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After her parents divorced, Elizabeth Ginsburg moved to Boyle Heights from Tennessee at the age of 10. The 96-year-old recalls her youth, walking around the neighborhood and talking to the kids on the street. She went to Malabar and Hollenbeck, and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1942. 

Growing up she said Boyle Heights consisted of mostly Jewish, Japanese and Mexican people. She was politically involved in events that were happening around that time and even said that kids back then were more politically conscious than they are now.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Boyle Heights Beat: Where are you from? 

Elizabeth Ginsburg: I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and I moved to Boyle Heights when I was 10 years old. 

BHB: So, you’ve been living in Boyle Heights ever since you were 10 years old?

EG:  No, I lived there until 1950. I went to New York when I graduated from Berkeley. My mother moved in 1950 and I got married in New York and I never came back to live in Boyle Heights after that.

BHB: When did you decide to come back to Los Angeles?

EG:  When I had three children and my husband and I moved back here for his work. 

BHB: You were born in Tennessee and then you came to Boyle Heights when you were 10 years old. How did you end up in Boyle Heights?

EG:  Well, it’s quite a story. My parents were divorced. My mother decided to leave Nashville and my grandfather had his best friend living here and he moved us to Los Angeles. We first came here, he lived in South Pasadena. We spent three months there and then he said you have to move to a Jewish neighborhood, and he took us to Boyle Heights. That’s how we got to Boyle Heights. We didn’t know anything about it, but it was a wonderful place to be and my brother and I, we would just walk the streets and look at the different architecture and talk to the kids. And then when school started, I went to Malabar Elementary School and there I met [historian and novelist] Harriet Rochlin, who sat next to me.

BHB: So how was it? How was it like growing up in Boyle Heights? How was the neighborhood?

EG:  It was a great neighborhood. There were lots of opportunities because the government provided these playgrounds and the playground had all kinds of activities. And you met with many different kinds of people, different nationalities, some new immigrants. Mostly it was Mexican, Jewish and Japanese.

BHB: So you went to Roosevelt, correct?

EG: Right.

BHB: And what year did you graduate?

EG:  Well, first I went to Hollenbeck, for three years, and then I went to Roosevelt. I graduated in winter ‘39. […] No, I’m sorry. It wasn’t 39. That was junior high. I graduated from Roosevelt in 42. Winter ‘42. And I went to UCLA for one year after that, but my mother continued to live in Boyle Heights, and my brother also. And I was going to UCLA. It was a very difficult trip from Boyle Heights to UCLA. And a year after that, I transferred to Berkeley where I had friends, Boyle Heights friends who were going there.

BHB: So how was your experience at Berkeley?

EG: It was a great experience, it was a life changing experience.

BHB: How different was Berkeley from Boyle Heights?

EG:  Well, it wasn’t so much. The difference between UCLA and Berkeley was fantastic. Two different kinds of lifestyles from the kids who went there. And Berkeley was a melting pot the same way Boyle Heights was, lots of different kids from different nationalities. Politics was very big time then, in Berkeley, I guess, maybe still is. But it was a very political place to be and there were many things happening. It was during World War II. And there was a lot of Russian War Relief going on at the time in Boyle Heights. They had a big stand for Russian war relief on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Soto Street, which was one of the main connections in Boyle Heights. And in Berkeley, they were raising funds also for Russian war relief. There was a great sense of fighting the Nazis and supporting the Russians at that time. 

BHB: What were you studying in college? 

EG: I was an English major and I took a lot of social science classes and journalism classes. I had a great experience there, the quality of teaching was terrific and the interest in the student was terrific. So I was molded by some of the courses I took. Anthropology. I took physical and cultural anthropologies. Very enlightening. I took a course called… it was a course in international law. I learned about the terrible plight of people during the Nazi era, particularly the Jews who were killed. And I learned about other violations of the US government of international law in other places, and it was a very wonderful learning experience. Very good US history class. It was world-renowned, wonderful class in the war, the country after 1914, that was a very good history class. And Dr. [Johnn Donald] Hicks was very famous and he gave the history of the US class, which I learned a lot from. Those are just some of the classes. I took some good journalism classes there.

