Fireweed: A Political Autobiography by Gerda Lerner
A book Fireweed: A Political Autobiography by Gerda Lerner belongs to a biographical genre but unlike most biographies and autobiographies of famous people which usually shed the light on the years of the greatest success, this book about one of the prominent pioneers in the field of women’s history, tells its readers about the first half of Gerda Lerner’s life. Lerner states such her intention straight in the Introduction: “What I have chosen to write is a partial autobiography, one that ends in 1958, at the time I began my life as a historian” (2). It is the part of her life that is known little about until now. These are the experiences that shaped and influenced the kind of historian and feminist she later became. She explains her choice to write exactly about that part of her life by the reasons that “[I] have been silent about my political past during the years of my academic success. And such silence, for all its complex reasons, distorts the truth. … [That] is why I have written a political, a partial autobiography – to explain the roads I have taken, the world in which I lived, the choices I have made in that world” (3).
Gerda Kronstein was born in a wealthy Jewish family in Austria in 1920, and came of age in Vienna just as the Nazi reign of terror began to swallow up Europe. Her family managed to flee Vienna just after the Nazis took over, but only she got to the United States.
Lerner describes with much emotion and great detail her eighteenth birthday spent in an Austrian jail. The six weeks stay in a Nazi prison, which “were the most important events of my life – they gave it a meaning and a shape I have ever since tried to comprehend.” In particular, the experience with her cellmates taught her that “if you wanted to survive you could not do it alone and you had to fight with all your strength to keep some sort of social contract. That is what I learned in jail . . . . and it has marked all my life irrevocably.” (17)
Since then Lerner has had a very strong sense of justice and fairness. With all her deeds she made countless efforts to make the world be a just and fair place. This event inclined her to realize that politics determined people’s lives to great extent. That was, probably, the basic reason for her to become a key player in social events, in particular, she was a founder of women’s movement, she began a serious academic career in which she pioneered the formerly unconsidered field of women’s history.
After arrival to America she witnessed the difficulties of the Depression period and again had to take much care of the fate of her family. In the 1940ies – 50ies she was a radical activist and Communist Party member. Over the years, Lerner was active in grassroots politics, trying to improve the situation in schools in New York; she integrated housing and other local issues and at the same time she was raising two children and trying to write a novel.
The title of the book Fireweed points to the fact that Lerner considers herself to be a survivor, who did not just survive, more than that, she created new life out of devastation. The imprisonment served as a fertile experience for formation of a strong, determined personality. Later in her life she kept this experience in mind while participating in numerous movements, such an interracial civil rights movement, opposing the blacklisting in film industry.
The hardship, which Greta Lerner was forced to survive taught her how to summon all her courage to continue living and create better social conditions which would comply with her convictions.
Works Cited list:
Lerner, Gerda. Fireweed: A Political Autobiography. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.