Interview with Ruth Abramson on April 27, 1994 by Naomi Schottenstein and
Bette Young. This interview is part of the Oral History program of the Columbus
Jewish Historical Society.
Interviewer: Today Naomi Schottenstein and I, Bette Young, are interviewing
Ruth Abramson for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. It is April 27, 1994.
Ruth, the first thing I want to ask you is about your early childhood, early
life. Where were you born?
Abramson: I was born in Nashville, Tennessee. I was the third child. I had
two older brothers and I had a younger brother later.
Interviewer: Did you live there as a child?
Abramson: I lived there until I was six years old and then we moved to
Scranton, Pennsylvania where some of my mother’s and father’s families lived. By
then, I was almost seven.
Interviewer: What was your last name?
Interviewer: Were your parents born in this country?
Abramson: No, my mother came over in 1880 when she was two years old.
Abramson: Hungary. And my father came over in 1887 or 1888. He was about
eight years old. And he also came from Hungary.
Interviewer: How did they meet?
Abramson: Well, they lived in Scranton. There was an enormous number of
Hungarian Jews living in Scranton and that’s how they met.
Interviewer: And how did they happen to get to Nashville?
Abramson: Well, my mother’s family went to Nashville. Now I remember. She met
him when she went back to Scranton on a visit.
Interviewer: So you went to school in Scranton and graduated from high
Abramson: Yes. I went to school in Scranton. I graduated from high school
there and then I went to Teacher Training college in Boston which was called
Wheelock. In those years, it was a two year course and then later they changed
it to a four year course. I went there, then I came back to Scranton and took a
teaching summer test and passed it and taught second grade when I was about 19
years old. Then I continued there. My first marriage was when I was about 21
years old and then I moved away from Scranton.
Interviewer: Where did you move to?
Abramson: First we lived in Washington. It was the New Deal days. My
first husband was a lawyer and he graduated from Harvard Law School so I lived
in Washington during very exciting years.
Interviewer: What did you do there?
Abramson: I went back to a nursery school and taught at a place called the
National Child Research Center where many of the significant people sent their
children and grandchildren. It was a very interesting school.
Interviewer: Like who? Anybody that we would know?
Abramson: You should have asked me earlier so I wouldn’t forget names. There
that were influential in the New Deal.
Interviewer: And your husband worked for that?
Abramson: Yes, He worked for something called PWA under Ickes in the
Department of Interior.
Interviewer: Interesting. Then you had your children?
Abramson: Yes. Danny and Julie.
Interviewer: Did you work after they were born?
Abramson: Yes. I continued working after they were born and
then we went to New York on a program one year. Then before my younger daughter
was born, we lived a year in San Francisco when they were investigating all this
near communist activity.
Interviewer: Oh, you’re kidding. Your husband was part of that?
Abramson: The investigation, yes. And there was also a great deal of
communication between these so-called liberal people.
Interviewer: Were you part of the McCarthy program?
Abramson: Well, that was before the McCarthy program.
Interviewer: What were the years you were traveling to San Francisco?
Abramson: Well, Danny was four, then he got to be five and I was pregnant
with Julie so that was 55 years ago.
Interviewer: What happened with the anti-communist program?
Abramson: Well, these were the liberals working in San Francisco.
Interviewer: How did you come to Columbus? When did you come to Columbus?
Abramson: I was divorced and I went into business with one of my brothers for
economic reasons. Then I went to a family wedding and an uncle of mine was
there. This was a very devoted uncle who had lived with us when we were little
and he wanted me to come to Columbus. He was married and lived in Columbus and I
just came for a visit.
Interviewer: Who was he?
Abramson: His name was Newman, and Helen Yenkin is my first cousin. So I had
these things and so I met my husband.
Interviewer: And you were married and came here?
Abramson: Six weeks later. Well, eight to ten weeks later.
Interviewer: And what did you do? Teach?
Abramson: I didn’t at first. Benjamin and I and Julie (she was 13 years old),
went abroad for a year before we settled in Columbus. We had about 6 1/2 months
Interviewer: What did you do there?
Abramson: It was wonderful. I kept house and we just lived there. Julie went
to school there, Benjamin did some graduate work there and we had lots of
Interviewer: Benjamin was a physician right?
