New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools – May in New York

Posted on May 14th, 2014 by

We added five great interviews to our project (the upcoming documentary The Rosenwald Schools) at a two day shoot last week in New York City. First up was George C. Wolfe, Tony Award-winning playwright and director, known for Broadway productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, last year’s Nora Ephron-written Lucky Guy and the 2005 HBO film Lackawanna Blues.


Wolfe was born in Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, a state where over 150 Rosenwald Schools and schools had been built with the support of the Rosenwald Fund. By 1932, over 100,000 African American schoolchildren had been educated in a Kentucky Rosenwald School. Wolfe, who was born in 1954, was part of the generation after the Rosenwald Schools’ biggest impact. By the time he started school, the Rosenwald-funded school in his community had been replaced with a more modern building where his mother was a teacher. The school Wolfe attended was nonetheless officially known as the Rosenwald School, probably in recognition of the importance of the previous school, which was still extant when Wolfe was a child. Wolfe treasures his time at “Rosenwald,” and he shared some of his formative experiences there with us. For example:

It became the mission of all the teachers at Rosenwald to make sure we were fortified and that we were confident and that we were able to go forth into the world. I remember at one point we were invited to perform at this other school, and we were singing this song. And I remember very specifically the lyrics: “These truths we are declaring, that all men are the same. That liberty’s a torch, burning with a steady flame.” And [our principal] told us that when we got to the line, “That liberty’s a torch, burning with a steady flame,” if we sang it with full conviction, we would transform all the energy in the room, we would cause all the white people in the room to shed their racism. So I remember very specifically us singing this song, “These truths we are declaring, that all men are the same.” And then we got to this line and we practically screamed it: “That liberty’s a torch, burning with a steady flame.” And it wasn’t so much that it happened, the amazing thing about that story for me is that we believed it. I’ve gone on to work in theater and film and to become a writer, and her saying that to me, to us, at that time lives inside of me to this very day and informs the kind of work that I do and the kind of work that I believe in. In many respects I received the grounding or the nurturing or the watering of the seeds that I became at that school, from those extraordinary teachers, who were all so committed and so dedicated and so ferociously involved in making the students feel special. And I don’t think I would become the person I became had I not gone to that school.

George C. Wolfe with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014


Next up, we filmed a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters of Julius Rosenwald. First we interviewed Elizabeth Varet, daughter of William Rosenwald, the youngest child of five born to Julius and Augusta Rosenwald. Varet related a funny story that we first read about in Peter Ascoli’s biography of Julius Rosenwald about J.R.’s service in World War I. Along with some other business magnates, Rosenwald moved to Washington during the war and advised the federal government on procurement for the troops, taking a salary of a dollar per year. In 1918, he sailed to Europe and toured the U.S. military camps in France dressed in military fatigues, but with no insignia or marking of rank. According to Ascoli, J.R. was uncomfortable in the uniform and often used it to get a laugh in the opening remarks of his speeches to the troops.

Aviva Kempner with Elizabeth Varet, granddaughter of Julius Rosenwald
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

Toward the end of J.R.’s trip, he crossed paths at a camp with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Early one morning, Secretary Baker was meeting with the various military personnel at the camp. Elizabeth Varet picked up the story there:

This is told by my grandfather: as Secretary Baker came down the aisle, he said that each general should step forward, salute and introduce himself – “I’m General So-and-so.” And then they came to my grandfather and as a dollar a year man, a businessman, he didn’t have any insignia. And he stood forward and said, “I am General Merchandise.”

This line got a big laugh and became a family story for years to come. Although Rosenwald never served in combat, he proved extremely valuable in his advisory capacity and by all accounts was a hit at the French camps he visited in 1918. At the National Archives, we recently came across a silent film produced by the Department of Defense that captured one of Rosenwald’s speeches to the troops. Since it’s so rare, it’s always exciting to find footage of Rosenwald, but we typically can’t share it on the blog due to copyright concerns (although last April we shared another brief glimpse of J.R. found at the National Archives). Here’s JR addressing an unknown U.S. encampment in France:

From “Activities and Reviews at Headquarters S.O.S., Tours, France, 1918-1919”
Credit: NARA Local Identifier 111-H-1448


Each of Julius and Augusta Rosenwald’s children went on to achieve significant things in their lives. Elizabeth Varet’s father William helped three hundred members of the extended Rosenwald family in Europe escape the Nazis during World War II. Marian Rosenwald Ascoli and Adele Rosenwald Levy devoted their lives to charitable causes; Marion to health services for children and Adele to the Museum of Modern Art and supporting Holocaust survivors through the United Jewish Appeal. And Edith Stern was a major supporter of the cause of Civil Rights for African Americans in New Orleans, as we learned from our interviewee, Anne Hess, and from Cokie Roberts, who we interviewed last September.

