I WAS Born in southern Italy on a farm that had been in my mothers family for generations. But I was really an American born on Italian soil as the result of a series of accidents, and it was also an accident which kept me in Italy until I was almost six years old. Not until years afterward did I learn that one reason my mother had left me there was in the hope that someday she could persuade her husband, in New York with her other children, to return with them to Italy. To her that farm near Potenza was home. But she was never able to persuade them of that, for America was the place of their choice.
My mother had been left a widow when the youngest of her nine children was still a baby. With the help of the older children she ran the farm. If Rocco Visono had not come to Potenza from his home in Lugano no doubt she would have remained there the rest of her life.
But Rocco fell in love with Teresa Marsica who, despite her nine children and a life of work, was still attractive, with bright, dark eyes and lively ways. Rocco had come to visit a sister married to a petty government official and met Teresa in the nearby village of Picerno. A stonemason by trade, he found work in Potenza while Teresa was making up her mind. She was almost persuaded but hesitated when she learned that he planned to go to New York. It took a long time to get her to agree to that. She would look at her rich soil that grew good lettuce and beans. This had been her fathers farm and her grandfathers and his fathers. How could she give it up and cross the Atlantic to uncertainty, and perhaps have no land there to cherish and work?
But the quiet, blue-eyed suitor was persistent. The children were on his side, too, eager to go to America, for Rocco had told them glowing stories of the life there, of the freedom and the chance to get rich. They argued and pleaded with their mother until she gave in.
The three oldest boys were to go with their father-elect, and my mother and the others were to join them later. I say elect purposely, for Teresa, for reasons of her own, had insisted that she would not marry him until she arrived in America. Having lost all the rest of the issues, he had to yield on this also, and the four left for the United States.
From East Harlem they sent enthusiastic reports. There were many Italians living there; it was like a colony of home people; she must come quickly. So Teresa accepted the inevitable. She said good-by to her neighbors and her beloved fields, to the house that had sheltered her all her life and in which all her children had been born. She put the farm in the charge of a relative for she could not bear to sell it. She might come back someday. With six children she sailed for the new home.
The three older boys and Rocco took her in triumph to their five-room flat on 108th Street. Teresa was happy to see them again, but she looked with dismay at the honeycomb of rooms. She was only partly comforted when her sister, Maria Antonia, who had been in America for some time, came to welcome her.
In January 1904 Rocco Visono and Teresa Marsica were married in the Church of St. Lucy in East Harlem. It was perhaps on that day she felt most homesick of all, for a memory came to her when she heard the words of the priest a recollection of the past, of Fidelia, her mother, and Severio, her father, and the farm workers and herself and her brothers and sisters, all kneeling together at family prayer in the big living room of the Picerno farmhouse.
Several months later a letter came from Italy telling Teresa that there was trouble with the management of her property. At this news she persuaded Rocco that she must go back to adjust matters, perhaps rent the farm to responsible people, or even this was his suggestion sell it outright.
It was not until she was on the high seas that Teresa realized she was pregnant. She was dismayed. The business in Italy might take months and the baby might be born there.
The affairs of the farm took longer than she expected. In October of 1904 I was born in Picerno and baptized Maria Assunta Isabella. With my fathers approval Teresa decided to return to the United States and leave me in charge of a foster mother. She hoped to return within a year, but it was five years before she saw me again. I was almost six years old when I saw my father and brothers and sister for the first time.
The woman who became my foster mother and wet nurse was the wife of a shepherd in Avialano. Her own baby had died and she was happy to have me. For five years I lived with these simple people. Though there was little luxury in the small stone house, I received loving care from both my foster parents. I remember them and my memories go back to my third year. Mamarella was a good woman and I was greatly devoted to her. But it was to her husband, Taddeo, that my deepest love went. There was no other child in the family and to me he gave all his parental affection.
I remember their home with the fireplace, the table drawn up before it for supper, I in Taddeos arms, his big shepherds coat around me. In later days, when life was difficult, I often wished I were again the little child who sat there snug in the protecting love about her.
My mother sent money regularly, and gave my foster parents more comforts than the small wages of Taddeo would provide. Time and again Mamarella tried to make of Taddeo something more than a hill shepherd. She disliked his being away from home in the winter, but in that mountainous part of Italy it was cold in the winter; so the sheep were driven to the warmer Apulia where the grazing was better.
Even in the summer Taddeo often stayed all night in the hills. Then Mamarella and I went to him carrying food and blankets so that we, too, might sleep in the open. While husband and wife talked, I would wander off for flowers and butterflies. I remember running from one hilltop to another. My eager fingers stretched upward, for the sky seemed so close I thought I could touch it. I would come back tired to find Mamarella knitting and Taddeo whittling a new pair of wooden shoes for me. Not until just before I left for America did I wear a pair of leather shoes.
Taddeo would give me warm milk from his sheep and try to explain to me about the sky. Once he said: Never mind, little one. Perhaps someday you will touch the sky. Perhaps!
Then he would tell me stories about the stars, and I almost believed that they belonged to him and that he could move them in the heavens. I would fall asleep wrapped in a blanket. When I awoke I would find myself in my own bed back at our house on the edge of the village.
I have vague memories of the things of religion. I remember being carried on Taddeos shoulders on a pilgrimage with many people walking through a deep forest several days and nights to some shrine. It must have been spring for the woods were carpeted with violets. I have never since seen blue wood violets without hearing in my mind the hum of prayers said together by many people.
One of the children told me about a place called purgatory. She said that if you let the bishop put salt on your tongue and water on your forehead you got into heaven, and that if it were not done you stayed in purgatory for years and years. I took this matter to Taddeo and for once he was not reassuring. Purgatory was a gray place, he said, with no trees and no hills, but he said he would be there with me.
He talked to Mamarella, and she said though I was young she was going to have me confirmed because the bishop was coming to our town to perform the ceremony. This called for great preparations. I had a new red dress with a high neck made princess style. I was to have my first pair of leather shoes.
When the great day came I was at church early. It was still almost empty save for the restless group of children awaiting confirmation. The few seats in the big church were placed toward the altar. You did not sit in these for they were for the gentry of the town. Everyone else knelt on the stone floor.
I knelt, too, and looked around me at the statues. I had a favorite among them: St. Anthony, with the tender smile and the Christ Child on his arm. Taddeo told me that St. Anthony would watch over me and keep me from evil; and that if I lost something St. Anthony would help find it.
One evening at supper we heard hurried footfalls and an excited voice calling:
Una lettera dAmerica!
Maybe its from my mother, I said, and there will be money in it for Mamarella.
When she opened it I saw only a very little letter and no money at all. No one told me what the letter was about. Weeks later I was alone in the house, close by the fire. February was cold that year. Taddeo was in Apulia and would not be back for some time. Mamarella had gone to the village fountain for drinking water.
I heard strange steps on the cobblestones. The door opened and there stood a tall, dark woman in a heavy coat who looked at me and without a word put her arms around me and hugged me. Then she took off her veil and I saw she had thick black hair, a little gray, but soft and wavy.
I looked at her with amazement. Who are you? I asked. She answered me in Italian, but it sounded different from that of our village. Im a friend of the people who live here. Where is the shepherd?
He isnt here. Hes in Apulia. Do you like him?
I love him better than anyone in the world. I love him all the time. I stared at her and wondered why she should ask such questions.
Of course you do, she said soothingly. Come over here and sit on my lap while I tell you a story. But first, do you love him better than your own mother?
Of course I do. I dont even know my own mother. The strange lady smiled at me. Listen, dear, I had a little girl myself once. As I listened I began to feel uneasy. I had to go away to a strange land where I couldnt take care of her and so I found a good kind man who said he would. His name was Taddeo.
Taddeo? Suddenly I understood and slipped from the womans lap. Youre my real mother.
She stroked my hair and said, I have come all the way from America for my baby girl and I hoped she would love me.
Something in her voice won me over. I went to her and put my arms around her neck and so we sat until Mamarella came in. I was half asleep and remembered only saying, This is my mother, my real mother. You have to love your mother.
She went away again that evening, but she said she would be back in a week or else send for me. She promised to take me with her to America.
Now all was feverish preparation. Word was sent to Taddeo and he sent back word that he would be home before I left. For me that last week was one of triumph among my playmates.
Did she bring you presents? the children asked. Will you go in the coach to Potenza?
The houses in America are made of glass, said another child. No one is poor there. Everyone is happy.
And they eat macaroni every day, piped another. This even I knew would be a wonderful thing, for to eat macaroni every day was the essence of plutocracy to children whose chief diet was beans and polenta.
And will you come back? someone asked.
Somehow this was the first time I had actually thought of going away and I felt a little shaken, but I answered boldly, Of course I will, and someday Ill take you all with me to America.
No further word had come from Taddeo on the eve of my departure to join my mother. Mamarella had prepared a wonderful supper of pasta arricata, and nuts and squids stuffed with raisins. There was sweet white wine. It was like carnevale. We waited for Taddeo but when he did not come, we sat down and ate in silence. Then we cleared the table. I sat with my head against Mamarellas chair. She was crying, but she stopped when she saw that I was crying, too. She took me in her arms and sang to me a song about the saints.
Still Taddeo did not come. I feared I would never see him again. I tried to picture exactly how he had looked so I would always remember him.
When the fire was embers, Mamarella put ashes over it and we went to bed; but I could not sleep. Suddenly I heard what I had been listening for heavy steps on the cobblestones. When the door opened I was in his arms. My feet were cold and he took off his muffler and wound it round them and rubbed them.
Mamarella came in and poked up the fire and said to me sharply, Non far mosso, and began warming polenta. I sat still in his arms while Taddeo talked to us about his trip home.
I traveled half the night and had no idea it would be so cold in Avialano, he said. He must get to the sheepfold in the valley right away, he said, for he had left the sheep in charge of Filippi. He could stay only an hour with us.
St. Anthony brought me, he told me. He helped get me here in time. Dont ever forget he will help you get where you ought to go and find what you lose.
I paid little attention to his words. I was happy to sit by the fire and watch him eat polenta and dip bread into the red wine.
Then he rose, put on his long cloak, and tied the muffler around his neck. This muffler is too thin to be of much use any more. Listen, child, will you send me a new one from America?
My eyes filled with tears. He kissed me. There, caring, someday you will come back, he said reassuringly. And you are going now to a fine home where you will be una signorina and have silk dresses and maybe two pairs of leather shoes.
I dont want to go, I cried in panic. I wont go! I wont!
He held me until I stopped sobbing and then he said, Now I must really go.Addio, caring, and he handed me over to Mamarella and hurried from the house. I struggled free and ran after him. I had no shawl and my dress flew in the wind. I kept calling, Taddeo! Taddeo! I ran down the street till I came to the piazza and I could see Taddeo and Filippi driving the sheep ahead of them. It was bitter cold and the ground was icy.
I called Taddeo again and again. I had put on my first pair of leather shoes to show to him and the untied laces made me stumble; the hard leather hurt my feet. I lay in the snow and sobbed. There Mamarella found me and took me home and put me between hot blankets. She stayed with me until I fell asleep.
Next day I was dressed in my red confirmation dress which was to have been saved to wear on the feast of the Virgin and carnevale. My hair was carefully combed. The leather shoes were laced around my ankles. Mamarella brought out her wedding box and drew from it a white silk kerchief. I wore it when I was a girl, she said, as she folded it in a triangle and tied it under my chin. Then we went to the coach which was waiting to take me away. Madonna, questa creatura e tutti occhi, said the coachman when he saw his smaller passenger. Mamarella and I sat in the coach in silence and watched the desolate mountain scenery and the snowdrifts banked along the road. Finally, numb with cold, we reached the railroad station in Potenza. Mamarella put me on the train and kissed me. I could not cry for all the feeling was drained from me. Then I was alone on a train with strangers and on my way to Naples where my mother was to meet me.
It was the first time I had ever been on a train but I did not find it strange. I looked out of the window at the changing landscape. After awhile there were no snow and no mountains, only grass and plains, with olive trees here and there. Once I saw a flock of white sheep with a shepherd, and I thought of Taddeo. But Taddeo was now far behind, and I was alone. I had left everything I knew and was going into the unknown.
The compartment in which I rode was almost empty. The conductor had promised Mamarella that he would take care of me. Finally, as I sat on the wooden bench, I fell asleep, leaning against my bundle of clothes, exhausted by the strange movement of the train.
It was night when the train pulled into Naples. The conductor came in and picked up my bundle. Viene subito, he said, and I followed him to the platform. And there was my mother looking anxiously for me. She was tall and straight and reassuring. I waved excitedly to her and it made me happy to see her warm smile as she ran toward me.
I was frightened by what I saw of Naples. There were beggars whining and wheedling in the name of St. Rocco. There were dirty children in the streets. There was noise and confusion. I wanted to fly back to our quiet little village, where the people were poor, but clean and proud.
I was glad when the next day we sailed for America.
THE REASON my mother had not returned to Italy for me for five long years, my father later explained, was because there had been a terrible depression in America. It had been impossible for him to raise the money for Mother to make the trip, and a small child could not travel alone. I had been shy in meeting my father. He was blond, blue-eyed, and reserved, the opposite of Mother. But despite his quiet, undemonstrative manner I felt that he loved me. He was kind and he made a pet of me.
There were only four children at home now; the rest had married and had homes of their own. They came to see the new sister and made a big fuss over me. But they all made fun of my best dress my red confirmation dress which every child in Avialano had admired. They laughed at me and insisted I be rushed to a store to buy an American dress. With great reluctance I put away the beautiful red princess dress and with it the last of my Italian years. And I turned with zeal to the task of becoming an American child.
