Activist Gerda Miller Dies

By Randy Silverman Special to the Planet
Friday January 02, 2004

Gerda Miller, longtime Berkeley Gray Panthers leader and activist for recognition of decent housing, healthcare, and education as basic human rights, died at home on Dec. 18. 

Born in 1913 to a middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, Gerda turned to political activity as a young woman, demonstrating against the Nazis. She and her sister fled Germany during Hitler’s rise to power and never saw their parents again. 

Gerda made her way to Palestine where she started a pickle-canning kibbutz. With the outbreak of the Second World War, she was drafted into the British military and, as a Royal Air Force sergeant, ran a gas supply station on the Sinai Peninsula. 

After a brief marriage to a British soldier, she lived in England until the end of the war. She then moved to New York, where she studied at night to obtain a master’s degree in education from Hunter College. 

Gerda became founding director of the nursery school program at New York’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom. Under her leadership, the program expanded into the Rodeph Sholom Day School covering grades K-8.  

She married Morris Miller in the 1950s. The couple had no children. 

Gerda retired from teaching in 1975. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband moved to Berkeley where Gerda joined the newly founded local chapter of the Gray Panthers. 

Showing considerable organizational skill, she helped to build the Berkeley Gray Panthers into a formidable group of activists who remain a respected force for social and economic justice in the East Bay. 

Irv Rautenberg, who served alongside Gerda as Gray Panthers co-convener, recalled, “Gerda was a real fountain of strength for progressives in Berkeley. The way things are going in this country, we need her now, and we’ll miss her.” 

Gerda always combated the misperception that only seniors could join the Gray Panthers. She believed fully in its mission of bringing age and youth together in pursuit of a better society. Appropriately, Gerda’s large circle of friends included not just members of her own generation, but many who were young enough to be her children and grandchildren. 

Her commitment to tenants’ rights and personal experience fighting eviction from her North Berkeley apartment led her to become a candidate for the Berkeley Rent Board in 1984. She was the top vote getter. Over the years, Gerda remained a voice for effective rent control. She always made sure the pro-tenant forces had plenty of volunteers to help with campaign mailings and to lobby legislators. 

Gerda and the Gray Panthers pushed for affordable housing on the Clark Kerr campus; as a result of these efforts, Redwood Gardens was created. She also promoted intergenerational housing. For the last decade, Gerda played a substantial role in efforts to establish a Canadian-style single payer health care system for all Americans. 

Gerda moved out of Berkeley four years ago, after a broken hip and stroke forced her to leave her upstairs apartment. From her new home in an Oakland senior facility, she continued her participation in community life until just a few months before her death. 

One of Gerda’s closest friends, former City Councilmember Carla Woodworth, observed, “Gerda was a natural-born organizer who made politics fun. She could pack a bus to Sacramento with 24 hours’ notice. She was just an extraordinary human being.”