Linda Levy, granddaughter of Lessing Rosenwald
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

Perhaps the most well-known of the Rosenwald children, however, was their eldest, Lessing Rosenwald. Lessing, who was an avid collector of rare books, prints and engravings, is remembered today for the collections he donated to the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. His invaluable donations include the Giant Bible of Mainz, drawings and engravings by Albrecht Dürer and William Blake and etchings by Rembrandt.

Lessing had 19 grandchildren, most of whom grew up in the Philadelphia area where he spent most of his adult life. We spoke to one of his grandchildren, Linda Levy, who had many fond memories of visiting her grandfather at his home in Jenkintown, a suburb north of Philadelphia. Linda mentioned that Lessing did work at Sears (at their Philadelphia plant) but that his real passion was rare book collecting. Lessing always told his grandchildren he felt very fortunate to be able to make his life’s work something he loved. As Linda put it, Lessing

…greatly respected, greatly admired the books that he had and the prints. When I saw my grandfather Lessing take a book out of the case, it was with such love, such reverence, admiration, respect for this artifact. The books and prints were in very good hands when they were in Lessing’s hands.

The interview shoot was a reunion of sorts for the three Rosenwald descendants. Linda and Elizabeth hadn’t seen each other in awhile and I was glad they got a chance to catch up and discuss their remarkable family tree.

Elizabeth Varet and Linda Levy
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014


The third Rosenwald descendant we spoke with was Anne Hess, the granddaughter of Edith and Edgar Stern. Anne shared stories about her grandparents’ progressive support for voting rights in New Orleans during the 1930s and 1940s, but her own experience following in the footsteps of her famous great-grandfather, Julius Rosenwald, caught our attention:

[Julius Rosenwald] viewed education as the path to equality. In addition to that, he viewed one of the responsibilities of wealth as doing responsible things with it. About five years ago, I had the opportunity to help with an effort to build more schools in Liberia. The method that my great-grandfather used was that the community in the South had to put the land up, had to want to have the school there and had to participate in making the school a reality. In Liberia, they had the same model without knowing that it was connected to my great-grandfather. The community had to identify the property, they had to be willing to oversee the construction of the schools and then the government would provide the funding for the teachers and the materials. I went around to my various family members, cousins of which I have many, and raised enough money for a school in Liberia. There’s a Rosenwald School in Northern Liberia, and to this day it operates and serves children in a very rural area.

It’s inspiring to see that this kind of philanthropy that Julius Rosenwald innovated, built on matching grants and community involvement, still works today.

Aviva Kempner with Anne Hess, granddaughter of Edith and Edgar Stern
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014


Our final interviewee was Eli Evans, author of several books on the Jewish experience in the South. Eli painted a picture of the history of the “special relationship” between Jews and blacks in Southern states. After talking about the tragic Leo Frank case (which resulted in the lynching of a Jewish factory manager) and Civil Rights partnerships between Jews and blacks, Eli went back to the very beginning of their interactions, when Jewish peddlers and shopkeepers began to do business in the 19th century South.

Slaves who had been mistreated often by whites, [began] discovering a white man who was different than any other they’d ever met. He spoke with an accent, he came to them to sell and be kind to them. He did not own slaves, he had never owned slaves. He came to serve and he also brought news from elsewhere. Like a visitor, he brought trinkets for the children, and everybody was excited when he came. A black writer whose parents had been slaves told me that the name for the Jews who came was the “rolling store man,” because he drove horses in a carriage. It’s a wonderful image to me: you can see the people running out of the house, kids running out of the house saying, “The rolling store man is here.” There was a relationship, there’s no question about it, a relationship on both sides. There’s stories of [Jewish peddlers] who left their kosher cooking gear with the same family every time because they knew they would come by there to spend the night and they needed that to eat with. It’s sort of wonderful story, but it’s true also. It was one of the elements in the development of the relationship between blacks and Jews which became a very special one through history.

Aviva Kempner with Eli Evans
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

Thanks to our great interviewees and the new crew we worked with: Roger Grange, Dan Bricker and Judy Karp.

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