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Oral history interview conducted by Abigail Ettelman
August 22, 2013
Call number: 2011.019.057
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: OK, now we're recording, and it is August 22, 2013. I amAbigail Ettelman from BHS. We are doing this interview -- I'm interviewing Lyn Hill -- Lyn Steifel Hill at her office in Park Slope. This is for Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations. Now, if you would like to introduce yourself, please?
LYN HILL: My name is Lyn Hill.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: And tell me your birthday and just a quick memory about your childhood.
LYN HILL: [date redacted for privacy] I grew up in the Inwood section ofManhattan which is the northernmost section of Manhattan. I lived there for the first 11 years of my life.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Now, why were you interested in this project if you don'tmind me asking?
LYN HILL: Well, I saw that it was a project that dealt with -- to some extentwith interfaith families and I've always been very proud in the way in which our 1:00interfaith family operated, and I thought it would be fun to share the story.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: When you say "our interfaith family," who's that?
LYN HILL: My husband and myself and my children.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Fantastic. Well, we will get to them and we're going tostart -- when you said you were growing up in Inwood. Could you tell me a little bit about your parents?
LYN HILL: My parents were both Holocaust refugees. They came from Germanyseparately in the late 30s. They met here and married and moved to Inwood which at that time was kind of an enclave for German Jewish refugees. The community was an interesting one because it was almost evenly divided between the Jews, mostly recent immigrants, mostly German but also from other places in Europe and 2:00Irish Catholics. And so growing up I went to public school. The public school was largely Jewish because the Catholics all went to Good Shepherd but I certainly knew many of them because they lived in my building. We lived in an apartment building and I would meet them also in the playground of the park that was near the house.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: So what school was that that you went to?
LYN HILL: I went to PS 98 and I went there from kindergarten through sixth grade.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's a long time. Can we back up a little bit and can youtell me what your parents' names were?
LYN HILL: Sure, my father was Siegfried Stiefel, always known as Fred, and my3:00mother was Erica Steifel. She later became Erica Gorin after my father died and she remarried. And my father died quite a number of years ago. My mother is now 90 and still going strong.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's amazing. Now you mentioned a park where you weregrowing up.
LYN HILL: Yeah, Inwood Park which is a very beautiful park. There was aplayground that was about two blocks from our house and from the age of about seven I was able to walk there by myself and even bring my two younger sisters with me and, you know, we would -- if it was -- if there was no school we would, you know, play there for the morning and then come home and have lunch and then 4:00go back in the afternoon and play there. I would meet my friends there sometimes and we would play in the park. It was considered perfectly safe. No adult supervision. The only thing was that I had to ask a grownup to help me cross the street that I needed to cross to get into the park and it was pretty much assumed that any grownup I asked was perfectly OK.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's very interesting. Was this any grownup that you knewor literally any --
LYN HILL: No, any grownup that happened to be around I could say, "Would youplease cross me," and they would tell me it's OK to cross now. And I would take my two sisters, one in each hand, and we'd cross the street.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's great. So you also mentioned that there was acombination of refugees like your parents and Irish Catholics. So can you tell 5:00me a little bit about what it was like to be growing up surrounded by these very different people?
LYN HILL: Well, I don't think I was that conscious of the fact that there wasthis division. We didn't have a great deal to do with the Irish Catholics. Each of the two groups kind of -- they were polite and neighborly but separate. My mother was very particular that on Sundays I had to dress nicely because otherwise that might be insulting to our Irish Catholic neighbors, you know, who dressed up on Sundays. I was very conscious of the fact that the Good Shepherd kids had uniforms and I was a little jealous of that. And we did occasionally, the children did occasionally play together in the playground and we were, you 6:00know, we had nice, polite, friendly conversations if we met in the elevator -- you know, my parents would talk to the Irish neighbors in the elevator and so on but there wasn't a lot of social interaction.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: So none of those friends who you were playing with in thepark, none of them were Irish Catholic?