The three brothers still at home were kind enough, but they had their own interests which were certainly not those of a six-year-old girl and one who could speak no English. But my seventeen-year-old sister, Caterina, called by the American name of Katie, took me in hand. She was a tall, slim, beautiful girl with big gray eyes. She was kind and gentle. She did not like the name I was called by Maria Assunta and when she learned that I had been baptized with another name Isabella she insisted on calling me Bella.
Katie took me to school. She had made up her mind I was a smart little thing and so she got me in a grade ahead by saying I was born in 1902 instead of two years later. In those earlier educational days she had no difficulty in having me enrolled in the second grade. For a few days I was pursued by cries of wop, wop, but I paid no attention to them. I did not know what they meant and by the time I did I had been accepted as a leader in my class.
I liked going and coming from school, especially wandering along and staring at the merchandise piled up on barrows right in the street. You could buy fruit and peppers and sweets and even dress goods and hats there. I liked to watch the pigeons in the street strutting about in their gray and rose coats and silver wings.
My mother did not share my delight in the city. If we lived in the country! she would remark sometimes. Only later I learned how much she hated the dirty streets, the gossip of her neighbors, the narrow flat. There were parks, of course, but they made her even more homesick for the open fields.
Mother was a competent woman. She could do a prodigious amount of work and never looked tired or bedraggled. She quickly established a routine of work and play for me. She tried to help me learn English though her own was far from good. She would point to a calendar and repeat each month and day in her curious, soft English and I would repeat the words after her. She would then take the broom and point out the hours and minutes on the old-fashioned kitchen clock, and again I would repeat what she said.
I think one reason for these educational efforts was that she wanted to keep me busy after school for she would not let me spend time in the city streets. She taught me to sew and crochet; sometimes she would take a crochet needle and coarse thread and show me simple stitches. Someday you will crochet a bridal spread for yourself, she said solemnly, and when I did not show interest in this idea she added: Anyway, it is a sin to be idle.
I liked my family, all of them, but best of all I loved Katie. I loved her not only because she was kind but because she was beautiful, with her hair a cloud about her face, her tiny waist, her pretty dresses. My mother said she resembled her father who had been a cavalry officer. I soon learned that Katie at seventeen was in love with Joe, a tall young man with long thin fingers and the temperament of an opera star.
My new family gradually made my other family in faraway Avialano recede into the past. But now and then, when I felt unhappy and thought my father cold or my mother preoccupied, I would imagine myself back with Taddeo. At such times I would take my red confirmation dress from the box, and the white kerchief Mamarella had tied under my chin, and, putting on my finery, would imagine myself back in Avialano.
In four months I was able to speak English well enough to enjoy the school I attended Public School Number One. This school still had the characteristics of what it had formerly been, a charity school, one of the last so-called soup schools. It was in several adjoining old brownstone houses and was in the charge of two old ladies who opened classes each morning with prayer and the singing of Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.
When I was ready for the third grade we moved from East Harlem. Mother had at last convinced Father that she could no longer bear to live this cluttered life of the tenements. So we moved to a house in Westchester, but this house did not prove satisfactory either. We moved several times. Finally, Father established a successful grocery business, and several years later Mother took over a large house with tillable acreage near Castle Hill. In this home the rest of my youth was spent.
There were sixty-four acres of land and a big rambling house. Mother had coveted this farm before we went to live on it. It was the property of Mattie and Sadie Munn, two maiden ladies who lived near us. They were old and Mother took care of Miss Sadie, who was an invalid. She also looked after their house, and the old ladies grew to depend on her. It was when they died that we went to live in the house.
The former occupants had called the colonial house Pilgrims Rest. There were no lights but kerosene lamps. The roof leaked and there was only an outside toilet. But from the first I loved this home dearly and especially my own room on the second floor which was literally in the arms of a huge horsechestnut tree, lovely at all times but especially so when its flowers, like white candles, were lighted in the spring.
Our home was full of children all the time. My brothers youngsters came and went. Katie brought her baby over often. In addition, there were dogs, cats, chickens, geese, and now and then a goat or pig. Mother fed everyone well. She bought so much feed for the chickens and for the wild birds who knew ours as a generous temporary home that Father complained that she spent more on feed than she made on eggs. This I doubt, for Mother was a good manager. She ran her farm with hired helpers but she was the best worker of all. We grew all sorts of produce, enough for ourselves and some to sell in Fathers store and some was also sent to Washington Market.
We had little cash, but we had a house, a slice of good earth, and a resourceful mother, one with imagination. We were not conscious of want or insecurity even when there was no money. I remember one particular dessert she made for us children when money was scarce. We were always delighted when she mixed new-fallen snow and sugar and coffee, and made for us her version of granita de caffé.
We had neighbors all about us Scotch, Irish, and German families. There were two Catholic churches not far from us, Holy Family Church largely attended by the German population and St. Raymonds attended by the Irish Catholics. We did not seem to belong in either church and Father and Mother soon ceased to receive the Sacraments and then stopped going to church. But Mother still sang songs of the saints and told us religious stories from the storehouse of her memories.
Though we still considered ours a Catholic family we were no longer practicing Catholics. Mother urged us children to go to church but we soon followed our parents example. I think my mother was self-conscious about her poor English and lack of fine clothes. Though the crucifix was still over our beds and Mother burned vigil lights before the statue of Our Lady, we children got the idea that such things were of the Italian past, and we wanted to be Americans. Willingly, and yet not knowing what we did, we cut ourselves off from the culture of our own people, and set out to find something new.
For me the search began in the public schools and libraries. There was a public school a half-mile from our house Number Twelve. Dr. Condon, the principal, a man of varying interests, was fond of having his pupils march to the school fife-and-drum corps. He was apt to interrupt classes and call on everyone to go marching, the fife-and-drum players in the lead. In this school there was Bible reading daily by Dr. Condon himself. I learned to love the psalms and proverbs that he read to us and to admire their poetic language.
Near our house on Westchester Avenue was St. Peters Episcopal Church and on Castle Hill was the rectory. In architecture and landscape, St. Peters looked like pictures of English churches. Its grounds extended a half-mile or more. In summer we picked blackberries there and in the spring we hunted violets and star of Bethlehem.
St. Peters was an old church; in its graveyard were headstones with weather-dimmed names. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons I wandered through the graveyard trying to reconstruct the people from their names. Because of my constant reading of books on American history I thought of them all as Pilgrims and Puritans or heroes of the Civil War. I frequently placed bouquets of flowers on these graves as a token of respect to the men and women of an American past. I wanted passionately to be a part of America. Like a plant, I was trying to take roots. We had cut our ties with our own cultural past and it was difficult to find a new cultural present.
The minister at St. Peters, Dr. Clendenning, was a dignified and kindly gentleman whom we greeted as he walked or rode from the rectory to the church. Across from St. Peters was a building for church activities which I passed on my way to school. It was near the Huntington Library and I became friendly with the librarian. She was interested in children who liked books and it was she who suggested that I go to the afternoon sewing circle at St. Peters parish house.
In charge of this work was Gabrielle Clendenning, the ministers daughter. We met once a week and we sewed and sang. It was here that I first learned such simple songs as Onward, Christian Soldiers and Rock of Ages Cleft for Me. The other children used to cross the street and go to services in the church. I drew the line at joining them in this because I regarded myself as a Catholic, though actually I was conscious of almost no tie to my own Church. I explained to Miss Gabrielle that Catholics were not permitted to attend any other church. She seemed to understand and she never objected or argued with me about it.
When the children came back from services, we all had tea and cookies together. It was a most happy association. Often Gabrielle Clendenning invited the children to ride with her in her pony cart. That was high adventure for me; and it meant being accepted among people I loved. Gabrielles mother, the librarian told me, was the daughter of Horace Greeley. I didnt know who Horace Greeley was but she told me he had been a famous editor and a patriotic American. I remember this family as a wholesome influence on our neighborhood. They set the pattern for what I believed to be the American character.
Life in that little community was peaceful. Our cluster of houses was filled with people who respected each other despite differences of race or religion. We were not conscious of the differences but of the kindnesses to each other. Mr. Weisman the druggist and Mrs. Fox the candy-store owner, the McGraths and the Clendennings and the Visonos all lived together with not the slightest sense of hostility or of inequality. We accepted our differences and respected each person for his own qualities. It was a good place for a child to grow up.
Several years before I graduated from Public School Number Twelve, World War I had commenced. I became an avid reader of newspapers. I read the gruesome propaganda charging the Germans with atrocities. My imagination was stirred to fever pitch. I never lost the newspaper habit after that. And what I read left its imprint upon me.
In the fall of 1916 I was ready for Evander Childs High School. But I did not enter for another year, a hard and terrible year for me. I was coming home on the trolley car one hot day in July and I had signaled the motorman to let me off. The trolley stopped, and I dont know what happened next, but I was flung into the street and my left foot went under the wheels.
I did not faint. I lay in the street till my father came to me, picked me up in his arms, and with tears streaming down his face, carried me to a physician. I was in great pain by the time an ambulance arrived, but the doctor who sat beside me was so kind that I hated to give him trouble. So we joked together all the way to Fordham Hospital.
As they carried me in, I fainted. When I came back to consciousness there was the sickly smell of ether and pain that stabbed mercilessly. The look on Mothers face as she sat beside my bed told me something was terribly wrong. I learned that same day that my left foot had been amputated.
Mother came faithfully to the hospital, loaded with oranges and flowers and whatever she thought would interest me. It was a hot, sultry summer. There was a strike on the trolley system and Mother had to walk many miles to the hospital. She never missed a single visiting day during that dreadful year.
It was a bitter time for me. I was in the womens ward, for I was tall for my age. I saw women in pain and saw them die. I was particularly affected by one old lady, who came to the hospital with a broken hip and died of gangrene when they amputated her leg. I could not sleep that night, nor many nights thereafter.
My wound did not heal well. I was in that hospital almost a year treatment after treatment, operation after operation, with little improvement. Five times I was taken to the operating room; five times there was the sickening smell of ether. The day I felt most desolate was the day school opened and I saw from the hospital window children going by with books in their arms. I was so sad that young Dr. John Conboy stopped to ask what was wrong.
I was going to start high school today, I told him through my tears. Now Ill be behind the rest in Latin. For Latin was the subject I had looked forward to most of all; it was to me the symbol of a real education.
That afternoon Dr. Conboy brought me the Latin grammar he had used in college and promised to help me. I promptly started to work at it.
During the time I was in the hospital I was registered as a Catholic but I never saw anyone from my Church. Occasionally a priest came through the ward, but I was too shy to call to him. However, Dr. Clendenning and Gabrielle came, and they wrote me letters. Once Dr. Clendenning brought me a little book of religious poems and sayings. On the white cover were flowers, and the frontispiece was a reproduction of The Gleaners and the title: Palette dOr. I read and reread this book.
When it was evident that the surgical operations were resulting in nothing but pain, Mother decided to take me home. I spent the next six months on the farm and Mother nursed me. I went about on crutches until an apparatus could be fitted to my toot. A general practitioner came to our house to treat me once a week, for the operation had not been well done and the wounds healed slowly. I spent most of my time reading and writing poetry and developing my friendship with my mother. I was so glad to be away from the hospital that I felt almost content.
During this period our family suffered losses by death. My sister Katie lost her second baby and not long afterward she herself died in the influenza epidemic. Mother suffered terribly and her brown hair became white. It pained me to see her suffer so. Her sons were married and gone from home; one daughter was dead, the other an invalid.
During that time at home I spent most of my time reading. My mother brought me books from the local library, and I read the accumulation left in our house by the Munns. Since that family had been Methodist, the books included a variety of hymnbooks, old Bibles, and commentaries, and the sermons of John Wesley. There was also a copy of a book by Sheldon called In His Steps which made a profound impression upon me.
The old Bibles had fascinating illustrations over which I pored. I liked the sermons of John Wesley. Even today his sturdiness comforts me, so firm and straight like the English oaks under which he stood to talk to his congregation.
There was, of course, a great deal of the Gospel simplicity in these old worn books and out of them I distilled a little prayer of my own which never left me. Even when I did not believe any more, I would often repeat the words as one does a favorite poem. This prayer which I worked out of the books of John Wesley was: Dear God, save my soul and forgive my sins, for Jesus Christs sake. Amen.
IN THE FALL of 1917 I started at Evander Childs High School although my condition had improved little and I had to use crutches. Mother encouraged my going, and often she told me of saints who had endured physical deformity. She made me feel I could accomplish anything I set my heart on, despite my physical limitation.
So I began my high-school years armed with crutches and high hopes. I walked the ten blocks to school and took my place with my class. From the beginning I asked no favors, and teachers and classmates soon realized how I felt and respected my independence.
That winter I got my first apparatus for walking. It was not very good, but it was better than the crutches. Now I really began to enter into school activities. I tried to do everything the other students did, even to going on hikes. I joined the Naturalists Club and went with members to the Palisades, hunting flowers and spotting birds. If I got tired, I sat down for a while till the others returned.
During those days, despite my difficulties, I was a happy girl. I loved life dearly and found pleasure in many little things. Sometimes, when outdoors, I would stop to listen, for I felt the whole world whispering to me. The spring wind seemed to talk of things far away and beautiful. Sometimes at night, when the moon shone through the chestnut tree beside my window and I could smell the iris and lilacs and lilies of the valley, I felt tears in my eyes and I did not know why.
The student body at Evander Childs High School then numbered more than a thousand boys and girls. They were mostly the children of Americans of Scottish, Irish, and German extraction but there were also some children of Italian, Russian, and other European peoples. We were of all faiths Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. We were alike in that we were children of parents in modest circumstances, neither rich nor poor. No one attempted to accentuate our differences or to exploit them.
