page 9 of 14
1-Introductions & Early Life
Please report errors to: email@example.com.
Note: This is a second interview conducted 3 years after the initial interview in 2004. Students studied the recording and transcripts from 2004 to prepare for what is meant primarily as an opportunity to follow up and encourage deeper exploration rather than repetition of the earlier interview. Therefore, follow-up interviews often follow a looser chronological structure.
My name is Erin. My name is Julianna. My name is Ally. My name is Rachael, and we are interviewing Kenneth Colvin on May 3rd 2007 in Hillsborough California.
Well, I seem to be the oldest one here. I was born in November 28th, 1924 in San Francisco and I went to Alamo grammar school, Presidio Junior High School, Lowell High School and then in 1942 I finished 2 quarters of the University of California at Berkeley, and then I volunteered to be drafted and spent the next three years in the Army. I first went to Monterey for induction and then was sent to Fresno Fairgrounds for basic training in the Air Corps, which was called the Air Corps at that time. Then to Stanford, where we were classified and sent back to college, and I went to the University of Cincinnati for a year in an engineering program where we were supposed to graduate and get our commissions. However the Battle of the Bulge interfered and I was sent to the 515th medical clearing company in Kentucky. We stayed there for a while and early January 1945 we boarded a troop transport and went to, ended up at La Havre after about three weeks and from there our company had a very unusual assignment.
We were the first medical group to go in to each of six concentration and labor camps in Germany, Bavaria and Austria. The first one we went into was Hemar, H-E-M-A-R, in Germany and that's where General Eisenhower came in was just completely disgusted. He called General 'Blood-and-Guts' George Patton to come in and view this and General Patton came in and took one look and walked over to the wire fence and lost his lunch. From there on it was a series of going into labor camps and finally we went to Ebensee, which was in Bavaria. That was a sub-camp of Mauthausen. We were there the longest, about four weeks, and from there the war was over in Europe and we went to Marseilles , put on a ship to go to the south pacific, to partake in the invasion of Okinawa. However, the war in Japan was over so they turned the ship around and sent us back to New York, which was wonderful.
Came back to California, started working, met my future wife, who's a native San Franciscan, Thelma Margolis, and we were married in March of 1947, having just celebrated our sixtieth anniversary. We have 3 children, Francine, Cindy, and Larry, each of whom married and gave us seven wonderful grandchildren. I went into the produce business, marketing California agriculture, and from other states, into northern California. I stayed in that for about fifty-two years until I retired a few years ago and am now enjoying going to school at the Fromm Institute at USF, and hoping that I will have a long career and maybe someday get a PhD from USF.
You mentioned that Ken Colvin is not your birth name. Could you tell us what name was given to you when you were born?
Well, that's a whole long story but, briefly, my given name at birth was Woodrow Cohn, and I have two older brothers—Renny and Lenny, and the names didn't rhyme when my folks said, "Renny, Lenny, and Woodrow," so they changed my name legally after six months to 'Kenneth' or 'Kenny.' So it was "Renny, Lenny, Kenny." The name of 'Cohn' deals directly with what we're talking about—The Holocaust and the environment of antisemitism in the United States. When I was sixteen my oldest brother Renny was applying to get an MBA at Stanford, and they had a quota. Wherever he applied had a quota for Jews which was very small. In Universities this was the same thing, in corporate structures and in banks. That's why Jews mainly went into small businesses for themselves. Well, one day Renny got Lenny and I to go down to change our name to 'Colvin' from 'Cohn' and to this day I regret that we did it. I didn't even have a vote in it, but that's where I am.
Did you ever want to change it back to Cohn?
No, it's a little bit late. I'm eighty-two now, and I think I'm stuck with the name.
What did you do for fun when you were a young child?
When I was very young, in grammar school and Junior High—it was during the depression during the 1930s—we made our own fun, we didn't go to special classes for gym or whatever the classes were. I was lucky enough to be a founding member of the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, where I learned to box. That was my singular sport all the way through until I got into the army, and I even fought there a little bit. But, money was very short during those days, and we just went out in the street and played kick the can, or made up any other games. Used to go out to the Sunset from our house in the Richmond District and play in the sand dunes out there. Or go to Golden Gate Park, or go on hikes around Land's End. Actually in 1938 I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge on the opening day and that was really big for me.