LYN HILL: No, some of the ones in the park were.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: How did you meet them?
LYN HILL: In the park.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: What kind of games did you play?
LYN HILL: I think we -- well, when I was very young we played on the playgroundequipment and then I think we played -- we jumped rope. We played some girls' ballgames like bouncing ball games. I don't really remember what other games 7:00but I think there were -- maybe we played tag. We played a game called books a lot. I guess we played that mostly in the school yard but I think we also played it in the park and that involved placing -- it was sort of a hopscotch game but it involved placing books and pencils and other items at certain distances from each other and then you had to jump or hop or skip or whatever over the various items.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That sounds really fun. Did you ever go see the homes ofthese friends?
LYN HILL: No.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: So strictly park friends.
LYN HILL: It was, yeah, they were park friends.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Did you also have friends in school then?
LYN HILL: Yeah, I had lots of friends in school. My school friends were mostlyother children of refugees. And some of them were friends who had been friends 8:00before we went to school too, but then we all ended up going to the same school.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: So those friends who were going to the same school and theywere all -- you were all sort of from refugee families, can you tell me a little bit -- well, why do you -- do you feel there was a reason that you went towards these families or these children?
LYN HILL: Well, that was who -- that was who was there. That was who I wasexposed to. The Irish children were at a different school. The ones that were in my school or that were children of my parents' friends were all from that background. 9:00
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: So do you have any interesting stories about school or yourparticular school, PS 98 that you would like to share?
LYN HILL: I'm not exactly sure how to answer that. I liked PS 98 very much. Iactually went back a few years ago and was principal for a day there which was a lot of fun and it's quite a different place now, but the physical building is very similar. It was not a new building when I went there in the 50s and it's a lot older now, although there have been some renovations. I think that judging by today's standards it was probably very old-fashioned. It was somewhat rigid. 10:00A couple of the teachers that I had I'mthinking back, were actually Irish and then later I had some who were, I guess, were Jewish. I think I got a pretty good education there although when I was -- when I started junior high school we moved to Forest Hills and I found myself very much behind my peers. They had clearly had a much more enriched kind of elementary school experience.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's really interesting.
LYN HILL: And there was much more than -- because I had done very well at PS 98but I struggled in the first years of junior high school because it was clear 11:00that much more was expected of them.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's -- we will definitely talk about that but I justwanted to before I forget, can you explain the principal for a day?
LYN HILL: Principal For a Day is a program that's run by the public schools inNew York and it's a way of involving businesses and professionals in the public school system. Once a year -- well, I guess the fiction is that you go and you become principal of the school. What actually usually happens is you go and you meet the actual principal of the school and you get a little tour and sometimes it works out that you then actually develop a relationship with the school and you find ways to either provide programming or provide some kind of material 12:00assistance to the school. So in that particular case with PS 98, which is really pretty far from this hospital and when I go I go as a vice president at the hospital, that was pretty much a one -- well, it wasn't quite a one shot deal because they asked me to come back for graduation to be the graduation speaker that year which I did which was another story. After that I actually became principal for a day at one of the schools nearby and we've had an ongoing relationship that I could not have had really with PS 98.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's really great. So that's --
LYN HILL: That picture there came from my PS 98 experience. And thatparticular day the other person -- they had two principals for a day. The other 13:00one was Governor Pataki happened who came -- didn't come at the same time as me but when I walked in the school there was a great big sign and it said, "Welcome Governor Pataki and Lyn Hill."
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's very funny. Who gave that to you?
LYN HILL: The school gave it to me. I guess one of the kids painted it.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: For the record would you describe it?
LYN HILL: It's a child's watercolor painting with a rainbow and I guess there'sa child in a boat underneath it, I think that's what it is.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: It looks like there's an "M" on it. And there might be ahorse in the boat.
LYN HILL: That's possible, yeah.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's very funny.
