Interview with Polina Olsen, Author of Stories from Jewish Portland

AK: How did you first become interested in the stories of Portland’s Jewish community?

PO: I became interested when I moved to a house in John’s Landing and learned that the neighborhood next store was once home to Jewish immigrants. All four grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe but like many others, I never thought to ask about it, and I felt a terrible sense of loss.

AK: How does Stories from Jewish Portland build upon, or complement, your previous books?

PO: Stories from Jewish Portland was an opportunity to research and write about topics one-by-one and in depth.

[follow this link to Polina’s other books]

AK: How would you describe the neighborhood of South Portland in its early days? What about today?

PO: South Portland was a largely self-contained community that mirrored the European towns and villages that people had left. There were kosher butchers, bagel makers, and synagogues within walking distance. There was social activism and an intellectual life. People read the Yiddish press, joined the Arbeiter Ring and helped with communal benevolent societies. The Neighborhood House, founded by German Jews, offered citizenship classes, a Hebrew School, athletics and a medical clinic among their many programs.

By the time the South Auditorium Urban Renewal Project leveled 54 blocks of the community in the early 1960s, many Jews had already left for Portland’s east side. Although the area has been gentrified and the population has dispersed, there are buildings and reminders of those early days.

[follow this link to a post about Polina’s South Portland walking tours]

AK: What role has the Jewish Review played historically within the Jewish community?

PO: The Jewish Review is the glue that holds the community together along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. People from every affiliation and no affiliation relate to and enjoy The Jewish Review.


AK: Can you explain the significance of the Industrial Removal Office?

PO: A fascinating and undertold story, the IRO brought thousands of unemployed Eastern European Jewish immigrants out of the Lower East Side of New York and dispersed them to small Jewish communities throughout the country. Many viewed the organization as charity and hid their association with it from their children. Who knows what Portland’s Jewish community of today would look like without the services of the IRO.


AK: What is your typical research process? Do you find the people you interview, or do they find you?

PO: The process mushrooms by itself. I find a few people to interview and they recommend others.


AK: Did anything surprise you during the course of your research?

PO: Not exactly surprised, but I once again affirmed that the most interesting history comes from everyday life.

AK: What is your next project?

PO: I’m writing a book about the 1960s era in Portland. Interestingly, the once Jewish immigrant neighborhood became the heart of the psychedelic scene. People are sharing their memories of ‘60s music, politics, alternative press and new social movements. These watershed times changed the landscape forever.

Stories from Jewish Portland is available from Everything Jewish, Powells, Broadway Books, Annie Blooms, and other Portland bookstores.

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