Los Angeles, A Happy Childhood During the Red Scare (Part 2)
When my Uncle Norm was a foot soldier in the U.S. army and his unit sat on the hill dividing the two Koreas, the North Korean and U.S. armies would have a battle for one hill but never the hill he was on 1951-1952. At that time the boundary line between the two Koreas and two armies was mostly stagnant, but after my uncle left, a whole U.S. patrol was wiped out.
In Los Angeles I was best friends with Yvonne Newton throughout our elementary school years. Yvonne’s mother and my mother were friendly; my mom exchanged tangerines and avocados from our trees with Yvonne’s mother’s apricots from her tree. Yvonne told me, “My parents were wealthy in Germany. They look the last boat to America.” Her father was now a shoe salesman. I was impressed with her story but really didn’t understand it at all. The next year when I was just six her grandfather came to live with the Newtons.
Yvonne told me, “My grandfather is our only survivor of the concentration camp.” When I visited, I saw a sick old man in a back bedroom speak in German to Yvonne’s mother or to Yvonne. My grandmother spoke Yiddish all the time with her friends and a little with my parents when she spoke about subjects she didn’t want the children to understand, but I only knew a few words of Yiddish. I didn’t understand Yvonne’s grandfather’s German at all. He died within a few months.
My parents really encouraged my reading, bought me books, and my mother regularly got books for me from the library. I did well at Laurel Elementary School and was in the top reading group in 1st grade. My mother, father, and grandmother were all readers with both my grandmother and my parents having bookshelves. I loved reading and read library books on my own at home. Getting a B in reading disappointed me, so I ran to complain to my mother. She accompanied me school to go talk to my teacher. My mother backed me up, saying I was a terrific reader.
The female teacher replied, “She doesn’t read with EXPRESSION!”
After we left, my mother said, “Read with expression.” The next time I was called to read by the teacher in class, I hammed it up, reading with great DRAMA! The teacher gave me an A on my next report card, and I felt vindicated.
That same year my mother took me to Yablon Center, the Center for the Jewish Reds in Los Angeles, having decided that I should go to a Sunday school that blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jerrico, my parents’ friends Mory and Ray Mitchell, and other parents were starting. In 1906 Yiddish immigrant socialists had begun schules: left-wing after-school classes and Sunday Schools for the children of immigrants. The adults created four competing schules: the socialists in the Arberter Ring had theirs; the Socialist Zionists had theirs; the non-political Yiddishists had theirs; and those in the International Workers Order had their schules.
That first day when I was five, I sat on the floor with thirty children as the young woman teacher taught us songs. At Sholem (peace) Sunday school we soon had chairs to sit on, and we always starting first singing. The earnest young woman teacher taught us Yiddish songs, Hebrew songs, folk songs such as “Sixteen Tons” and black spirituals like “Go Down, Moses. I loved the singing, and for years thought “Go Down, Moses” was a Jewish song.
Then we were divided into classes for lessons where another earnest young woman taught us Jewish history and taught us to be moral, ethical, and not prejudiced. We celebrated Jewish holidays, but the adults carefully removed all the prayers and mention of God. I liked Purim where we got to dress up in costumes like Queen Esther, Mordechai, and wicked Hamen, eat lots of hamentaschen cookies, and tell the story of Esther yet again. I enjoyed Passover when we retold the story of struggles to leave slavery. I ate my hardboiled egg and stole other hard boiled eggs to eat.
Our Sholem Sunday school continued while some parents like screenwriter Jerrico fought the blacklists. Like my grandparents, Jerrico’s father was an immigrant Russian Jew and a socialist. During the 1930s Jerrico joined the Communist Party as well as wrote crime and comedy scripts for Columbia Pictures. His 1941 film i>Tom, Dick, and Harry, won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and after World War II he wrote scripts for MGM. While working for Howard Hughes at RKO, a friend gave his name to House Un-American Committee. After refusing to testify before HUAC, he lost his job and was blacklisted. In 1954 Jerrico with other blacklisted filmmakers made the film Salt of the Earth. The film was also blacklisted but in 1992 wound up in Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
We children knew little about the blacklists affecting Sholem Sunday School parents. When my brother joined the Sunday school in 1953, every Sunday my Dad took my brother and me to Canter’s Deli/Restaurant to get bagels, lox (smoked salmon), and cream cheese for breakfast. The lady at the bakery always gave my brother and I each a free cookie. Back home we ate our Sunday breakfast, and then Dad drove both of us to Sholem Sunday school.
In the 1950s Sholem parents during the Red Scare in Los Angeles were non-political as they ran our Sholem Sunday School—they were very child-orientated like the rest of the United States. Many of those within the Communist Party had left it like Paul Jerrico left in 1952 but remained blacklisted. The Yablon Center had a Second Generation Club for children of Communists. A blanket of silence seemed to have smothered the adults’ political talk except for my grandmother, who had her meeting in her house of her left-wing wing women’s group the Emma Lazarus club, where they talked in Yiddish because the FBI couldn’t understand.
Uncle Norm returned home in 1953 after 24 months in the army. With my uncle home, my family was complete again. He and an army buddy sunbathed in our backyard grape arbor while I sat nearby with my doll, happy my uncle was back. My grandmother came out and said, “I need you to pick grapes so I can make jam.” My uncle, his friend, and I all picked all the grapes from the grape arbor. Then my grandmother made grape jam and also made homemade bread. The just-made jam on the-just-baked bread was wonderful.
