Tag Archives: Kitty Kroger

Letters from West Berlin, Part 3, by Kitty Kroger. October and November 1966: Hitchhiking, Trip to Paris, and Talking with a Student from Hanoi

13 Jul

Berlin.Kitty.East.1967In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the third of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.

October 1966

Berlin 1966 Oktober

Dear Mom and Dad,

I wanted to tell you about my trip through Austria. I hitched about half of the trip alone and never had any problems but I got sort of tired of rejecting invitations to go out dancing with truck drivers, to drive through the Alps with 45-year-old travelling salesmen. But I did get some interesting rides with a foreign correspondent for French newspapers, with one of the inspectors of the German Starfighters, with an ex-SS soldier, and with a Viennese war refugee. When I hitched with other people, the rides were sometimes even better. A Dutch couple bought me and my two hitching mates from English and Australia each $1.25 bus tickets to Hitler’s tea house high in the mountains above Berchtesgaden.


An Italian businessman picked up Dave and me in S. Austria. We communicated in grunts and gestures the whole way. He had a flat tire. Once Dave and I stopped to buy bread and cheese for lunch, and the grocer insisted on giving us a partial tour of the town and on driving us right to the door of the youth hostel. His son and family lived in America and he was so proud of it.

Another time a Persian guy and I just happened to be hitching on the same stretch when a truck stopped and picked us up. The Persian spoke almost no German and although he spoke English, he understood almost nothing. Besides that the truck made so much noise you couldn’t hear anyway. But our truck driver insisted on speaking to us, which required a tremendous use of gestures because of the noise and all. Several times the truck almost ran off the road, and then from time to time the driver would take a swig of some brown liquid from a brown bottle. He kept calling it Kaffee, but the Persian and I arrived unanimously at the conclusion that the Kaffee smelled strongly of beer. In addition to all that, the man kept saying things like “I’m a Russian really,” and “Goldwater gut, Hitler gut—both strong, not wishy-washy.” In the face of all this, the Persian kept trying to convince me to spend the night with him instead of hitching on to Berlin right away. And I don’t think he got the message that I had no intention of “taking advantage” of his hospitality. At any rate he kept repeating the invitation every five minutes, and by the end of the trip I was a nervous wreck.

I think I had the best experience in Salzburg.

Berlin.Salzberg, Austria

The city is small (100,000 approximately) and reeks with atmosphere. One night my English and Australian friends and I went to a large café for dinner. There was an Austrian six-piece orchestra that played Straus waltzes and Austrian folk music. At our table sat a very distinguished looking elderly Austrian gentleman, with his glass of Schnaps (German for schnapps—hard liquor), and his Wiener Schnitzel. From time to time he would sing to the music in a beautiful baritone. When dinner came the English and Australian guys started to show me how to eat European style, and although the Austrian had been oblivious to us up to then, he couldn’t resist showing me the only really correct way to eat, the Austrian way, which consists of holding the fork in the left hand, stabbing a piece of Wurst (sausage) with it, and shoveling sauerkraut and potatoes onto your fork with your knife, then stuffing the whole mixture into your mouth. Another night in Salzberg, we all went to a pub for dinner—about ten of us from the youth hostel. A group of young Austrian workers were sitting at another table. They started to sing, we started to sing, and we took turns singing English folksongs and Austrian ones. Finally, they all came over and sat with us and someone started playing an accordion, and we danced the polka and kept drinking more beer. Of course we had to all head back to the hostel for 10 pm curfew.

Classes at the Technical University (T.U.) have started. I’ve attended two so far.

Two nights ago I went out dancing with Howard. First we walked about three hours around Kreuzberg looking at the architecture. We wandered down to Stuttgarter Platz, a cheap striptease section of town, with streetwalkers standing in front of every door. Every bar looks the same. The outsides are plastered with pictures of strippers and the façade is always black tile with a thick curtain hanging before the door. You walk in and there’s a jukebox and a screen for the filmstrips (literally film strips). We chose one with good beat music, talked the manager down to half-price for our drinks, and danced and talked for about three hours. It was 6 am when I finally got home. I slept until 3:30 pm the next day. What a depraved life!

My room is cold—perhaps I’m not using enough coal. But I think the coal oven is not very efficient. Anyway, the coal is costing a lot more than the DM 9 a month which my landlady assured me.


November 7, 1966

Last night after spending my morning at a lecture on T.S. Eliot and my afternoon in the American-German library reading plays, I went to the jazz concert to get a ticket at the last minute and I met friends there; afterwards we went to an all-night jazz party, where all the entertainers jammed. Dave Brubeck, Astrud Gilberto, bossa nova, the Kuhn brothers quartet. It’s rather ironic coming to Berlin to hear fantastic American jazz. We all bought a hot Wurst (fried hotdog) for breakfast and went to the end of another party, then headed home after driving around Berlin in the dawn to look at architecture again. Got in at about 9 am and slept till 1 pm.

The courses I’m auditing are French, literature, art, German. Last week I saw No Exit by Sartre. I heard a lecture at Amerikahaus in German on “Why Foreign Aid?” I talked about Vietnam with a Persian student. I met an Austrian man whom I had coffee with; we had this wild conversation about beauty and character in people. I didn’t really understand what he was trying to express, but it was interesting anyway.

[The Amerika Haus Berlin is an institution that was developed following the end of the Second World War to provide an opportunity for German citizens to learn more about American culture and politics. (Source: Wikipedia)]

Postcard of Brandenburg Tor, Friday, November 10, 1966

Dear Family,

I’m off to Paris for ten days. Leave at noon on a bus with eight other students from the T.U. Back the 20th. Whole trip including food and room only DM80 ($20). It’s part of an exchange trip with students from Paris. We’ll stay in a dorm at the university of Paris.

