Ritzheimer’s History 310 (Historian’s Craft) students researched and wrote blog posts about OSU during WWII. The sources they consulted are listed at the end of each post. Students wrote on a variety of topics and we hope you appreciate their contributions as much as the staff at SCARC does!

Blog post written by Jordan Lopez.

The evolution of American Jewish identity experienced a uniquely tumultuous period during the 20th century. Antisemitism on the home front, despite Jews being a central target of the war in Europe, remained persistent. For many Jewish college students on majority non-Jew campuses, coming into adulthood during this time presented a new set of challenges. Oregon State University, at the time Oregon State College, (hereafter referred to as OSC) has never had a robust Jewish student population.

This is not to say that the culture did not exist, especially considering how the surrounding city of Corvallis, over time, developed a Jewish community, which often included people related to OSC. In the early years of the university, OSC was very closely tied to Christianity. Until 1885, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was the institution in charge of appointing the university’s president and overseeing other matters.[1] Naturally, the public institution of OSU today is no longer affiliated with the church. However, Corvallis knows and caters to its assumed population. In 2023, for the 39 churches in the city, there is only one Jewish synagogue.

Religious Emphasis Week flyer, from Leone Sands Johnson’s thesis.

The first document located for this piece was a graduate thesis analysis on religious activities at Oregon State published in 1948 and written by Leone Sands Johnson. The thesis analyzes how students explore religion on campus, and how this exploration relates to student’s lives. Typed on typewriter, it was later uploaded in 2017 to the database of Oregon State Graduate theses and dissertations. The work includes some scans of religious texts from the school’s groups, such as church handouts, a weekly calendar layout for the devout student, and an event flier for International Week in February 1947. Johnson mentions that his study was conducted with only civilian students, not including the ones stationed on or near campus, at Camp Adair, during WWII. There isn’t much about Jewish students’ experiences of possible oppression or advocacy, mainly because the study was more of a survey of Christian religious denominations on campus. As a result of this, he only briefly mentions Judaism. Johnson does give some context to the beginnings of the Hillel organization and mentions “Religion Emphasis Week” in October 1945, which included inter-faith discussions, although none of the talks addressed Jewish students specifically. He concludes later that “the Jewish preference by percentage of total enrollment has never reached more than 0.5. This percentage was reached in 1943.”[2]  In other words, Johnson suggested that Jewish students did not typically enroll at OSC in high numbers. 

The Oregon State Barometer newspaper proved the most useful in finding proof of Jewish student events at OSU during WWII. These short articles usually announced upcoming events or talks, and the earliest mention of the organization was in October 1946, when Hillel first began on campus. This was when President Strand gave a welcome address to the organization, and the article encouraged readers to contact Bob Cohn if they were interested in membership. At this time, Hillel’s goal was to increase membership so that activities could become “broader and more beneficial.”[3] A January 14, 1947 article in the Barometer advertised a Hillel talk given by Dr. Donald Wells on the subject of “Whom Should I Marry?”[4] This may have discussed interfaith relationships, or possibly how Jewish students could find each other for marriage.

Photo of Hillel Club in OSC’s 1949 yearbook.

OSC’s 1949 yearbook also includes the earliest documentation of “Hillel Club” at the school, accompanied by a photo showing eight students. The mission statement championed “harmonious relations…particularly with the various religious groups” as well as “to promote universal brotherhood and goodwill.”[5] The counselor at the time was Dr. J. W. Ellison. It seems that the club was open to both Jewish students and all others interested. The 1952 yearbook also includes the Hillel club, this time pictured with seven students.[6] However, in the 1950 and 1951 yearbooks, there were no matches with the term “Hillel.” There was no clear explanation found as to why the group was absent for two years, especially considering that it doesn’t seem possible that interest in membership suddenly disappeared.

One of the other few mentions of Hillel during wartime on Oregon Digital was correspondence from 1943 by the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council records, where Abram Leon Sachar, the National Director of B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations, was listed as a member of the council.[7] This council was interested in assisting Japanese American students affected by relocation to continue their education. At the very least, this shows that Hillel was connected to assisting a fellow marginalized section of the student population.

Sylvan Durkheimer, OSC student during WWII. Sourced from the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s oral interview.

