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December 2, 2015

Reflecting on the Life of Hy Berman

By Steve Hunegs

Whether the subject was Heinrich Graetz's "History of the Jews," or William Watts Folwell's "History of Minnesota," or the football prospects of the Gophers and Vikings – not to mention his own scholarship and commentary – Professor Emeritus Hy Berman was the "Man to See."

In an apt Star Tribune editorial description capturing of the spirit of Hy Berman, he was the "historian laureate" of post war Minnesota. Of course, from a University of Minnesota perspective where he taught more than 40 years, this designation could be extended to labor history, Jewish history, and American immigration history.

Professor Berman was the embodiment of the Morrill Act of 1862 and the mission of land grant universities to bring the opportunity of college education to the people. (Although Hy would say with characteristically wry humor that he fell into the statutory language of "not excluding classical education" since the primary goal of the Act was to facilitate education in science, agriculture, and the military.)

The energy of Professor Berman's teaching and academic pursuits was coupled with the joy of being an accessible public scholar. He was strongly influenced by Professor Salo Wittmayer Baron – "Architect of Jewish History" in the words of Professor Baron's biographer – for whom his beloved wife Betty was a research assistant at Columbia. (Among other things, Professor Baron was the lead witness in the Eichmann trial providing an overview of European Jewish history and civilization and the unfolding and impact of the Holocaust.)

Similarly, the influence of Professor Berman's knowledge and passion was felt well beyond the University: as a television, radio, and print commentator; as an advisor to public and elected officials and speech writer; as a raconteur enlivening any gathering or conversation or as an expert witness in Minnesota's tobacco trial of 1998. Attorney Michael Ciresi described Professor Berman as a "living legend of Minnesota whose teaching indelibly etched Minnesota history in the minds of our students and public."

Professor Berman's most profound legacy is the love of learning and the development of analytical skills he inspired and catalyzed among his thousands of students in nearly two generations of teaching. Susan Prohofsky, an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s, remembers vividly his classes taught in Blegen Hall as he made his students "feel special" for the attention he paid to them and years later staying in touch with his students on Facebook. Prohofsky adds, "He was a Minnesota treasure."

Professor Berman served many years on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) and the community is grateful for his service. Executive Director Emeritus of the JCRC, Mort Ryweck, recalls the help which Professor Berman provided in educating the JCRC board and community about powerful currents of anti-Semitism in the Minnesota of the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, Professor Berman's monograph – "Political Antisemitism in Minnesota during the Great Depression" (Jewish Social Studies, 1976) – is a classic. I am deeply grateful for the lunches we shared together at his favorite neighborhood Thai restaurant – and the tours Betty would provide afterwards of her beautiful garden. He was a teacher's teacher. May his memory be for a blessing.