Oral Histories

Jewish Oral Histories

Even before the Iowa Jewish Historical Society was formed, the Jewish community in Iowa made special efforts to document its history and its connections to state, national, and international events. From 1969 to 2006, volunteers interviewed community and business leaders as well as prominent members of Iowa’s Jewish community, amassing a collection of several hundred audio and videotaped Jewish oral histories.

Oral History Topics

All of the oral histories in our collection are one-of-a-kind interviews that provide personal perspectives and insight into historical events as well as Jewish life and issues that are still of importance today:

  • Religious beliefs and practices
  • Personal accounts of anti-Semitism
  • Life in Nazi Germany
  • The Holocaust
  • Immigration to the U.S.
  • Daily life in the 20th century

Accessing Our Collection of Jewish Oral Histories

Celina Karp

Thanks to grants and support from the State Historical Society Historical Resource Development Program and the Iowa Foundation for Education, Environment and the Arts, our staff is working to preserve and provide access to the Jewish oral histories in our collection. The cassette and videotapes must be professionally digitized and reviewed so that people around the world can easily search and listen to the interviews.

At the present time, most of the oral histories are only available onsite at the Iowa Jewish Historical Society. One exception is the story of Celina Karp Biniaz, one of the last living survivors from Schindler’s List. Celina made several presentations about her life in the Fall of 2017, which you can view on our website.

Support the Collection

Our staff continues to listen to each recording in our collection to document the content of the interview in ways that enable researchers and the general public to find individual histories. We hope you’ll consider making a donation to preserve oral histories of the Jewish community.

Oral Histories

Oral History Listings

Below is a listing of some of the hundreds of interviews that our staff has reviewed. Please call 515-987-0899 ext. 216 for more information or to make an appointment to come listen to history in the voice of the people who lived it. If you have trouble finding a listing, we recommend pressing Ctrl+F once you’ve opened the link to more easily search a topic or person. If you are using a Mac, use Command+F.

In 1990, Grinnell College’s Dr. Michael Bell, Chair of the American Studies Department, began a multi-year research project on the Jewish experience in Iowa—the Iowa Jewish Heritage Project.  The project was supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines and by a grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Historical Resources Development Project grant program.

Toldot Iowa was the oral history component of the larger research project.  Hanna Griff, a lecturer at Grinnell, directed the Toldot Iowa oral history project.  In her words, she “organized a team of Grinnell students, trained them in oral history and documentation, and sent them out around the state collecting stories” from the different Jewish communities.  The results of the research and interviews were to be made accessible to scholars, members of the Jewish communities, and the general public.

Below is a list of the first 50 tapes that are now available to share with a wider audience.  Come to the museum to hear these personal stories of Jewish life and heritage in Iowa. Please call us at 515-987-0899 ext. 216 to make an appointment.

Statewide Toldot Iowa Project Oral Histories 1991-1993

Light One Candle was a locally-produced television program that was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines.  It aired on TCI Cable Channel 17, the “Faith and Values” channel in Central Iowa.  The program was primarily designed to serve the Jewish community but also to be of interest to non-Jews who were interested in religion and interfaith understanding.

Episodes of the program aired on Sundays and Mondays and each episode showed for a month.  Dana Mintzer Leman hosted the show and the producer was Janice Rosenberg.  Both are members of the Des Moines Jewish community.

There are more than 100 videotapes in the Light One Candle collection, including copies of the edited final programs as well as the unedited original footage.  These are the first 28 tapes of this collection to be digitized.  Please call us at 515-987-0899 ext. 216 to make an appointment to view any of these selections.

Light One Candle Television Programs 1996-1999

Iowa’s Jewish community has made a concerted effort since before the 1980s to record its history for future generations.

Below is a listing of a wide-ranging series of oral history interviews with members of Iowa’s Jewish communities, including Holocaust survivors and liberators.  There are also recordings of special events, anniversaries, and synagogue services. The synopses for this oral history collection but hints at the breadth and depth of detail, humor and pathos within each recording.  Hear the harrowing testimony of those who survived the Holocaust and those who liberated some of the concentration camps.  Learn about the importance of the Jewish Community Center from one of its directors, Lou Williams, as well as from others who benefitted from its program.

Oral Histories and Recordings of Events 1981-2018

Please call 515-987-0899 ext. 216 to make an appointment to listen or view one or more of these personal stories from history.

