As a working journalist, Rhoda Lewin knew that “interviewing witnesses to an event was part of your job if you wanted ‘the whole story,’” according to an article she wrote for Oral History Review in 2002.
And so she devoted her life and career to documenting the history of the Twin Cities and its Jewish community. She was particularly interested in the immigrant stories because, as she noted in the article, “the print media, minutes of meetings and business papers didn’t tell us what it was like to begin a new life in a strange new country where you couldn’t even speak the language.”
“She felt the need to be a witness and record history as it happened around her,” her son, Jeff, told the AJW.
Lewin died Dec. 31 at the age of 83.
Lewin was born in Mitchell, S.D., the daughter of Louis Greene, a journalist who emigrated from Romania, and his wife, Florence. When Lewin was a young child, the family moved to the Twin Cities, where her father worked as a sports reporter and copy editor at the Minneapolis Tribune (Greene also wrote the AJW’s About People column in the 1960s).
Lewin was a graduate of North High School and went on to earn a B.A. and M.A. in journalism at the University of Minnesota. By that time, she was a single mother raising two daughters, Ellen and Susan, and began teaching at what is now the University of Wisconsin–Superior to support her family.
“There were other single mothers in the neighborhood and it didn’t seem at all unusual,” Lewin’s daughter, Susan Roth, told the AJW. “We led a very normal lifestyle.”
Lewin later married her beloved husband, Thomas — to whom she was married for more than 50 years — and welcomed two more children, Kate and Jeff. She continued to work as a freelance writer and editor, and eventually earned a Ph.D., in American studies, from the University of Minnesota in the 1980s, which she wanted to hang in either the kitchen or laundry room — the two places where she would see it the most.
“It was just such a focus for Jewish families, that you were expected to take advantage of education,” Roth said. “Setting her own example, in terms of going after her Ph.D. and keeping at it, really helped to set the standard for us.”
Among other endeavors, Lewin wrote the Around the Town column for the AJW in the early 1990s, which was based on her father’s previous About People column. In it, she used her journalism training to tell the stories of local community members — whether it was Sheila Field, a volunteer docent for an Anne Frank exhibit, or Mort Levy, the historian of Minneapolis’ Foshay Tower.
She also authored two books for Arcadia, which were part of its “Images of America” series, Reform Jews of Minneapolis and Jewish Community of North Minneapolis, as well as Witnesses to the Holocaust: An Oral History, which is widely used in high schools and colleges.
“Her focus was on oral history,” Jeff Lewin said. “She always said history is viewed differently and told differently through people’s own eyes. I think with her Holocaust writings, she definitely felt the sense of urgency to interview people and tell their stories while she still could before they were all gone.”
Jeff Lewin said that sense of preserving history was even evident in what Lewin saved of her children, including the hospital bill from Ellen’s birth and the receipt for Susan’s wedding dress.
“She wasn’t a packrat, she was an historian through and through,” Jeff Lewin said. “She felt this compulsion to chronicle history.”
And that compulsion led Lewin to become a founding member of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest (JHSUM) in the early 1980s.
“She’s one of Minnesota’s local historians that helped bring forward the stories of our pioneers,” said Katherine Tane, JHSUM’s executive director. “She saw the value of saving those stories.”
And Marilyn Chiat, a local art historian whose area of interest overlapped with Lewin’s, said she admired the work Lewin did.
“I came at it as an art historian, she came at it as an oral historian. Our methodologies and our perspectives were a little bit different, but what I would like to hope is that we were able to give a more rounded view, a better story, because we were able to tell it from different sides,” Chiat said. “And it’s always a loss when someone like Rhoda, who is herself a book of knowledge, when we lose a person like that. It’s a loss that we all experience.”
Lewin was also a founding member of the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum, edited Identity, a local literary magazine, and wrote for and edited the Kenwood Neighborhood’s Hill and Lake Press. And, like her parents, she devoted much time as a volunteer — with the League of Women Voters and community theater (particularly Theatre in the Round), and served Temple Israel as a daily reader and co-chair of a project to create a permanent archive.
“Rhoda Lewin knew that every day was a blessing and spent her life documenting that blessing over and over again in her books, and in her articles and columns,” said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, in her eulogy at Temple Israel. “Rhoda was a woman ahead of her time, an intellectual who always kept it real.”
But it was Lewin’s family that was her greatest accomplishment. She made every birthday and holiday a special event, and stayed in touch regularly with her mother, mother-in-law, children and sister, Myrna, who lived in Austria.
And Lewin’s legacy will live on in the next generations — Roth is the county recorder for Ramsey County, an unlikely historian who documents current history for the future, and Lewin’s granddaughter is passionate about immigration in the United States, an issue about which the two of them could talk freely.
In her eulogy, Roth wrote a letter to Lewin and noted that “not many kids can look up their moms in the card catalogue at their local library.”
“Your books are a wonderful legacy, Mom, chronicling the history of the Holocaust and Jewish immigrants in America and Minnesota,” Roth said. “It was important to you that we knew where we came from. You made sure we knew it, too. We also learned how important it is to keep telling our stories and to make a positive impact in our communities. To love each other. To befriend each other. And to take time to spend it on what matters most: each other.”
Lewin is survived by her husband, Tom; children, Ellen Lewin, Susan (James) Roth, Kate (Scott) Shamblott and Jeffrey (Jennifer) Lewin; six grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.