Interviewer: A general practitioner?
Abramson: Yes, he first was a G.P. and then he had done a lot of psychology
Interviewer: As I read, he was a real renaissance man.
Abramson: In addition to being a medical doctor.
Interviewer: Did that happen in later years?
Abramson: No. He just took a year off and said, “Why do we have to do
that” and he said, “We’re going to do that before we settle in Columbus.” I said,
“Ok, but we have to have a home first.” And we created our home on
Dawson, rented it out to a military officer and we went to Europe for a year.
Interviewer: So you spent 6 1/2 months in London and, then?
Abramson: Then we traveled. We were in Italy.
Interviewer: What did Julie do? Go to school?
Abramson: We thought she might be able to go to English schools but she
couldn’t because that was where they trained you whether you were going to be a
scholarly person. So she went to the American School where all the Embassy
people’s children went. It was a wonderful school. And then, the traveled with
us. We went to Spain for a month, then to Italy, France, the Netherlands. And
then we came back to Columbus.
Interviewer: Tell me, you had been living in Washington and San Francisco.
How was this?
Abramson: We were having a very exciting and stimulating and happy life but I
was a little worried about what one does in Columbus. I went back to school and
completed my undergraduate work. I had taken some graduate work.
Interviewer: In education?
Abramson: In education. I went to Capital University when Julie was entering
high school and I graduated when she graduated. I got my degree with honors from
Capital University when Julie graduated from Bexley.
Interviewer: What year was that, Ruth?
Abramson: Well, let’s see. We married in. 1951. We came back and I started
school in the Fall of 1953 and I graduated in 1955. No wait, I graduated in
Interviewer: Yes, because Julie is three years behind me.
Abramson: I enjoyed Capital very much. It was fun. I walked to school. I
didn’t want to go to the University – that took up too much time. None of my
work was ever dominant in the family. I think the thing that was dominant in the
family was Benjamin and his work.
Interviewer: In what way?
Abramson: Well, he was interesting. He was a sharing person and was
provocative. We didn’t need my career to juice it up.
Interviewer: So you were doing that for yourself. Well, no one would call you
a “shrinking violet.”
Abramson: Oh no! You’re pretty interesting yourself. Well, it was fun and it
Interviewer: So what did you do after you graduated?
Abramson: Well, then Julie went off to college and that was the last child. I
decided – I had done a little community work – that I would go to work. Never
full-time because I didn’t want my work to dominate the family___ be a dominant
factor. So Torah Academy was getting started. They had kindergarten through
first and second grade. So I went into the second grade program. I taught half a
day, then I proceeded to the third grade, then the fourth grade and the fifth
and sixth and for the last eight years, I taught seventh and eighth grades. I
enjoyed that and it was very satisfying. It was always half time.
Interviewer: I think that’s how they have the school arranged. Half the day
is for Jewish studies.
Abramson: They mix it up. But I would teach in the morning. I was finished by
Interviewer: What were some of your community activities before you started?
Abramson: With doing that, I did community activities. The first person that
called me was after I had been in my home on Dawson and we had just come back
from abroad. When she called, she said, “We’d like to know if you would do
this much for the women’s division of the Federation?” I said, “I
would like to but I’ve only just moved here and I really don’t think I’m ready
or that you would want me. I don’t think I know enough about the
community.” So apparently, she went around and told everyone that I was not
a cooperative person. I always laughed at that. Then I think in a year or two, I
did become chairman of the women’s division. It was interesting. The work was
interesting. The programs were interesting.
Interviewer: When you were chairman of the ? My mother was chairwoman.
Abramson: It was after Helen Yenkin, I was spokeswoman. Before Florence Zacks
Melton. It was interesting. I think we did interesting work. And we really
worked. It wasn’t a professionally occupied . . . it was our content that went
into it. Not only our mechanics but everything. It was different.
Interviewer: Did you do any traveling when you were ,
Abramson: Benjamin and I did lots of traveling. We went away – I don’t know
how he managed it but he managed it and I suppose it affected our income but
that was all right. We went to Italy for a year. Then we went to Israel, than had a
wonderful trip to Scandinavia and we went to Mexico.