LYN HILL: It might be a dog. I think it's a dog in the boat.14:00
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That would make more sense. Anyways, moving on. So that's agreat story of how -- of getting back and meeting them.
LYN HILL: That was a very nice experience. Now I went back for this graduationceremony and that was not such a great experience. First of all, it was an incredibly hot day and they didn't have air conditioning and I had -- I think they told me to talk for about 10 minutes and I had prepared a speech that was maybe 12 minutes. It was not much longer than 10 minutes and I think it was a nicely structured speech about the differences and the similarities between when I went to PS 98 and what it was like now. And it was directed both at the children and at the parents who I knew would be there. When I got there they 15:00informed me that it was going to be translated into Spanish and so what actually happened was every sentence that I said I had to then stop and wait for it to be translated into Spanish. And remember, this is really hot and now my speech is not 10 or 12 minutes anymore, it's 20 or 25 minutes by the time somebody is thinking about what I'm saying and translating it. And therefore it was much too long.
I mean I basically should have said congratulations and maybe two or three othersentences and sat down, but that was not -- that was not how I had envisioned it but by the end of it I could see that nobody really wanted to hear this anymore. They just wanted it to be over, as did I because it was hot and it was miserable. And really, I mean the whole -- the ceremony was about the kids and 16:00the fact that they were finishing sixth grade so by the end of it I was sort of glad to finish and glad to get out and it was not the greatest experience for anybody, I think. It was just a misperception on my part of what -- I think when I realized how hot it was, I should have scrapped the whole speech and done almost nothing.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: It sounds like a really interesting speech though. You cantell me a few of the differences that you noticed.
LYN HILL: Well, I think what I -- one of the things that I talked about was howsafe the neighborhood had seemed when I was a child and how that had been so different from the experience that I had as a mother raising children in the city later on. But I also talked about the fact -- and this was kind of ironic 17:00because it was the year 2000 -- no, it was the year 2001 but June of 2001 and I talked about how safe the city was now. How it had gone back to being a much safer place and then, of course, a few months later after September 11th it didn't seem safe at all anymore and looking back on that speech it seemed as though we had a whole other kind of challenge growing up in New York.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Could you talk a little bit more about that challenge?
LYN HILL: Well, I think we've all started to relax again but if -- were you inthe city in 2000? After 9/11 we were all on such a heightened sense of alert 18:00that at every minute it seemed as though something horrible and dramatic and tragic could happen and all you had to do was hear a little noise and you were looking around and wondering what was going on so, you know, it was -- it became very different for a while. We're now 12 years away from that.
I actually have a grandson who was born on 9/11/06 and has grown up in BatteryPark City in an apartment that directly overlooks the World Trade Center site. So all of his life he has known about what happened and yet his, you know, his thing is, well, there were bad guys who broke buildings and now we're building a new building and I don't think -- I mean he is growing up in a city that's 19:00pretty crime free or has a very low crime rate right now. Knock on wood. And I don't think he worries much about these things, so it's kind of gone back I think to a place where there's not a great deal of worry but it could change very quickly again.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Could you tell me a little bit more about how safe you feltas a child?
LYN HILL: I felt safe walking around my neighborhood. I didn't necessarilyfeel safe -- I also grew up knowing that my parents had left Germany because they were threatened and so I didn't necessarily feel that -- I think I always 20:00was frightened of robbers and of people who might commit crimes and at one point when I was in fifth or sixth grade there were a tremendous number of rumors going around the school about a gang called the Fordham Baldies and there were all of these stories about the Fordham Baldies would come and they would slit your throat and they would -- I mean there were terrible things that the Fordham Baldies would do. And at first everybody was laughing about it but then I remember getting very, very scared that the Fordham Baldies were coming to get us. And I guess for a little while I was scared of walking to and from school because I thought the Fordham Baldies might come and get me. And my mother actually called the police and -- not 911 but the precinct and asked them, you know, what was the real story on the Fordham Baldies, and they told her that 21:00these were very exaggerated rumors and there was nothing to be worried about and she told me that and then I stopped worrying.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: It's amazing how little kids can get so scared, because youdon't know. You mentioned walking around your neighborhood and you said which neighborhood that was but do you remember what streets you lived on?