To examine Jewish student life, it’s also imperative to analyze the treatment of Jewish students by the university during the war years. Interviews provided by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education show that Jewish students during WWII experienced considerable antisemitism from their peers. Sylvan Durkheimer received an invitation to join an Honors Fraternity on campus because he was second in his class, according to the college records. However, he was told by a fellow student later “that my membership in this fraternity had to be declined because of the fact that I was a Jew…”[8]Another student, Saul Zaik, returned from the Navy in 1946 and opted to attend the University of Oregon in Eugene when he found out that there wasn’t a Jewish organization on campus at OSC, nor was there available housing for veterans. Similarly to Durkheimer, a fraternity denied his pledge due to antisemitism. He shared a quote from the person who had invited him: “Zaik, you’re a dumb freshman even though you’re 19 or 20 years old. It’s the real world.”[9] Despite the fraternity member who invited him saying he was “great”, the self-described non-social Zaik was denied a pledge. 

In an interview for the Beit Am Matriarchs oral history project, Ruth Goldberg describes the city of Corvallis as having only a handful of Jewish families in 1942. She says, “My husband Ben felt that we wouldn’t win the war unless we were in it…He got his orders, and he was sent to Camp Adair in Corvallis.”[10] Based on this description, it’s likely that Jewish transplant families coming to Corvallis were also connected to the war effort. She also recalls that every Sunday, half a dozen Jewish servicemen came to their house to eat potato pancakes. 

The post-war years led to a slowly increasing Jewish population in Corvallis, most notably demonstrated by the founding of Beit Am Synagogue in 1974. In 1978, the Albany Democrat Herald ran a piece on OSU history professor Kurt Philipp’s experience teaching the history of the Holocaust as a German-born Jew. He struggled to talk about it with his students, on account of having close relatives who barely survived the event, and some who were taken by the Gestapo. Instead, he required them to watch the 1978 NBC-TV docu-drama Holocaust. Many reported to him that it made them feel sick, to which he responded that “You can read that 10,000 people were killed. To see it is different.”[11]

Comic run by Corvallis Gazette-Times.

An antisemitic comic ran in a November 1981 Corvallis Gazette-Times edition, and faced backlash from a Jewish man, Ze’ev B. Orzech. It contains a crude caricature of a Jewish man, portrayed as weak and sickly, seemingly complaining about the US government’s involvement in selling weapons to the “Saudis.” It’s not clear if this man is supposed to represent a specific figure in Congress, or rather just an “average” Jewish-American man. Insisting that antisemitism has never been a laughing matter, Orzech cites a “rising frequency of anti-Semitic incidents in our state and across the nation…”[12] This concern may be from 1981, but it still applies, increasingly so, today.

In the 1980s, the controversial questioning of the Holocaust’s existence led to an increase in antisemitism in Corvallis. The city looked down on “Christian Patriots” who attacked Jews by mail and threats, and the Corvallis Gazette-Times labeled them as “cowards.”[13]  This didn’t lessen the victim’s fear, though. A Jewish woman wrote to the Times in 1986: “World War II was not the first holocaust against the Jews, and I suspect it won’t be the last.”[14]  Even as local people looked back on the events of the war that happened in their lifetime and said it will never happen again, microaggressions continued. Due to the predominantly Christian background of both Corvallis and OSC, the culture for much of the 20th century seems to have been one that regularly experienced antisemitic rhetoric and behavior.

Many American Jews during WWII felt profoundly American, the same way those that felt inspired to serve the country at the time did.[15] But despite their patriotism, prominent American politicians still used Jews as a scapegoat. Edward S. Shapiro, a historian of Jewish and American history, writes that “The early 1940s was a difficult time for the Jews of the Lower East Side (of New York). They were terrified for their European relatives now threatened by the advance of Hitler’s armies…”[16] Although focusing on an East Coast population, it’s likely Jews across the country experienced that terror and anxiety. Additionally, Shapiro uses the death of notable congressman Michael Edelstein, who defended Jews placed in the role of “scapegoat” by his peers, as a turning point for American Jews. He argued that Jews were not to blame for America entering the war. This “martyr of democracy” represented a defensive stance for those being accused of bringing WWII to America.[17]

As women like Ruth Goldberg came to Corvallis with their husbands, their roles as Jewish housewives contributed to the city’s flourishing Judaism. In her article Transitions in American Judaism: The Jewish American Woman Through the 1930s, Norma Fain Pratt traces the broader development of women’s roles in preserving their religion. She notes that there was a rise of cultural pluralism between the world wars, leading to an increase in institutions of learning for American Jews, such as religious schools, Yiddish culture schools, and congregations.[18]  Despite this growth, women were occasionally blamed by rabbis and other men for a decline in Judaism, despite them being widely considered “defenders of the faith.”[19] Women’s groups were often connected with Hadassah organizations, which champion Zionism and “complete growth which living up to one’s historic heritage makes possible.”[20]  Many of the founding matriarch members of the Corvallis Beit Am synagogue were members of Hadassah. 