During that time l was able to go to Camp Tawanga. This was a camp that was part of the Jewish Community Center and at that time it was located at Lake Tahoe, and for the four weeks I went there each year I was just in heaven. I loved Camp Tawanga, and it's now located near Yosemite. I've been active on the board, President of the Board, and have seen to it that no child has ever been denied a camper-ship, like I was when I was about twelve years old. My dad didn't have the money to send me to camp, so I went down to the president of the Jewish Community Center and asked for a campers-hip and was promptly turned down. This was a big point in my life. It probably caused me to do some of the work I've done in my adult career. When I went on the board of Camp Tawanga in my later life and became president, I saw to it that no child was ever denied a camper-ship to go to camp. And that law or that rule continues to this day. We just went down there last summer to Yosemite where a couple of our grandchildren were working, and it's just as wonderful as ever. But in the meantime I think that takes me up to high school, and in high school I got a job...
What was your relationship like with your family, with your brothers?
We were a pretty close family. Our family was actually centered around my grandparents who lived around the corner on Lake Street. We were at 22nd and California. It was a very strong family. However, it was all a paternal situation where my grandfather was the boss and we went there. Nobody ever came to our house. So, our family life was not our own family life but centered around the big papa. I've tried to use that as a goal all of our married life and we've pretty well conquered that. Anything else you want to know?
Did you spend a lot of time at temple when you were really young?
Yes, I went to Sunday school, went through my Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation, and was active in Jewish affairs like the AZA and a couple of other very Zionist organizations.
What did that mean to you as a child?
It meant to me that I couldn't go to the Concordia club or the Olympic club. I couldn't go to the Concordia club because it was too expensive for our family to join, and I couldn't go to the Olympic club because they didn't allow Jews. I knew that at a very early age. I also would help my mother in some projects, where she was president of Hadassah in San Francisco. I used to help her raise funds for her annual donor luncheon meeting. I was well aware that I was Jewish and at that time there was antisemitism, in the middle of the thirties. And it did affect us, did affect us.
Antisemitism in San Francisco
As a child did you ever experience any antisemitism?
Playground antisemitism We didn't pay much attention to it I guess, but it was always there. On a national basis there were the Bunds that where being formed. German Bunds. The Brown Shirts and the Black Shirts and people of that nature who represented Germany. And there were a lot of side effects that branched out from there.
What is "playground antisemitism?" Can you recount some of that for us?
Playground antisemitism is playing with the kids at Rochambeau playground at 24th and Clement and little remarks would be dropped about 'Come on Jew-boy' or 'we don't let Jews in this game' or something. That was what that was called.
In your book you said that you were in a Youth Zionist Labor organization group. Could you explain what that was?
Yes, it was called Hashomer Hatzer and first I was in AZA, which was a branch of B'nai B'rith and this was for boys, and girls have their own organization. Most of my boy friends were Jewish, and they got me involved in Hashomer Hatzer, which was an organization that I found out many years later was training us to go to Israel, or at that time Palestine, to work in the kibbutzim over there, in agriculture. I later found out when I went to Israel that I would tell people I was in Hashomer Hatzer as a young boy and they would say: "Oh, you were a Communist?" So, I had no idea what a Communist was when I was thirteen, fourteen years old. But I highly respected the kibbutzim movement that started in Israel, which is rapidly disappearing at this point.
When you were young do you ever recall your parents talking about the political situation in Europe, or worrying about Hitler or European antisemitism?
Rachael that's a very interesting question, because the first thing that I remember about discrimination were the Armenians, who had their own holocaust at around 1917 to '21. The Turks took after them and really destroyed them. We always heard this: "Eat your dinner. There are starving Armenians overseas."
Then, of course, we got into 1938, and my grandparents brought over my grandmother's cousin, and their children. We started to ask questions, and I was friendly with one of them, Harry (Beir). We never quite knew about the concentration camps. We had heard about Kristalnacht, when in November 9th 1938 when the Germans burned the synagogues and broke the windows of the Jewish storekeepers and put out severe laws about Jews not participating as teachers or going to school or professionals. So that kind of crept in in around 1938, but nobody ever told us that there were concentration camps, which of course my life was very involved in later on when I was in the army.
Did your parents ever talk about Hitler, or did you know anything about Hitler?
Just I can remember that they used to call him the "one-armed paper-hanger," and I wasn't quite sure what that meant. He was a man who came up and gave the Germans, who were in a very bad depression—in fact there was a depression in the United States that I mentioned before. But Germany was also in this depression and Hitler promised them jobs and food. Then he hypnotized them, which is a subject that is still being written about.
Were any of the children in America you think affected by what was going on? Did they know or were they acting differently?
I don't think so. I don't think it was anything bitter at that time. The worst were schools that wouldn't admit Jews, and clubs that wouldn't admit Jews, and of course this was discrimination. Any time you have discrimination you got troubles.