Went to East Berlin yesterday to get a visa for the zone transit. Saw a great ancient Near East museum there called the Pergammon. Sculpture, ceramics, sarcophagi from 2000 B.C. Berlin has so much to offer.


Berlin, November 20, 1966

Dear Family,

Now to tell you some about my Paris trip. We visited a Renault factory, where two models were completely assembled before our eyes in our two-hour visit there. Much of the work was done by people rather than machines, and I was told that in America machines do much more of the work.

I met Vietnamese students, one from Hanoi, who I talked with a long time. His jacket came directly from Hanoi and had the label in. He said there is no North and South Vietnam, there is only Vietnam. But the Americans are the invaders for economic interests of their own. That the South Vietnam government is only a puppet of America, to whom America can dictate, and that much of the fighting goes on in South Vietnam itself by South Vietnam people against the puppet government and the foreign imperialists, which is, I’m afraid, just exactly what we are. And I’m ashamed. The more I hear about America’s foreign policy, the more depressed I get. But it’s difficult to know, after a while, just what Truth is, Right is. American is protecting her economic interests in Vietnam and elsewhere in this world—is this wrong? And yet can this be right when thousands of innocent people are massacred and when our own soldiers go to Vietnam thinking they are fighting and dying for peace and freedom? this is another of those complex issues which frustrate me so completely.


Letters from West Berlin, Part 2, by Kitty Kroger. September 1966: Settling In

23 Nov


In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the second of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.

September 1966

Sept. 14, 1966

Dear Family,

Berlin as one of the largest cities in the world is a bit small-townish. I live right in the center of town now, near all the  bars, the main Bahnhof (railroad station), named Zoological, aka the Zoo, and not far from a very famous, two-mile-long avenue, Kurfurstendamm, which is packed with nightclubs, bright lights, and tourists. It’s called the Kudamm. Other than this street, there aren’t many night spots at all. Berlin rolls up its sidewalks about midnight. Berlin is now so built up after the war. Many modern buildings, which look just like those in America. Modern supermarkets, Woolworth’s, subways. Americans are of course all over because of the base here. I find the atmosphere a bit disappointing. Berlin is called the “world city,” but it just isn’t—culturally, politically, or educationally.


Train at Bahnhof Zoo
West Berlin

The people are a bit reserved too. I rather like that because this buddy-buddy bit is alien to my character, but it makes it a bit difficult to practice my German or even to feel very close to anyone here. I have made a wonderful friend out of the American doctoral candidate Pat Moylan. We get together all the time in the Studentendorf and hash over our experience here in Berlin. She must be about 30 or 35—she won’t tell anyone her age. She seems as young as I; however, in spite of the fact that’s she’s taught high school, and college, and is majoring in Old English at Duke University. We think a lot alike. I went to her “place” for dinner last night, and she’s coming to my “room” for supper tonight.

My new room is just great. The sun streams in through the balcony until 3 pm every day. The landlady brought me a huge plate of fresh peaches and apples the other day, and yesterday a bowl of noodle tomato soup. I’m never there but she leaves them on the table for me. I have a good hard bed, a small table, a huge desk, a closet, and three or four chairs in my room. There’s always hot water. The landlady has loaned me some dishes and a blanket—I find the whole setup very comfortable. And I’m strengthening my legs walking (or running) up the four flights of stairs.

I went to a ballet, movies, and a Gunther Grass play, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, last week. Movies are very cheap—about 65 cents for a seat. The play was $2 and the ballet only $1.50 and excellent. There are millions of American movies being shown, which I avoid, but I saw a Swedish movie, “Sibling Bed,” about incest, which was made by a former student of Ingmar Bergman. The movie was beautifully photographed and I understood it very well, but the plot was disappointing.

I have to ride the bus Berlin.Double-deckerBusabout an hour to work and an hour home every day. I use the time to read or to people watch. I buy a weekly bus pass, which costs only $1.25, and lets me ride three lines, (either bus or subway) as often as I like. The three lines take me within walking distance of just about wherever I want to go.

Berlin.Kitty Kroger.Marta Mierendorff, Walter Wicclair.1967

Kitty, Marta Mierendorff, Walter Wicclair.
West Berlin.

The woman I’m tutoring in English has her doctorate in sociology and is trying to get immigration papers into the U.S. She’s about 60. Her name is Frau Doktor Mierendorff. [Note: this may be repeated above or below.]  She lives with Walter Wicclair, a rather well-known director, producer in Los Angeles. Naturalized citizen and has a heavy German accent. They are going to try to return to the U.S. in Jan. She’s writing a book on culture in German. He’s directed and acting in Strindberg’s Danco of Death with rave review (in Los Angeles), also worked with the drama department. Dr. M told me Monday that her husband and his mother, both Jews, had been taken away during the war to Auschwitz and gassed. Neither of them like Germany at all. They feel it’s deteriorated in culture and general decency as a result of the terrible events of WW2. He gave a lecture at the Free University, in which he condemned the state of the German theater and the suppression of Jewish contributions to it. I read the lecture. I wish I knew better what was going on in politics—and what went on in history. Berlin is exciting because of what lurks in the shadows as a result of the war and the wall, the past and the present. Rolf Lobeck from Hamburg said that he felt that Europeans are different from Americans, precisely because the Europeans have gone through a war on their own land, seen their houses shattered, their relatives and friends killed, and are presently living amidst the ruins of the war—a constant reminder to them.