To Come Listen to the Oral Histories

Step 1 of 3

Charles Anolik recalls ghetto, labor camp, and concentration atrocities. He tells a story of getting angry with his mother for letting him oversleep one day while they were in the ghetto, which made him miss going on an easier work detail. Four days later he learned all 532 people on that work crew had been killed. (1985 interview)

Ann Badower talks about growing up in the Southeast Bottoms of Des Moines where her parents ran a grocery store that also functioned as a community hub. Aunts and uncles ran other grocery stores at different locations along Scott Street. Ann worked alongside her parents as a youngster. Later she ran the business end of the tailoring/clothing stores she had with her husband. (1991 interview)

Fred Badower learned tailoring from his father, which helped him during Poland’s early stages of the Nazi occupation and later, after liberation. In one story Fred details how, on his second day at a labor camp, some SS officers pulled him out of the line and used him as a punching bag. But he wouldn’t go down, so one of the officers shot him behind his ear. (1982, 1985 interviews)

Morton Bookey was in on “the Wakonda deal,” when prominent Jewish community leaders in Des Moines leveraged their business and philanthropic involvement to break the ban on Jewish members at the Wakonda Golf and Country Club. (est. 1999 interview)

Lew Caspe did a joint interview with his wife and sister in 1996 and they reminisced about their parents, childhood memories, their extended family, the neighborhood and their Jewish community. At one time, their mother ran 3 different small groceries and she was dubbed ‘the General’ of the neighborhood. (1996 interview)

Dr. Henry Corn loved being a pediatrician and had a wonderful partner in his practice, Dr. Leonard Gangeness, with “no limits in our office.” They served all races and ethnic communities in the Des Moines area. As much as he enjoyed being a doctor, Dr. Corn’s passion was for music and art. He tells about playing the violin in a string quartet for 20 years. The quartet practiced on Wednesday afternoons, his only time off. (2006 interview)

Dr. Harry Elmets remembers the early years of Still College when he was both a student and an instructor. He recalls the discrimination he encountered as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and how his hard work and networking eventually earned him hospital privileges at all the city hospitals—not just at General Hospital. He also tells a story about sneaking into trainings at medical conferences when the American Medical Association did not support osteopathic doctors. (2003 interview)

Linda Fishman tells of the living hells she experienced through family separation, labor camps, concentration camps, and forced marches. While still a child at home, she survived an encounter with Dr. Joseph Mengele when he came to shut down the clandestine butchering operation they had in their backyard. “Why he didn’t pull the trigger as I ran away, I don’t know.” Later in the interview, talking about the many atrocities she witnessed and experienced, she said, “You smile at people and cry to G-d,” she said. (1985 interview)

Carolyn Glassman, Linda Fishman’s cousin, experienced Polish anti-Semitism before the war when people threw stones at their house on Friday nights and hit the shutters. Later in 1942, Carolyn’s older sister and brother were sent to the same camp. Carolyn was the only one of her immediate family to survive the Holocaust. (1985 interview)

Leona Herman grew up in Rock Island, Illinois and tells about having her first rebbe when she was 5 ½ and a succession of rebbes up until she was 12. She offers a character sketch of how Rebbe Younkel Cohn made her mother’s life miserable. She also describes her father’s life as a peddler and at home. (1992 interview)

Phyllis Karp was on Schindler’s List and worked at his factory, but she mentions him only briefly in this 1981 interview. She gives details about growing up in a beautiful Jewish home and her education in Radomska, Poland. She worked for a Jewish bank there until she, husband Irvin, and their child Celina moved to Krakow in 1929. Phyllis has many stories and details about what she and her family experienced during the Holocaust, including how Celina asked Dr. Mengele to let her go and he did. Shortly after that they were sent to Czechoslovakia to work in Schindler’s factory. (1981 interview)

Isador Katz, as a lawyer, knows how to present his case. In this 1993 interview, he shares his family history as Russian/Polish immigrants. He gives details about working lots of jobs while going to school in Rock Island, college at Augustana, and law school at Northwestern. He enjoyed traveling and sprinkles his recollections with how keeping kosher with his Orthodox wife, Ruth Evelyn, impacted the timing and eating on their trips. (1993 interview)

Ronald “Uby” Rabinovitz was a liberator at the Woebblin concentration camp on April 28, 1945. Jordon Bookey interviewed him in 1995 about his war experiences and other details of his life. Rabinovitz tells the gruesome story of being shown around the camp by two “skin and bones” survivors. They took him to the barracks, then to a long brick building where rows of bodies were sprinkled with quicklime and stacked up 2-3 feet high. He recalled being so upset and overwhelmed by what he saw that “after I came out, I threw up and went back to the Army truck.” (1995 interview)