HONORING AND REMEMBERING ELLIE AND NORA
NORA DEWITT: AN APPRECIATION
(b. March 17, 1940, Losonc, Hungary (now Lucenec, Slovakia); d. April 9, 2020, Fresno)
Nora DeWitt’s early years, first under Nazi occupation, and later as a refugee, might be her impetus for being a social justice advocate. She was born Nora Szabo in western Hungary in 1940, the same year Germany pressured the country to join the Axis. By March 1944, German forces occupied Hungary.
In 1945, when invading Soviet armies moved in from the East, Nora’s family walked across the border to Bavaria and was sheltered by a priest. Nora attended school in Bavaria from grades one to three, becoming fluent in German.
After the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was founded in 1949, Nora’s family became eligible for resettlement and offered immigration by Australia, Uruguay and the United States. Nine-year-old Nora chose the family’s future when she was asked to open just one drawer of the family’s dresser, in which her parents had put envelopes with the names of the different countries. Pulling open a drawer, inside, she found the word, Australia.
After a six-week passage to Sydney, the family stayed in a camp near Sydney. Later, they were sent to Brisbane, where her father worked as an industrial artist designing railway carriages and her mother worked in a wool factory.
The Szabo family saved money to buy a farm on the outskirts of Brisbane. Nora finished high school there and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.
While studying for a Ph.D. in microbiology, Nora’s professor sent her to a science conference in London. At a layover in Tehran, a handsome man with curly red hair boarded the plane and, in Nora’s words, “it was love at first sight.”
Until Nora could finish her Ph.D., they carried on a long-distance relationship for the next six years, meeting occasionally in California or Rome. Hiram and Nora were married in 1971. In October 1974, they helped friends near Siena with their grape harvest and Nora cooked for 20 people.
Baby Sophia, born then in a Siena pediatric clinic in 1974, was two months premature and weighed three pounds. She spent two months in an incubator. At 18 months, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Because Hiram’s mother lived in Fresno, the family moved here in 1975. Sophia’s brother Zoltan was born in 1978.
Nora worked in immunology for 30 years at Valley Children’s Hospital. Her involvement with WILPF began with the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Under Nora and Hiram’s leadership as county chairpersons, the Freeze passed in Fresno County, but unfortunately it didn’t pass statewide.
In the early 1990s, Nora became membership chair of WILPF, keeping the directory up-to-date in digital and print formats. She stayed in this position for more than 20 years.
Since her beginning with WILPF, she watched membership grow and saw benefits to the Fresno community, which included co-sponsoring speakers such as Amy Goodman, installing the Jane Addams sculpture at Fresno State’s Peace Garden and children’s book presentations in branch libraries.
In addition, Nora mentored a social work intern. Nora credited WILPF with the joy of working with like-minded friends.
Brava, Nora, for your lifelong dedication to peace and social justice!
—Sally Vogl, updated by Sophia DeWitt
Ellie Bluestein founded the Fresno Branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom 55 years ago.
My thoughts on the loss of Ellie and Nora:
Nora DeWitt and Ellie Bluestein were driving forces in making Fresno WILPF the vibrant organization it is today. They join Jane Addams in their amazing contributions to the status of women everywhere.
I didn’t know Nora well but loved being in her strong, quiet presence and learning from her. She was a loving, steadfast contributor to the strength of Fresno WILPF through her time as branch membership chairperson.
For me, Ellie is not gone; I feel her presence daily. That’s who Ellie is/was. I first met her at a branch retreat; I was fresh into retirement and looking for some way to productively use my time.
I didn’t know much about WILPF. At the retreat, it was announced that a new Branch Chair was needed. Somehow, and I still don’t quite know how, I came out of that gathering being that person.
I said that I would not do it without the help of Ellie and Joan Poss. They did that, guiding me and the board on a daily basis.
Ellie was never afraid to give her insights. They were given in a strong, loving way. That was Ellie: strong and loving.
Ellie, I know you will continue to guide WILPF. Thank you for that and for being Ellie.
A memory of Ellie: In 2008, I went to a Raging Granny meeting for the first time. Ellie was there greeting and welcoming me and other newcomers. She had a command about her that made you want to do what she suggested. She said you have to join WILPF and the Grannies, and I did. It was the best thing I did. As a result, I found my community here in Fresno.
As someone said, “You can’t say ‘NO’ to Ellie.” The last visit I had with Ellie (four weeks before she passed), she commented about WILPF and the Library Committee. Even with an oxygen tank connected to her body, she wanted to talk about WILPF. I loved her strength, her power, compassion.
Memories of Nora: Nora was a quiet, competent membership chair for WILPF for so many years. She did her job without fanfare and not needing praise. What an amazing life she lived, not with fanfare but with grace and beauty.