“Berkeley was a melting pot the same way Boyle Heights was… It was a very political place to be and there were many things happening. It was during World War II. And there was a lot of Russian War Relief going on at the time in Boyle Heights. They had a big stand for Russian war relief on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Soto Street, which was one of the main connections in Boyle Heights. And in Berkeley, they were raising funds also for Russian war relief. There was a great sense of fighting the Nazis and supporting the Russians at that time.” 

BHB: I know you said that your brother started a newspaper. What was the newspaper called again?

EG:  He started a magazine called High School on Parade. 

BHB: And how was that?

EG:  Well, he would have to get a lot of ads to make it go. He had to get ads. And he had a very good staff. He was the president of LA City College and he had a lot of connections. […] He worked very hard on that. It took about four years, but he couldn’t sustain it, he couldn’t get enough ads to pay for it.

BHB: What kind of articles were written in the magazine?

EG:  They wrote about what youth were doing at that time in Los Angeles, and what the cultural exchange was like, between the various ethnic groups in Los Angeles. There were all kinds of things happening at that time. It changes after the war, and new alliances, new neighborhoods. It was a world that was in flux. But you know, he concentrated on people who had gone to Roosevelt and what they were doing. He had a very good picture editor, a guy who took good photos, and it went, but they couldn’t get enough advertising to sustain it.

BHB: Do you still have any copies of any of those magazines?

EG: I’m sorry, I don’t have any. My brother went on to work in health care. He was very attached emotionally to Roosevelt and to Boyle Heights. And he wrote a wonderful article about… you haven’t seen this book, but this is the book you should be looking at. [Boyle Heights: Recollection and Remembrances of the Boyyle Heights Jewish Community in Los Angeles, 1920s – 1960s.] In that book you have these personal memories of different people. For instance, here’s one by Harriet Shapiro Rochlin. She became a famous writer. She wrote an article called “Boyle Heights was widely viewed as an unsavory neighborhood”  and it’s a wonderful article. You have to see that article. And every article in here is by kids who grew up in Boyle Heights, all their memories, it’s a terrific book.



I wrote one about the Jews and the Japanese at Roosevelt High. And there were… you know, just about the time we graduated from Roosevelt, that’s when all the Japanese kids had to pack up, get ready to move, and they were gone. By the time I went to UCLA in February, all the Japanese kids were gone out of Roosevelt. And they had a sale where kids could bring things and they were auctioned off on the campus. And the Japanese kids would bring things. There was a Japanese garden that was built by Japanese students at Roosevelt, beautiful garden. It was destroyed. And a few years later after the war ended the Mexican kids in that school restored the Japanese garden. It was very emotional.

And there was a very famous guy, he became a federal judge. He was one of the big shots that graduated from Roosevelt in 1941. And he did a lot of things to bring attention to Roosevelt. He was a very prominent federal judge. He retired about a year ago, two years ago. And he had an article. And it was a beautiful view of having grown up in Boyle Heights. But they’re… some of the articles in here, besides Harriet’s, are just terrific. They’re really recollections. Now there were other nationalities at Roosevelt that we… everybody interacted together, and once a year, we had International Peace Day. Everybody wore their national costumes, paraded around the football field. And there were all these foods, we had a lot of Armenians on the campus. Some Italians, of course a lot of Japanese, a lot of Mexicans, and a few Cubans, that I remember. And then a lot of Jews, so it was fantastic. They marched around the field, and everybody brought their own food, the different national foods, and they wore their costumes, and it was a real international celebration. Of course, then came a war and all of that vanished. As far as I remember, one of the biggest moments at Roosevelt was the annual football game between Roosevelt and Garfield, which was… Is that where you went? Did you go to Garfield? 


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BHB: No, but I know the rivalry. I’ve gone to the games, and they get pretty intense. 