The older people fascinate me because of what they’ve seen and lived. With the students, however, it’s a different matter. The students are in many ways like Americans; they haven’t seen war on their territory or experience the loss of many relatives and friends. But they have grown along with the regrowth of their country and they’ve been under the influence of the adults who have experience terrible things. Thus they too think different from us.

Last Sunday I walked along the wall on this side for about an hour. It was really horrible. At one place there were two big dogs chained to a long bar, along which they could run. Every few fBerlin.Potsdamer Platzeet there are guard platforms and houses on the “east” side, where East Berlin soldiers are posted with their guns. They always whistle and flirt with me as I pass by. A West Berlin new apartment building was built almost upon the wall at one spot, with signs on every outside entrance saying that it is strongly recommended that the renters not take pictures from the stairwell of East Berlin. Then at another place, there was an empty dirt lot with beer cans and other garbage. Three women were sitting around right next to the fence separating the city. They were lower class, dirty-looking, and seemingly oblivious to the “wall,” laughing and gossiping. This was near Checkpoint Charlie, where the American and other foreigners cross the boundary. The whole thing was so dirty and so depressing. A West Berlin man was shot the other day for swimming in a canal too close to the East German boundary. He was drunk. They killed him. The West German keep protesting, “It’s so ridiculous; they’re Germans too; we’re all Germans; I don’t understand!” (I don’t either.)



Sept. 20, 1966

Dear Family,

Berlin is about 60% people over the age of 45 and a large number of those are over 65. The old people are “trapped” in Berlin, in a sense, because of the distance to move if they want to leave. But the students seem very alive. The government-subsidized theaters, museums and galleries are beautiful even if there seems to be a lack of excitement and pride on the part of Berliners themselves.

Last night Frau Mierendorff and her partner Walter Wicclair took me to a play . We sat in the fourth row. It was called “The Escape, “ written and acted by a Viennese Jewish comedian. It’s his true story of how during the Jewish purge he appealed to one of the Nazi district leaders (Gauleiter) to save his life on the basis of his value as an entertainer. The Nazi did save him because he had enjoyed the stage acts so much. The Jew was given permission to flee to his home in Vienna where after the war he was approached and appealed to by the same Nazi, whose own life was now in danger, to help him in return. Which he did. The theme of the play is the moral question of the Jew. What should he have done? Should he have allowed his own life to be saved, sat tight while his fellow were led to the concentration camps? In short, he was a coward, which he admits. He was afraid to die. “I want to be, to be, to be,” he said.

Or should he have refused to cooperate verbally with the Nazis? Should he have protested, spit in their faces, denounced them, and marched bravely off to the gas chambers, a martyr? Now, says the author actor, the faces of the condemned Jews come back to haunt him and he can’t sleep. Should he then have condemned the district commander to death, who had been responsible for so many deaths himself? But how could he? The Nazi had saved him when he had been afraid to die. Now the Jew, who recognized the pure terror of impending death and the overwhelming, overpowering will to “be,” to exist, couldn’t turn over the Nazi to the authorities.

He turns then to the audience and says, “What should I have done?” It was a powerful play, enhanced for me by the comments of Wicclair, who fled Germany in 1933 and Mierendorff, whose lover was executed at Auschwitz.

Saturday I returned to Kreuzberg, which is full of old, partly war-damaged apartment buildings with stone figures and heads of gods and angels built into the walls. Berlin has very few old buildings left at all. Almost entirely rebuilt with skyscrapers and modern buildings, which I find sad and disappointing. I want to see more tradition, more of antiquity, but war-demolished Berlin is not the place. Too much has been rebuilt to get the flavor of old Europe.

I read Time magazine more regular now than ever before in my life. One thing that being in Europe has done for me is to make me more aware than ever of current events. There are three English-language libraries here, one in  Amerikahaus, one in the British Center, and one in the American Memorial Library. They are fantastic. I’ve already checked out a German-language book and a history book. I’m also reading German literature: Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, and newspapers. I can’t believe that this is me. I was always such an uninformed blind man before.

All Sunday I spent alone just reading. It was great. I’m getting so I can put sentences together in German better than in English. That’s because I’ve been hearing, reading, and speaking so much German. My English is really getting bad.

I keep my balcony doors open and the sun streams into my room. My landlady brought me tomato noodle soup and a delicious apple compote for lunch. I can’t decide whether I wish she’d go away and leave me alone or not. She’s so terribly over-mothering. She woke me up this morning by knocking on my door about some little detail and then she noticed that my feet were sticking out from under the down blanket she’s loaned me, so she shuffled back to her part of the apartment, brought another blanket, and wrapped it around my feet. When I’m home she continually comes down the hall to bring me something or make a suggestion about how I’m keeping up the room. It bugs me in a way but she means so well that I just can’t get really irritated. She’s about 75 and can’t stand straight, due to an auto accident years ago.

After seeing the movie “Blue Angel” last night, the two boys I went with, Howard and Johnny, and I walked around downtown Berlin window-shopping. and looking at the modern sculpture exhibit on top of Europa Center, which is a huge two-block square shopping center with international shops, banks, restaurants, night spots. We ended up in a beer joint talking and drinking the 14-cent beers. We all feel the same way about our jaunt in Europe; namely, we will never have this marvelous freedom again in our entire lives. Now we have the time to find out who we are , what we want , where we’re going. And to see the world. Americans are in many ways the greatest people in the world.