One day a girl from the East Bronx with whom I had talked about politics, a subject which was beginning to interest me, brought me a copy of a paper I had never seen before. The Call was a Socialist publication. That paper gave a new turn to my thinking. I sought other copies. I felt my heart beat with excitement as I read the articles on social justice. Even the poetry on the conditions of the poor, on the inequalities of their lives, held my interest. In fact, for the first time I felt a call, a vocation. Unconsciously I enlisted, even if only emotionally, in the army of those who said they would fight social injustice, and I began to find the language of defiance intoxicating. A stubborn pride developed in my own ability to make judgments.
At high school I could not take the usual physical-education courses so I was allowed a study hour with Miss Genevieve OConnell, the gym teacher, who gave me courses in anatomy and hygiene. She was the only religious influence I encountered in high school. When she learned I was a Catholic, she invited me to attend with her the meetings of a girls club at the Cenacle of St. Regis in New York City. On Saturday afternoons she and I met a small group of girls and went to the convent at 140th Street and Riverside Drive.
Once there we sat in a circle and sewed simple garments for the poor while a nun read to us. I was not interested in the books read, but the simplicity, the calm, the acceptance of something real and unchanging, did affect me.
The Cenacle did not give direct answers to the questions I was beginning to ask, perhaps because I did not ask them aloud. But I went to several week-end retreats and I was so attracted by the atmosphere of the house that I asked to come for a private retreat. This proved a failure. I was so untaught in things spiritual and so ignorant of matters of the Faith that I could get no meaning from the spiritual readings given by the nun assigned to guide me.
Despite this failure I know that those week ends at the Cenacle did give me something valuable and lasting. I sensed there the deep peace of the spiritual life and I was moved by the Benediction service which I attended for the first time in my life. The brief prayers, the incense, the monstranced Host uplifted, the music, were a poem of faith to me who loved poetry. Many, many times in my later wanderings, at odd moments there stole back to my mind the Tantum ergosung by the nuns in that lovely little chapel.
But though my heart wanted to accept that which I felt stirring within me I could not, for I already had an encrusted pride in my own intellect which rejected what I felt was unscientific. In this I reflected the superficial patter, prevalent in educational circles of that time, about science being opposed to religion.
During my four years at Evander Childs I received good marks in English history and science, and I won a state scholarship which helped me to go to college. On graduation day I held tight to my diploma and to the copies of Shelley and Keats which were my prizes for excellence in English. Proud as I was of the prizes, my chief pride was that I had been chosen the most popular girl in my class.
In the autumn I entered Hunter, the New York City college for women. I had decided to become a teacher. I started with a determination to learn. There were many fields I wanted to explore. I lived at home and traveled back and forth each day on the new Pelham Bay Subway, recently extended to our neighborhood.
My first college wardrobe consisted of two dresses, a blue voile and a gingham, a black skirt, two sweaters knitted by Mother, and a large collection of starched white collars which I wore with my sweaters. Today the wardrobe of a girl in college, no matter how poor, undoubtedly would be larger, but I was never conscious of an inadequate wardrobe. That was a feature of Hunter College, for the students, even those from well-to-do homes, were more interested in things of the mind.
College proved different from high school and at first seemed duller. The coeducational high school had been more challenging. Hunter College was at that time in a state of transition, passing from a female academy for the training of teachers into a real college. Although accredited to give degrees, the atmosphere and the staff were still the same as when it had been a genteel teacher-training institute.
Because of this difference there was an undefined sense of distance between faculty and students accentuated by the fact that some of the staff members constantly reminded us that we were getting a free education from the city and should be grateful. There was a current of resentment among the students who felt we were getting only that to which we were entitled.
Dean Annie Hickenbottom was a fine woman, middle-aged, gracious, and well-bred, herself a graduate of Hunter Normal School. We girls loved her, but in a patronizing way. We listened to her politely more with our ears than our minds when she told us, as she often did, how important it was for Hunter girls to wear hats and gloves and to speak only in low and refined voices.
Though the staff was chiefly made up of the old Protestant Anglo-Saxon, Scotch, and Irish Americans, there were a few exceptions. There were several Catholics in the Education Department, and a few Jewish teachers, among them Dr. Adele Bildersee, who taught English and who often talked to her pupils about the beauty of the great Jewish holidays and read aloud to us the ancient prayers and writings in a voice that showed how she loved and admired their beauty and believed in their truth.
The gentle lady who taught medieval history, Dr. Elizabeth Burlingame, was considered overly sentimental by some of the staff. Perhaps she was. Yet I owe her a deep gratitude for the appreciation of the Middle Ages which she gave me. From her came no cold array of facts but a warm understanding of the period. She gave me a love of the thirteenth century and a realization of the role of the Catholic Church in that era. Unfortunately her teaching was of a past we considered dead.
The teacher who affected me most as a person was Sarah Parks, who taught freshman English. Her teaching had little of the past; it was of the present and the future. She was different from the rest of the well-mannered faculty members. More unorthodox than any of the students dared to be, she came to school without a hat, her straight blond hair flying in the wind as she rode along Park Avenue on her bicycle.
Evidently Dean Annie Hickenbottom said nothing about it to Miss Parks. Nevertheless we students knew well what she would have said had she seen us riding down Sixty-eighth Street on a bicycle and hatless ! She would have been scandalized. I am certain she would have been more scandalized by some of Miss Parkss advanced social theories. But in this period at Hunter the classroom was the teachers castle and no one would dare intrude. Miss Parkss social theories were to me both disturbing and exciting.
During my first year at Hunter I joined the Newman Club, only to lose interest in it very quickly, for aside from its social aspect all its other activities seemed purely formal. There was little serious discussion of the tenets of the Faith and almost no emphasis on Catholic participation in the affairs of the world. In my young arrogance I regarded its atmosphere as anti-intellectual.
The faculty adviser of the Club was a dear little lady who seemed to me to be so far removed from reality that she could not possibly span the wide gap between the cloistered isolation of her own life and the problems facing the students. After awhile I gave up making suggestions for discussion and no longer tried to integrate myself in the Newman Club, even though it still seemed the reasonable place for me to be. I was finding it difficult to determine where I belonged. For the first time I began to feel uneasy.
I drifted into another circle of friends, girls with a strong intellectual drive permeated with a sense of responsibility for social reform. My best friend was Ruth Goldstein. Often I went to her home where her mother, a wise, fine woman with an Old Testament air about her, fed us with her good cooking and gave us sound advice.
On the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and the Passover Mrs. Goldstein invited me to meals and the family services. The age-old ceremonies impressed me; it was inspiring to see how this family remained true to the history of its people, how in this new land they strengthened their sense of oneness with the past by prayer. As I watched the candles glow and heard the Hebrew prayers I was conscious of the fact that my family was not so bound together, and now did not seem to belong anywhere. In spite of our devoted parents, we children seemed to be drifting in different directions.
At Hunter College there were also the children of many foreign-born people. I became friendly with several girls whose parents had been in the Russian Revolution of 1905. They had grown up hearing their parents discuss socialist and Marxist theories. Though they sometimes laughed at their parents they were the nucleus of the communist activities to come, full of their parents frustrated idealism and their sense of a Messianic mission.
My friends at Hunter College were from all groups. I was received by all but felt part of none. I spent many hours in discussions with different groups. Down in the basement of the Sixty-eighth Street building was a room which we had turned into an informal tearoom and meeting place. There we developed a sort of intellectual proletariat of our own. We discussed revolution, sex, philosophy, religion, unguided by any standard of right and wrong. We talked of a future unity of forces of the mind, a new tradition, a new world which we were going to help build out of the present selfish one.
Since we had no common basis of belief, we drifted into laissez-faire thinking, with agnosticism for our religion and pragmatism for our philosophy. There were religious clubs at Hunter at this time. The group I traveled with regarded them as social clubs which you could take or leave, as you chose. A few among us dared say openly, There is no God. Most of us said, Maybe there is and maybe there isnt.
There were a few communists on the campus at the time, but they were of little importance. They were a leather-jacketed, down-at-the-heels group, who showed little interest in making themselves understood or in trying to understand others. Their talk was chiefly about the necessity of ending the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families, and a glorification of the Russian Revolution. They were also interested in good music and European literature and read the opinion magazines, such as The Nation and The New Republic.
My own religious training had been superficial. As a child I had gone to church with Mamarella. I had been taught to say my prayers. In our house hung various holy pictures and the crucifix. But I knew nothing of the doctrines of my faith. I knew much more of the dogmas of English composition. If I held any belief it was that we should dedicate ourselves to love of our fellow man.
Sarah Parks spurred us on to the new and the untried. From her I first heard favorable talk about the Russian Revolution. She compared it with the French Revolution which she said had had a great liberalizing effect on European culture, something which the revolution in Russia would also one day accomplish. It was she who had brought to class books on communism and loaned them to those of us who wanted to read them.
During my first year with her as my teacher I wrote two term themes, one on how to grow roses, the other on monasticism. She gave both good grades, but the one on monasticism bore the ominous little order, See me. She was too honest not to give a good grade if the work was well done, but she also had to speak her mind on the subject matter.
When I came in, she seemed sympathetic and asked how I came to choose such a topic. I tried to tell her about my reading in the medieval history course and how impressed I had been with the selfless men and women of the Middle Ages who served mankind by putting self aside.
And does that seem a normal manifestation of living to you, a seventeen-year-old girl? she asked scornfully.
It was a question I could not answer, and her clever scorn raised doubts in my mind.
At the end of my freshman year I decided that I must earn money to help with expenses for the next year. So I got a job selling books, a rather daring choice since I still had difficulty in walking any great distance without pain.
The book I sold that summer was called the Volume Library, a tome filled with facts and items of information for children. It cost from nine to fifteen dollars, depending on the binding. My sales area was a section of Westchester County. Since it was some distance from home, I rented a room in the home of a farmers family near Mt. Kisco.
All summer I sold books, and I proved a good agent. It was tiring work but I made enough money that summer to keep myself in clothes and pocket money and for my school expenses the following year.
In the autumn I returned to Hunter. I was a different girl in many ways from the one I was when I entered college the year before. In a year my thinking had changed. I now talked glibly of science and the evolution of man and society and I was skeptical of religious concepts. I had drifted into an acceptance of the idea that those who believed in a Creator were anti-intellectual, and that belief in an afterlife was unscientific. I was tolerant of all religions. They were fine, I said, for those who needed them, but for a human being who was able to think for herself there was no need of something to lean on. One could stand erect alone. This new approach to life was a heady thing. It caught me up and held me.
That second year I did not have Sarah Parks as a teacher. But I often talked with her, for she invited some of us to her apartment, and we sought her advice as if she were a kind of unofficial dean.
To us who loved her Sarah Parks brought fresh air into a sterile, intellectual atmosphere where scholarship sometimes seemed pointless and where Phi Beta Kappa keys were garnered by grinds. We began to speak with contempt about grades and degrees. I remember we held one discussion on whether a true intellectual should accept keys at all, since they were based on marks and used to stimulate the competitive instinct of the rabble and often did not represent true intellectual worth. We held that we must be moved by a desire for real learning and for co-operation with other scholars, and not by a spirit of competition.
Miss Parks led a busy life because so many of us wanted to consult her. She was an important factor in preparing us to accept a materialist philosophy by mercilessly deriding what she called dry rot of existing society. I am sure she did help some students, but she did little for those who were already so emptied of convictions that they believed in nothing. These could only turn their steps toward the great delusion of our time, toward the socialist-communist philosophy of Karl Marx.
She questioned existing patterns of moral behavior and diverted some of us into a blind alley by her pragmatic approach to moral problems. In that sex-saturated period of the twenties, the intellectual young were more interested in the life around them than in the promises of the spirit. It was the day of the flapper, of bobbed hair, of fringed skirts and shapeless dresses, of spiritual blight, and of physical dominance. We considered ourselves the intelligentsia and developed our own code of behavior. Contemptuous of the past and nauseated by the crudeness and ugliness of the period, we regarded ourselves the avant-garde of a new culture.
In my junior year I was elected president of my class. Several of my friends and I became involved with student self-government. It was another opportunity to achieve a sense of importance, to express impatience with our elders, and at the same time to feel we were doing something for our fellow students to exhibit that sense of social mission. To Student Council meeting bright young girls brought in all sorts of dazzling proposals and I, ready to support the experimental and the new, listened eagerly to them all. Our little group grew vocally indignant as we read of fortunes amassed by people whose hardest labor was pulling the ticker tape in a Wall Street office. It was a period of ostentatious vulgarity in the city, and our group became almost ascetic to show its scorn of things material.
As I look back on that febrile group, so eager to help the world, looking about for something to spend themselves on, our earnestness appears pathetic. We had, all of us, a strong will to real goodness. We saw a bleak present and wanted to turn it into a wonderful future for the poor and the troubled. But we had no foundation for solid thinking or effective action. We had no real goals because we had no sound view of mans nature and destiny. We had feelings and emotions, but no standards by which to chart the future.
Later in my junior year I attended with Mina Rees, the Student Council president, an intercollegiate conference at Vassar College. Vassar made us feel at home during the five days we were there. The days and evenings at the dormitories where we stayed were filled with good talk and an exhilarating exchange of ideas.
Many things were discussed at the conference, among them sororities and their possible abolition. Not belonging to a sorority had never troubled me. Now, listening to sharp criticisms of them by a group of delegates, I felt that I had not been too alert regarding this problem. I had always considered them rather infantile but the conference seemed to consider them a social problem.