EG: Oh, boy. They were something. And yeah, it was a big celebration at Roosevelt. Even if they lost. It was a big time there. And I went to the 75th celebration of Roosevelt High School, when it was 75 years old, it was built in 1924, I believe. And when it was 75 years old, they had a day of celebration. And they contacted people because we had an association, which kept in touch with people from Roosevelt. And we had our 50th anniversary. That was wonderful. A lot of people came, and we had mariachis at the entrance play music. And another guy and I made slides of everybody who sent us pictures and the yearbook pictures and they were shown in large form on the walls of the hotel where the celebration took place when, that was our 50th anniversary. And I have a book that has everybody’s name in it, pictures of their husbands and wives and, they put together a very nice memory book of that occasion. We always had somebody in different classes who would notify you when there would be a reunion. We had reunions quite often, of the old timers, it was great fidelity to Roosevelt.

It had a tremendous impact on kids who went there in many ways and it was wonderful to get to know other nationalities and their cultures. We had the world friendship club. It had representatives from all of the different nationalities. We met regularly and we talked about things that were not fair in this society and in other societies, politics. We talked about the good things that were going on at Roosevelt. So… the big tragedy was when all the Japanese kids were removed overnight practically.

I had a very good Japanese friend who contacted me, sent me a postcard, she and her family and many other Japanese were taken to Santa Anita racetrack. Each family had a stall, a horse stall. That’s where they were, for a couple of months till they finally put them in the camps. That was a shock. I gotta tell you, that was absolutely shocking. And there was great sympathy for the Japanese among Roosevelt kids, because we knew them so well. And they were always just good friends, and they were accomplished kids. Most of them were very good students ,and they were good football players and they used to have a Japanese team once a year. And we had this Eleanor Roosevelt house. It was like a home a little home and we would have teas, mostly for girls. And that’s what we did. We celebrated Japanese life with the teas. We celebrated a Mexican holiday with the tea. It was a very wonderful exchange of cultures at Roosevelt at that time.





BHB: Did you take part in any protests back in your day? 

EG:  When I was at Roosevelt there, just before I got there, I have an article about it. [In] the 1930s, early 30s, there was a big protest at Roosevelt. And there were a lot of kids who were growing up in left wing households at that time, both Jewish and Mexican, because there was so much injustice in this culture. And because Russia was a terrible omen. And once you went into war on the Russian side, it was different. But before that, there was great hostility and protests at Roosevelt High School, some of them… in 1931, as I recall, there’s an article on it… there was a big protests at Roosevelt. And it was not just what’s happening at Roosevelt, it was the society itself. The poverty, it was the depression, and the lack of quality education. And so these kids at Roosevelt went out and protested. And that was in the 30s.

Then, I was already finished at Roosevelt, but you probably know about it, there was a big protest, kids walked off the campus and protested, they walked to a local… playground. Hazard Street playground on Fourth Street. They walked off the campus and protested the treatment of Mexicans, particularly after the famous case that took place, where a group of Mexican kids were down, just having fun where Dodger Stadium is now and, you probably know about that case, a famous case. There were protests that arose because of that case.

That was after I left Roosevelt. But while I was there, there was a lot. The kids were very conscious of World World War II looming. If you read the newspapers, you knew that a war was coming. And there was, at that time, there was great sympathy for the Russians, believe it or not, because the Russians were fighting against the Nazis, before we got into the fight. We ended up fighting on the same side as the Russians and nobody expected that.

“Once a year, we had International Peace Day. Everybody wore their national costumes, paraded around the football field. And there were all these foods, we had a lot of Armenians on the campus. Some Italians, of course a lot of Japanese, a lot of Mexicans, and a few Cubans, that I remember. And then a lot of Jews, so it was fantastic. They marched around the field, and everybody brought their own food, the different national foods, and they wore their costumes, and it was a real international celebration. Of course, then came a war and all of that vanished.”

BHB: Could you talk to me a little bit about what you wrote in the book?

