«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: I would hope that in my talker life, I don’t use those phrases so often. I’ve never been aware of it. So I apologize to the reader and the listener.
Q: Well, one of the things that comes out in an oral history is self-presentation. And very often, people don’t know about their own self-presentation.
Weiss: I think if my self-presentation were that encumbered by extraneous, unnecessary language, I wouldn’t get the reception that I think I get.
Weiss: When I talk to people.
Q: As opposed to when you give a speech.
Weiss: Yes. When I give a speech, I don’t have to clean up “and”s and “so forth”s because they’re not there.
Q: Do you think that’s a result of the informality of this process compared to, say, a conversation you might have with someone about business?
Weiss: It may also be a consequence of some insecurity. My husband tells me that I’ve always had low self-esteem. He criticizes me for it. And it’s true. I have always had low self-esteem, contrary to what people might think. But this is embarrassing to see “and,” “well,” “and so forth,” repeated so often, so I hope they get excised.
Q: Well, we can edit that out of the transcript.
Weiss: It should be excised as opposed to censored. [laughter] I don’t believe in censorship. I believe in deleting.
Q: Let’s talk for a few moments about some of the things you talked about that you wanted to get on the record from the last time we met. One of them is that you wanted to make it quite clear
Weiss: My mother’s father, who brought her to this country when she was an infant and remained here through her marriage and giving birth to me until I was three, probably—it’s hard for me to tell the age from a photograph, but there’s a picture of me in his arms when I was quite young—my mother’s father went back to the Soviet Union in 1938 and was immediately arrested on deplaning and taken to the famous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. He faced the military tribunal, was tried and executed in fifteen minutes. He was accused of being a German spy. He was Jewish. He thought he was a patriotic member of the party, and the party killed him. Stalin killed him.
I didn’t know that until maybe fifteen years ago. It’s an interesting little story about how that happened. The local head of the neighborhood KGB—I have no idea about how the KGB was organized—called my Aunt Lucy one night when she had the flu. She was in bed with a fever, and he said, “You have to come immediately because I don’t know how long I will have these records.” She went with a pencil and a fever. She copied the files. There was no copying machine.
Q: This would be at the Russian consul here— Weiss: No, this is in Moscow.
Weiss: She lived in Moscow and died in Moscow. She’s the aunt who came to this country earlier and went to James Monroe High School in the Bronx. Spoke American English.
Q: And then went back.
Weiss: Then she went back and she became a trusted translator in science, in the Science Institute, and translated English language scientific journals, which were then sent “upstairs,” so to speak, censored, and published so that Soviet scientists received censored, translated copies of American and British scientific journals. Unbelievable. Unbearable.
Q: But she went and copied these records?
Weiss: She went to copy the records with her fever and her pencil. She sent me the records, which is the basis of the story that I just told you. I think if my mother had known that, she would have changed her mind about the Soviet Union. She was never a member of the party.
Neither was my father. And certainly not me. But she was dying at the time of [Mikhail S.] Gorbachev’s entrance into history. She said, in her dying months, “Maybe things will be better,” which I appreciated hearing from her.
I will say that until I had heard those stories, I was never an anti-communist because look at the damage that the anti-communists were doing in this country. Senator [Joseph R.] McCarthy was a pretty damaging person, holding up his empty pieces of paper with alleged lists of people who
jobs. But I was never a pro-communist. So I was neither anti- nor pro-. But I tolerated the presence of one single member of the Communist Party in the coalitions of the anti-war movement. He was never going to do any harm to anybody and he didn’t hold any weight.
Q: This was [Arnold] Johnson, or— Weiss: Arnold Johnson, yes. He didn’t have any cred, he didn’t hold weight, he wasn’t important. But he became the target of attacks. That’s all I have to say about the Communist Party. To be clear, I had nothing to do with them.
Q: The second issue that I wanted to raise comes around Nairobi. You know, you told me this— Weiss: Could I just say that that’s the first time I’ve told that story about my grandfather?
Q: Oh, really?
Weiss: I felt it was appropriate.
Q: Good. Terrific. Just proper. Always, the anecdote is just the proper one. You told me the story about Nairobi, but not about the American delegation at Nairobi, but rather the countermovement when you had the little knoll and peace camp at Nairobi.
Q: Right. And the American delegation was headed by Maureen Reagan.
Weiss: That was the government. I was in the Forum, which was not the government. The Forum was the civil society piece and it was separated by X number of miles from the government, so we had our own place. I think it was at the university, pretty sure. That’s where we had the peace tent. It wasn’t counter. It was parallel, and I think that’s an important distinction. So what do you want to know about it? I told the story in here.
Q: Yes. One of the issues that came up—it was an official American delegation, a governmental delegation—is that they prevented a resolution on Palestine that had been passed earlier out of Mexico, a meeting in Mexico City, and I was wondering if you could tell me, what was your position as a peace movement activist on Palestine?
Weiss: I’ve never been anti-Palestine. I’ve always been for a two-state solution, and even though it seems to be harder and harder to achieve now, I’m still for a two-state solution. I think the breakthrough that the government of Sweden has made and the London MPs have made is going to be important in the recognition of Palestine and Palestinians, the rights of Palestinians. I was never aware while we were in Nairobi in 1985 of what the government was doing, because they were so far away and there was no daily paper that we had, and we were having a very vital and busy time.