LYN HILL: Yeah, I lived on Seaman Avenue and I think on 204th Street was thecross street, I think.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Is there anything else about your life when you were at PS 98that you want to talk about a little bit more?
LYN HILL: Well, I had two best friends and I am still close with them. One Ihave consistently -- I wasn't -- I didn't have that much to do with them in 22:00junior high school and high school and college but since then one of them has been a close friend and she and her husband were good friends of my husband and myself all through our married lives.
The other one it's a more intermittent friendship, but lately we have seen eachother a number of times, and that's the one that I actually have known since we were literally babies in the carriages and our mothers walked around the park with us in the carriages. And, yeah, there's something very nice about having had that continuity with those two friends.
ABIGAIL ETTELTON: That's true. That's a very long time. Did you continuehaving the same friends when you went to a different -- when you went to junior high?
LYN HILL: No, I really had to make new friends. I think I spoke to these two23:00friends probably pretty frequently at the beginning and then less frequently on the phone afterwards but I had to make new friends. And I never did make friends in junior high school or high school that were as close or long lasting. I'm no longer friends with anybody that I met in junior high school or high school or, for that matter, even college.
ABIGAIL ETTELTON: Wow, so what do you think it is about those friends that youmade then that has lasted?
LYN HILL: I'm not sure. I mean I think -- I guess the shared memories, theshared background. I think that in my mind even though I only lived in Inwood for 11 years that's always in my mind the place where I grew up. And Forest Hills has -- I actually lived there about the same amount of time, I think, from 24:00about 11 to 22 and then my husband and I lived there for two or three years after we got married but it never seemed like the place I was from. I never felt as comfortable there and I never felt -- I mean until we moved to Brooklyn and then I became very comfortable that this was my place again. We also lived in Long Island City for a little while and I liked that very much too and that sort of led to our moving to Brooklyn.
ABIGAIL ETTELTON: So was it something about the places that made you feel at home?
LYN HILL: I don't know. I mean there was -- the library in Inwood was veryimportant in my life. I remember from the age of about three or four watching 25:00the library being built. I remember walking by the library with my great aunt -- I'm not quite sure why I was with her, but she pointed it out and she said to me, "Look at that big building that they're building here," and I said to her, "That's not a building, that's a library." I was very conscious of the fact that that was going to be a library.
I remember going to the little storefront that was the library for theneighborhood before then that had, I think, just maybe a bookcase or a shelf of books for children that my father took me to on Saturdays and I remember the day the big building opened and the library opened and there was a whole floor just for children. They didn't have that many books on the shelves yet and you could 26:00only take out two books at the time, but I remember the day that we went and I don't know if I got a library -- I probably didn't get a library card at that time because you had to be able to write your name to get a library card and I'm not sure whether I could do that at the age of four or not. I'm sure I got one by the time I was five but I do remember getting two books. Maybe they were taken out on my mother's card and taking them home from the new library and they were brand new books.
And after that, you know, we went to the library at least once a week and by thetime I was in grade school that was another place I could walk to by myself and did and probably took out six books every week and then brought them back and knew the librarians very well. They knew me. I guess that was -- for me that 27:00was an even more important place than Inwood Park. If you ask me where I would want to go, the library or the park, it would definitely have always been the library. My friend Sylvia had the sense to say if the sun was shining it's a beautiful day we should go to the park. I had no sense of whether the day was beautiful or not, I wanted to be in the library.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That's really great.
LYN HILL: There was also a movie theater that I sometimes went to on weekends.I think my father would take me and I guess give me the money. I think it cost a quarter for the children to go in, and the children sat in the children's section. There was a matron who was there to keep things orderly, and you sat 28:00and there would be a main feature, and a second feature, and a cartoon, and a newsreel. I think -- I don't think I walked all the way to the movie theater by myself. I think my father walked me there and also probably picked me up until maybe I was older.
