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Introductions & Pre-War Life in San Francisco
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Hi my name is Sydney. Hi, I'm Liza. Hi I'm Alex. Today we are interviewing Kenneth Colvin. It's June 2, 2004, and we are in Hillsborough, California.
Please state and spell your name:
My name is Kenneth Colvin, C-o-l-v-i-n.
Please state and spell your name at time of birth.
At time of birth it was Woodrow Cohn, C-o-h-n.
What is your birthday and how old are you now?
My birthday is November 28th, 1924. I am now 79.
What was the city and country of your birth?
San Francisco, California.
Why should we be interested in the information and the experience that you are going to be telling us today?
Well, I think I mentioned it before, because of my age. I am seventy-nine, and time is running out for us. And I mean us, who were in World War II, and were witnesses to the Holocaust, to tell our story, so that it will be remembered in perpetuity. This is a wonderful way to do it. Because I know that down the road, probably hundreds or maybe thousands of students, young people, will hear this story.
Childhood in San Francisco
What is the first thing that you remember in your life?
One of the first things that I remember has to do with being a Zionist. My mother was one of the first presidents of Hadassah in San Francisco. Every year they would have a donor luncheon. It was twenty five dollars, and I am talking about in the middle of the depression days. She didn't have twenty five dollars to pay for the donor luncheon, so she had to earn it. One year I remember, I don't know what age I was - maybe four or five - that she was collecting wire hangers to sell to the cleaners for a penny a piece, so that she could go to this donor luncheon.
One of the first things I remember in my life, was pulling a little red wagon down the street, and going up door to door, and asking people if they had wire hangers. That is the first thing I remember about being a Zionist, is that you collect wire hangers. Gradually I learned what being a Zionist was. I would say I have been a lifelong Zionist.
What was it like growing up in San Francisco, and how was it different from today?
Growing up in San Francisco, you just can't isolate that part of the question, because we grew up in the depression days, in the thirties, and we didn't have all the extra lessons after school, and programs that we joined. We made our own fun. My mother worked at my father's store. So she wasn't home when I got home from school. I remember, now you call it a latch key child, who carried his own key to his house. So, the one instruction I had was from my mother: when you got home from school, go out and play. That is what we did. We went out and made our own fun. We went to the playground or we had bicycle races.
Growing up in San Francisco, it was a very exciting city. I can remember I watched the Golden Gate Bridge being built, and the Bay Bridge around 1938. The best thing about San Francisco is that every summer I had a chance to go to Camp Towanga, which was up at Lake Tahoe at that time. That was my whole childhood, as far as I was concerned. It was the greatest experience, and I am still involved with Camp Towanga in a very meaningful way.
What were you relationships with your parents and siblings?
My mother and father worked a great deal. They worked six full days a week. My mother was involved in a lot of Jewish organizations at our temple. And she was president of the sisterhood. And at that time, they called it the Ladies Endeavor Society. Then she was president of Hadassah. All that took a lot of time. In retrospect, I can remember that she had reasons for doing this, and that I learned lessons from.
What were those reasons?
The reasons were that she was Jewish, and that our whole family was Jewish. This meant a great deal to us. To me, I transformed those lessons into a much bigger lesson, having gone through the Holocaust.
What was your school life like? Did you enjoy school? Were there any classes in particular?
Well I went to Alamo Grammar School, in the Richmond district. Then I went to Presidio Junior High School, and then to Lowell High. I guess I was a hustler. I had a lot of jobs. I started when I was about ten - working at jobs delivering magazines and newspapers, and washing stairs. I was always out there hustling. Then by the time I got to high school, I worked half-day. I went to school just until noon, then I worked in the afternoons for three years. So that was kind of the experience of learning that carried over into my own adulthood of knowing what it was to work and how hard it is to work.
How important was religion in your family life as a child?
My grandparents were orthodox, conservative to orthodox. We were traditional Jews and we, in our home, we celebrated the holidays. I went through religious school all the way to the time I was fifteen or sixteen. I was Bar Mitzvah'ed and confirmed. This gave me a good basis, not a religious basis, but a traditional practicing basis.
Anti-Semitism in San Francisco
As a child did you ever experience any anti-Semitism?
Yes, probably more so towards the end of the 1930s, when there was open anti-Semitism in the country. There was the Bund, the German Bund, and the brown shirts and the black shirts, who were operating right out in the open in the United States. These were anti-Semetic organizations with a German background. The reason I mentioned before that my name was Cohn when I was born. It is very indicative of what your question asks, because at that time my older brother, Reynold, was trying to get into law school—or get an MBA—and at that time the colleges and universities had quotas against Jews. Like Stanford had a six per cent quota. Harvard was very low on Jews. Today its maybe twenty five per cent.
I knew I was Jewish. I knew I was Jewish because I went to the Jewish Community Center. Started there in 1933, when I was like eight years old, as a charter member. I couldn't go to the Olympic Club, because my friends belonged there, and they didn't allow Jews. There were clubs all over San Francisco. There are still a few that have limits. We live right close to one at Burlingame Country Club, that just doesn't allow Jews. They have a few token Jews. But you see this carries all the way through my life. It is consistent with the Holocaust. That is when I saw, of course, the greatest demonstration of anti-Semitism that has ever been shown in the world. That is what caused me to do what I have done in my life.
How did that type of exclusion and anti-Semitism make you feel as a child? How does it make you feel now as an adult?
Well, I think it hurt more as a child. The occasional anti-Semitism - I wasn't really conscious of it until I got into high school. That's in 1938, when I went to Lowell. Even in high school, they had fraternities and sororities. But the big sororities and fraternities, wouldn't take in Jewish students. They had their own. So immediately there was a separation in the community. You know you are Jewish, so you're over there, and you're not Jewish so you're over there. But that is just the beginning of what I saw during the War.
Did you have any experiences with segregation?
I don't recall there being any involvement with Afro-Americans at that time. There were a lot of Asians in San Francisco. The Afro-Americans didn't really come in until after World War II. Then they started moving here from the South, because they had been working here in shipyards and other things, soldiers and sailors. They found out how wonderful San Francisco is. So that is when the infusion came in and, in our family, you know we tried to be very liberal, and it was never a problem to me.
What profession did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a doctor. Very intensely. It didn't work out that way. The closest I came to it was being a medic in the army and doing what I could at that time, which I will talk about later.
Were you intense about sports or have any hobbies as a child?
Yeah, I was a boxer. I was a boxer at the Jewish Community Center at age eight. I kept boxing all the way through when I went to Cal for a little while. And then I had one famous boxing match in the army, because they promised us a steak dinner. So I got my head beaten in for a steak dinner.
section below from elsewhere in interview
Were you aware of how the Japanese were being interned here in San Francisco? What was your reaction?
I had no reaction to it at first, but in after years, I was so resentful at our government for interning the Japanese, and the way they did it, because they didn't intern the Germans or the Italians, who were part of the Axis. And it just was not fair. I know a lot of stories about the - we didn't call them Japanese - we called them Nisei. They were Japanese, born in the United States. As it turned out, they were very supportive during the War, even having their own Japanese outfit during the War, which was the 442nd Infantry. They received more decorations than any other unit in the army, for the fighting they did in Europe. section above from elsewhere in interview