After working for years at the downtown office, my dad got transferred to work at the local post office on La Brea Avenue within walking distance from our house, but he still read history books like he had at NYU when he majored in history. One father once said he regretted not trying to get a job teaching history in public school after the war. My father then had a party for the union members and their wives at our house where my mother put out a big spread of cakes, cookies, wine, cheese and crackers. As the men cracked jokes, my father was the happiest I had ever seen him.
My dad also was serious about collecting stamps, going up every week to a stamp collectors' auction in Hollywood, making new friends there which included a Hollywood director who worked for Cecil de Mille. The film director once came to our house and entertained us with jokes about Gary Cooper on the film set who couldn’t talk because he was shy.
Once my brother started kindergarten, my mother immediately got a secretarial job working ¾ time in a nearby office for two music agents: one black and one white. Then my grandmother became the babysitter for my brother and me after school. My mother seemed to lose her depression once she started work. After all, she had grown up seeing my grandmother work in my grandparents’ store, so she thought it was natural for mothers to work. After I turned eight, I visited her at work and the black agent gave me a job of alphabetizing a stack of papers. Once I finished he gave me a dollar—the first money I ever made.
My grandmother had a few years before bought a small apartment complex south of us near Pico and La Brea, and she had my mother manage it. Then my grandmother wanted to sell it. In the neighborhood the first black families had begun in buy houses in segregated Los Angeles. A black family wanted to buy my grandmother’s apartment house, and my grandmother wanted to sell to them. Both my mom and grandmother knew some of the white neighbors wouldn’t like it, but they sold it to the black family. My mom and grandmother seemed to me to be giant figures who ran a grocery store! Bought and sold property! Ran a whole office! And they were both terrific nurses whenever I was sick!
In 3rd grade I had a new, tall middle-aged Anglo woman for a teacher who told my all-Jewish class the 1st week, “This class isn’t good enough to read the 3rd grade books.” We had to read the 2nd grade books. Only her two blonde pet girls in the 1st row could read the 3rd grade books. I was very upset because I liked to read the 3rd and 4th grade books at school and from the public library. I told my mom about the awful teacher.
She said, “I’m working now. I’m too busy to go the school for you.”
“But I need you to go.”
“Life is tough,” she said. I was furious.
The next time I went with my mother to the local library, she left to get her books in the adult section. I went to the children’s section with shelves of reading books organized by grade: 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade etc. Looking around I saw no adults, so I grabbed four of the 4th grade books, reading 4th grade books all the rest of the semester.
Right before Christmas, the teacher lugged in a little Christmas tree which she put on the front table and only had her two blonde pets decorate the tree. I hated that teacher. In the new semester I was allowed to read the 3rd grade books and was in the top reading group, making me happy again.
McCarthyism continued when Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952 allowing for deportation and denaturalization of Communist Party members and banning “subversives” from entry into the U.S. Lawyers fought 200 deportation cases, but Aunt Sara was never threatened with deportation. In New York she was becoming alienated from the Communist Party. She had her first doubts during the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact in 1939: “A lot of members left, a lot of sympathizers went away, and a lot of people were confused by it… I accepted the pact, even though I didn’t agree with it, thinking maybe I didn’t know the whole story.” Later she realized she had made a mistake keeping quiet.
Aunt Sara criticized the Party for letting the Rosenbergs only have Bloch, a civil lawyer, who lost the case, and the Party’s lawyers “wouldn’t talk to Bloch until it was much too late.” The Rosenbergs’ executions upset Aunt Sara greatly in 1953. Despite her doubts about the CP, she rejoined her party branch and sold literature. She still thought the Party was much too bureaucratic.
At meetings she spoke up and criticized the Party. Her branch leader told her to go see Vincent, a Party leader who went blind in jail. She said that Party people thought “if I go and have a talk with Vincent, I’d see the light, like the people who came to hear the preacher.” She went to him, telling him, “Why didn’t the party act as it did in the 30s. We were a fighting party, fighting for home relief, fighting for social security, fighting for unemployment insurance. We were fighting for the needs of the people. But then we went to sleep.”
Sara ran into Irving Potash, who was on the Central Committee of the Party, and said, “The Party should fight against McCarthy and his gangsters…. We can go to sympathetic unions in the city and …. mobilize the people.” Potash said he’d take her ideas up with the central committee. Sara was slowly on her way out of the Communist Party.
When I was about eight, my mom helped organize a play at a small local theater as a fund raiser for the Sholem Sunday School, and I proudly got to see my first play. These memories of my childhood remind me of the movie Trumbo about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted as a screenwriter, went to jail, and got out. Like our parents Trumbo wasn’t political active then, spending most of his time at home writing screenplays under phony names.
My small family was a tiny part of the 200,000 members of the IWO. Very few of IWO members were in the Communist Party. The I.W.O. was financially solvent and conservatively managed, but the New York State Insurance Department argued in a legal case in 1951 that the IWO was engaged in political activity, which was prohibited to insurance companies. The state of New York’s legal case against the IWO led to its liquidation in 1954, but luckily for us my dad had gotten medical insurance through his job at the post office for the whole family. We could still go see a doctor.