I worry sometimes that I’m limiting myself too much by staying in Berlin. My point in being here is to learn German well, experience the political situation, and get a feel for the German temperament.


Letters from West Berlin, Part 1, by Kitty Kroger. 1966: First Impressions of West Berlin

28 Oct

In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a
friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the first of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.


August 1966

West Berlin, August 1966
Dear Parents and Charlie [my brother],

Berlin.TrainAtBahnhofZooFor the first time since I got to Germany I am completely on my own. I’ve been in Berlin a week  now, staying in a Studentenheim (student dorm) at the Free University for $1.66 per night (DM 6.50). I’ve met all kinds of people — three Persians, an Egyptian, an Australian, Americans, an Ethiopian, and a German boy 23 years old, who spent three days helping me find a place to stay in this enormous and confusing city.

Meanwhile, I’m looking for work. [My room] costs DM 100 a month, which is $25. It’s very dead here; most students are on vacation. The city is fascinating, especially the political aspects of it. Yesterday Jeanie [a friend] and I went to East Berlin and met an elderly man who showed us all around.

[Note: At this time, as a result of the postwar settlement, Germany was divided between the Soviet Union and the Allies. The former capital of Germany, Berlin, now in the middle of East Germany, was divided between the Soviet Union, France, England, and the U.S. Bonn became the new capital of West Germany, and the Soviet sector of Berlin remained the capital of East Germany. Berliners were not allowed to visit the Soviet sector, called East Berlin. West Germans could visit, with the proper papers. Foreigners like myself could cross the border into the eastern sector for 24 hours, surrendering our passports at the border.]

Berlin.Map.Red and Blue.blog.craniumfitteds.com


Berlin, August 19, 1966
Dear Parents and Charlie,

Right now I’m working in the small office of a driving school. Often I sit the whole time alone with no telephone calls and no people coming in. It is good and bad, for I have lots of time to read but I am not improving my German. I earn DM 225 ($50) per month.

The other day I finally found a room. It costs DM 75 per month [$19] plus DM 10-15 in winter for coal. I have to prepare the coal myself in the tile oven. The room has a small balcony overlooking the courtyard—like in the movie “Rear Window.” Hot water and bathroom, which I share with another [young woman] renter, and a small hotplate and cupboard for dishes and food just outside the room in the hall. It has a [long] hallway to enter by. Apartments in Berlin are expensive, as is everything, in comparison with wages. Apartments are from DM 350 to 400 and up. The landlady seems very sweet. She’s about 60, I think. The room is right in the center of town near the railway station.

I can’t believe that this is really me here, doing what I’m doing (which is I’m not sure what)!


Berlin, August 25, 1966

It’ll be nice to be settled in my new address on September 1. It’s right in the center of town. [In Charlottenburg.] And from there I plan to spread out and “uncover” the city. My work situation is pretty good. I make barely enough to exist on but I have in return a variety of jobs. My tutoring job is with a very interesting woman  [Marta Mierendorff]. She has her PhD., is writing a cultural book, and lives with a  playwright actor and citizen from L.A.

Walter and Marta, Berlin 1967

Marta Mierendorff and her partner Walter Wicclair. Berlin 1967

Today I “worked” four hours for [a] young “Frau” with three kids. All I did was sit outside and talk to the two older children for an hour, wash a few dishes, and vacuum a rug in the nursery. For that I received DM 15 and a very nice lunch, much conversation with the kids, and some with their mother.

A large flask of wine is only about $1 and beer only 15 – 20 cents.

I enjoy being so entirely independent as I am now until I figure out what I want to be dependent upon. It’s sort of a vacation from life.

I’ve been reading a prodigious amount of German about all sorts of things: Berlin, Deutschland, Vietnam, Draußen vor der Tür [The Man Outside] by Wolfgang Borchert, the relationship between German and American grammar, music, etc. And I’ve talked to some interesting people. A girl on my floor in the Studentendorf, who I’ve cooked dinner with a couple of times—she just finished her exams as a veterinarian, was a high school foreign exchange student to Minnesota, and studied at Munich as well as here in Berlin.

The German worker earns perhaps DM 500 [$125] per month for every $400-$500 that the same worker in America earns. Thus although a furnished apartment may cost only DM 300 –400 [$100] per month, the average worker couldn’t possibly afford it. Thus the Germans live in rooms, not apartments. And it’s customary—not  looked down upon as poverty—as it would be in America.

Coffee is very expensive. 1/10 pound of instant Kaffee cost me 75 cents (DM 3)!!

Telephone calls in public booths cost only 5 cents but to mail a letter within Deutschland, it costs 7 ½ cents, to America 17 cents for 5 grams. Subways are about half-price here in Berlin. Medicine is much cheaper and doesn’t seem to need a prescription.

TV is great! No commercials except for 20 minutes once a day. Many good programs and news analyses.

Billboards consist merely of thick, round poles on street corners, around which many ads are pasted. Whereas our buildings at home are the “tallest” or “biggest,” here the people seem to be proud of having the “oldest” of everything.


Here everyone calls you “Miss” Kroger, unless they know me very well and are approximately my age. All other people call me Miss all the time—with Miss comes the formal or “Sie” form of “you.” Children call me “Fraulein Kitty.”

Trains seem much nicer. The windows are bigger. The seats on trains face each other.

Berlin.Double-deckerBusThe two-decker city buses are very common—and excellent fun for a good bird’s-eye view of the city. A bus ticket costs simply 12 ½ cents for anywhere on that line. You can go all over Berlin for 17 cents on a two-decker bus

There are flowers all over the city. Every balcony has its window box of carnations. No women are ever to be seen in curlers! Everyone almost speaks some English here. I never leave tips [at restaurants] here. It is added on to the end of the bill as 15% extra.