We discussed the importance of an honor system under student supervision. In line with discussion of the honor system we talked about the question of the punishment of crime: was it to be considered a penalty or a deterrent? The dominant group thought it should be considered only as the latter. But I spoke up and said that surely it should be considered both.
In my senior year I was elected president of Student Council. That year I led the movement to establish the honor system at Hunter. Also in that year I brought politics into student self-government by conducting the first straw vote in the presidential elections. A little later I upset Dean Hickenbottom by insisting on a series of lectures on social hygiene. I was supported by a group of school politicians and I learned the value of a tightly organized group and was exhilarated by the power it gave.
During the previous year Professor Hannah Egan, who taught in the Education Department, stopped me one day in the hall. Why dont you ever come to the Newman Club? she asked.
I tried to find a polite excuse as well as a valid one. Noting my confusion, she said sternly, Bella Visono, ever since you were elected to Student Council and became popular you have been heading straight for hell.
I was flabbergasted. This, I thought, seemed very old-fashioned. But I was dismayed too. I consoled myself by repeating a line from Abu Ben Adhem: Then write me as one who loves his fellow men. That idea cheered me considerably. I threw off the personal responsibility Miss Egan was trying to load on me. The important thing, I said, was to love my fellow man.
This was the new creed, the creed of fellowship, and it was clear the world needed it badly. It was a fine phrase which kept some of the significance of the Cross even while it denied the divinity of the Crucified. It was a creed that willingly accepted pain and self-immolation; but it was skeptical of a promised redemption. I kept reassuring myself that I did not need the old-fashioned Creed any more. I was modern. I was a follower of science. I was going to spend my life serving my fellow men.
In June 1925 I was graduated with honors. Commencement had brought the necessity of thinking about my immediate future. I had already taken the examinations for teaching in both elementary and high schools in New York City and because of the scarcity of teachers I was certain of a position.
The day after commencement I was at Ruth Goldsteins home. We had both enrolled for the summer session at Columbia University, intent on getting masters degrees, and her older sister Gertrude startled us both by asking why we were going to Columbia at all. Now that college is over, you girls must get a job and also a man, she said.
Ruth and I smiled at her words. They did, however, start a chain of thought. During my years at college I had been a student, a politician, a reformer. Now, with time to think, I realized that I was also a woman. I realized also that my education had done little to train me as a woman.
For some time I had known that I must have further surgery on my foot. Now that I was free from school work I made a sudden decision. I went to St. Francis Hospital in the Bronx. Why I chose that hospital I do not know. To the nun who appeared to interview me I said I needed surgery on my foot and I wanted the name of the best surgeon connected with the hospital. She gave me the name of Dr. Edgerton and his office address on Park Avenue. I went immediately to see him.
Dr. Edgerton was a man well over six feet tall and he looked so big and capable that I had confidence in him immediately. I showed him my foot and asked, What do you think of it?
His answer was direct and emphatic. Its a rotten amputation, he said.
Can you do anything for me? I asked timidly.
Of course I can, he said. A clean-cut amputation and youll be able to walk easily. I promise you that you will be able to dance and skate six weeks after you leave the hospital.
There was a further important matter to discuss. How much will it cost? I asked. He named what was no doubt a modest sum for his services. With a self-confidence that surprised even myself I said, I have no money at all now, Dr. Edgerton. Im just out of college but Ill get a job as soon as I am well and then Ill pay you as fast as I can.
He smiled at me. Ill take a chance, he said, and made arrangements for me to enter St. Francis Hospital the next morning.
I was in excellent hands. The Franciscan nurses in charge were competent and so were the lay nurse assistants. When I entered the hospital and was questioned as to my religion I said I had been a Catholic but was now a freethinker, making the statement no doubt with youthful bravado.
As I look back on that time I think it was a pity that no one paid attention to my statement regarding religion. The nuns went in and out of my room and were efficient and friendly. Once or twice I saw a priest go by, but none came in to talk to me. No one spoke to me of religious matters while I was there. Had they done so, I might have responded.
Six weeks after I went home I was walking well, as Dr. Edgerton had promised. I soon obtained a position as a substitute teacher in the History Department of Seward Park High School which, with discipline at a low ebb, was considered a hard school. I was to have six classes in medieval and European history.
When I appeared on the scene the students had been without a teacher for weeks and were at the chalk-and-eraser-throwing stage. I came to my teaching with a sense of reverence for the task and a determination to keep to my ideals, but like all young teachers I had to learn that there is a wide gap between theory and practice. It is in the classroom that a teacher learns how to teach. All courses given on methods of teaching are but guideposts to a basic objective.
The boys had evidently decided to test me. On my second day of teaching I came in to find a fire at the back of the room. I walked over to the smoking debris, put out the fire, and collared the four nearest boys.
Who lit the fire? I demanded. They denied having anything to do with it. There was nothing more to do at the moment. The fire was out, so the lesson in European history continued. I decided to solve my problem without calling either the head of the department or the assistant principal. I asked one of the older boys for help.
Evans, I said, you are older than the rest. Help me with this problem.
Evans scratched his head and said thoughtfully, Listen, Miss Visono, what you have to do is show them that you can take their gaff. After that theyll settle down.
It was good advice. I worked hard to stimulate interest and they did settle down. The rest of the term passed without any more violent demonstrations.
I tried, in line with my acute interest in politics, to interest my young students. I made them bring newspapers to class and I started lively discussions. Most of the boys brought the tabloids and when I spoke of this choice with some annoyance, one of my students, young Morris Levine, said to me, Aw, Miss Visono, what do you want me to read the Times ? I dont own any stocks and bonds.
The school term at Seward Park was to end at the beginning of February. Sometime after the turn of the new year in 1926, Dr. Dawson, the chairman of the Political Science Department at Hunter College, called and offered me a post at the college. I began teaching at Hunter College in February 1926.
THAT SPRING of 1926 I had a full teaching program of fifteen hours a week in freshman political science. Classes were large, and we were crowded for space.
Dr. Dawson, chairman of the department, a Virginian, had been my teacher in all my classes in political science. I knew his temper and his methods. He was a well-mannered gentleman whose method of teaching was unusual, for he simply directed his students to the library and told them to read. In class he never got excited or expressed any passionate opinions. He had taught at Princeton when Woodrow Wilson was president there. He was a Wilsonian Democrat and uncritically supported Wilson and the League of Nations and he believed that the International Court at The Hague was the beginning of international stability. He was a persuasive propagandizer for such reforms as a city manager system, direct primaries, and executive budgets. I had found it easy to accept his beliefs and to make them my own. Never once did we reach fundamental questions on government; all our talk was of superficial formalities.
I had been one of his favorite students because, while many students did little work when given freedom of working, I had thrown myself heart and soul into endless hours of reading in the library, especially the works of De Tocqueville, Lord Bryce, and Charles A. Beard, which gave me an interest in American government and an appreciation of the fundamentals of the Constitution. Because Dr. Dawson was a Virginian, perhaps, we got more than we would otherwise on the subject of states rights.
I was a teacher myself now, but I had no clear perspective as to the objectives of teaching. I did not know what I expected from my students. In lieu of this I tried to stimulate them, to make them think and argue about public questions, and I hoped to have them ready to take action on these in later life. I wanted to have them learn through practical experience as well as through the textbook.
Ruth Goldstein, Margaret Gustaferro, and I became assistants to Dr. Dawson. In 1926 the avalanche of freshmen found the college unprepared. Facilities were inadequate. We three taught our classes at the same time in different sections of the auditorium which had been used as a chapel. We three young teachers had been close friends at college. Now we worked together, developing curricula, bibliographies, and new techniques. All of us enrolled in the graduate school at Columbia University for graduate work in political science.
At that time many professors were slanting their teaching in the direction known as muckraking. Some professors contended publicly that the war had not been fought to make the world safe for democracy and that Germany had been shamefully treated by the Versailles Treaty. It was also a time when Columbia professors fresh from the London School of Economics and from the Brookings Institute were discovering the importance of current activity in political parties and practical politics. Some were beginning to enlist in local political battles. These sent students through the city, climbing stairs and ringing doorbells, to teach them the democratic process by actual research.
We entered on this new kind of laboratory work with zest. We dissected and analyzed local political bosses with the cynicism of old hands, and then we began to push on into political clubhouses to learn still more of this fascinating profession.
One of my courses at Columbia that year was a study of the United States Senate and its treaty-making powers. Some of the professors wondered audibly why Lindsey Rogers, who taught it, regarded this topic important enough to devote an entire course to it. It was then only six years after the Missouri v. Hollanddecision based on a treaty relating to migratory birds and the pattern of treaty law had not yet become apparent to many. I was fascinated by the subject and its implications.
There were other refreshingly new courses that year and new professors, among them Raymond Moley, not yet a Roosevelt brain truster. There were courses on the press and on public opinion. We young people were intrigued by the possibilities of participation in government control and the various means of achieving this.
In our enthusiasm we passed on to our students at Hunter what we had learned. We challenged the traditional thinking they had brought to college with them. We sent out girls to political clubs, too. Soon political leaders began to call Hunter to find out what the idea was of sending the kids to their clubs.
We did not stop it, however. We sent them in pairs to visit courts and jails, legislatures and institutions. When a socialist student asked if groups could visit the socialist clubs, too, we accepted the suggestion. We encouraged them to mix with all groups. Before long we were saying and not yet realizing it was merely a rather meaningless cliché that the radicals of today are the conservatives of tomorrow, that there could be no progress if there were no radicals.
In the days that have gone since we enunciated these statements so confidently I have had many occasions to see that this cataloging of people as either right or left has led to more confusion in American life than perhaps any other false concept. It sounds so simple and so right. By using this schematic device one puts the communists on the left and then one regards them as advanced liberals -after which it is easy to regard them as the enzyme necessary for progress.
Communists usurp the position of the left, but when one examines them in the light of what they really stand for, one sees them as the rankest kind of reactionaries and communism as the most reactionary backward leap in the long history of social movements. It is one which seeks to obliterate in one revolutionary wave two thousand years of mans progress.
During my thirteen years of teaching at Hunter I was to repeat this semantic falsehood many times. I did not see the truth that people are not born right or left nor can they become right or left unless educated on the basis of a philosophy which is as carefully organized and as all-inclusive as communism.
I was among the first of a new kind of teacher who was to come in great numbers to the city colleges. The mark of the decade was on us. We were sophisticated, intellectually snobbish, but usually fetishly democratic with the students. It is true that we understood them better than did many of the older teachers; our sympathy with them was a part of ourselves.
During the afternoons and evenings I continued my work at Columbia. I had Carlton J. H. Hayes on The Rise of Nationalism. I studied closely A. A. Berle and Gardiner Means who wrote of the two hundred corporations that controlled America at the end of World War I. I read widely on imperialism and began to be critical of the role my country was playing. I discovered the John Dewey Society and the Progressive Education Association. I became aware of the popular concept of the social frontier. I also repeated glibly that we had reached the last of our natural frontiers and that the new ones to be sought must be social. There would be, we were told, in the near future a collective society in our world and especially in our country, and in teaching students one must prepare them for that day.
As a result of that years study of American history and national politics, as well as in the direct experience of my students and myself in local politics, I now began to tear apart before my students many respected public groups -charity, church, and other organizations -that were trying to better conditions in old-fashioned ways. This sort of talk had a destructive effect on myself, I now realize, and it had an even worse effect on my more sensitive students. If they followed where I led, there was nothing left for them to believe in. I had tried to wreck their former ways of thought and I had given them no new paths to follow. The reason was simple: I had none myself, because I really didnt know where I was going.
Later when, in the Communist Party, I met one of these former students of mine, it was always with the feeling that I was responsible for her present way of life; it was through me that they had accepted this cold, hard faith they lived by.
But in 1926 I had little thought of the communists except that I did not preclude theirs as a solution of problems. I was merely goading my pupils and myself on to feel that we must do something to help set aright the things wrong in the world. When I became emotional in my talks it was because I was angered at those who had money without working for it and who did not help to lessen the increasing misery of the working population.
There were lighter moments in my days, of course. We met for parties and good talk and sometimes went to the bistros of that era of prohibition. Once I took one of the elderly professors at Hunter to a speakeasy, partly as a lark and partly as a kindness, thinking to show her life.
But Bessie Dean Cooper took the evening in her stride. She was a hardy old lady who taught history and gave the whole department color. Her eleven cats were a legend. That evening she asked me if she could leave one of them with me while she went to Europe; friends were taking over the rest. I promised, and turned the cat over to my mother, along with the food and medicines and careful directions and the cats blanket and pillow. Mother took a look at all this paraphernalia and said briefly, I feed cats like cats, and did so until their mistress returned. Some years later Miss Cooper retired from Hunter and took the eleven cats to live on the French Riviera.
Frequently during this period I went to Teachers College at Columbia. I was always impressed by the large enrollment of teachers from nearly every state in the union. I watched them as they gathered round the trees which bore the shields of their states. I, too, realized what a powerful effect Teachers College could have on American education with thousands of teachers to influence national policy and social thinking.
That year I learned that George Counts, an associate of John Dewey, like him a philosopher and theorist on education, had gone to Russia. He had, of course, been there before. In fact, he had set up the educational system of the revolutionary period for the Russian Government. He had translated the Russian Primer into English and was eager to have the American teachers study it carefully. He promised a report on Russian schools when he returned.
At this period I was influenced by many institutions around the campus at Columbia as much as by the classes I attended. I became a frequent visitor at International House, to which I was first invited by an economics student from the Philippines. There I met among a great many other people Albert Bachman of the French Department who had taught at Tagores school in India and who introduced me to handsome students from the Punjab, like myself young and agog over ideas. We met on a level of equality and tolerance and with the hope that a world could be created by the young men and women of all nations in which all people could live and work on free and equal terms. We were not aware of the tight web of power which set the stage for molding our opinions.
