Bryn Mawr Student Documents Campus Jewish History

Caitlin Haskett displays her exhibit at Bryn Mawr College’s Canaday Library.
Caitlin Haskett displays her exhibit at Bryn Mawr College’s Canaday Library. (Courtesy of Caitlin Haskett)

While she isn’t studying history, it’s a subject that Caitlin Haskett values. So when she discovered a gap in her school’s historical records, she wanted to fill it.

Last year, Haskett, a psychology major and senior at Bryn Mawr College, noticed a shortfall in her school’s documentation on Jewish student life across the 1940s and 1950s — an era she described as “a key component of modern Jewish history.”

Through a 10-week research fellowship, Haskett collected the oral histories of eight Jewish alumnae to preserve the stories of Jewish students from the period for future generations.

“It’s important that people learn the history of their community and do what they can to document the stories that we have before it’s too late,” Haskett said, “so that we can be aware of where we’ve come from and the history that we embody every day.”

Haskett got the idea for the project after a Bryn Mawr Hillel event in February 2019. At the time, she was the student group’s social justice chair and organized a group trip to the school’s special collection department. There, students learned about the school’s Jewish history and explored various materials held in the library’s archive, including letters and scrapbooks donated by former Jewish students.

Haskett noticed that documentation on Jewish student life was lacking, especially from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Eric Pumroy, the Seymour Adelman Director of Special Collections, said the archive is relatively new and primary focuses on preserving the records of the college’s administration. Any documents regarding student life come haphazardly from alumni donations, with little about Jewish students. 

To address the issue, Haskett obtained a research fellowship from the school’s Pensby Center for Community Development and Inclusion and conducted research and interviews from May through August.

The Bryn Mawr Alumnae Association put her in touch with eight Jewish alumnae: Betsy Levin, Ivy Relkin, Joan Wohl, Chloe Garrell, Joan Scheuer, Miriam Diamond, Nona Abrams and Susan Band Horwitz.

“People are really excited about the fact that these stories are being told,” Haskett said. “It’s really important to highlight the experiences of people who have been on this campus, especially marginalized students and marginalized groups in general.

“There’s been a focus on Martha Carey Thomas, a past president of Bryn Mawr who has a racist and anti-Semitic past. And there’s been a lot of focus on her history, but in all of that discussion, there has been a lack of focus on the stories of students she didn’t want on campus. It’s important to tell those stories too and get a sense for what life was actually like for those people.”

One of the most interesting things Haskett said the alumnae discussed was their experience with food. One woman retold the story of using the window seal outside of her dorm room to refrigerate kosher foods for Passover.

Haskett said that a lot of people expected her to come back from the interviews with lots of stories about anti-Semitism and discrimination. And while she did hear a few, they were less prominent than anticipated.

“People that I interviewed felt that any social stigmatization or distancing they felt from non-Jewish students was not based on religious lines, but it was based sort of more on social class and economic differences,” she said.

However, Pumroy said the results might be more positive toward the college because those interviewed had good relations with the school and had kept in touch over the years. So it’s possible their experiences may not be reflective of all Jewish students from the time. In any case, Pumroy sees the project as something he would like to replicate in the future.

“We haven’t had a systematic oral history program for quite a while,” he said. “We’re in the process of ramping one up, and Caitlin’s project is a good model for moving forward.”

In November, a display compiled of notable stories and key takeaways from the interviews was installed in the lobby of the school’s Canaday Library.

Titled “Midcentury Jewish Mawrtyrs: Excerpts from Oral Histories of Eight Jewish Alumane on Campus from 1938-1958,” it features short bios for all interviewees, along with excerpts from the interviews arranged by theme on food, dating, housing and discrimination.

The library is closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, and it is unknown how much longer the display will be in place. However, the full interview transcripts are now stored in the school’s special collections, preserving the stories for future generations.

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