EG:  Let’s see. Here’s one, “Students were stunned at the sudden disappearance of our Japanese classmates.” That’s when they were all taken away, overnight. I wrote about that, page 51. Okay. [Reading:] “And what occasion this was that in 2002-2003, there was an exhibit entitled ‘Boyle Heights the Power of Place’ at the Japanese American National Museum, whose location in my youth was referred to as Little Tokyo. That’s what we used to call the area.  [It] rekindled my thoughts and consciousness of what it meant to grow up in the neighborhood in the 1930s and 40s. And of most significant impact was the socialization lessons learned at the schools were second generation, native-born students, whose parents came from different countries with different beliefs, traditions, languages melded into a student body, with one foot in an immigrant world and another in the promising Western American melting pot. Largely coming from European, Asian and Mexican cultures, students were infused daily with new experiences, as they heard the sounds and expressions of different languages and observed the body language responses to interactive messages. This all-inclusive museum exhibit clearly documented the vibrant immigrant life in school and community which existed at that time in that neighborhood.” That was my introduction. And later on: “There were about 5,000 students at Roosevelt High. It was the only public high school in the area. School events featured harmony and international values, which were […] goals promoted in classrooms. In the athletic, the musical, the oratorical and the theatrical and intellectual activities on campus. Ethnic clubs –Japanese, Spanish, Jewish, Russian Molokans, Washington Carver– were there for goodwill, understanding and cultural enjoyment and share their interests with the wider school. The World Friendship Club defined its theme in the 1939 yearbook as ‘to create and further peace and democracy and friendship in the school and in the world, through study, travel, hospitality correspondence, tolerance and legislation.”

I was the editor of the newspaper, and I wrote an editorial about tolerance. I don’t know if I have a copy. I used to have copies of it. But there was a boys club that emerged from Roosevelt. And those men met for probably 40 years. They would have a luncheon once a year, and everybody would come. All the different nationalities, all these were men. And some of them would bring their wives, you know, and my brother would bring me, and he would come from Washington, and he would always… he kept in touch with all his friends all the time. And for some years he worked at the UN. And he was very friendly with the Mexican Ambassador there. And they would exchange memories of things that happened.

[…]

BHB: Is there anything else that you want to say?

EG: There was something in here, I can’t find it right now. Okay, it’s this one. “Boyle Heights, a Study in Ghettos,” written in 1935 by David Weissman. So, “every metropolitan city contains within its limits, bubbling, bustling community, which the Gentile mockingly and the Jew cynically refers to as Yid Town, Jewville, Little Jerusalem, the Ghetto. Generally speaking, we call that section, the East Side. It may be East of the Bowery in New York, the old Brownsville in East New York or Brooklyn… East of a sandy gully called the Los Angeles River, in Los Angeles, usually designated as Boyle Heights. Specifically, each one of these exotic divisions of the metropolitan area displays similar characteristics. In the center of a vast centrifugal force, a crowded saving, elbowing mass of humanity, waiting for the next turn of the wheel to be tossed far outside of the ghetto’s pale, into some more respectable neighborhood.” That was the attitude of an intellectual of that time. 

BHB: Thank you very much, this interview was extremely helpful. And I’m so excited for others to read and to hear the stories that you have to share.

This is an abridged version of an interview recorded as part of “Voices/Voces,” a storytelling project that aims to connect youth reporters with Boyle Heights and East LA elders.  Voices/Voces was a 2020 finalist in (and partially funded by) the LA2050 Grants Challenge. It is also partially funded by the Snap Foundation.

Read other ‘Voices/Voces’ stories:


4 Responses

  1. Steve C

    My name is Steve C
    I was born in east L A in 1963
    My parents moved from the east coast in 1960
    I was born in the community Hospital in East Los Angeles
    My mom told me they belong to the Jewish temple on Garfield near Villa Vista I believe and I’ve heard the stories before I thought it was a fascinating article and I thank you very much for it
    Best regards
    SC

    Reply
  2. Wendy Sussman

    My late mother graduated from Roosevelt High in the mid 1930s and her sister (my aunt who is 93 years old) also graduated from there probably a couple years after Elizabeth. I will be sending this article to her and I’m sure she will remember some of the things you talked about. She also has fond memories of that time. Thank you for this article. I really enjoyed reading it and learning about what my mom’s and aunt’s high school years were like.

    Reply
  3. Maggie Rothner

    Hello,
    My father-in-law, attended Roosevelt High with Elizabeth Ginsburg. I’m having trouble finding the book to which mMrs. Ginsburg referred to in the article. Where can I find it??

    Reply

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