Harry Kreisler Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Story behind Conversations with History: Conversation with Harry Kreisler by Film Artist Ken Jacobs; October 14, 1999
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Ken Jacobs: Were your parents named Kreisler?

Harry Kreisler: Right, my father was named Isaac Kreisler, and my mother's name was Yetta. Her maiden name was Wiedhoff.

Any relation, of course as people have asked you all your life, to Fritz?

Well, they do ask, and the answer is not clear. A lot of people change their names. I'm not sure if that was my father's original name. Well, I think it was always his name, but the answer is unknown. I don't know. My parents were Jewish, and I don't know if Fritz Kreisler was Jewish or if his family had been Jewish.

But isn't Kreisler a German word?

Yes, it is a German word. They both grew up in a part of what is now the Ukraine. At one time this area was part of Poland, at another time part of the Soviet Union. At one time it was occupied by the Germans, at one time it was occupied by the Russians. It was in Galicia. I think my parents were from the same small town, which was called Brezana. Before World War I, my father's brother emigrated to Galveston, Texas, and my father, his mother, and his two sisters emigrated to Vienna in about '24. My mother came over to the United States to Galveston, Texas, sometime in the early thirties.

And the Harry, how did you get Harry?

It's my understanding that I was named after the President of the United States Harry S. Truman. Of course I'm named after an ancestor, so my name in Hebrew is Herschel. They found a counterpart in the name of the president of the United States.

Galveston, how was that? You grew up until what age in Galveston?

The interesting story is that both of my parents wound up in Galveston, Texas, because at the turn of the century there was the Galveston Movement. German Jews in New York wanted East European Jews, as more and more of them were coming over, to settle in the heartland of the United States. The idea was that if they found a port of entry in the heartland of the United States, then the people would emigrate up and go into the Midwest and become farmers. Well the movement fizzled, but enough of it was put in place in Galveston so that a core [of] maybe a couple hundred Jewish families settled there, and then they began bringing their relatives. The Galveston Movement had started, say, after the turn of the century, but it led to people not actually implementing the plan that was intended, but being there and bringing over relatives. So both my father's relatives and my mother's relatives came over, at different times.

What occupation did your parents get involved in?

My father and mother opened a mom-and-pop grocery store near a medical school. Galveston didn't have much industry; it was a seaport. There was insurance business, but there was also the University of Texas Medical School [which] at that time had only one branch, and it was Galveston. So they opened a mom-and-pop grocery store, and a lot of their business was with the medical fraternities that were organized to support the students there who were attending medical school.

Were you living in a Jewish neighborhood in Texas?

No, but we were very much involved in the Jewish community. There were two synagogues. There was an orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth Jacob, which we belonged to. We kept kosher and so on. Interestingly enough, in Galveston, Texas, without living necessarily in a Jewish neighborhood, you could be very Jewish.

I should mention that my father, in his years in Vienna, became very secular, actually. I think the experience of being in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss led to a reassertion of his identity once he was forced to leave Vienna and come to United States. The Galveston Movement implanted [in him] a religious tradition. I don't think my father became very religious, but he was a member of the orthodox synagogue.

How do you think he would have picked up on your saying his "identity," rather than just his Jewish identity?

I don't know. Unfortunately, he died when I was five, so I don't have the ability to imagine a conversation with him.

I think he would've understood. I subsequently came to know some of his story. I think that in Vienna, his life or his experiences were like mine in coming to Berkeley in the sixties. Although he was not an intellectual or an academic (he was in the leather business; at the time Hitler invaded he had a luggage shop), he was coming to terms, I later came to understand, with what assimilation was, and how much you assimilate. He had gone pretty far down that path.

Vienna was very much like Berkeley at that time, as Berkeley became in the sixties, a place of intellectual ferment. Freud was there at some point; of course, Hitler was there as a young artist. All kinds of original thinking and craziness and crazy ideas were going on there.

Was he political?

I found out subsequently that he was. He was not quite a communist, but very left-leaning and so on.

Growing up in a community where many people had fled from the Nazis, people often didn't tell stories about the past because of guilt or for all kinds of reasons. I came to know more about my father -- I remember him a little, but not much; we had some pictures and so on -- approximately thirty years after he died, when he received a letter from someone in Vienna. I answered the letter and came to learn my father's story in that way, and his coming to terms with his Jewish identity, and his assimilated Viennese identity.

When your father died, your mother kept the grocery store going?

For about a year, although it became impossible, so we ultimately had to close it.

How did you survive?

She worked. She was a clerk in a grocery store and she was a very industrious person. But it was difficult. I had a brother, so she had two young children. My brother was nine and I was five when my father died.

Then you ended up going to school, way across the country?

Right, I first went to Ball High school, then I went to Brandeis. I got a scholarship and so went to Brandeis.

Basketball scholarship?

No, it was a book scholarship. I had done well in school. I was high school valedictorian. I think their admission office, upon seeing my application, said, "Jews in Galveston? " And so they admitted me.

What discipline did you move towards?

Interestingly enough, I was interested in political science. I don't know why.

I'd say naturally enough.

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