Born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein, Gerda Lerner is a seminal figure in women’s history. She grew up in a bourgeois household in Vienna in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Lerner’s father, Robert Kronstein, owned a pharmacy, and her mother, Ilona Kronstein, was an amateur painter who occupied herself with cultural pursuits.
Lerner became interested in politics at an early age. In her autobiography, Fireweed, she states that her childhood taught her about resistance to authority and the necessity of questioning the values of those in power. Born a Jew, she became an agnostic at the age of fourteen and refused to go through with her bat mitzvah. In 1934, she witnessed the first of what were to be many political upheavals that affected her, a workers’ strike that was violently repressed by the Viennese government. As a student, she embraced various progressive political causes, sometimes secretly, and excelled in her studies.
In 1938, after the Nazi occupation of Austria, her father emigrated to Lichtenstein, where he had established a satellite business. Like many Jews, Robert Kronstein was concerned that Austria was becoming increasingly anti-Semitic under the Nazis during this period prior to World War II, and, like others, he made plans for his family to emigrate. Partly in preparation for such a departure, Lerner became engaged to a young medical student named Bobby Jerusalem, who was in the process of emigrating to the United States. Lerner and her mother were arrested and imprisoned shortly thereafter in an attempt by the government to pressure her father to return. They spent just over a month in prison, during which time Lerner turned eighteen, and they were released, with orders to leave the country. Ironically, although they were under deportation orders, they were at first unable to obtain emigration permits.
On September 9, 1938, Lerner, her younger sister Nora, and their mother left Austria to join their father in Lichtenstein. In April of 1939, having secured a visa from the U.S. consul in Switzerland after being sponsored by her fiancé and his family, Gerda Lerner arrived in New York City, while her mother remained in France, her father in Lichtenstein, and her sister in Switzerland. She married Jerusalem, who had changed his name to Jensen, within a week of her arrival in the United States. She and Jensen continued to be involved in progressive political activities, as they had while living in Vienna. The marriage was short-lived, lasting...
(The entire section is 1017 words.)