That summer gave me my first opportunity to talk to people of other countries and to learn that they, too, were filled with a passionate desire to better their own countries and the world. I began, under the impetus of such talk, to feel in me a desire to be a citizen of the world. It was a desire that made it easy and natural for me to accept communism and its emphasis on internationalism.
As for the past, when I felt a twinge of regret for what I was putting behind me, I ignored it. I accepted the present, with all its undirected selfishness, but I could not really adjust myself to it. More and more I wanted to talk and act only in terms of the future, of a future that would have none of the corruption of the present. It depressed me that people close to me could accommodate themselves to such a present. Only people I did not know, the great mass of unknown human beings, began to awaken in me a poignant sense of kinship. In fact, I began to transfer my personal feelings to this wholly unknown defeated mass. And so it came about that I began to seek my spiritual home among the dispossessed of the earth.
A teacher cannot help but transmit to her students something of what she is and what she believes and I know I did much damage. But the saving grace in my destructive teaching of that time was that in my personal relationships with these students I retained within me something of the essence of what God had meant me to be a woman, a mother. I loved my students, all of them, the dull, the weak, the strong, the conniving, the twisted. I loved them because they were young and alive, because they were in the process of becoming and had not yet been frozen into a mold by a cynical society or by a conniving power.
I have always enjoyed teaching, for there is in teaching a continual renewing, and in that renewal there is always the promise of that freshness which brings us nearer to perfection. To me freshmen were always a delight as students. They came to college with high resolve, many of them caught by a sense of dedication to learning, and they were not yet pressured by practical considerations of jobs and careers, not yet having to accommodate themselves to the status quo. They were like acolytes just learning the ritual. If I had been able, during these years, I would have prayed hard for the retention of this flame in my students. For the flame is there always. It is in them all, but whether later it bursts into a fire that destroys, or flickers to nothing, depends in great measure on the teacher and the goals and standards she sets.
During my first two teaching years I spent endless free hours in the Columbia Library and in Room 300 at the New York Public Library. For my dissertation for the masters degree I chose the subject: Is Congress a Mirror of the Nation? My paper came to no conclusions. In fact, when I read it over in typed form, I had the unhappy feeling that Congress was somewhat like those Coney Island mirrors which now exaggerate, now underplay, the real.
During my work on this paper I read hundreds of the brief biographies in the Congressional Directory, from the foundation of the Republic to the present, and I found one pattern repeated many times: that of the men who rose from humble beginnings and who struggled to acquire an education. I was impressed by the number who were at first schoolteachers, then put themselves through law school, and later entered politics.
I myself was growing impatient with abstract scholarship, for it seemed to lead nowhere. I hated the emphasis placed in the school system on getting degrees. An M.A. was necessary to hold certain jobs and a Ph.D. was essential for a promotion and an increase in salary. I questioned the value of the many dissertations filed away in the archives. The topics chosen for dissertations seemed more and more inconsequential. And my eager youth longed for significance, for meaning, for participation.
I did not realize what I now know, and have come to know through much turmoil of spirit, that significance is all about us and that it comes from order. There was no order in my life. I had no pattern by which to arrange it. I was moved by feelings and emotions and an accumulation of knowledge which brought me no joy of living.
After I had delivered my dissertations and received my Master of Arts degree in the summer of 1927, Ruth Goldstein and I, both tired out from the years hard work, decided to take a cottage for the summer and get away from New York. So, with Beatrice Feldman, also a Hunter College freshman, we rented a cottage on Schroon Lake, in the Adirondacks.
I was happy to be back in the country. I had not realized how much I missed the land until I found myself back on it. A few years before our own home had gone, taken by the march of progress. During my years at college and of teaching the community around Pilgrims Rest had altered greatly. In place of the straggling countryside of my childhood there was now a bustling community, with apartment houses and subways. We had had to give up our old house because it was dilapidated and not worth repairing. The property was sold, the house pulled down, and the land divided into building lots.
At Schroon Lake, Ruth and Beatrice and I were alone for days at a time. Our friends came for week ends, however, and then our cottage was filled. We had books but we did not read much. We spent hours on the lake, and at times Ruth and Beatrice played tennis and golf while I sat on the grass and watched. And we talked often until late into the night, discussing many subjects. We discussed the theories of John Dewey and of Justice Holmes, we talked of the philosophy of education, and of practical questions about life and love and marriage. We debated the value of many of the things our parents had accepted without fuss or examination.
There is something idyllic about a group of young people who seek nothing from each other except companionship. To me, who had seen my own family disintegrate, this was like a new kind of family. Of course I was not the only one the members of whose family had gone in different directions, or the only one who was attaching herself instead to the social family of the like-minded.
It was a period when houses as homes were disappearing in our larger cities, when one-room apartments were becoming popular. Before that, no matter how poor the family, it never had less than three or more rooms. Now the kitchen was pushed into a tiny alcove, the bed was tucked into a closet, and you lived in one modern room, sometimes elegant and large, but still one room. Marriage for the intellectual proletariat became the process of living with a man or a woman in quarters so small that release and satisfaction had to be found outside the home, lest the walls of one room suffocate the dwellers.
One of the pleasantest events of that summer in the Adirondacks was meeting the Finkelsteins, Louis and Carmel, and their children, a lovely little girl, Hadassah, and a baby named Ezra. Carmel came from a distinguished English family and she spoke with a fascinating accent. I thought that in appearance she and her daughter looked like characters out of the Bible. Dr. Louis was a rabbi from the Bronx and he had the face of an apostle. Often his brothers Hinky and Maurice would come to visit and I loved to listen to them talking together, each topping the other in gay persiflage. I found them exciting because they were not only well read, not only deeply interested in the arts and in philosophy, but also practical men of affairs who understood politics.
My friendship with the Finkelsteins was to continue for years. In them again I saw the warmth of a family which was like-minded, closely knit, and determined to stay together, impervious to the corroding influences of a large industrial city. I asked myself why it was that other families I knew did not have this ability to hold together. I felt that family stability was in great part due to the cherishing of traditions, to the continuous renewing of the memories of the past which included their friendship with God and a boundless loyalty to each other.
One evening that summer I stayed at home with the children. After some time I saw that Hadassah, who had been trying to go to sleep, had begun to cry for no apparent reason. She was a detached sort of child and I thought she did not like me, but now she let me hold her hand as I talked quietly to comfort her. It was obvious she did not know why she was crying, but when she looked up at me the dark eyes full of tears seemed older than those of a little girl and there was an odd fear in the way she sat close to me and wept. When she finally fell asleep, still holding my hand, I sat there with a strange feeling in me, as if she had been crying over a long past, as if two thousand years had been only one night.
That fall I made a sharp switch in my career. Tired of the sterility of graduate work, Ruth Goldstein and I entered New York University Law School. I taught morning and also evening classes at Hunter College and attended my law classes in the afternoons.
The classes at law school were large, sometimes several hundred students. The case system, which was in almost universal use then, did not hold my interest; I found the method dreary. Despite this I liked the study of the law; it was a discipline worth mastering
I also found the students interesting. In one class I sat next to a young man named Samuel Di Falco who is now a Supreme Court judge. He used to find fault with me for scribbling poetry in my notebook when I should have been working on cases.
Ruth also found fault with my preoccupation with other things than the law. For it was true that while the substance of the law intrigued me, because it was a reflection of the past of society which helped me to understand the present, I was not interested in legal procedure, which I felt was intended to preserve an outmoded status quo. My constant preoccupation with the need to change the status quo made me almost impatient with much of the last year of law school. But I did not expect to practice law. I thought of myself as a teacher.
FROM THE FALL of 1927 to June 1930 I attended New York University Law School and taught at Hunter College. It was a period in which I was deeply involved in the activities of the students in my own college a period in which I was not only instructor but served as adviser to many of them, individually and in their group activities.
As a young instructor disturbed by the conflicting currents among the intellectuals I turned to Sarah Parks for advice and clarification. But the teacher I had admired when I was an undergraduate was embroiled in controversy over salary and promotion policies in the college. These were subjects in which I was not interested at that time, for I loved my position as teacher so much that the salary question seemed secondary. But Sarah was aflame over inequities of rank and salary, and for her sake I tried to interest myself in these matters.
This was a period in which I was meeting men and women who were talking ideas and living unorthodox lives. It was a period in which a love of literature, the arts, and an interest in the Russian Revolution became the excuse for leaving home and living in little, cramped apartments in Greenwich Village. It was a period in which we spent long hours, night after night, sitting before fireplaces in some Village garret, talking endlessly.
Sarah had been one of us, but now her absorption with college politics had a quality of desperation. I did not feel that the situation warranted the extremes of emotion she poured into it. I did not know then that I, too, was to follow in her footsteps. At this time I sensed only that a certain emptiness in her life was catapulting her violently into everything she did. I tended to withdraw from our close friendship and to cultivate new friends who built on the foundation she had helped to establish.
When in January 1928 she committed suicide I was thrown into an emotional tailspin. I felt guilty at not having spent more time with her. I thought I had failed her. I was bitter about those at the college to whom she had turned for affection and who, instead, had shut the door upon her. Her death had a profound effect on those of us whom she had influenced. We felt that Sarah had the intellectual courage to believe in the new coming collective society, but not the practical boldness required for becoming a disciplined member of the group. We felt that she thought as a collectivist but fought and lived as an individualist and in our twisted estimate of a human life we felt that this was her failure. We did not recognize that life had become unbearable to her because of the disorder of her thinking which inevitably led to self-destruction.
Careful not to continue on the path which led to her suicide I was to take a longer, more deceptive yet parallel road to annihilation. I refused to retrace my steps to the point of departure into wrong thinking. I did not know then that this could bring only disharmony, confusion, and defeat.
The years 1928 and 1929 were replete with confusion and ugliness. I turned more and more to the literature of despair. I tried to write, but found that my inner confusion reflected itself in my work. For the first time in my life I viewed the future with apprehension. I found little pleasure in anything. My work at law school was mediocre. At Hunter College the classes were getting larger and the students coming to us from the high schools were not well prepared. The sense of dedication to learning was receding.
Many came to college because they were fulfilling for their parents the modern yearning of the uneducated who are determined that their children must have a college education. I was conscious of an increasing mass of young people entering college almost as automatically as they entered grade school and high school. I was aware of the lowering of standards. There was little thinking about the meaning and purpose of a college education and practically no thought of the role of free municipal colleges.
During the spring of 1930 I took the Medina cram courses and prepared for the examination for admission to the New York Bar. The examination over, I requested a leave of absence from the college and with my friend Beatrice left for Europe. In a foolish kind of way I hoped to find there answers which were not forthcoming at home. I was tired and restless. I wanted to escape from all sense of responsibility. I was young and I wanted to enjoy life.
It was a trip rich in new contacts. With a capacity to make friends I found people of interest in every walk of life in the different countries we visited. It was on this trip that I was to meet my future husband, John Dodd.
We landed in Hamburg and I found it an exciting city, filled with merchant seamen, longshoremen, soldiers. There were the nouveau riche with pockets bulging with the countrys wealth. There were Communists everywhere, marching, singing, meeting. There were the decadent risqué night spots. There were also fine old restaurants, old homes and churches, and other evidences of an earlier day. It was a city of contrasts.
Too frequently we came face to face with middle-class Germans with pinched, strained faces, ready, when they noted sympathy, to tell you their troubles. The thing that struck me was their bewilderment. They neither understood the cause of their predicament nor where they were going. We looked at them and listened. But we were Americans with dollars in our purses bent on having a good time.
In Berlin we saw more pinched faces and more blatant lavishness. We were alarmed at the frank and open evidences of sexual and moral degradation flaunted in the night spots and exhibited to the tourists everywhere. The atmosphere o£ the city seemed charged as the air is before an electric storm.
I found some of my friends from Hunter College at the University of Berlin and we had the opportunity to see what was happening at the seats of learning. We talked with university students and professors. The university was torn with strife. Socialists, Communists, National Socialists were battling each other and jointly undermining those who regarded themselves as conservatives attached to their own country by the natural love of ones homeland. Acts of violence were common in the city and around the university.
I was conscious of the fact that here politics had become a matter of life and death. I was conscious also that the intellectuals, the teachers, professors, and scientists were arrogant in their pride but lacked the inner strength to play a salutary role in that countrys hour of need. Here were men of the highest intellectual achievements who were ready to attach themselves to the forces of violence. I did not then realize, as I now do, that for close to a century the educational world of Germany had been subjected to systematic despiritualization which could result only in the dehumanization now apparent. This made it possible for such despiritualized men to serve both the Nazi and later the communist power with a terrifying loyalty and efficiency.
In Germany I frequently discussed the rising tide of conflict, but on one thing professors and students alike were agreed that fascism could never come to Germany. It was possible in Italy, they said, because of the lack of general education such a thing could not happen in Germany. Two institutions would prevent this: the great German universities and the German Civil Service.
When, contrary to their statements, it did happen in Germany, the two great institutions which collapsed first of all were the German universities and the German Civil Service. They were the first to serve the Fuehrer, and it was from them that we were to learn the lesson that education in and of itself is not a deterrent to the destruction of a nation. The real questions to be posed are: what kind of education? to what purpose? with what goal? under what standards?
I was happy to leave Berlin. And now I insisted on a trip which was not on our schedule. I had hitherto generally refused to spend much time in museums and churches but I wanted to go to Dresden and see the Sistine Madonna. It was worth the long trip to see the lovely Virgin and Child and the cherubs at their feet looking like gay little urchins. The day I spent in Dresden was my happiest in Germany.