If you say hello (Guten Tag) to some stranger as you pass him or her on the street, he will assume you know him some way or another. I met one woman cyclists on the sidewalk and blithely said hello, upon which she slammed on her brakes, stopped, and asked, astounded, “Do we know each other?” I muttered apologetically, “Nein,” at which she said “Oh,” and rode on.

There are miles and miles of bike-ways in Berlin on the sidewalk next to where one walks. There are also many parks; “places” in the middle of a street with lawn, flowers, benches, and trees; regular forests and camping spots; lakes; farms. And the streets have many trees and flowers. There seems to be much building of new houses and rebuilding or repairing of old ones. There are many brand new apartment buildings.

Beatle pants (bell bottoms with checks, stripes, patterns—English models, especially on the young working men) are worn all over, as well as long haircuts. But the students generally dress “relatively conservatively.” Sandals and thongs of all kinds for both men and women are popular. None of the girls shave their legs. Contrary to popular belief, tennies, blue jeans, and wheat jeans are worn fairly frequently—and any clothes which were “in” in America are definitely “in” over here except for Bermuda and Jamaica-length shorts.

It’s fairly safe to travel alone late at night on subways, S-Bahns, or buses. This town, however, closes down its transportation at 12:30 am.

[In] the Studentendorf  (student village) boys and girls can visit each other any time anywhere—i.e., open dorms with no restrictions. Drinking is allowed in the dorms and liquor is sold in the cafeteria on campus.

Among the students, professors, and “intellectuals” in general, there is much anti-American feeling, some of the Germans resent us because of our Vietnam policy.

[To be continued.]

“Could She Be a Communist?” The San Francisco HUAC Hearings, by Kitty Kroger

18 Jul

Kitty Kroger is the editor of this blog. She is also the author of a novel, Dancing with Mao and Miguel, about the seventies, and lives in Los Angeles.

In 1961 I was a senior at Riverside Polytechnic High School in southern California. I had a first-year speech teacher, not much older than her students, named Miss Singler, who seemed very “radical” to me (whatever that meant). As far as I could tell, she and my chemistry teacher were the only teachers in the whole school who were concerned about the political and social events of the day.

In San Francisco in 1960, Miss Singler had in some way been involved in the HUAC  (1) hearings and the police attack on the steps of City Hall  (2). The whole thing fascinated me. It was the first time I’d ever heard about McCarthyism or demonstrations.

HUAC San Francisco2

I’d led a very sheltered small-town life in Kalispell, Montana until I was 13, and then we moved to a suburban community in California. My parents voted conservatively but rarely discussed politics. I didn’t read the newspaper and had no familiarity with or interest in current events. My thoughts were full of philosophical questions such as Does God exist? and What is the meaning of life? My aspirations and my attention in those days lay in attending a liberal arts college, getting a grounding in the Classics and philosophy, and becoming an “intellectual.”

Miss Singler showed us a film of the police attacks and we all discussed it. (3) We students were indignant and ready to take some action. Miss Singler organized us for an event: the PTA had invited parents to a showing of that same film in the auditorium, with the purpose of revealing how student radicals—most likely communist-infiltrated—were a threat to our innocent children and our democracy.

Finally the day arrived. As I recall, students from our class sat in the very back row. When it came time for questions, we were to speak up. Which we did. I don’t remember the discussion or the outcome. What I do remember is feeling confused. Miss Singler brought out incipient feelings of rebellion and indignation in me at the injustice of the hearings and the police attacks. But I didn’t fully comprehend the issue. And I felt uneasy, mistrustful, of someone who was so critical of society as I had always “known” it. Although I don’t recall hearing anything about communism or McCarthyism in my childhood, somehow I must have absorbed the paranoia of the time. At some point, I finally decided to ask my father about it.

“Dad, do you think Miss Singler might be a communist?”

I find it quite remarkable that, given his conservative background, my father seemed completely indifferent to exploring the politics of Miss Singler. What he said I will never forget:

”Don’t ever say that about anybody!” (4)


1.  The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, investigated allegations of communist activity in the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War (1945-91). Established in 1938, the committee wielded its subpoena power as a weapon and called citizens to testify in high-profile hearings before Congress. This intimidating atmosphere often produced dramatic but questionable revelations about Communists infiltrating American institutions and subversive actions by well-known citizens. HUAC’s controversial tactics contributed to the fear, distrust and repression that existed during the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, HUAC’s influence was in decline, and in 1969 it was renamed the Committee on Internal Security. Although it ceased issuing subpoenas that year, its operations continued until 1975.  [Source: http://www.history.com/]

2.  Radio reporter Fred Haines describes those events [of May 13, 1960] below:

The “Friends of the Committee” gathered just to the right of this line (the line of students who had been waiting for several hours) . . . . As I watched, (Police Inspector Michael) McGuire opened a way through the center barricade and began to admit the white card holders one at a time; for a moment the waiting crowd paused, and then an angry roar went up. Those in the rear, who were halfway down the stairs and couldn’t see what was going on began to edge forward and in the resulting crush began to press the flimsy saw-horse barricade toward me and the police officers who leaped forward to hold it. Angry cries of “Hold it! Stop pushing!” came from those in front; the barricade held and the police pushed it back to its original position . . . .

The Barricade back and the crowd quiet, McGuire suddenly noticed that the white card holders, who were still filing through, included in their number some students–he lunged forward and grabbed one of them roughly. The student wrenched himself free, shouting angrily, “I’ve got a white card!” McGuire taken aback, let go and seized another by the lapels of his jacket–the young man thrust a 35mm camera in McGuire’s face and tripped the shutter. Again McGuire let go, and several students managed to slip into the Chambers.

. . . Already the singing was beginning again . . . There was only one last move; the picket monitors and others began passing the word to sit down on the floor . . . .

Four or five minutes had passed since the doors were closed on the expectant crowd, and the crisis was safely over. I supposed that the police might begin wholesale arrests shortly, but the possible eruption of violence had been neatly averted, with the vast majority of the crowd safely self-immobilized on the floor . . . .

Moments later, an attorney who was representing two of the witnesses made his way across the rotunda and arrived behind the barricades just in time to see McGuire opening one of the hydrants. He ran over to the officer shouting, “You can’t do this to these kids.” McGuire shrugged him off. An officer behind the center barricade picked up the nozzle of one of the fire hoses which had been unrolled from the floor and pointed it at several students sitting just beyond the barricade. “You want some of this?” he shouted. “Well you’re going to get it.” One of the young men waved at him and kept on singing. A trickle dripped from the nozzle, a spurt, bubbly with air–and then the hose stiffened with the full pressure of the water, which blasted into the group of seated demonstrators.

The rotunda seemed to erupt. The singing broke up into one gigantic horrified scream. People fled past me as I ran forward, trying to see what was going on; a huge sheet of spray, glancing off one granite pillar, flashed through the air in front of me, and I retreated . . . .

For the first time I had a moment to think, to take stock of the situation . . . . during the past few minutes they’d dumped thousands of gallons of water inside a public building, causing several thousand dollars worth of damage (not counting whatever human injury there had been). And they had accomplished nothing. Perhaps 50 people of the 200 had fled . . .  . now they had 150 people wet, angry, and injured, most of whom were rooted to the spot and determined to make as much noise as ever before. (Free Speech Movement Archives. http://www.fsm-a.org/stacks/AP_files/APHUAC60.html)

Police violence during the “riot”… resulted in the arrest of 68 persons. [Source:  Alice Huberman and  Jim Prickett (Free Speech Movement Archives. http://www.fsm-a.org/stacks/AP_files/APHUAC60.html)

3.  Operation Abolition. The House Committee on Un-American Activities labeled the demonstrations “Communist inspired” and proceeded to produce the now famed film, Operation Abolition, which purported to give the facts about the events in San Francisco. This film was shown throughout the country during 1960 and 1961, and actually turned into the opposite of what the makers intended; the student movement used it quite successfully to educate people about repression. The Northern California ACLU produced a film called Operation Correction, which discussed falsehoods in the first film. Scenes from the hearings and protest were later featured in the award-winning 1990 documentary Berkeley in the Sixties. [Source:  Alice Huberman and  Jim Prickett (http://www.fsm-a.org); Wikipedia]

4.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who is certainly in a better position than anyone else to know the truth about all Communist Party operations in this country, has prepared an official report on the riots entitled “Communist Targets— Youth.” The report was released by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in July 1960. Five pages of this 10-page report are devoted to factual material on exactly how the Communist Party planned and carried out the San Francisco demonstrations and riots, including the dates and places of party meetings, decisions made at them, subsequent actions taken, and the names of Communist Party members and officials involved. This factual data is preceded by this statement:

It is vitally important to set the record straight on the extent to which Communists were responsible for the disgraceful and riotous conditions which prevailed during the HCUA hearings.


Toward the end of his report, Mr. Hoover summarized the Communists’ role in the riots in these words:

The Communists demonstrated in San Francisco just how powerful a weapon Communist infiltration is. They revealed how it is possible for only a few Communist agitators, using mob psychology, to turn peaceful demonstrations into riots.

Months later, after certain sources had given nationwide circulation to the claim that the riots were not Communist-inspired, Mr. Hoover addressed the American Legion convention in Miami (October 18, 1960) and reiterated his statement concerning Communist responsibility for the riots:

The diabolical influence of Communism on youth was manifested in the anti-American student demonstrations in Tokyo. It further was in evidence this year in Communist-inspired riots in San Francisco, where students were duped into disgraceful demonstrations against a Congressional committee.

These students were stooges of a sinister technique stimulated by clever Communist propagandists who remained quietly concealed in the background. These master technicians of conspiracy had planned for some time to use California college students as a “front” for their nefarious operations. This outburst was typical of these cunning conspirators who constantly play active, behind-the-scenes roles in fomenting civic unrest in every conceivable area of our society.

Still later, in his year-end report to the Attorney General of the United States, submitted on December 22, 1960, Mr. Hoover stated that in the future:

the Communists hope to repeat the success which they achieved on the West Coast last May in spearheading mob demonstrations by college students and other young people against a Committee of Congress.

Finally, on March 6, 1961, in an appearance before a House Appropriations Subcommittee, Mr. Hoover testified as follows concerning the San Francisco riots:

A most significant single factor surrounding the mob demonstration was the Communist infiltration of student and youth groups engaged in protest demonstrations against this congressional committee. Through this infiltration, Communists revealed how it is possible for only a few Communist agitators, using mob psychology, to convert peaceful demonstrations into riots.

The success of the party’s strategy was vividly demonstrated by the violence which erupted at the San Francisco City Hall where the committee hearings were held. The San Francisco debacle was not an accident. It was the result of minute and skillful planning, direction, and exploitation by a handful of dedicated, fanatical, hardcore members of the Communist Party, U.S.A.

One of the targets of the Communist Party is to step up its infiltration of youth organizations and the demonstration at San Francisco which occurred last year was typical of their efforts.

[Source: California Digital Library (http://www.cdlib.org)]

I Love Paris in the Springtime: May 1968, Part 2, by J.F.

12 May

I had become “politicized” back in middle school around the issues of the war in Vietnam and nuclear disarmament. In fact, opposition to the War in Vietnam was very strong in France and there were many demonstrations protesting American imperialism.  I never went to any of them, but my family did have the news on, as I have said, and the reports from Vietnam we heard were—to my ears—heart-wrenching.  It just seemed that the horror would never end.  The assassination of Martin Luther King was a big blow too.  It seemed that the United States was going in the wrong direction.  The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy later in June was another devastating piece of news.  Coming shortly after what I considered the defeat of “our” movement, it affected me tremendously.  I remember talking to a girl whom I had met during the “occupation” of the school, and we were both quite depressed over it.

At the same time my political awareness was growing, I had become more aware of the cultural shift happening in the sixties.  In 1966 when I was in eighth grade, my family had decided to visit my grandfather’s homeland (Yugoslavia).  We contacted his living relatives in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.  Since it was kind of on the way, my parents decided to extend the trip all the way to Istanbul through northern Greece.  (My grandfather’s hometown is about 16 kilometers from the border.)  We were camping most of the time unless hosted by the relatives.  This was quite an eye opener for me.  We discovered a world we had never thought existed in Europe.  This was 1966 and globalization had not hit yet, so countries still had their own flavors and people were genuinely interested in meeting each other.  The youth, especially with the advance in transportation and, let’s face it, more affluence, hit the roads of Europe and elsewhere, in search of ….  I feel that these encounters were important because they reminded us that material comfort is not an end in  itself, that life has other purposes.  We met people on their way to Iran, Afghanistan, India.  The world was so open then.  There was none of the fear we have now.

We picked up a hitchhiker in Kosovo.  We usually did not do that, because with three kids in the back of our Peugeot 403, there was not much room.  This time it was different because we knew there were so few cars on the road he would have to wait a long while before being picked up.  He was a student in Paris and was taking advantage of his long vacation (at that time university ended in May and started in October!) to hitchhike through Europe.  He was on his way to Greece.  The road was barely existent and we must have driven at about 20 miles per hour.  We passed by Gypsies (as they were called at the time) on horseback and drove along steep riverbanks on one side and mountain on the other.  It was beautiful and very wild.  The hitchhiker slept in our car once we got to Skopje [Macedonia] and we spent the night in a hotel.  The city was still recovering from the 1963 earthquake, and there were ruins of buildings and the plaster of our hotel displayed some very worrisome cracks.

All this and what was going on in the United States had a lot of influence on the “Zeitgeist” of the times.  Young people were following very closely what was happening across the Atlantic.  American protest songs were known (and sometimes sung in translation!).  Also we were aware of what was happening (in a fuzzy way) on U.S. campuses and streets.  There was this program on the radio station I mentioned called Europe 1 that I listened to a lot.  Its name was “Campus.”  It gave us a lot of info about the United States, the music, the whole scene.

To go back to May ‘68,  in the end it was depressing. At the end of May there was a big pro-De Gaulle demonstration on the Champs Elysées.  The government did come to the negotiation table with the unions and some good things—not negligible if you were a worker—such as raising the minimum wage, did happen.  De Gaulle left the following year after losing a referendum, but his replacement—Pompidou—was certainly not an improvement.  In fact, he nearly destroyed Paris in his attempt to make it “modern.”

Paris 1968.Demo       Paris 1968.Je vote      LEE1968015W00001-01

We didn’t change the world after all. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, we knew the Vietnam War would continue. After World War II there had been a lot of idealism, but in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the road diverged like in Frost’s poem, the one the world took and the other not taken.  Idealism still survived for a while:  some youth became involved in organizing in the factories.  Others, such as the Red Brigades (though not too much in France) turned to armed rebellion. And there was also the counter-culture movement with its back-to-nature communes. But mainly one could feel that the “affluent” society and its emphasis on consumerism had won. Even though it took a while for all the sparks to die, it eventually happened.

And we all grew up.

I Love Paris in the Springtime: May 1968. Part I

9 May

By J.F.

J.F. was born and raised in France and came to the United States in 1974 for a visit, where she met her husband. She has been living in Los Angeles since 1975.  She teaches high school ESL and French. She is still very much interested in social movements and in politics. Her background and family definitely shaped her values, while the sixties were formative years in her understanding of the world.

Paris 1968

Part I

It was at my cousin’s communion that May ‘68 started for me. The situation that led to the general strike had started earlier and we were all following events intensely, but things got to a boiling point on that day.

I remember a heated discussion with my grandmother. She supported Charles de Gaulle, who was a flashpoint of the rebellion, representing the stale Old World. Politics must have come up and points of view about the student rebellion must have been exchanged. I was definitely on the side of the students, and my family and relatives in general were fairly supportive, except my grandmother, who was a Gaullist. I was 15 years old at the time and the oldest of the grandchildren. Some of my cousins and I were participating in the “grownup” discussion.

Just before came the March 22 Movement, of which Daniel Cohn-Bendit was the leader. He was in Nanterre at a new university in an old working class neighborhood outside Paris. It was next to a large shantytown, and the students protested conditions in the university and injustices in the society such as the low minimum wage.

