Jews in Wisconsin

By Sheila Terman Cohen

Paperback: $12.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-744-0

96 pages, 35 b&w photos 6 x 9 E-book edition available.


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Unlike the other cultural groups covered our People of Wisconsin Series, the Jews who have made their home in Wisconsin are united not by a single country of origin but by a shared history and set of religious beliefs. This diverse found their way to America's heartland over several centuries from Germany, Russia, and beyond, some fleeing violence and persecution, others searching for new opportunities, but all making important contributions to the fabric of this state's history.

Through detailed historical information and personal accounts, "Jews in Wisconsin" brings to life the stories of these trials, triumphs and settlement into Wisconsin. It details their battles against anti-Semitism, their efforts to participate in the communities they joined, and their successes at holding onto their own cultural identities.

In addition to excerpts of the authors many interviews with Wisconsin Jews, this book also features the compelling journals of German immigrant Louis Heller, a tradesman who established himself in Milwaukee, and Russian immigrant Azriel Kanter, who details the perilous journey his family embarked on to escape anti-Semitism in his home country and make a new life in Wisconsin.

Discover most histories of Wisconsin settlers in our People in Wisconsin Series!

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Sheila Terman Cohen is a journalist and author who has written three Badger Biographies for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Mai Ya's Long Journey, Gaylord Nelson: Champion of Our Earth, and Sterling North and the Story of Rascal. Her books have received recognition from the Council of Wisconsin Writers, the Midwest Independent Publishers Association and the national book award group Next Generation.

Q&A with Author Sheila Terman Cohen

What motivated you to write about the history of Jews in Wisconsin? Aside from being asked by WHS Press to write the book, it was of great interest to me to find out more about Jewish settlement in Wisconsin where my husband’s father settled as an immigrant from Russia. In addition, my own ancestors made a similar voyage, and although they ended up in the Chicago area, their reasons for leaving their countries of origin were basically the same.

What did you know about Jews’ immigration history before you started this project? I knew the outline but not the details of heroism and sacrifice.

How did you go about doing your research? I spent a lot of time ppurusing the WHS archives as well as the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, the Sheboygan Research Center, the Stevens Point Press where I discovered journals, letters and press releases that elusidated the story of the Jewish immigration. I interviewed people in Madison, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Appleton, Stevens Point, La Crosse, and Kenosha whose stories were relevant to the history of the times I was writing about. In addition, I referred to many books on the history of the Jews, as well as the settlement of Wisconsin.

What did you find the most surprising about the history of Jewish people in Wisconsin? I was surprised at their tenacity to keep their Jewish identity while participating in secular life in places where they were the vast minority.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? What did you find most challenging? There is no question that I most enjoyed meeting the people who lived the story – people like Renata Laxova whose parents sent her on the last Kindertransport to England out of the Czech Republic in order to save her life, or Albert Beder who survived Dachau Concentration Camp, or Waclaw Szybalski of Catholic faith who put his own life in jeopardy to save his Jewish neighbors of Poland. They each made a part of history come alive.

The greatest challenge was finding enough people who were still living to help tell the tale.

Why is the history of Jewish people’s migration to and development in Wisconsin an important story to share within, and beyond, the Jewish community? I think that Jewish youth in particular need to hear the story of the sacrifices their ancestors made so that they have had the opportunity to live in a free society. Such knowledge instills pride and a sense of gratitude for being born in country/state in which they could fulfill their potential without restriction or penalty. It is also important that the story be shared with the rest of the community in order to enlighten those who had little understanding of the Jewish history. To know is to understand.

How does this story help us understand more about Wisconsin, its people, ourselves? The story of immigration into Wisconsin is certainly not unique to the Jews. As attested by the other books in this WHS Press People …. series, our state is made up of a mosaic of groups from around the world. The more we know their origins, the more we understand about Wisconsin’s culture, one another and ourselves.

What gave the Jewish immigrants their strength and courage to endure what they did at various times in history and yet, so often, be able to make a new and successful life for themselves? It seems that in so many cases, a religious faith carried many Jews through difficult times. In addition, the tenet of tzedachah, giving to those in need, motivated the more fortunate to help uplift those who were struggling. That support was vital in the success of the community as a whole.