Interviewer: Were those trips visitations?
Abramson: No, these were our vacations.
Interviewer: And you designed them? Did the research?
Abramson: We designed them. We never went on a tour. The only place we went
on a tour was in 1967 when we went to the Orient on a six week tour.
Interviewer: Did you travel with other people? Or just the two of you?
Abramson: Well, it was just the two of us when we went to a lot of these
places but we always kind of picked people up. Benjamin was a very social being
and a very kind person. Once we met Julie in Greece. We took long trips. We
didn’t rush them. We met Julie in Athens and we were walking down the street and
I said, “Do you see those women coming? You and I are walking together and
Benjamin is walking with David and they‘re going to pass me right by
and they’re going to go and hug Benjamin,” because he was a very sweet and
Interviewer: How long did you work? How many years did you teach?
Abramson: I worked at Torah Academy for 15 years, then I decided that was
enough. I remember saying to Benjamin one morning in bed, “I think I’m
going to quit.” I missed the teachers and colleagues very much and I missed
some of the students. Some of the students are very good friends now I get a lot
of 35-37 year olds calling.
Interviewer: I know you were very much involved in their programming. At
Torah Academy they had special programs. You helped with their skits.
Abramson: Yes, we did Shakespeare. I introduced them to Shakespeare but we
did it in a different way than they do it now. Now they just do it in a dress-up
way but we did the play. We would read the whole play and I would say to them,
“Don’t worry if you don’t understand some of the things that are written
because language is a little bit like music and you just listen.” Then we
would cut it. And when we cut the play, it would kill them because they’d have
to give up things they didn’t want to give up.
Interviewer: Right. Columbus is not noted for people being really cultured.
Even like Benjamin. Was he from Columbus?
Abramson: He had lived here.
Interviewer: Where did you get your cultural kind of .. , what do you call
Abramson: Well, there were a few other doctors and doctors are not notably
cultured necessarily. And there were a lot of Russians.
Interviewer: But you were like that before. I’m sure that’s why you were
attracted to him and why he was attracted to you. But where did you . . . did
your parents take you to .. did they listen to good music? And you read good
books? And went to plays?
Abramson: I think Benjamin probably was a much more cultured
person than I was because he had grown up in that liberated Jewish movement in
Russia. And he was about 18 years older than I was.
Interviewer: How old was he when he came over here?
Abramson: He came when he was about 18. I’m sure you have him on the history.
One of the professors did it.
Interviewer: Mark Rafael.
Abramson: Yes, Mark Rafael came out with two people and did a Benjamin
thing. He had read the German philosophers and the French and all that. He loved
music. He just basically had much more culture than I did growing up in a small
Interviewer: But obviously, this must have been something you wanted or you
wouldn’t have even gone out with him and said, “Oh, what a high brow.”
Abramson: He wasn’t really a high brow.
Interviewer: Where else did Benjamin live when he came
to the states?
Abramson: He lived in New York for a couple of years and then he heard this
“Go West Young Man” to Ohio State University and then he came to Ohio
State University. He got off the train and he has talked about his walk up High
Street from the railroad station and said whoever was president of OSU then was
a very kind person and was very receptive to foreign students. It was when they
were moving the college from an agricultural school to a cultured school. So he
went there and I think he graduated in about three years. He had graduated from
the gymnasium in Russia (he never would have been admitted to a University
there) and then he went to Chicago and went to medical school. He graduated and
worked in North Dakota so we had all of these touches in his, And we always had
a very strong family life where everybody came to see us. We were a center for
Then Columbus changed. When I married Benjamin there was a little bit of
music, there wasn’t any opera, there were a few good things going on at the
University – intellectual things.
Interviewer: Did you used to travel to Cincinnati or Cleveland?
Abramson: We’d go to Cincinnati to the opera and to Cleveland for the opera
and to Cincinnati to the symphony. When we went to New York, we’d do things. And
when we traveled abroad, we would always find the entertainment that was around.
We were very free.
Interviewer: Are your brothers and sisters like you?
Abramson: No. I think we’re all different. I have an older brother with whom
I have some things in common and another brother who I have things in common
with. And another younger brother – I’m sure I raised him and understand him
better than anybody else. And Benjamin and I traveled a lot. You picked
up wonderful friends when you traveled.
