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Berman, Hyman (1925–2015)

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Hyman Berman at age ninety

Hyman Berman, age ninety, at his Minneapolis home (2540 Seabury Avenue, Minneapolis), weeks before his death. Photograph by Terry Gydesen, October 2015. CC BY-SA 3.0

Hyman Berman was a University of Minnesota history professor and a popular public historian known widely for his contributions to the Almanac public affairs program on Twin Cities PBS. Berman’s earliest scholarship focused on labor history, but, upon arriving in Minnesota in 1961, Berman wrote extensively about Minnesota’s immigrant history, the state’s political parties, and the Jewish experience in Minnesota.

The son of Polish, Jewish immigrants, Hyman Berman was born on February 20, 1925, in New York, and spoke Yiddish almost exclusively until he was five years old. His father, David, was a labor activist in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. David was kicked out of the union for his criticism of its leadership. Berman’s mother, Yetta, identified herself as being even more left-wing than her husband.

As a child, Berman was influenced by Communist Party-affiliated organizations, most notably Camp Kinderland, a summer camp for the children of socialist-leaning parents. Berman eventually became a counselor at the camp, a stint that earned him a mention by an informer to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955.

After serving in the US Army during World War II and graduating from New York’s City College, Berman became disillusioned with the Communist Party. That distance was triggered by his realization of the repression of the Stalin regime, particularly its virulent antisemitism.

Berman’s progressive views evolved into a dyed-in-the-wool New Deal Democrat position with strong support for labor unions and, once he arrived in Minnesota, a deep affection for and connection with the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party.

Berman was married to Betty Silbering, a Holocaust survivor and librarian, in 1950. They had three children. One, a daughter, died in 1971 at age seven, something Berman called “the heaviest personal psychological blow I’ve ever received in my life.”

After earning his PhD from Columbia University—his dissertation was about the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union—Berman taught briefly in New York-area colleges and at Michigan State University before joining the University of Minnesota’s history department in the fall of 1961. Soon after, he became part of a team of University scholars who embedded themselves on the Iron Range to study the lives and cultures of the region’s immigrant populations. During this period, Berman befriended an aspiring politician from Hibbing, dentist Rudy Perpich. That friendship led Berman to become an advisor to Perpich as the politician’s career progressed from two terms in the state senate to two terms as Minnesota’s governor.

Berman’s expertise in American labor history allowed him to create an international niche, teaching and lecturing about US worker history in, among other places, India, Israel, Germany, and China. He also was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967 and 1968.

Known for his compelling and entertaining classroom lectures, Berman amplified his knowledge and showmanship via radio and television. He often appeared as a commentator on election nights to place current events into an understandable historic context. TPT’s Almanac was his most frequent stage, but he also narrated a handful of public television documentaries, was a frequent guest on Minnesota Public Radio, and wrote regular opinion pieces in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

An active University of Minnesota citizen, Berman worked to form a professors’ union (an effort that failed), served regularly on key faculty governance committees, helped establish curricula in African American, Latino, and women’s studies, and advocated for philanthropy to the U of M.

His high profile often placed Berman at the center of news himself, such as when in 1977 he was appointed by Perpich to be a member of the committee to select Minnesota’s first woman Supreme Court justice, Rosalie Wahl. Berman also crossed paths with, and befriended, a wide range of elected officials, such as Wendell Anderson, Hubert Humphrey, Harold Stassen, and Paul Wellstone.

Berman retired from the University in 2004, but he remained in public view via Almanac and media interviews for another decade. He died on November 29, 2015, at the age of ninety after a brief illness. He is buried in Temple Israel’s Memorial Park cemetery in South Minneapolis.

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Berman, Hyman. Interview with Clarke A. Chambers. Minneapolis, September 22, 1984.
https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/48992

Berman, Hyman, with Jay Weiner. Professor Berman: The Last Lecture of Minnesota’s Greatest Public Historian. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Portrait (interview with Hy Berman). KTCA-TV, October 15, 1991.

Simons, Abby. “Hy Berman, Longtime Professor, Political Commentator, Has Died.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 30, 2015.

Related Images

Hyman Berman at age ninety
Hyman Berman at age ninety
Hyman Berman at age five, with family
Hyman Berman at age five, with family
Hyman Berman at age seventeen
Hyman Berman at age seventeen
Hyman Berman in his US Army uniform
Hyman Berman in his US Army uniform
Hyman Berman
Hyman Berman
Hyman Berman with colleagues in India
Hyman Berman with colleagues in India
Hyman Berman on Almanac
Hyman Berman on Almanac
Black-and-white photograph of Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich, c.1986
Black-and-white photograph of Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich, c.1986

Turning Point

In 1961, Hy Berman leaves a faculty position at Michigan State, where he worked for less than a year, and joins the University of Minnesota’s history department.

Chronology

1925

Hy Berman is born in the Bronx to left-wing Polish immigrant parents.

1941

Berman is a counselor at Camp Kinderland, a summer camp for the children of socialist parents.

1943

Berman enters the US Army, and serves, mostly, as a German translator during World War II in the United States.

1948

Like many working-class Jewish New Yorkers, Berman graduates from City College of New York.

1955

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) mentions Berman’s connection to the Communist Party during a hearing.

1956

Berman receives his PhD from Columbia University.

1960

After struggling to find a full-time teaching job, Berman lands a position at Michigan State University.

1961

Berman joins the University of Minnesota (U of M) History Department.

1963

Berman joins two U of M colleagues on a groundbreaking project about Iron Range immigrant communities. In Hibbing, he meets a young politician named Rudy Perpich.

1967

Berman spends a year as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

1977

Berman becomes a member of Governor Rudy Perpich’s “kitchen cabinet,” performing speechwriting duties and aiding on policy decisions, such as appointing Rosalie Wahl the state’s first woman Supreme Court justice.

1984

Berman appears as a guest on the inaugural Almanac public affairs television show on Twin Cities public television.

2000

Berman speaks at a ceremony honoring former Governor Harold Stassen, one of his Republican friends, when the Department of Revenue Building is named after him.

2004

Berman retires from the University of Minnesota faculty after nearly forty years of teaching.

2015

Berman dies in his home in Minneapolis on November 29.