We Remember

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Roslyn Zinn

Artist, Activist, Social Worker, Teacher
1922 – 2008
Roslyn Zinn photo - still image [media]
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Roslyn Zinn.
Photo: Howard Zinn.

Born to Ukrainian immigrant parents in New York City, she was one of six children raised in a traditional Jewish home. Roz worked as a secretary in a law firm and, years later, received a degree from Goddard College. Roz became involved in progressive groups and causes and it was through these causes that she met her future husband, eminent American historian Howard Zinn. Married in 1944, over the next six decades the Zinns raised two children and pursued their individual careers, while working together for equal rights and social justice.

by Howard Zinn

My sadness about losing Roz is indescribable, but I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to have been married for sixty three years to a woman whose beauty, body and soul, always filled me with awe. Our love for one another, our friendship, our passion, never diminished through all those years. From the start we were drawn to one another by some deep spiritual connection, and by our common feeling for oppressed people everywhere. We both longed for a better world.

Roz was a more rounded person than I was. She didn't just love music, she played music. She didn't just appreciate art, she became a painter. She loved flowers, and planted them. She loved theater and took to the stage. She loved the sea and swam in the coldest of waters. A few weeks ago, I was in Wellfleet and the bay was too cold for me, but I went into it, saying to myself: "This is in honor of Roz."

Roslyn Zinn photo (young) - still image [media]
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Photo: Howard Zinn.

She loved literature and was always reading. At the end of her bedside was a volume of Isaac Babel's stories. I had total faith in her literary sensibility, so she was the only one who read my writing before I gave it to the publisher. She would undoubtedly suggest that I shorten it. She loved people, and they loved her, instantly. Eddie Vedder told a colleague in Seattle of Roz's death and she wrote back: "When I met her I remember thinking if I could be anyone, this is the person I want to be."

When we went South to Spelman College, the young African-American women there felt an immediate bond with her, and she with them. As troubled as she was by the state of the world, she was irrepressibly happy. In the hundreds of letters I have received since her death, she is remembered always as luminous, smiling, joyful. She grieved for people in trouble, but loved to laugh. She loved her children and grandchildren and she loved other people's children and grandchildren.

Roz was the most selfless person I ever knew. I have a photo of an anti-war demonstration, and it shows a man being dragged into a police car but you can only see his back. Roz is at the scene, leaning towards it as if wanting to do something, an anguished look on her face. The man might have been me, but it wasn't. It was not someone Roz knew, but that didn't matter.

Two years ago she was badly injured coming up an escalator because she heard a cry behind her, instinctively turned to help, and fell. After she was diagnosed last July she decided immediately, firmly, that she would not have surgery or chemotherapy, that she would live out whatever time she had as peacefully and as enjoyably as possible. We spent August and part of September in Wellfleet, where she swam every day, where she read, listened to music, and we watched Red Sox games together. She said later that it was the happiest summer of her life. I stopped traveling and for the next six months we enjoyed a wonderful tranquility together. At the very end, lying in bed, she was concerned about me: would I have enough to eat? Would I be able to take care of myself?

Self portrait by Roslyn Zinn photo - still image [media]
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Self-portrait by Roslyn Zinn.
Painting photographed by Keitaro Yoshioka.

She once spent a night in jail in Washington DC for protesting against the war in Vietnam. But she was not usually that kind of activist. Her contribution to the world transcended politics. It was her love of people, her kindness.

I wrote to our friend Alice Walker about Roz and said: "you're in California; you don't have to come to the memorial." She wrote back and said: "I'm coming. I love you and Roz with all my heart as you know. Can't wait to hold you and remind you she's not gone anywhere. I feel her and always see her wonderful luminous face and loving smile. Roz's smile made the plants grow."

I'm comforted by what Alice says. Yes, Roz's spirit is still here, her gift to us; her courage and kindness, a glimpse of how people might be in a better world.

Howard Zinn was an American historian, political scientist, social critic, activist and playwright, best known as the author of A People's History of the United States. He died in January 2010 at the age of 87.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "We Remember - Roslyn Zinn, 1922 - 2008." (Viewed on April 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/zinn-roslyn>.