Monthly Archives: October 1978

1978.10.00: Bessie Letwin Oral History


Title: Letwin, Bessie (audio interview #1 of 4)
Creator: Bessie Letwin (5/19/1987 12:00:00 AM) Susie Bright, interviewer
Date: 10/00/1978
Subject: Reformers and Radicals Women’s History
Description: SUBJECT BIO – Bessie Letwin’s radicalism developed during her younger days in Russia before the revolution and continued even after she left the Communist party during the height of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Born in the Ukraine, Letwin had to leave school after two years to help support the family and went to work in a shop selling dress trims. She learned to read and write Yiddish from three students who roomed in her home, and later convinced a cousin to support her attending school in Odessa. While attending a gymnasium there, she was a witness to and participated in some of the activities leading up to the Russian revolution. She met her fiance during WWI and emigrated to the US with him and his family. In Milwaukee, where they joined other members of his family, she went to work in a garment shop, and after her son was born did home work. Some time during this period, she joined the Communist party. Letwin and her husband opened a grocery store and shared responsibility for running the store. Because of the long hours she kept there, she was not active in the CP, but did carry party literature in the store, which earned her the enmity and loss of some customers. In the 1950s, during the height of McCarthyism, Letwin left the CP and notes that she suddenly regained friends who had kept their distance from her. She moved to California in the 1960s after her husband’s death, and although she is not very specific about her activities, did remain involved in radical politics. The interview with Bessie Letwin was conducted as a project in a women’s oral history class by Susie Bright, who had been involved with one of Letwin’s grandchildren in high school radical politics, publishing the University High School alternative paper, The Red Tide.INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION – This is the first interview of four interviews with Bessie Letwin conducted in her home in Westwood for as part of a student project in a women’s oral history class at CSULB. Although Letwin was frank and honest, her unprepossessing manner meant that she did not speak at length on any particular subject. Letwin and the interviewer had known each other for several years and there references to close friends and relatives are not fully explained. Note: it is sometimes difficult to understand Letwin because of her thick accent.

TOPICS – youth in Russia; family background; family history; socioeconomic status; family life; religion; gender roles; commerce in Russian village; anti-Semitism and pogroms; conditions in czarist Russia; education; Jewish culture and values; childhood; household chores; housing and living conditions; and social activities; NOTE: it is sometimes difficult to understand Letwin because of her thick accent;family socioeconomic status in Russia; anti-Semitism; relations with gentiles; religion; family life; family history; clothing styles; health care in Russia; puberty and menstruation; early work experiences; wages and hours; educational aspirations; and schooling and education; Note: it is sometimes difficult to understand Letwin because of her thick accent;