Gerda Miller, lifelong social activist, dies at 90

In 1938, Gerda Miller joined a kibbutz, but left it because it wasn’t progressive enough for her.

“All my life I’ve always joined the most radical group,” she told the Jewish Bulletin in 1994.

Miller, who was a tireless advocate for affordable housing, health care and education in Berkeley, died at home in Oakland on Dec. 18. She was 90.

Miller, whose maiden name was Balsbalg, was born in Berlin on May 29, 1913, to a middle-class family.

Her father was president of an Orthodox synagogue, and insisted that Miller and her older sister come to synagogue early on Friday nights to feed the hungry.

“It was obligatory for them to help people every Friday night, so from there, she developed a sense of importance of doing mitzvot for others,” said Varya Simpson, a San Francisco lawyer and a close friend of Miller’s.

Both Miller and her sister rebelled against the way they were raised, with Miller joining the Social Democratic Party, and her sister becoming a Communist.

Once the Nazis came to power, the sisters began to demonstrate regularly against the regime.

“They would tell their father they were going out to something temple-related, and they usually got away with it,” said Simpson. “Then one day they came back drenched because the police had turned the water on them.”

Miller was at college in Berlin, studying to become a teacher, when signs went up banning Jews from attending.

Though devoutly religious, Miller’s parents considered themselves proud Germans, and refused to leave the country.

Miller, meanwhile, left for Yugoslavia, to attend a training camp for Jews immigrating to Palestine. She returned once to Germany to see her mother, who was dying of a brain tumor. Her father was killed eventually at Auschwitz.

In pre-state Israel, Miller joined a kibbutz, but she was then pressed into serving in the British army. She drove an ambulance and managed a gasoline station near the Egyptian border.

She fell in love with a non-Jewish British soldier, and followed him to England. The marriage lasted less than a year, and she turned to London’s Jewish community, which helped get her a job as a nanny.

The Red Cross helped Miller locate her sister, who had ended up in New York. Miller joined her there, obtaining a master’s degree in education from Hunter College.

Miller founded the nursery school at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a Reform synagogue in New York City.

In 1954, she married Morris Miller. They moved to Berkeley in the mid-1970s, where Miller immediately threw herself into political organizing, joining the newly founded Gray Panthers.

Miller helped the Gray Panthers grow, heading its housing committee in 1978. She helped launch several affordable housing projects and was elected to Berkeley’s first rent control board, though she resigned in the middle of her term when her husband died of cancer.

Karl Linn, a Berkeley architect and community activist, recalled meeting Miller when she joined the Gray Panthers in the early ’90s.

“She was a socially concerned and astute person even at her age,” said Linn.

“She was definitely a leader. People listened to her, appreciated her effectiveness and devotion to social justice and social concerns.”

Simpson described Miller as much more into politics than religion, but said in her later years, she felt more Jewishly connected, participating in the Yiddish club at Claremont House, a senior residence in Oakland.

And as devoutly secular as she was, she advocated for Chanukah and Purim celebrations at the residence, said Simpson.

Carla Woodworth, a former Berkeley City Council member, said she adopted Miller as “my Jewish mom,” but both she and Simpson agreed that their age differences mattered little.

“She treated us like peers even though she was a generation older,” said Simpson.

Donations can be sent to Lifelong Medical Care’s Over 60 Clinic, 3260 Sacramento St., Berkeley, CA 94702.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."