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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                      HELEN EISEMANN ALEXANDER

INTERVIEWER:                 SANDY LEFF

DATE:                                 NOVEMBER 29, 1993; DECEMBER 28, 1993    

LOCATION:                        HOME OF HELEN EISEMANN ALEXANDER

Transcript (PDF)

BIOGRAPHY

Helen’s paternal grandparents were from Germany and came to the United States as children. They lived on Long Island, New York, when Helen was growing up. Her grandfather owned an ostrich feather business. At that time, it was fashionable for women to wear the feathers on their hats and on dress sleeves and hems. Helen did not know her maternal grandparents, who also came to the United States from Germany, since they had died before she was born.

Helen’s mother, Josephine Lowenstein, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and her father, Alexander Eisemann was from New York City, New York. Helen was born at home in Manhattan, New York City, New York, on January 13, 1992, and she had one younger brother. In 1922, her father started the Freed-Eisemann Radio Corp., which manufactured some of the first radios in the country. He was outspoken against antisemitism and was one of the founders of the Anti-Defamation League.

Although Helen’s family did not observe Jewish rituals in the home, they identified strongly as Jews. Helen had fond memories of Passover seders and celebrating Hanukkah at her grandparents’ home on Long Island and continued those traditions with her children and grandchildren. Helen’s parents also had a very large Christmas tree in their home every year, which they did not consider to be religious, and Helen continued that tradition, as well.

Growing up in New York City, Helen went to see shows and films on Broadway, at Radio City Music Hall, and at summer stock performances. Although she wanted to be an actor, Helen agreed to attend college at her parents’ request. However, she stayed for only one semester and left to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She acted in summer stock performances with famous actors and was offered a part in a film right before she left New York. She also toured with the U.S.O camp show company performing Junior Miss and spent two years performing the Army-Air Force show Winged Victory. Her stage name was Helen Eastman.

In 1947, at age 25, Helen took a trip with her mother to Atlanta, visiting for the first time. On that trip, she met and married Arthur Harris and never returned to New York. They had two sons and one daughter. After they divorced, Helen married Marshall Mantler, and they had one daughter. They divorced, and Helen then married Cecil Alexander.

Helen was deeply troubled by the segregation that existed in Atlanta and the South. She was not used to that from her New York experiences and her theater experiences which were much more diverse. She became active in the Jewish community, including with The Temple, National Council of Jewish Women, and American Jewish Committee, and also volunteered with the Atlanta Symphony and Spellman College. Helen pushed for programming within the Jewish community to be supportive of intermarried couples who were raising Jewish children, which was a new concept and met with some resistance. She considered being part of the Civil Rights Movement a growth experience. She met Martin Luther King, Jr. and heard him speak on several occasions, and was involved with John Lewis’ campaign for U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th District.

Helen started the Speech and Hearing Clinic in Atlanta to help black children with aphasia and other speech and hearing disorders. The daughter of one of her husband’s employees was aphasic, and at the time there was no place for black children to get help. Helen, along with a group of women and men, raised money to send a black woman to Washington University to get a degree as a teacher of the deaf, and they sent several others to receive shorter training. The clinic was very successful, and Helen and others felt that it should be available to the public. When schools were integrated, the Atlanta Board of Education agreed to take their teachers into the Atlanta school system.

Helen did some acting while in Atlanta, including some fundraising productions, television commercials, training films, and voice-overs. She had a fleeting part as an extra in the film Driving Miss Daisy and was instrumental in the merging of three struggling theaters into Theater Atlanta. Although she did not experience antisemitism in the theater, she did experience it when she was a young woman buying a home and was told that certain homes and neighborhoods would not sell to Jews.

Three of Helen’s children lived in Atlanta at the time of the interview, and one son lived in Durham, North Carolina. Helen had seven grandchildren.

Scope of Interview:

Helen speaks fondly of her paternal grandparents, since she knew them growing up. Her maternal grandparents died before Helen was born. Helen describes many of her experiences growing up in New York City, New York, including the diversity, theater experiences, and her schooling. She also recalls how outspoken her father was about antisemitism.

Helen shares her limited Jewish upbringing with regard to rituals and observance. Although they clearly identified as Jewish, her parents had a very large Christmas tree in their home each year. She recalls celebrating Hanukkah and having Passover seder at her grandparents’ home on Long Island in New York.

Helen describes the schools she attended, including a diverse and progressive school in New York City and a boarding school for her last year of high school. After spending one semester in college, she dropped out to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. She describes the theater productions in which she performed and the many famous actors and other theater professionals she met before moving to Atlanta at age 25.

Helen talks about meeting her first husband, Arthur Harris, on her first trip to Atlanta with her mother in 1947 at the age of 25. She never returned to New York, and she shares her experiences living in the South and how disturbed she was about segregation. She also talks about her two subsequent marriages to Marshall Mantler and Cecil Alexander and her involvement in the community through each of those periods. She had three children with her first husband and one child with her second husband.

Helen recalls her involvement in the Jewish community of Atlanta, including with The Temple, National Council of Jewish Women, and American Jewish Committee, as well as with the Atlanta Symphony and Spellman College. She promoted the Jewish community helping intermarried couples strengthen their ability to raise Jewish children. She details several situations related to speaking out against antisemitism and segregation, and recalls some of her experiences meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and working on John Lewis’ campaign for U.S. Representative.

Helen describes how she started the Speech and Hearing Clinic in response to a situation where the daughter of one of her husband’s black employees had aphasia and could not get help in the white community. She talks about how they raised the funds to send some black women to Washington University to get the necessary specialized training for teaching the deaf and those with aphasia. She also recounts the school’s success and how, after integration of the schools, they were able to get the Board of Education to take in those trained teachers as part of the beginnings of special education programs.

Helen talks about her four children’s schooling and proudly shares what they are doing [at the time of the interview] as adults. She also mentions her seven grandchildren, who are all being raised in Jewish households, and how wonderful it is to have everyone come together for Seders.


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