During WWII and into the 1950s, Jewish students experienced antisemitism and exclusion on OSC’s campus. It’s not too far-fetched to assume that some students felt targeted by the national rhetoric of blaming Jews for bringing America into the war. The heavily Christian community in Corvallis was alienating, and the early Hillel organization on campus remained low in numbers. Today, American Jewish college students still experience antisemitism, blame, and violence for their identity. The Hillel organization on OSC’s campus was not actually affiliated with Hillel International, and only is today as of 2015. OSU today gives the Hillel organization little to no advertisement in comparison to other religious groups on campus, despite the Hillel administration fighting for it. An example of this is obtaining a permanent location for Hillel to hold events, which would provide Jewish students with a safe place, something that other groups already have.

It still doesn’t seem like it’s incredibly safe to be publicly Jewish on a college campus right now, let alone outwardly proud. The culture at OSU is no longer blatantly antisemitic, like it was during WWII for many Jewish students, but that still doesn’t mean much if there’s a lack of support. OSU has the power to make all religious minorities on campus feel safer, so that we don’t risk experiencing history repeating itself.

Image 1 description: Reproduction of Religious Emphasis Week flyer, from Leone Sands Johnson’s thesis.

Image 2 description: Photo of Hillel Club and accompanying message as displayed in OSC’s 1949 yearbook.

Image 3 description: Sylvan Durkheimer, OSC student during WWII. Sourced from the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s oral interview.

Image 4 description: Comic run by Corvallis Gazette-Times, considered to be antisemitic.  

[1] William Robbins, The People’s School: A History of Oregon State University (Chicago: Oregon State University Press, 2017), 6.

[2] Leone Sands Johnson, “An Analysis of Religious Activities at Oregon State College” (Master of Science Thesis, Oregon State College, 1948), 159.

[3]  “Strand Will Address Hillel Group Sunday; All Students Invited,” Oregon State Barometer, October 16, 1946: 1, Oregon Digital, https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/kw52jc94g.

[4]  “Wells To Speak At Hillel Meeting On Seeking Mate,” Oregon State Barometer, January 14, 1947: 1, Oregon Digital, https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/kw52jd36s.

[5] Oregon State College, The Beaver (Corvallis, Associated Students of Oregon State College, 1949) 407, https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/xd07gt12w.

[6] Oregon State College, The Beaver (Corvallis, Associated Students of Oregon State College, 1952) 28, .https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/pz50gw440

[7] “Correspondence,” University of Oregon, National Japanese American Student Relocation Council Records, 1942-1946 [OAI], available through Oregon Digital. https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/df665x694.

[8] Sylvan Durkheimer, “Sylvan Durkheimer-1975.” Interview by Shirley Tanzer, Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, (hereafter OJMCHE), January 1, 1975.

[9] Saul Zaik, “Saul Zaik-2019.” Interview by David August, OJMCHE, April 16, 2019. https://www.ojmche.org/oral-history-people/saul-zaik/

[10] Ruth Goldberg, “An Interview with Ruth Goldberg.” Interview by Judith Berlowitz, Beit Am Matriarchs Oral History Project, Beit Am Synagogue, September 20, 1991.

[11] Cindy Coffer, “For OSU prof, ‘Holocaust’ is real,” Albany Democrat Herald, April 19, 1978.

[12] Ze’ev B. Orzech, “Anti-Semitism, To the Editor,Corvallis Gazette-Times, November 1981.

[13] Melissa Grimes, “’Cowards’ Threaten City’s Jews,” Corvallis Gazette-Times, December 1985.

[14] Diana Artemis, “Help from a true friend,” Corvallis Gazette-Times January 2, 1986.

[15] Edward S. Shapiro, “World War II and American Jewish Identity,” Modern Judaism 10, no. 1 (1990): 65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1396050.

[16] Shapiro, “WWII,” 66.

[17] Shapiro, “WWII,” 68.

[18] Norma Fain Pratt, “Transitions in Judaism: The Jewish American Woman Through the 1930s,” American Quarterly 30, no. 5 (1978): 690, https://doi.org/10.2307/2712404.

[19] Pratt, “Transitions in Judaism,” 695.

[20] Pratt, “Transitions in Judaism,” 695.