I was looking forward to Vienna. It was fortunate that Beatrice had relatives in that fabulous capital of the Hapsburgs. But once again we were struck by the pain in the pinched white faces of the native Austrians. We wore our simplest clothes in order not to give offense to the people we met. We had wanted to go to the opera. In an act of renunciation we decided against it because we had watched men and women who loved music stand outside the opera house while tourists and profiteers jammed the place.
Beatrices uncle, who had been a financial adviser in the regime of Franz Joseph, entertained us by taking us to some famous coffeehouses. As he talked of the history of Vienna, I became aware of the fact that he loved the city deeply but recognized it was dying. He told us he had made arrangements to take his family to Uruguay. Once again I was struck by the fact that those who deplored the blight that was upon them had no standard to which to rally. They were frightened. There was a sense of Weltschmerz and a longing to return to the past, but not the slightest awareness as to where they were going.
From Austria we went to Italy. I had looked forward with ill-concealed excitement to a return to the land of my birth. I expected the sense of not belonging which was part of me suddenly to disappear. I was counting on a mystical transformation. We crossed the border, the customs inspector delved through our luggage, we arrived in Venice, and went to a hotel with a German name. But I searched in vain to find the Italy which my memory had treasured and my imagination had embellished.
Venice was a highly sophisticated, gay, brittle, materialistic city. It was overrun by men in uniform. Practically one out of three was a soldier. I went to the Cathedral, but was unmoved by the services. It was crowded with well-dressed people of all nations. Outside, the merchants drove sharp bargains with those who had money. The spiritual, brooding quality of Italy which I had treasured was nowhere apparent and I realized that 1 did not belong in the country I had left as a child. I now saw the tangible evidence of the blight of fascist philosophy.
As a student at Hunter College in the early twenties I had declared myself an anti-fascist at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. It had been an emotional declaration against those smug members of society who talked about the wonders that fascism had accomplished for Italy. I felt they were more concerned with train schedules and sanitation than with the beauty of its culture and the soul of its people.
Yet when we reached Florence I found that even fascism was unable to corrode the unbelievably beautiful symbols of the past. I loved being in Florence. The delicate restraint of its scenery and of its architecture seemed to reflect the character of the people themselves. I found myself standing in the public squares and watching the faces of those who went by, struck by the fact that the simplest shopgirl looked like one of Raphaels models.
I was continually amazed to see the diversity and the beauty of the past culture of the cities of Italy. Venice was unlike Florence. Verona and Bologna were a world apart from Rome. In this day, when there is so much talk about mass culture and so many worship, or are frightened into, an acceptance of the idea of one-world government, I look back to the joy I had in the past culture of these little city-states and wonder if the art and architecture of our day will ever achieve the beauty of that of those earlier times.
When I reached Rome I was more interested in the ruins of classical times than in the monuments to the living spirit at the heart of Christianity. It was evidence of how far 1, through my education and my own perverse pride of mind, had traveled from the past of my own people and from the accumulated wisdom and safety which two thousand years of Christianity could provide for the modern children of the Western world.
I drove miles in the hot sun to visit the grave of the poet Horace and spent hours at the Baths of Caracalla and other ruins of antiquity, and on a moonlit night I looked with awe on the tiers of the Colosseum and had a sense of the length of its past. I visited the Vatican and some of the churches, but the truth is that I visited them largely for their priceless art treasures and was blind to their real significance.
In Rome the power of the fascist state was everywhere in evidence, especially in the number of men in uniform. I thought suddenly of my mother who had a farmers disdain of the military. They all live on our backs, she used to say. And now I thought of Italy as one aching back carrying the vast array of government officials and soldiers.
I had decided to visit the town where I was born to see my foster parents, with whom we had lost touch over the years. However, when I reached Naples there was news of an earthquake so I returned, instead, to Florence. From there we went back into southern Germany for a brief visit.
Beatrice and I went together to Paris, where I picked up my mail at the American Express office. Ruth had cabled, You passed both parts of the bar exam. My mother and father wrote, Come home. We are lonely without you.
On the boat returning home I met a group of New York City schoolteachers, who told me they belonged to the Teachers Union. They discussed the importance of having teachers organize within the labor movement and they urged my friend and me to join the Union. When I pointed out that their union consisted largely of public schoolteachers and that I did not think that college teachers had any place therein, the persistent recruiters assured me that the brains and the original organizers of the American Federation of Teachers were college teachers. I promised to join as an evidence of my willingness to throw in my lot with the working class, even though I did not think the Union could be of help to me personally.
On my return to New York I went to meetings of the Teachers Union. I found them disconcerting because there was so much strife between groups seeking control. I did not then understand why intelligent adults should struggle so hard to control an organization which in numbers was small and insignificant. I was dumfounded to find the names of distinguished professors such as John Dewey and George Counts involved in the controversy.
It was only later, when I better understood left-wing politics, that I became aware of the significance of control of this beachhead.
THE COLLAPSE of the stock market did not immediately affect my family for we had no money invested in stocks or bonds. Therefore it was not difficult for me to leave my post at Hunter College in 1930 to serve a clerkship for admission to the New York Bar. I worked at a nominal salary in the office of Howard Hilton Spellman, who was an excellent lawyer and at that time was writing several texts on corporation law.
During that year I saw a great deal of John Dodd whom I had met on my trip to Europe. At first it seemed we had little in common, for John had an engineers mind and I was disinterested in all machinery, regarding mechanical devices as a kind of black magic. But we soon discovered topics of common interest, such as our love for this country and an awareness of its problems.
Johns family lived in Floyd County, Georgia. Long before I visited his home I had heard him tell the story of how his people had gone into Indian territory and established themselves on the land sixty miles from Atlanta and in the direct line of Shermans march. He had told me of his grandfather who had lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh and of his grandmother who had outwitted Shermans men when they came to her farm; of how his father had turned his land into peach orchards and how he was ruined by railroad rate discrimination that forced Georgia peaches to rot at the siding while California fruit was favored.
When John asked me to marry him, I hesitated. I had given little thought to marriage. I was thinking about a career and those were still the days when women debated marriage or a career, and not marriage and a career. But already economic pressures had pushed many women into business and so limited their activities as homemakers. The women I knew were talking less of homes than they were of dissertations and research. However, I put my doubts aside and we decided to get married.
We did not plan to be married in a church, since John was bitterly anti-clerical. I did not mind the civil marriage; like John, I thought of myself as a freethinker.
One morning in late September we were married at the county clerks office in New York City. John stood tall and straight and blond, and I beside him, small and dark. Our witnesses were two of my friends Beatrice Feldman and Dr. Louis Finkelstein.
When the clerk pronounced us man and wife, I had a sudden sinking feeling in my heart. Why? Had I rushed into marriage before I was ready? Was it that this ceremony was not what I had been taught made a marriage? I do not know. I do know that during the next months I grew to love John more than I had thought I was capable of loving anyone.
I knew how devoted he was to the South and its people and after our marriage we went to visit his home. I had never been South before, but I now realized why so many of its children went to Northern cities for a livelihood.
Johns people were not plantation owners nor did they have share croppers. They owned a lot of land and they worked it themselves. The women worked as hard as the men. I visited some of the Dodd children at the Martha Berry Schools near Johns home and I was struck by the independence and sturdiness of these people. Never after that first visit did I read morbid literature on the South without a sense of resentment at the twisted picture it gave of a section which has great reservoirs of strength, based not on material wealth but upon the integrity of its people.
John was ten years older than I. He had had a variety of experience, having worked in industrial centers, such as Akron and Detroit, and he had seen service as a flier first in the Canadian RAF and later in the American Air Force. In those days of World War I service in that branch was tantamount to joining a suicide squad. As a young soldier he saw many of his comrades killed. He, himself, was in a plane crash at Kelly Field and suffered a spinal injury which left him a highly nervous person.
By 1932 my family felt the results of the depression. My fathers business had come to a standstill. John, too, was meeting financial difficulties. I, therefore, decided to return to my post at Hunter College.
I was stunned by the fury of the impact of the depression on my family and those around me. I watched the line of pale, pinched faces of people who stood before the closed doors of the Bowery Savings Bank on Forty-Second Street. They reminded me of the anxious faces I had seen in Hamburg and Berlin a few years before. I saw men obviously once in good circumstances line up around the block for soup and coffee at mission houses. I saw them furtively pick up cigarette butts from the streets.
I had not been back at Hunter long before I found myself involved in discussions on the economic problems of the staff below professorial ranks. Many instructors and other staff members were underpaid and had no security of tenure or promotion. We organized the Hunter College Instructors Association and I became one of the leading forces in it. We won concessions for this group, and I was elected its representative to the faculty council.
The Instructors Association at Hunter was set up so that the two representatives on the faculty would have a guide as to how their colleagues wished them to vote. It was a new type of organization for college teachers a grass-roots organization for immediate action on important questions of privilege and one in which discussion was uninhibited. Some of the older members of the professorial group were secretly happy to see a rebellious instructors group give the president a hard time, for there had been a change in that office too: we had a new and different type of president now.
When I first came to college President Davis, the incumbent, was an eminently correct scholar and gentleman. He was a Protestant, tolerant of all and removed from all. The faculty was permitted to do pretty much as they pleased because he and they belonged to a homogeneous group. It was a laissez-faire system in which the president selected the heads of departments and they in turn selected their teachers. They were permitted the widest kind of latitude in their personal lives and their methods of teaching. It was the recognized pattern of the liberal arts college of the day.
But President Davis died in the later twenties, and Dr. John Kieran, a kindly old gentleman, who headed the
Department of Education at Hunter was appointed. Dr. Kieran was a Catholic and was regarded by certain members of the faculty as an unfortunate choice for president. But Dr. Kieran had powerful friends in City Hall and the trustees considered him an asset in the constant struggle for the finances which had to be sought from the city budget.
He did not, however, live long enough to make any changes in the administration. When young, vigorous Dr. Eugene Colligan, an Irish Catholic and straight from the public-school system, was chosen to be his successor, there was real consternation among the old guard. Submerged anti-Catholic embers were fanned to flame. The fact that he had come from the administration of a public high school was looked upon as a disaster for the college.
Dr. Colligan misread the nature of the reaction to him. Since he was young and vigorous and happy with his new position, he moved immediately to establish his leadership there, and began bringing in new ideas. But he soon found he was up against a stone wall. His troubles arose not only from the old guard among the faculty but also from the students and from the new type of city politics ushered in in 1932 by the election of Fiorello LaGuardia, which was to New York City what the Roosevelt administration was to the country.
The recognition in 1932 in Washington of the USSR brought a tremendous change in the activities of the communists on our college campus. Recognition brought respectability; it led to the organization of such groups as Friends of the Soviet Union, which was led by engineers and social workers and which soon extended to the world of art and science and to education in general.
At Hunter it brought about a completely changed situation among students, staff, and administration. In our college the initiative was not taken by any of the staff and this included the younger teachers for we had no known members of the Communist Party among us. But communist students went into action and before long had a tremendous impact on these same young teachers. One hears a great deal about the influence of teachers on their students. During this early period of communistic influence on the campus Hunter students and City College students had a much greater effect on the teachers.
Almost overnight and seemingly from nowhere organization arose. Groups of the Young Communist League and the League for Industrial Democracy an organization originating in England among Fabians appeared in our midst, small dedicated bands of young people. This soon led to mass groups of students who began clamoring for the right to meet on the campus; if permission was not granted, they met outside and protested very loudly.
I was very conscious of one thing: these organizations were not springing up spontaneously; some creating group was behind them. But it was true that the student answer was spontaneous and very immediate. Suddenly there had appeared on the indifferent campus a student group who seemed to care, to believe in things, to be willing to work and suffer for what they believed in and cared for. Before long they had infected the entire student body.
At the time I was deep in the struggle of the instructors for a modicum of economic security, and I felt a great kinship with these students. They were the depression babies who were now determined to take matters into their own hands. They were contemptuous of the previous generation which had bequeathed them a legacy of want and depression. They were offered no good hope of future careers. And now, through this new hope that was sweeping the campus, they were going to do something to help themselves.
What they were doing emerged very slowly but it was this: they were unconsciously beginning to ally themselves with the proletariat, with the workers. And from this was born the intellectual proletariat which in the next years was to be the backbone of hundreds of communist organizations and which was, indeed, to provide active men and women for the mass movements of the next twenty years.
Others had heard of our successful organization of the Instructors Association and we were soon approached by representatives from the other city colleges for help. The result was a committee uniting the efforts of the instructors in all the municipally owned colleges of New York City.
Almost immediately this city-wide group was approached by a group from the private colleges. The approach came through Margaret Schlauch of New York University, who arranged meetings which included representatives of Columbia, Long Island University, and the city colleges. We held many meetings at which we discussed the plight of the intellectuals. The men and women gathered together included many able young people : Howard Selsam, now head of the Jefferson School of Social Science; Margaret Schlauch, today a professor in the University of Cracow; her younger sister Helen who later married Infels (an associate of Albert Einstein) who is also teaching in Poland. Sidney Hook stayed with the group a short while, and then left. Together we planned to form the American Association of University Teachers to fight for the breadand-butter issues of the lower ranks of college personnel.
For some unknown reason this organization was short-lived. To replace it Margaret Schlauch called together the remnants of the group and proposed a new type of organization. I did not then realize how the wheels within wheels moved but I did feel something new had come into the picture. Strange people were brought to the little gatherings at Margarets house and though the rest of us were all teachers and college employees, the new figures had nothing to do with the colleges. They began to enlist our group in the struggle against fascism.