And I do remember going with a friend to see the Wizard of Oz and gettingseparated and being scared out of my mind when that witch came and I was all alone and I was afraid to move or do anything because the matron was really mean. I was very easily intimidated as a child. That matron scared me. Very strict teachers scared me. I was pretty easy to scare.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: I'm sure your parents appreciated that.
LYN HILL: Well, they -- I mean my parents never tried to scare me. My mother29:00was exceedingly reassuring and, you know, she had, I think, read a lot of psychology books and she didn't -- she tried to not have me be scared but there were a lot of things that scared me.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Speaking of your parents and scary things, how old were theywhen they came over, if you know.
LYN HILL: Yeah, my mother was I think 14 when she left Germany and went toEngland. She and her -- [I'm going to tell them to go away.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Oh, can you?
LYN HILL: Yeah.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: Would that be a problem?
LYN HILL: No.
ABIGAIL ETTELMAN: That would be great, thank you.]130:00
LYN HILL: So my mother was 14. She left on the Kindertransport with herbrother and they went to England where they stayed first with relatives and eventually her parents made it to England as well. And while she was in England she was sent to a vocational school where she learned typing and shorthand. She got -- I think she was 16 when she came to the United States. Again, she came with her younger brother on a ship. Her parents stayed in England. Her father 31:00was very sick and she knew that he would die there and that her mother would then come and join them in America. So she -- pretty soon after she came here she got a job as a nursemaid and I think she had two separate jobs as a nursemaid until she was old enough to get a job doing typing and shorthand which she then, I guess, kept that job until she got married and I guess she left it when I was born 32:00 33:00 34:00 35:00 36:00 37:00 38:00 39:00 40:00 41:00 42:00 43:00 44:00 45:00 46:00 47:00 48:00 49:00 50:00 51:00 52:00 53:00 54:00 55:00 56:00 57:00 58:00 59:00 60:00 61:00 62:00 63:00 64:00 65:00 66:00 67:00 68:00 69:00 70:00 71:00 72:00 73:00 74:00 75:00 76:00 77:00 78:00 79:00 80:00 81:00 82:00 83:00 84:00 85:00 86:00 87:00 88:00 89:00 90:00 91:00 92:00 93:00 94:00 95:00 96:00 97:00 98:00 99:00 100:00 101:00 102:00 103:00 104:00 105:00 106:00 107:00 108:00 109:00 110:00 111:00 112:00 113:00 114:00 115:00 116:00 117:00 118:00 119:00 120:00 121:00 122:00 123:00 124:00 125:00 126:00 127:00 128:00 129:00 130:00 131:00 132:00 133:00 134:00 135:00 136:00 137:00 138:00 139:00 140:00 141:00 142:00 143:00 144:00 145:00 146:00 147:00 148:00 149:00 150:00 151:00 152:00 153:00 154:00 155:00 156:00 157:00 158:00 159:00 160:00 161:00 162:00 163:00 164:00 165:00 166:00 167:00 168:00 169:00 170:00 171:00 172:00 173:00 174:00 175:00 176:00 177:00 178:00 179:00 180:00 181:00 182:00 183:00 184:00 185:00 186:00 187:00 188:00 189:00 190:00 191:00 192:00 193:00 194:00 195:00 196:00 197:00 198:00 199:00 200:00 201:00 202:00 203:00 204:00 205:00 206:00 207:00 208:00 209:00 210:00 211:00 212:00 213:00 214:00
Oral History Interview with Lyn Hill
Lyn's mother (Erica Gurren) and father (Siegfried Stiefel) were both German Jewish refugees who escaped the Holocaust. They met in New York at a social outing for German Jews, married, and had Lyn and her two sisters. She grew up in Inwood, Manhattan, and then moved to Forest Hills, Queens when she was entering junior high. After attending Forest Hills High School, she went to Queen's College for costume design. After graduating, she taught at various schools and then decided to get her Ph.D in theater history. During this period of time, she and her late husband Forbes Hill had two children, Stephanie and Tim, who themselves are married with children. Forbes had a child, Harry, from a previous marriage, who Lyn considers one of her own. After a disastrous renovation attempt at their apartment in Long Island City, they moved to Park Slope, where they have been for decades. Forbes was not Jewish and in fact became active in the Congregationalist community at Plymouth church. They balanced these different faiths in their home and their life, but the children were raised Jewish and grew up in Congregation Beth Elohim, where she still attends. She is 66 years old.
