It is difficult to talk about Oscar as deceased. He has been such a living presence in my life – and that of my family – since we first met in Davis, California in 1965-66. We both arrived from other institutions to complete doctorates with two figures in our fields whom we respected and followed to Davis. The labor historian David Brody in the case of Oscar. Liu Kwang-ching for me in pursuit of a Ph.D. in modern Chinese history. I think we hit it off immediately. Oscar, all his life, was a raconteur par excellence with an open charismatic personality. He also lived his life as a serious Marxist -- scholar and activist. Almost fifteen years my senior, I learned a great deal from Oscar. Initially we both lived in migrant laborer shacks outside the town of Yolo, near Davis. The nightly seminars with Oscar in a local bar and grill were epic. After about a year , or maybe less, Oscar was visited by a young woman and poet, Janice Rachie, who was on her way from Minneapolis (where Oscar knew her) to Berkeley to visit a college roommate and say goodbye (she was moving to Greece to escape Minnesota).
I was smitten, knocked off my feet. Jan and I fell in love and married a year later in Minneapolis (with Oscar in attendance). For this most momentous event, Oscar was the key connection. And soon he became a kind of adopted uncle of our two children, Rebecca and Cyrus.
I finished my Ph.D. and became an academic. Oscar dropped out…disappointed profoundly with Brody .. and pursued a career as a machinist instructor for Berkeley High School while writing scholarly articles that are mentioned in the obituary. Oscar remained in the Berkeley area and ultimately found a mate in Paulette Comeau.
We stayed in close contact, mostly through regular visits, until 2023. Janice Rachie MacKinnon died suddenly of heart troubles in 1999. Oscar was enormously helpful in dealing with my traumatized self and nearly suicidal sorrow/depression. My children as adults continued to visit Oscar on trips to the Bay area. I remarried and Oscar with Paulette embraced Anne Feldhaus. On our year long honeymoon in China in 2006 he visited us for two weeks in Shanghai. Oscar’s energy and the interest with which he threw himself into absorbing Shanghai was amazing.
Oscar was such a friend and inspiration. I am grateful that his passing was quick and relatively painless – his mind, judging from a last email in February, 2023, remained quite sharp.
Stephen MacKinnon, Tempe, Arizona
In loving memory of Oscar Berland, from Jim and Libby Branson
A memorial tree was planted in memory of Oscar Berland
. Plant a Tree
I knew Oscar through his beloved partner, Paulette, who took wonderful care of him in his later years. We had memorable meals together whenever I could make it to El Cerrito, and they were very gracious hosts, Oscar always greeting me with a big smile and a hug. Oscar made several trademark dishes including eggplant dip, sorrel soup, and tuna sandwiches. I would sometimes cook "Soberanis Special," nothing more than Trader Joe's frozen Asian vegetables with a sweet sauce. We always had cut apples or fruit for dessert, sometimes with ice cream, and Oscar and I would each have a couple of his favorite dark chocolate Hershey's kisses. Oscar gardened every morning and read history and other academic books every day. Reading through these memories made me want to read some of his own academic research and writings. I was also reminded of the time we all watched together the documentary made about The Coops in the Bronx, where Oscar grew up, called At Home in Utopia. I feel honored that he gave me his small booklet of poems from back in the day; I will treasure it always. Rest in peace, Oscar, we will miss you. - Pat Soberanis
With a twinkle in his eye, Oscar Berland told Harvey Schwartz and I about growing up in
the New York Coops. Here at the beginning of the Great Depression, every morning he and the
other kids would line up in the cooperatives meeting hall in their blue shorts and red shirts.
There asked, “Are you ready?” They raised their fists in the air and answered, “ALWAYS
READY!” In this case, I’d like to think that over his lifetime, that forceful challenge prepared
him for just about anything.
At some point, Oscar learned the machinist’s trade and used it off and on to make a
living. He joined the Communist Party for nearly a decade, but left in 1956 after Krushchev
denounced Stalin’s crimes. Correspondence with labor historian Ira Cross drew him to
California and back to higher education in the earl ‘60s. His interest and research focused on the
Kaweah Co-operative in Sequoia National Park and later the International Workmen’s
Association of San Francisco. Was his interest in those organizations a way of understanding
such failures on a small scale? One local historian thought that Oscar and gotten “carried away
‘by his own socialistic-communistic convictions which ended in disillusionment ….’” I wonder,
however, whether or not those so-called “socialistic-communistic convictions” might, if given
the chance, led Oscar toward some unusual non-capitalist interpretations of the colony’s failure
or that of the International Workmen’s Association of San Francisco (1877-1886) as a way of
understanding on a smaller scale something of communist Russia’s failure under Stalin’s bloody
For a number of years, Oscar used to come to Davis to play his mandolin with a musical
group. Usually afterwards, he’d stop by our house to talk. He sent me a copy of most of
“Aborted Revolution” for a manuscript I was working on. I asked about the Kaweah Colony, but
it was old business by then. He said, “It’s just another box in the closet.” We all know about
those. When they’re not our own, we also hope for a resurrection at some point to bring those
boxes back into the light.
Hi Paulette, please let us know when the memorial is if you decide to have one. The obituary you wrote was wonderful. I am going to look up some of his writings. I used to have a copy of his dissertation but now I can’t find it. We was a wonderful person. He was lucky to find you, and you he. Thank you for letting us know. I am sending your letter on to Sean and to Steve Mendolsohn, one of the people he used to play music with. We are well. I hope your are too. Sherry
Peace of mind is a call away. We’re here when you need us most.
I knew Oscar only a little, through my brother Steve MacKinnon. But what a fine man and an inspiration, in the way he thought and spoke and the way he lived.
Oscar introduced my parents to each other. It is thanks to him that I exist. I will always cherish childhood memories of his mandolin playing. I was lucky to have been able to visit him and Collette a few times in the past few years. We had wonderful, wide ranging conversations. He was so content and happy. I miss him.
I met Oscar in graduate school during the 1960s. He was keenly interested in history--and in nearly everything else. We had many long discussions about history, politics, and US labor issues. Oscar always offered unique insights that came from his upbringing in New York and from his rich life experience. He was a true intellectual.Over time I became good friends with Oscar and Paulette, his partner of many years. I'd sometimes drop by their house to visit. Oscar was always supportive of and interest in what was happening in my life. His questioning of what was going on in the wider world, too, never slackened.Much time went by before I realized how serious and committed Oscar had been in traveling to the American South to work for labor and civil rights. His New York background and his youthful politics motivated him to persevere courageously with his social justice activism in the face of a hostile environment. And this was in the early 1950s! Oscar was truly a pioneer of what became the civil rights movement of the 1960s.Oscar was also a warm and outgoing person, Laughter came easily to him. He was my friend of many years. There are not many like him. He was one of the good ones.
Please accept our deepest condolences for your family's loss.