2018-03-09 / On Second Thought

The impact of oral histories on the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative

By Katharine Allen, research and archives manager, Historic Columbia

Irwin Kahn stands in front of M. B. Kahn Construction, 714 Lady Street, late 1930s. 
Image courtesy Alan Kahn Irwin Kahn stands in front of M. B. Kahn Construction, 714 Lady Street, late 1930s. Image courtesy Alan Kahn Over the last three years, the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative, a partnership of Historic Columbia, has collected more than 50 oral histories from former and current members of the community. These remembrances, permanently archived in the College of Charleston’s Jewish Heritage Collection, have become the heart of some of the histories we share in our print pieces, public talks, and walking and web-based tours.

Taken as a collective, several themes emerged in these stories—immigration from the Russian Empire, where pogroms and religious discrimination were common; creation of businesses through hard work and intellect; formation of two distinct congregations in Columbia, one Reform and the other Orthodox; emphasis on learning and higher education; and an acumen for and willingness to invest, both in themselves, their family, the Jewish community, and the City of Columbia.

Yet, when taken individually, a memory of a loved one, a job, a home, or even a difficult situation, each conveys meanings and nuance that census data and city directories simply cannot. Each oral history Historic Columbia has been fortunate enough to record contains a wealth of insight for an individual’s descendants as well as future historians and the general public.

Our current archive of interviews ranges from Alan Kahn, whose grandfather Myron B. Kahn immigrated from Russia and established M. B. Kahn Construction in 1934; to Aaron Small, whose grandfather was sold as an apprentice to a shoemaker in Russia before arriving in Columbia in 1906 and opening his own store; to Dr. Lilly Filler, whose parents, Jadzia and Ben Stern, survived internment in concentration camps during the Holocaust, met and married, and immigrated to Columbia in 1949 with a young Lilly to join Ben’s uncle, Gabriel Stern.

Historic Columbia’s most recent interviews were with two venerable figures: Belle Fields and Selden Smith, who passed away last month at the ages of 105 and 88, respectively.

Belle Fields, known for her legendary hosting and baking skills, was featured throughout her life in The State and The Columbia Record and published a cookbook owned by many in the Jewish community. The two oral histories she granted to Historic Columbia are full of unvarnished anecdotes of her childhood and show a deep devotion to family.

Dr. Selden Smith, a veteran of the Korean War, focused on Holocaust education and advocacy beginning in the 1970s and served on the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust from its inception in 1989. His oral history interview, with Dr. Lilly Filler, imparted decades of wisdom and insight into South Carolina’s education system.

As we look to the future, we plan to continue documenting and sharing these memories through our partnership with the College of Charleston. With the launch of Historic Columbia’s new website this spring, the current online tour will receive a new look, additional sites, and audio clips from additional interviewees.

If you know someone we should interview, please reach out to us at historiccolumbia.org/CJHI.

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