In her interview, Lyn begins by discussing her experiences growing up in Inwood, which was mixed between Irish Catholics and German Jews. Her parents, part of the German Jewish side, were influenced by their experiences in the Holocaust, but she emphasizes that they were less overprotective than other survivors. Later, she tells the stories of the Holocaust that her mother shared when she was older, but notes that her father did not talk about her experiences. She attended Hebrew school in Manhattan, but had some problems with a teacher and thus didn't go back until closer to her confirmation at 14 at their synagogue, Congregation Habonim. For a couple years after her confirmation, she chose to go to temple every week by herself, but didn't keep this up forever. As an adult, she goes to temple intermittently and for the holiday. Since both her communities in Inwood and Forest Hills were Jewish, she didn't really date outside this community. Her parents also did expect her to date and marry Jews, but emphasizes how much they liked her husband Forbes despite his religion.
After she graduated high school, she went to Queen's College in Queens and studied costume design. She worked in this field after graduation, which exposed her to things like sex and homosexuality in a new way. She went back to get her Ph.D in theater history and dramatic criticism, where she began dating her future husband. When they got married, the rabbi at Congregation Habonim refused to marry them or allow them to get married in the synagogue, which infuriated Lyn. It was understood that when they had children, they would be raised Jewish, but they didn't start trying right away. Five years in, their daughter Stephanie was born. Later, their son Tim was born. During this time, Lyn was working on her dissertation and they were moving around in an attempt to find a place that was big enough for them. After a disastrous renovation in their home in Long Island City, they moved to their home in Park Slope. There, they looked for a congregation that was comfortable and inclusive. Congregation Beth Elohim was similar to Congregation Habonim, which made her comfortable, but was welcoming to interfaith families. As time went on, Forbes became more active himself in the Congregationalist Protestant Plymouth Church. They had to balance the children's experiences in both houses of worship. For example, she told a story where Tim was a Christmas angel in a pageant that ended in a fight onstage. She hadn't been excited about him being an angel, but it turned out fine. She talks about balancing holidays, with Christmas trumping Hanukkah but Passover trumping another Christian holiday around that time.
After Forbes passed, they organized an "interfaith funeral," which was the first of its kind for each religious leader involved. She also was surprised by how much she missed Plymouth Church, their music, and their secular community experiences. She wanted to continue the relationship and brought her grandson (Tim's son) to the children's choir there, but it made Tim uncomfortable, so they stopped. She also didn't expect Christmas to become so important to her and her mother (even though she made it smaller after a while because it was too much work without help and not even her holiday). If there is a non-religious event at the church, she will still go, but doesn't feel comfortable as a regular there, nor wants to engage in the more Christian aspects of the church. There was another technical malfunction with the recorder, so we lost about half an hour in between her stories about starting dating Forbes Hill and marrying him.
CitationHill, Lyn, Oral history interview conducted by Abigail Ettelman, August 22, 2013, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.057; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Hill, Lyn
- Graves' disease
- Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)
- Interfaith families
- Interfaith marriage
- Jews, American
- Jews, German
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Forest Hills (New York, N.Y.)
- Inwood (New York, N.Y.)
- Park Slope (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidCrossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection