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Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, by Gerda Lerner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002, 408 pp., $34.50 hardcover.
Fireweed is a plant that spreads rapidly in areas scorched by fire. The pinkish, magenta flowers grow in areas otherwise desolate and blackened, metaphorically alluding to the human spirit's ability to overcome adversity. Acclaimed academic Gerda Lerner could not have chosen a more apt title for her stunning political autobiography. This memoir traces the evolution of her political consciousness, from an unhappy childhood in pre-Nazi Vienna to just before she established herself as the leading authority in women's history in the United States. In between, Lerner suffered anti-Semitism, imprisonment, deportation, immigration, and McCarthyism.
Lerner's challenging relationship with her mother forms the core of much of her early life story. Indeed, it was while witnessing her mother's languishing as a bourgeois housewife that the young girl first developed her keen ability to observe the status of women relative to men. Although Lerner's father was a decent, hardworking husband and father, her mother did not find fulfillment in marriage and retreated to a "room of her own," where she entertained artists, dancers, and writers. The politics of the family, which frequently entailed Gerda's and her younger sister's struggle for affection, taught Lerner much of what she needed to understand about power. By the time she was fourteen, experiences at the family's dinner table had taught her how to become a fully political person.
From a young daughter's perspective, Gerda's mother often appears selfish, reckless, and vainglorious. Only later, when Lerner attained the wisdom of an older woman, did she fully appreciate her mother's drive [End Page 210] to realize her personal ambition as an artist. Never fitting into Viennese society as a proper wife and mother, it was ultimately in her mother's willingness to risk her own life, that Lerner recognized how critical it was for women to attain self-realization through their life work.
During the Nazi Anschluss of Austria, Lerner and her mother were imprisoned following their father's escape to Liechtenstein. Even while sharing a tiny cell with three other prisoners, the teenager obsessed about taking the Matura, an exam that would have secured her entrance into a university. For Lerner, life without learning would not have been worth living. This intellectual thirst for knowledge remained with her obdurately, even after she arrived in America and it appeared as if she would never set foot in a classroom again. This brutal experience of false imprisonment stayed with Lerner, but it never deterred her from fighting for causes in which she believed.
Lerner's relationship with her husband, film director and editor Carl Lerner, became the second most important in her life. Having left her family in Nazi-occupied Europe, they met after she arrived in the United States. They formed a solid partnership based on mutual respect, ideals, and love. The Lerners frequently collaborated on projects, and their shared commitment to communist principles placed them and their children in jeopardy. (Looking back, Lerner readily admits how naïve her outlook toward the Communist Party was, but she maintains that her motivations were just.)
Ironically, the challenges of persecution and economic deprivation afforded Lerner the perspective she needed to analyze women's place in history. In reflecting on her life, Lerner, now in her eighties, recognizes that her constant status as an outsider, the Other, enabled her to develop an unwavering sense of social justice. Whether as a persecuted Jew, political refugee, over-qualified immigrant, or communist supporter, Lerner rarely belonged to any socially accepted group. These collective experiences, however, taught her firsthand about people who did not have a voice in telling their own stories. Lerner's insights eventually influenced her decision to earn a Ph.D. in history and then to help establish women's history as a standard academic discipline.
Although Fireweed is the story of a famous historian, it should appeal to a wide readership. In many ways, this autobiography illuminates...