Ellie just had a way of being with people of all kinds of backgrounds. She had an understanding of pain in the world and of difficulties; she wanted to do something about this—and she did!
She focused on important things that were beyond the personal. She was always open to new things, even learned to enjoy opera with us. She was our dearest friend, and Stan and I loved her a lot.
My memories of Ellie are many. Ellie “was” Fresno WILPF! Being a founder and active member, she was respected and the go-to person for anything and everything. I loved it when we would talk, just hearing her voice made my day.
I am remembering her involvement at the annual Crafts Faire. For many years, Ellie was always at the WILPF table. When she was at the table, she was an expert at getting members to renew their membership and bring in new members. So many people knew and loved Ellie that they would stop by the table to say hello, and she would have them right where she needed them! “Remember, no one could say no to Ellie.”
In recent years, Ellie had slowed down and stayed home more, so when she arrived at the Crafts Faire, there was a certain excitement that came over the crowd. In recent years, I remember hearing throughout the Crafts Faire, “Ellie just arrived!” Many attendees would make their way to greet her, and Ellie was always glad to see her many longtime friends.
She was our “Star” for a long time and will continue to shine on IN the Fresno WILPF Branch forever!
In this time of sheltering in place, my acre garden is my respite and a place of remembrance. Each morning with my coffee, I walk the pathways and remember friends by the plants they have given me.
Years ago when Ellie moved from their Alamo home to her Fig Garden condo, she gifted me with some of her forget-me-nots and white violets. They have survived the drought and proliferated. The forget-me-nots remind me of our 40-year friendship and our one-year project: Twenty Women Committed to Change. She interviewed and I photographed 20 radical Fresno women.
In 1989, I was in a portrait photography class at Fresno City College and wanted to use my time creating something meaningful and lasting. I had met some interesting and amazing older women in Fresno who had been early members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Each had a long history of political and social involvement.
I wanted to capture their history and likeness before they were gone. Ellie was first on my list as she had organized the Fresno WILPF group in 1965. I visited her in her home, set up my tripod and Hasselblad camera. She cooperated and then said, “Let’s sit and have some tea.”
“Tell me again about your project.” I told her. She asked to see my list of women. Looking it over, she remarked: “I don’t see any women of color on your list. Why is that?”
“I don’t know any.”
“Well, I do. I like this project. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do. I’ll tell you what. You photograph and I’ll interview!”
Whew! I heaved a sigh of relief. Ellie, first on my list, would not allow herself to be a focus in the project.
I could never say no to Ellie.
And in 2015, Ellie again called on me to help design and produce the WILPF exhibit, “One Hundred Years of Dangerous Women,” at the Madden Library. In that project, I was finally able to honor Ellie with an enlarged copy of the photo I took of her 25 years earlier. Her photo appeared side by side with Jane Addams, the first president of WILPF.
Now, as I wander the garden each morning, her forget-me-nots remind me of our 40 years of active friendship. There has never been a dull moment.
There’s more but I wanted Ellie to have this much.
Ellie was also a founder of the Fresno Raging Grannies group. In 2018, Denise Sciandra from the Fresno Folklore Society interviewed Ellie, among other Grannies:
Ellie Bluestein says, “I love it! I love to sing. I love the chance to challenge the status quo. Raging Grannies is not just a slogan. It’s how I feel. I wanted to be a Granny before the Fresno group was ever formed.”
A personal favorite of Ellie Bluestein’s is “From Far Away,” to the tune of “Danny Boy”: “From far away, I hear their voices calling me: The disappeared, those lost to tyranny, victims of war, of torture and of cruelty. They call to us, and all humanity.” Chorus: “So sing out loud in chorus for the innocent and raise your voice for justice, and for peace. Together we must make this world a better place. Keep singing loud and long, for those who cannot speak.”
The WILPF page is usually compiled and edited by Leni Villagomez Reeves (email@example.com).
Normally we meet on the second Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, 1584 N. Van Ness Ave. This meeting is open to all. There will be no meeting this month.
STIR IT UP–WILPF ON KFCF 88.1 FM
Listener-supported free speech radio for Central California
May 27 (fourth Wednesday of each month). Jean Hays does outstanding interviews on subjects involving WILPF interests and activities. Tune in to 88.1!
Committees are still at work even though we cannot meet in person!
Contact Jean Hays at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Ann Carruthers at email@example.com.
Contact co-chairs Jean Hays and Catherine Fowler at 559-313-7674.
CUBA AND THE BOLIVARIAN ALLIANCE
Meets via phone and e-mail. Contact Leni at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call Patty at 559-999-9709.
WOMEN IN BLACK
For details, contact Teresa at email@example.com or 559-360-8054.
Send dues to WILPF Fresno, P.O. Box 5114, Fresno, CA 93755. WILPF membership is $35/year.
For inquiries, information and updates, contact Evonne Waldo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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