“Mexican children in Texas need an education. There is no other means to do it but ourselves, so that we are not devalued and humiliated by the strangers who surround us.”
Olga Bernstein Kohlberg
Activist and Civic Leader, 1864-1935
Olga Bernstein grew up in German Prussia at a time when reformers stressed the importance of early childhood education. Kindergartens originated in Germany, offering protective havens of art, music, play, and physical activity for young children.
While still in her teens, Olga married Ernst Kohlberg, a young man who had emigrated from Prussia some years earlier and established a cigar factory in El Paso, Texas. Olga willingly followed her husband to this new home. In El Paso she set about learning English and Spanish. As her own children were born, Olga thought about the educational system in Germany and its focus on early childhood. She marshaled together a group of 17 women to form the Child Culture Club. In 1893 they won approval for a free kindergarten in El Paso, the first public kindergarten in Texas.
Compelled by a strong sense of civic responsibility, Olga steered women’s organizations toward building community. In 1892 a man died before her eyes on a train station platform. Horrified that anyone should experience such a fate, Olga organized the Ladies’ Benevolent Association. The women soon arranged for a hospital to open nearby.
Olga was a founding member of the Library Association, which operated and funded the first El Paso public library. She served as president of this organization for 32 years. Through the Woman’s Club, she worked to improve hygienic and aesthetic conditions in schools and public places. This group implemented the first municipal clean-up day in the city. After a hard day’s labor, Olga declared, "Our thrifty women dug and sowed and planted and weeded, making quite an impression on the parks."
Concerned about the impact of desert heat on infants, Olga established a Baby Sanitarium in nearby Cloudcroft, New Mexico. She and her family helped found the Mount Sinai Jewish Congregation and helped fund construction of a temple. Olga took a leadership role in the Jewish Welfare Association. She was widowed unexpectedly in 1910, when her husband was shot by a man who owed him a debt. Yet throughout her life, she never wavered in devotion and service to her adopted community.