To one of the meetings Margaret brought an emaciated woman who talked about the underground movement against fascism. She spoke with an air of authority. Without it Harriet Silverman would have seemed plain to the point of ugliness, but she carried this air of authority like a magic cloak, and it transformed her. She proved a different sort of person from those I had met in organizational work. She talked about the man she called her husband, a man named Engdahl, who was then in Europe to propagandize the Scottsboro Case. Like herself, he was, I learned later, an international agent of the world communist movement.
Harriet singled me out almost from the first. At her invitation I promised to visit her at her home. When she stood up to go I looked at her threadbare tweed coat, her shapeless hat, and I was moved by her evident sense of dedication.
She was the new type of ascetic of our day, a type I was to find prevalent in the Communist Party. She lived in a small remodeled apartment on the East Side and I climbed four steep flights to reach it. The room had a cloistered atmosphere; it was lined with bookshelves on which I noticed Lenins complete works, Karl Marx, Engels, Stalin, Bimbas History o f the Labor Movement, and other books on sociology and labor. There was nothing trivial there. I noted no poetry. On one wall hung a large picture of Lenin, draped with Red flags bearing the hammer and sickle.
Harriet was ill the night I visited her. She sat in an old flannel bathrobe and talked with intensity of plans to remake the world. I was impressed by the fact that she was not concerned about her own poverty, and thought only of the working people of the world. Suddenly I felt that my efforts to increase salaries for a few college teachers were insignificant. She made me feel ashamed of having a good job and a comfortable apartment. So moved was I that I pressed on her all the money I had with me.
Harriet suggested that the group of college teachers gathered at Margarets house should organize an antifascist literature committee for the purpose of doing research, writing pamphlets, and raising funds.
She told me frankly she was a Communist. Im not afraid of labels, I replied. Id join the devil himself to fight fascism.
When I asked Harriet how the money contributed to the anti-fascist cause was distributed, she said, Through the Party and its contacts.
I may have looked skeptical, for she quickly asked, Would you like to meet Earl Browder? I replied in the affirmative, and we made an appointment to meet him the following week at the communist headquarters in Twelfth Street.
When Harriet and I went there we were taken up to the ninth floor in what was more a freight than a passenger elevator. About the whole shabby building I felt the same atmosphere of dedicated poverty that I had found in Harriet in her drab clothes and the drab tenement in which she lived. It was definitely of the people and for the people, I thought.
Earl Browder did not look as I had expected the leader of the Communist Party to look. With his quiet, thoughtful face and shock of gray hair he was exactly like the popular concept of a professor in a small Midwest college.
We talked about various things of our anti-fascist committee, its part in the fight against tyranny, of the necessity of being on friendly terms with all nations which opposed fascism. It was a friendly, pleasant talk and when we left, Earl Browder went to the elevator with us, bidding us good-by with a friendly smile.
At the meetings of the Anti-Fascist Literature Committee we knew there were Communists in our midst, but it was considered bad form to ask questions, and they put on an elaborate display of nonpartisanship, perhaps to condition the rest of us. Our committee did write several pamphlets, but the important thing we did was to raise thousands of dollars for the cause and to spread its propaganda.
Little by little the college teachers who came to these increasingly interesting meetings felt the need of a larger dedication. It was a call to action of the innocents and even today I do not know how many of them were among the innocents.
Sometimes when we grew excited, and when doubts came, Margaret would raise her cool voice, which was as prim and proper as was her D.A.R. background. She could always lessen tension and resolve doubts by some simple remark in her cultivated tones.
To carry out the work of the Anti-Fascist Literature Committee I embarked on a fund-raising campaign supervised by Harriet Silverman. I arranged for meetings and social affairs at my home where we dispensed refreshments and propaganda in return for cash. To these gatherings Harriet began bringing many well-dressed, sophisticated Communists. There were doctors and lawyers and businessmen among our new guests, and there were always a few functionaries of the Party, like Harriet, threadbare and with an ascetic and dedicated air that made the rest of us feel how much more they must be giving than we, the petty bourgeoisie. Other communist types also came, such as men and women in the arts - singers, musicians, dancers, who visited us between acts at night clubs or theaters and added a touch of glamor.
Mingled with these bourgeois elements was another group of Communists who lent a different kind of glamor to the assembled group. These were the real proletarians longshoremen, painters, plumbers, shipping clerks, and sailors. The young college instructors who were the ostensible sponsors of these meetings were given a feeling of participating with the real forces of life. In this rubbing of elbows of Ph.D.s and plumbers helpers there was a leveling of distinctions. The common ground on which we met was that the past of society had been bad, the present was corrupt; and the future would be worth while only if it became collective.
Unemployed councils were being set up on a countrywide basis. In New York the Ex-Servicemens League, which had organized the bonus march to Washington, was especially active. In working with this group on a program for relief and social security I began to meet some odd and interesting characters.
Perhaps Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW, a movement which had supposedly the opposite aims of communism. But in the early thirties all the people who were in unorthodox movements or who had lost their ties with society, whether muckrakers, syndicalists, anarchists, or socialists, were pulled along by the cyclonic fury of the organized communist movement. Without a positive program of their own they were drawn into the vortex of the well-integrated, well-financed movement which was suddenly legalized with the American recognition of the Soviet Union.
Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels. At his headquarters he interviewed the press and they found him good copy. Sometimes, I suppose, he put fresh courage in the hearts of his dispossessed citizens. He made them see themselves as a band of Robin Hoods and not as rejected failures.
In the process of preparing a country for revolution the Communist Party tries to enlist the masses. It seeks to enlist the unattached people, for they have little to lose and are the first to capitulate to organized excitement. But to Paddy freedom meant a great deal. He was willing to defend it with his fists. I doubt whether Paddy would long have served the communist world plan of slavery.
I heard one Party leader say of him: He is a wonderful comrade to help make a revolution but after it is successful we are going to have to kill him because he would immediately proceed to unmake it.
They did not have to kill him; another power did that. When World War II came, Paddy did not seek union immunity; he enlisted long before merchant ships had convoys or anti-aircraft guns for defense. His ship went down in burning oil and he with her. How he would have laughed to see the Government, at the insistence of his union and the communist press, name a liberty ship after him! For the Party was able to make use even of his memory to entrap others.
There were many others besides Paddy who were caught up in the Party either from need or desire. They included the unemployed councils, the fighters against fascism, the foreign-born, and the racial and religious minorities who came under its spell. Even today I can understand the attraction it had for the intellectual proletariat. It was as if a great family welcomed them as members.
I often marveled at the sacrifices made by these Communist Party members. In my classes at Hunter were Young Communist Leaguers who would go without lunch to buy paper and ink and other items for propaganda leaflets. Their emaciated faces made my heart ache. Their halfhearted participation in their studies, their frequent cutting of classes, their sacrifice of academic standing to fulfill some task assigned them, were sad to see. I saw college girls exploited by cold Party hacks. They were expendable, and in their places would come other wide-eyed, eager young people with a desire for sacrifice.
I remember especially an Irish Catholic girl, an organizer of the unemployed and a leader of mass demonstrations. Helen Lynch was tubercular, but she never stopped working for the Party until she died. Then the Communists claimed her as a martyr.
It was true that it was an infectious thing, this comradeship, for so often it helped in dire need such as Rent Parties where Communists gathered money to pay the rent of some comrade. This sort of personal aid did much to overcome the doctrinaire aridity of orders by the functionaries, the title given the bureaucrats, the skeleton staff which stands ready to take over when the Revolution comes to pass.
At Hunter I continued active in the Instructors Association to better the economic conditions of the college teachers. Soon I was invited by a number of communist teachers to attend meetings on lower Fifth Avenue where I met top executives of the so-called Class Room Teachers Association. Ostensibly this was a grass-roots movement of teachers, but they were being taught the techniques of mass action and were carefully organized on the basis of the class-struggle philosophy. They were a disciplined band secretly associated with the Trade Union Unity League led by William Z. Foster.
The Class Room Teachers had two tasks: to convert a considerable number of teachers to a revolutionary approach to problems, and to recruit for the Communist Party as many members as possible. Some of these teachers were also members of the Teachers Union Local 5 of the American Federation of Teachers and therein they formed an organized minority opposition to the prevailing noncommunist leadership.
Like all Red unions of the early thirties, the Class Room Teachers Association helped give publicity to the bread-and-butter problems acute at the time. There were many unemployed teachers in the city and a large number of substitute teachers who were hired by the Board of Education at a low daily wage year in and year out. On such issues the Red organization capitalized while the conservative organizations were too inept to act.
The Class Room Teachers sent mass delegations to the Board of Education. It issued attacks against the officials of the city and jibed at the then-respectable Teachers Union under the leadership of Lefkowitz and Linville. Teachers such as Celia Lewis, Clara Richer, and Max Diamond emerged as leaders of the Red minority within the A. F. of L. Teachers Union. By organizing the unemployed teachers and fighting to have them in the Union, it became clear that before long the Teachers Union would be controlled by the Reds.
I did not become a Communist overnight. It came a little at a time. I had been conditioned by my education and association to accept this materialistic philosophy. Now came new reasons for acceptance. I was grateful for communist support in the struggles of the Instructors Association. I admired the selfless dedication of many who belonged to the Party. They took me into their fraternal circle and made me feel at home. I was not interested in any long-range Party objectives but I did welcome their assistance on immediate issues, and I admired them for their courage. Most of all I respected the way they fought for the forgotten man of the city. So I did not argue with them about the dictatorship of the proletariat which they talked about, or about its implications.
Of course some of my friends were unhappy about my new course. One day when Ruth Goldstein and I were walking down Sixty-eighth Street she spoke bitterly about my new affiliations.
You are getting too involved, Bella, she said. You will get hurt. Wait and see!
I laughed at her. Oh, Ruth, you are too concerned about promotions and tenures. There are other things in life. What about this one-party system that they favor? she demanded.
Well, you know we really have only a one-party system in America right now, I retorted. Remember the Harvard professor who says that both political parties resemble empty bottles with different labels?
Ruth continued arguing and I finally said: Oh, Ruth, I am only interested in the present. What the Communist Party says about the future is not important to me. The sanity of the American people will assert itself. But these people are about the only ones who are doing anything about the rotten conditions of today. That is why I am with them, and, I ended truculently, I will stay with them.
Of course I was not the only American who thought one could go along with the good things the Communists did and then reject their objectives. It was a naive idea and many of us were naive. It took a long time for me to know that once you march with them there is no easy return. I learned over the years that if you stumbled from weariness they had no time to pick up a fallen comrade. They simply marched over him.
The saddest situation I saw in the Party were the hundreds of young people eager to be used. And the Party did use this mass of anonymous people for its immediate purposes. And so young people were burned out before they could reach maturity. But I saw, too, how inexhaustible was the supply of human beings willing to be sacrificed. Much of the strength of the Party, of course, is derived from this very ruthlessness in exploiting people.
On various occasions I was approached to join the Party as a regular member. When I agreed to do so I learned to my surprise that Harriet Silverman had put a stop to it. I was her contact; she said she had taken the matter up with the center and it was decided I was not to join. I must riot be seen at secret Party gatherings. Harriet would give me Marxist literature and my instructions. I was not to be known as a Communist.
I had never indulged in double dealing. It seemed to me that if I agreed with the Party the best way to show it was by joining it. However, I reluctantly accepted discipline. Since I knew something of the struggle to organize the labor movement in America, by analogy the Party began to represent in my thinking an organization of workers who were likewise being hounded by men of wealth and power.
I could not at that time know, as I did later, how men of wealth use the communist movement to bend workers to their will. So I quite willingly adopted the clichés about secrecy being necessary because of the brutality and savagery of the working-class enemies. I soon learned that the members exposed to the public were not the important Communists.
Harriet consoled me about my status in relation to the Party, saying I must be saved for real tasks and must not at this time be exposed. So I became not a member of an idealistic group of which I was proud, but the tool of a secret, well-organized world power. Harriet brought me literature, took the financial contributions I collected, gave me orders.
One day I ran by chance into one of our neighbors, Christopher McGrath, now the Surrogate of Bronx County. I remembered him as a boy on our street who had pulled my hair when I was a child. At the time of this chance meeting he was married and was chairman of the Education Committee of the Assembly for that year.
We chatted about old times, and I asked his aid with our instructors. He was willing to help. Of course he knew nothing of my communist sympathy. Next day at his office we drafted a bill on college teachers tenure which he promised to introduce the following Monday night.
I was surprised at the speed of this and even more at the speed with which word of the bill got around the Hunter College campus. Soon afterward I was called down to President Colligans office and learned that our bill had given tenure to everybody on the staff except the President!
We reworked the bill and eventually the new form satisfied the President, too, and now included professors, instructors, and other college personnel. But the interesting thing was the way I was now looked up to on my campus. In those days teachers were far removed from the legislative process and knew little of it and regarded it as a beneficent kind of black magic.
The fight to pass this bill gave new impetus to the citywide organizations of college teachers. I had some stormy sessions in my home with communist representatives from the three city colleges. We argued until late into the night about amendments. This matter of having to argue with pettifogging perfectionists was to become a common experience in communist life; reports and resolutions were always prepared by a group and the comrades fought over each word so as to achieve an exactitude of political expression.
However, as a result of our combined efforts, the tenure bill was passed and the joint Instructors Associations held a victory luncheon at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. The bill was signed in due course by Governor Lehman.
I now found myself regarded as a legislative expert. My success served to catapult me into a new post, that of legislative representative of the Teachers Union Local 5. I was now an officer of an A.F. of L. union and for this reason more important to the Party.
IN THE SPRING of 1936 I got a six-month leave of absence from the College to serve as the legislative representative of the Teachers Union. I spent much of my time in Albany, in Washington, and at City Hall in New York. I was successful in having two Union bills passed and the Union was well pleased.
