Of Teachers and History: A Brooklyn Memoir

March is designated as Women's History Month, but nowadays you don't have to wait until the month rolls around to find women in history texts, extraordinary individuals whose life experiences have made a difference and ought to be in history and others whose everyday existence contributes to the historical record. I'm often struck by the fact that although everybody has one, a history that is, one's individual stories are seldom considered to be connected to "history."

Consider the case of the woman who taught me Spanish. The setting was Bay Ridge High School in mid-twentieth century Brooklyn, New York, when I was a seventeen year old student in Ella Wolfe's Spanish class. A small, diminutive woman of uncertain age and ethnicity, my teacher's no-nonsense expectations struck fear in the hearts of most of her students. Not one to conform to prevailing fashions, she wore her long gray hair coiled in a braid on top of her head giving an illusion of added stature. She dressed in colorfully embroidered Mexican blouses and full skirts accenting her look with sparkling silver jewelry and dangling earrings. Like a sun-drenched marigold in a field of late autumn leaves, Wolfe usually stood out among a faculty of rather drably dressed colleagues.

But it was her classroom lectures that I most fondly recall. These were peppered with references to golden nuggets of an elusive past that I was academically unprepared to unravel. Past ghosts filtered in and out of the classroom; her very good friends, Frida and Diego, someone named Trotsky, and events that took place in exotic places like Mexico, far beyond the temporal and geographic boundaries of my unsophisticated Brooklyn world.

Fast forward to the 1990s and a PBS documentary on the lives of the world-renowned artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And there was Ella Wolfe! Where once I thought my teacher's life ended with the school's dismissal bell, now she commanded my undivided attention.

She was born Ella Goldberg in Kherson, Ukraine in 1896, and at the age of ten came to live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While an undergraduate at Hunter College, she wed the future scholar, Bertram D. Wolfe, then a student at City College, entering into a sixty-year partnership as loving spouses and intellectual colleagues. Infused with the radical ideologies of the period, the couple's first jobs were at the Socialist Rand School. By 1917 they were at the forefront of the American Communist movement supporting the Russian Revolution, the labor movement and other progressive causes.

The Wolfes opposed America's entry into World War I and left for Moscow but they soon became equally disheartened with the results of the revolution. Hounded now by the political left and the right, after years of living underground the roaring twenties found the couple in Mexico City. There they joined international bohemian circles and befriended the leading intellectuals and artists of the day, among them, Rivera and Kahlo. Frida would become Ella's close companion and confidant. After the Second World War, the Wolfes returned to live in Brooklyn Heights; he to continue the writing of copious biographical and scholarly works on Communism, and she to teach Spanish literature at Columbia University, Hunter College and the New York City public schools.

Relocating to Stanford University's Hoover Institute on War, Revolution and Peace in 1966, Ella Wolfe would spend the rest of her life organizing her husband's extensive literary works and, as the last remaining link with the genesis of the communist movement in the United States, providing vital eye witness accounts for researchers. In these, it was always the people she had encountered that held center stage.

Shaped by the historical events of her times, Ella Wolfe lived a life according to her convictions. She railed against inequality, sexism, women's oppression and the plight of the poor. On more than one occasion, she expressed her love of teaching, "the love of excellence and truth and integrity." On January 13, 2000, my old high school teacher died at the age of 103.

Not a day goes by that history does not envelop me in ways that inform the present, through the narratives of ordinary people, places and events. While March is a convenient reminder, I don't want to wait for special months to experience these adventurous connections. Would you?