Interviewer: Well, you have to be susceptible to it. People travel to Europe
and never get out of the American restaurant.
Abramson: Well, Benjamin spoke German and he spoke French and he could pick
up a Iittle bit of Italian and Spanish. Now I had studied Spanish in high school
but when we spent that month in Spain, he did more with Spanish at the end of
that month than I did because he was a natural linguist and of course, he knew
Hebrew and Yiddish. I didn’t know Yiddish and I didn’t know Hebrew. We respected
Interviewer: It’s always interesting to me, especially in a city like
Columbus, how people the kinds of lives people choose to live.
Abramson: Well, I think that’s why I don’t know the family
histories we were talking about at lunch. I never really knew these family
constellations and we just had our own little group of friends.
Interviewer: Were these people in the University for the most part?
Abramson: A lot of them were University people. A lot of them were doctors. A
lot of them were Russians. Loads of Russians. They were poor and Benjamin was
doing free medicine for them and he could speak to them. There were a lot of
very literate Russians. He could make them feel comfortable
Interviewer: Are they still in the community?
Abramson: They’re mostly gone. They died. And then Benjamin had
a lot of history with the black community.
Interviewer: Where did he practice?
Abramson: Here in Columbus.
Interviewer: I know, but where?
Abramson: Down on Grant.
Interviewer: How did he establish a relationship with the black community?
Abramson: Well, we knew a few ministers and we knew a few
organizations. They would honor you and we would honor them and we spent a lot
of time on the Urban League.
Interviewer: Why would they honor you?
Abramson: For the work you had done.
Interviewer: You felt committed to these racial problems?
Abramson: Oh yes, of course.
Interviewer: Well, you say of course but most people . .
Abramson: The Urban League was beginning to become active and the woman who
was secretary of the Urban League was a very good friend of mine. I remember
that we would go out to lunch and it startled me that I was the only white
person with a? Now you see mixed lunches more.
Interviewer: Where would you go to have lunch?
Abramson: Anyplace. We went to the Maramor once. I thought we’d better do it
Interviewer: Were a lot of the Russian people you were involved with
interested in music?
Abramson: Yes. And a lot of them were very educated, You know, they are also
a very dominant people, a little bit pompous. They had to hold onto that,
otherwise, what did they bring with them? They would give dinner parties and
have the most incredible dishes with pots and pans to serve from that didn’t
match but had elegant food and elegant service.
Interviewer:Are their children still in the community?
Abramson: Oh, yes. By now anglicized
Interviewer: Is there anybody that I would know?
Abramson: No I don’t think so. There weren’t any Jews. These were the white
Russians. The Jewish Russians hadn’t come yet. They were quite elegant. They
were running away from Communism. They’d gone from Russia through northern
Africa and then slowly come over to America.
Interviewer: Was there a large population?
Abramson: No. There were 20-30 families, Maybe more but we knew at least that
many. You never hear about them.
It was a whole different – they weren’t Jewish. A lot of our work was Jewish.
A lot wasn’t. If you worked for honor (I never worked for honor) and
recognition, then maybe you’d get held onto for another five years but if you
just worked with them for the joy of working and the friendship in what you’re
doing and how you’re helping them. Those Sunday afternoon calls that
Benjamin would have to make and we’d go and visit them and take them things.
This woman was ill and her son was a little retarded…and you had all these
things to deal with. It was interesting.
Interviewer: I’ll bet it was. I think, today, when we think of the Russians
that are in our community that we know that they are mostly Jewish. We don’t
come in contact, I don’t think, with the non Jewish Russians.
Abramson: Well, the Jews weren’t here yet. They were in Russia trying to make
it all happen.
Interviewer: Would you say this was in the 60’s?
Abramson: It was the 60’s and 70’s. We had a very vaned social life. And
also, it was a Jewish social life. We were interested in Jewish things; we were
very interested in Israel, I think we went to Israel together about six times
and then I went three more times after Benjamin died. If we were going to
Greece, then we went to Israel. We went somewhere else, then we went to Israel.
Interviewer: Thank you, Ruth, for sharing your personal life experiences with
the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
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