What had started as a student movement very quickly extended to the working class even though the Communist Party and the trade unions were very skeptical about a movement that had originated with middle-class kids.  Because it included both students and workers, it was a potent movement.

Late in the evening, I was in my uncle’s car and we were taking back to his place one of his nephews who was a pastry chef apprentice in Paris at the time.  His name was Jean-Claude and he was my age.  It was dark and on the way we passed by the entrance of a factory displaying a red flag and a banner:  On Strike.  There were workers still there since the strike was tied to occupation of the workplace.

Paris 1968.ComiteInternational

On Monday I went back to my school, which turned out to be on strike too with occupation by students and faculty. I did not know it had been decided since I had not gone to my Saturday morning classes as usual due to the family gathering on the occasion of my cousin’s communion.

I had to decide whether to leave or stay and participate in the activities. I stayed with some trepidation, not knowing what to expect. I was aware that this was an unusual, history-in-the-making kind of event, and I had no idea where it could lead.  The student rebellion in Paris had had some fairly dramatic development already as reported in the news.

My family did not have a TV and our source of information was the radio and the newspaper.  We were assiduous radio listeners, especially at the news hour.  At the time my parents listened to a station, Europe 1, whose transmitter was located outside France, since only state-controlled stations were allowed on French territory, and the contents of their news could be censored by the government.  There was a censorship commission, which was abolished after May ‘68 (this was one of the results of the uprising).

Day after day I went back to my high school.  I remember intense and heated discussions about anything and everything.  We were all a little dizzy with what was going on and were very intent on remaking the world.  The Chinese Cultural Revolution was big among students.  Mao’s Little Red Book was well-known even if we had not read it.  What we knew about the Chinese experiment sounded very interesting and different from Stalinist communism.  The remaking of society, going after the establishment, making manual labor noble and worthy, the idea of communities being able to sustain themselves industrially and agriculturally, all of this had been topics for discussion, and not only among the youth.  There was the liberation movement in South America.  We all had read about all this, heard discussions and listened to intellectuals argue about it.


In school and outside, a lot of flyers and publications were handed out.  There were different tendencies and they all had their printing presses going.  I had to learn quickly about the different acronyms, distinguish between Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, and the rest.  One main subject was the police repression going on in Paris, with stories about beatings and interrogations at police centers.  I met students who were in the same school as I, but whom I had never met before.  Some teachers were present too.  I remember my French teacher participating in a discussion on that Monday when I returned.  Others who later would be my economics teachers in 11th and 12th grades were there too.

We would be addressed as “comrade.”  I supposed some of them were already active in the Communist Youth.  The Communist Party was very active in my city, which had had a Communist mayor and city council since 1935.  However, in May 1968, the party was fairly discredited because of its disdain for the student movement.  (It got even worse during the summer with the repression of the “Prague Spring.”)  It tried to make up for lost time, and when we were not allowed to go into the school anymore to “occupy” our classrooms, city hall gave us permission to relocate to the public library.  We all walked down the street with some students monitoring to make sure we were going in an orderly manner.

At the same time the school scene culminated with a student-led forum one evening, to which parents were invited.  I attended with my mother.  A lot of people were present.  I believe we must have explained to them what it was that we wanted.  No, I can’t remember the details, just that it went well and excitement was in the air.   [To be continued next time]

Voices from the 60s and 70s: An Introduction by Kitty Kroger

25 Apr

Where were you during the tumultuous years of the 60s?

Were you part of the counter-culture? Were you in Vietnam? Were you in the Civil Rights, anti-war, women’s, gay, nationalism, union, working class, ethnic, disability, student, or animal rights movements? Or did you stand on the periphery? Perhaps you were too busy being a “housewife,” raising kids, studying, surviving. Or were you still a child?

And the 70s! Aftermath of the heady and intense events of the 60s! What kind of person did you “grow up” to be and how did the 60s help shape you—or not?

For those of you who were already into your 30s during this period, how did events affect you? Were you involved? What was it like to see your children caught up in the excitement?

I originally hatched the idea for this blog in order to attract the kind of reader who might be drawn to my novel, which is set  in the 70s and concerns a woman’s struggle with the anxiety and the exhilaration of sectarian revolutionary politics, multicultural romance, and sexual hang-ups. But after interviewing a few people, I was bowled over by the diversity and uniqueness, the humor and quirkiness, the wisdom of the stories. I couldn’t wait to develop this project further.

This blog will be an oral history of the 60s and 70s. I am acting as a kind of midwife. Once people start talking, words tumble out of them. It is surprising, the memories that arise—some of them over 50 years old! One memory leads to another and another. Talking seems to generate many experiences mined from the recesses of the past.

At first I requested that people write or talk about what they were doing during those two decades. That turned out to be too broad. So I decided to ask them to choose one or a few meaningful experiences.

After I type up the interviews, I send the first drafts to my interviewees for revision. It’s their story, whatever they want—or don’t want—to say, and however they want to say it. Anonymously or fully credited.

And it’s not a literary endeavor—it’s a blog post. So let’s get started!

Oh, yes, if you would like to add your voice, please comment to a post or email me (divisionstreetbooks@gmail.com). We can either set up an interview or arrange for you to write up your experiences. The post can be long or short. Just a few sentences is perfectly fine.

Who am I? In the latter part of the 60s I did anti-war organizing in Berlin, Germany. More about that later. As for the 70s, if you read my (not entirely) autobiographical novel, Dancing with Mao and Miguel, you can figure out some of what  I was up to. Or just read the first chapter on my website.