Weiss: At every World Conference of Women: Mexico, Copenhagen, Nairobi, Beijing, there has been a parallel forum where civil society dealt with the issues that we thought were important. I went to the Nairobi meeting in 1985 and the Beijing meeting in 1995. At both of those, I helped to set up and support a peace tent where people were welcome. There was an open mic. It was a wonderful addition to the Forum.
Q: Was there ever any contact with the official American delegation?
Weiss: Many people tried and did. Many people had connections with Hillary [Rodham] Clinton who was in Beijing and she actually came and spoke on a rainy day to the Forum which was in Huairou, H-U-A-I-R-O-U, I think is how it was spelled. The Beijing distance between government and forum was a solid hour ride in a not-very-comfortable vehicle, so many of us never even tried to go, but people did go, mostly to the government, not from the government.
We had our own terrific meeting in Huairou.
It was very strange because the Chinese government actually emptied the village so that we could occupy it, which I thought was simply terrible. We had no idea where the villagers went.
But we had sessions in the classrooms of the schools. We had sessions in all the public buildings.
Weiss: Not necessarily resolutions. Some of them were just educational meetings. We tried to talk about nuclear testing, which was going on in the Pacific. We held a demonstration against the French nuclear testing and I remember Chinese policemen putting their hands up to try to prevent us from marching and to prevent photographers from shooting our pictures.
The Westchester Gannett Chain—was that the name of the—I think it was—the name of the newspaper chain—ran a wonderful photograph, which I coincidentally happen to be in, of the women lined up protesting the French testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. It was great that that news got to Westchester County. We used that photograph for the front page of a Christmas card, as I recall. The cover of a Christmas card.
Q: Did the issue of Palestine and Israel come up often in the International Peace Bureau?
Weiss: Often, I’m not sure, but it did come up on the day that I was elected president in 2000, in some kind of a statement that they wanted to publish, and I recall asking them to tone it down. I can’t remember what the language was, but it was something that I thought might tie my hands as president. I didn’t want to start out with a deficit, with a difficult situation. Did it come up more often than that? Possibly.
Q: I ask the question because it’s such a divisive issue for many, many, many organizations
Weiss: I think the war that just took place where Hamas was tossing rockets and may have killed—I don’t remember the number.
Weiss: Oh, less.
Q: Well, that’s a combination of civilians and soldiers.
Weiss: OK. Whatever the number was, it was small compared to the number of Gazans who were killed. I think that experience has moved a lot of people to think twice about the rights of Palestinians to have a state and to not be occupied in, basically, what seems to be a prison. Gaza is a prison and it’s very chock full of people. I hope it works out.
Q: I remember one time, off tape, you were telling me about bringing a resolution for women’s rights to the United Nations when some Jewish group in the United—was opposed to—I didn’t get the full story, but obviously you remember a bit of that. I can tell from the— Weiss: I’m cleaning out my office prior to its move and I just found huge sheets of paper with copies of photographs of that event. It was 1997. A group of us presented a petition to the president of the General Assembly, who was an east European man and we were opposed by a
you a copy of the picture. It’s wonderful. We gave him a rose and the petition, which was signed by thousands of people from around the world. The petition was available in many languages.
Q: The petition was to— Weiss: This was before [Security Council resolution] 1325, before 1999, before The Hague Appeal for Peace when women came together to say, “It’s time for the Security Council to utter the word ‘woman’ and demonstrate their willingness to show that we have rights to participate in decision making.” So this petition was a precursor to that. It was talking about the rights. I’ll bring you a copy of the petition and you can— Q: I’m trying to figure out, why would the Jewish NGOs, synagogue people, object to that.
Weiss: That’s a good question, so we’ll find out when I bring the petition.
Q: There must have been something in the resolution— Weiss: That referred to it. Could be.
Q: Last time we met, you said you wanted to talk about the Nobel Parade.
Q: You said it was such an inspiring moment for you.
Weiss: It was incredible. I mean, if you want to feel humbled, that’s it. In 2001, the centennial of the Nobel Peace Prize, Kofi Annan and the United Nations were the laureates. They invited all of the Nobel Peace laureates to come, both organizations that survived and the living individuals. I represented the International Peace Bureau, which got the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910, and so I was at the head of the parade with a gentleman from Geneva who represented an international law society, which also received the Nobel in the early 1900s.
So the two of us led the parade into the congress hall in Oslo and there was Kofi and there was the then-president of the General Assembly and the representatives of the United Nations’ agencies because the entire United Nations was being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That was heady. The room was packed. The King and Queen of Norway were there. Ambassadors. It was a very, very moving moment.
Q: What did you think about the recent awardees? The Pakistani woman and the Indian man?
Weiss: I think it’s fine. It’s very controversial. People on the left and on the right don’t agree that it’s fine. A 60-year-old Indian man and a 17-year-old Pakistani woman, both of whom say, “Don’t bring tanks, bring pens. Don’t bring soldiers, bring teachers.” I love that. I love the idea that peace education and education are recognized. It’s not what Alfred Nobel had in mind. But who knows what he would say today if he were alive? There are people who want to stick very
many people in the world today who are trying to reduce military armies. I have a holistic approach to peace, so I appreciated Wangari [Muta] Maathai getting the Nobel because her work with women, especially, around the world planting trees was a very peace-making activity. All the women who have gotten the Nobel have been wonderful, but it remains a controversial issue, which I don’t want to get involved in.
Q: You also told me that you wanted to flesh out your testimony for the Chicago Seven. We touched on it very, very briefly.
Weiss: Eight. It was eight at the time.
Q: Right. How did that originate, anyway?