I now represented a growing educational pressure group. With the Communists in control, the New York Teachers Union expanded its membership rolls by taking in unemployed teachers, substitute teachers, and WPA teachers. These made a large bloc for political pressure. We added further strength to it by working with the communist section of the PTA and several student organizations.
With these to support campaigns, my activity in politics was greatly increased. I organized this bloc on an assembly-district basis with teacher-union captains in charge of each district. When legislation was pending, I called on my own captains to put pressure on recalcitrant representatives.
The Communist Party was pleased, and later it promoted to important positions with the American Labor Party, which it controlled, many of the teachers who got their first experience in practical politics with teachers district clubs.
At this time I became one of the Teachers Union delegates to the A.F. of L. Central Trades and Labor Council of New York. When I first went to Beethoven Hall on East Fifth Street, Joseph Ryan was president and George Meany was legislative representative.
I was proud of the assignment. I was young and idealistic and eager to serve the workers. I now became a member of the Communist Party fraction in the A.F. of L. This meant that I would meet regularly with the Communist Party members of the A.F. of L. and the leaders of the Party in order to push A.F. of L. policy toward the communist line.
The Party maintained an active fraction in labor groups, including the A.F. of L. In 1934 the Red unions under the title TUUL, led by William Z. Foster, had been ordered liquidated by the Communist International. The radicalized core of workers, trained by Foster, turned their energies to A.F. of L. unions. They attracted new followers by militant support of legislation for the unemployed. This struggle for a worthy cause enabled the Party to build emotional and organizational ties with workers belonging to many unions.
In 1936 I met, through the Party, committees of the striking seamen who, under the leadership of the Communist Party, were fighting both the shipowners and the corrupt leadership of the old I.S.U., an affiliate of the A.F. of L. A rank-and-file movement was organized against the old leadership of the I.S.U. These insurgents were led by Joseph Curran and Blackie Myers, who immediately started a strike, unauthorized by their union, against the shipowners. To gain some support from organized labor they sought assistance from the Central Trades and Labor Council. They wanted to present their grievances before delegates of the citys organized labor body.
I was summoned by the Communist Party and told I had been selected to present to the Central Trades a petition of the striking seamen with their demands for a reorganization of their union along democratic lines. I agreed to cooperate though I was only partly aware of the implications. I met the committee of seamen outside Beethoven Hall. Joseph Curran and a number of other seamen gave me the petition and briefed me.
There was full attendance inside the hall; the leadership expected trouble. When the agenda of the meeting had been covered, I asked for recognition from Joe Ryan and got the floor. To disarm the opposition I talked first about democracy in unions and then I announced breathlessly:
I hereby present the petition of the striking seamen. In the interest of union democracy they are entitled to a hearing.
Pandemonium broke loose. The chairman hit his gavel again and again, so hard that it finally flew from his fingers. That night I was escorted home by a group of the communist delegates who feared I might suffer bodily harm. But the press got the story of the seamens demands and printed it. We had accomplished our mission.
I learned something important that night. I found that acts of daring, supported by the appearances of moral justification, have a terrific impact in building a movement, regardless of whether or not you win. This is a fact the Communists know how to use.
Of course I was hardly representing the teachers by becoming involved in matters which were of no immediate concern to my union. But I had learned that serving the Communist Party was the first requisite for continued leadership in my union.
From my tutors in the Party I learned many communist lessons. I learned that Lenin held in contempt unions interested only in economic betterment of workers, because he held that the liberation of the working class would not come through reforms. I learned that unions which followed a reformist policy were guilty of the Marxist crime of economism. I learned that trade unions are useful only insofar as they could be used politically to win worker acceptance of the theory of class struggle and to convince workers that their only hope of improving their conditions is in revolution.
Again and again I heard Jack Stachel and Foster and lesser Communist Party labor leaders repeat that American workers need to be politicalized and proletarianized. Their feeling was that the American worker was not conscious of his class role because he was too comfortable. In line with this I saw senseless strikes called or prolonged. At first I did not understand the slogan frequently proclaimed by these men: Every defeat is a victory. Loss of salary, or position, or even loss of life was not important as long as it brought the worker to acceptance of the class struggle.
That year I was elected as delegate to the State Federation of Labor convention at Syracuse. The Communists and some of the liberal unions were determined to pass a resolution endorsing the formation of a Labor Party. I attended the Communist Party fraction meeting in New York in preparation for this convention. We went over the resolutions to be introduced and the objectives to be achieved. Assignments were made to individual delegates.
This use of fractions made the Communist Party effective in noncommunist groups. They went prepared, organized, trained, and disciplined with a program worked out in detail, and before other groups had a chance to think the Communists were winning advantages. They worked in every convention as an organized bloc. In other organized blocs the Communists had sleepers, assigned to protect Communist Party interests. These sleepers were active members in noncommunist blocs for the purpose of hamstringing and destroying the power of the opposition.
The progressive bloc at the State Federation convention that year decided to run me for a position in the State Federation of Labor. It seems ridiculous to me now that one so newly come to the labor movement should have been pushed forward against the established machine. But this, too, was a communist tactic, for Communists have no hesitation whatever in bringing unknown people forward into leadership, the more callow or ill-equipped the better, since they will therefore more easily be guided by the Party. The weaker they are, the more certainly they will carry out the Partys wishes. Suddenly and dramatically the Communist Party makes somebodies out of nobodies. If tactics change, they also drop them just as quickly and the somebodies again become nobodies.
By 1936 plans had already been made by important forces in Washington for the launching of the American Labor Party, presumably as a method of solidifying the labor vote in New York for President Roosevelt. The Communists pledged their total support. Of course, no one in his right mind expected the A.F. of L. to move as a bloc into an independent labor party. The purpose was to radicalize the workers of New York and paralyze the two major parties. As I saw it the struggle on the floor of the State Federation convention was to launch the idea of a Labor Party to politicalize labor unions by tying them to a party presumably of their own as does the British Labor Party.
My nomination for office in the state A.F. of L. gave me an opportunity to make a passionate plea for independent political action by organized labor. It was well received. Though I was defeated, as the Communists had expected, I received considerable support. I got the vote not only of the communist delegates but also of many of the representatives of liberal unions.
It did not matter to the Party leader, who masterminded this activity from a hotel room at the convention, that I was fearful my action might result in reprisals against the Teachers Union which desperately needed A.F. of L. support. Ours was a union without job control and our activities were limited to pleading our cause for salaries and working conditions before city and state legislative bodies. We depended on support from organized labor to achieve our program.
In 1936 the communist hold on the A.F. of L. in New York State was slim. The Party was afraid to expose well-placed comrades in the A.F. of L. apparatus, reserving them for key positions in vital industries and for long-range strategy. In addition there were Communists occupying important positions in the unions who enjoyed their union pie card positions, and they objected to being sacrificed even by the Party. These argued that it was more important for them to hold their positions than to be used for mere opposition purposes.
The leadership of the Teachers Union was not affected by a fear of losing jobs; the tenure law for public schoolteachers was now effective. Therefore, the Party leaders found it expedient to use the teacher leaders in the A.F. of L. as the spearhead of A.F. of L. work. In addition teachers were generally better informed about current Party writings and were better disposed to follow the Party line than the old-time communist union leaders who were hampered by the fact that they had to give consideration to the bread-and-butter issues for their unions. Then, too, the teacher representatives were not affected by a desire to preserve pie card positions since there was no material advantage to leadership in the Teachers Union in my day.
But this steady use of the Teachers Union by the Communist Party in the city, in the state, and at times even in the national A.F. of L. brought reprisals from A.F. of L. leaders. They became colder and more unwilling to accede to requests for assistance from the Teachers Union.
When I appeared in Albany in the fall of 1936 as the legislative representative of the Teachers Union, I found I had a hard time ahead of me.
Dr. Lefkowitz, who had represented the Union for many years, was bitter over being replaced by a neophyte who was doing the bidding of the Communist Party. I found that he had prepared for my appearance by announcing to everyone that I was a Communist and he had warned the legislators against co-operating with me.
1 went to the A.F. of L. legislative office on South Hawk Street to talk with Mr. Hanley, but Dr. Lefkowitz had been there before me. I was met with stony politeness. I again wondered why there should be such bitter feeling about the control of a relatively small organization; its total membership in 1936 was under three thousand. I was to learn in the years to come that those who seek to influence public opinion on any question are just as effective with a small as with a large organization; and that it is easier to control a small organization.
I made overtures to the leader of the joint Committee of Teachers Organizations, the conservative association of the New York City teachers. May Andres Healey knew the New York schools and the New York political scene. She was endowed with political shrewdness. When I went to see her she expressed herself in no uncertain terms about the Teachers Union. She did not believe in unions for teachers, she said briefly. It was too bad to have her against me, for though she was not part of the A.F. of L., she had strong connections with their city and state leadership.
We did not receive the wholehearted support of the A.F. of L. because the Teachers Union in America was basically pro-socialist and supported an educational system intended to prepare children for the new economic collectivist system which we regarded as inevitable. This went far beyond A.F. of L. policy of those days.
Though I was at a decided disadvantage in Albany, I was not easily discouraged. I had a good legislative program and the Party comrades had assured me they did not expect me to get passed the bills we were sponsoring. Their real purpose was to have the program popularized and to use this as a means of recruiting more teachers into the Union.
I set to work with a will. I cultivated assemblymen and senators. I studied their districts and learned what problems faced them in elections. I held meetings with voters in their districts. I made many friends among the legislators.
In the fall of that year I went back to my classes at Hunter. By the following spring I asked for another leave of absence, but this time I had to appeal to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to intervene for me with the Board of Trustees to obtain it. The Mayor was a friend of mine and at that time willing to indulge me.
In the May Day parade of 1936 more than five hundred teachers marched with the Communists. These included many college teachers. I was one of them. I had, in fact, been selected to lead the teacher contingent.
I felt excited as I marched with segments of organized labor. This was my gesture of defiance against greed and corruption. It was also an affirmation of my belief that a better world could be created.
Gone now was the pain which had moved me in the earlier years of the 1930s, when I saw crowds of white-faced people standing in front of the closed doors of the Bowery Savings Bank. Gone was the shame I felt when I saw well-bred men furtively pick up cigarette butts from city streets or when I saw soup lines at the mission doors.
In 1936 people had a little more money than in those tragic years of 1932 to 1934. On the whole a tremendous change had taken place in America. Millions of people formerly regarded as middle class found themselves on relief or on WPA and had been merged into the comradeship of the dispossessed. To people of this group the Communist Party brought psychological support. It saved their pride by blaming the economic system for their troubles and it gave them something to hate. It also made it possible for them to give expression to that hate by defiance.
Many of these new proletarians marched that May Day down Eighth Avenue, through streets lined with slum buildings, singing, Arise, ye prisoners of starvation, Arise, ye wretched of the earth, and ending with the promise, Ye have been naught. Ye shall be all. These men and women who marched were drawn together by a sense of loss and a fear of future insecurity.
When the parade disbanded, the college teachers, jubilant because of this mingling with proletarian comrades, gathered at a beer garden where we drank beer and sang again the songs of the workers. We college teachers had come a long way by marching in a Communist May Day parade. We felt part of something new and alive.
With the others I went from one group to another that evening. By the early morning we had reached one of the intimate little night clubs which the Communist Party financed and where Party people were wont to congregate. We were tired by that time and willing to listen to entertainers in the club.
When the paying patrons had gone, we continued our own celebration. We were a mixed group workers being groomed by the Party as labor leaders, intellectuals, men and women of the middle class who were beginning to identify themselves with the proletariat. Only emotion could have bound us together, for our group embraced serious workers with good jobs as well as crackpots and psychopaths and some of lifes misfits.
Beginning in 1936 a prodigious effort was made by the Party in support of the Spanish Civil War, and this continued until 1939. Perhaps no other activity aroused greater devotion among American intellectuals.
Since 1932 the Communist Party had publicized itself as the leading opponent of fascism. It had used the emotional appeal of anti-fascism to bring many people to the acceptance of communism, by posing communism and fascism as alternatives. Its propaganda machine ground out an endless stream of words, pictures, and cartoons. It played on intellectual, humanitarian, racial, and religious sensibilities until it succeeded to an amazing degree in conditioning America to recoil at the word fascist even when people did not know its meaning.
Today I marvel that the world communist movement was able to beat the drums against Germany and never once betray what the inner group knew well: that some of the same forces which gave Hitler his start had also started Lenin and his staff of revolutionists from Switzerland to St. Petersburg to begin the revolution which was to result in the Soviet totalitarian state.
There was not a hint that despite the propaganda of hate unleashed against Germany and Italy, communist representatives were meeting behind the scenes to do business with Italian and German fascists to whom they sold materiel and oil. There was not a hint that Soviet brass was meeting with German brass to redraw the map of Europe. There was no betrayal of these facts until one day they met openly to sign a contract for a new map of Europe a treaty made by Molotov and Von Ribbentrop.
In the Spanish Civil War, the Party called upon its many members in the field of public relations, agents who made their living by writing copy for American business, for the sale of soap, whisky, and cigarettes. They gave the Party tremendous assistance in conditioning the mind of America. People of all ranks joined the campaign for the Loyalists: pacifists, humanitarians, political adventurers, artists, singers, actors, teachers, and preachers. All these and more poured their best efforts into this campaign.
During the Spanish War the Communist Party was able to use some of the best talent of the country against the Catholic Church by repeating ancient appeals to prejudice and by insinuating that the Church was indifferent to the poor and was against those who wanted only to be free.
The communist publicists carefully took for their own the pleasant word of Loyalist and called all who opposed them Franco-Fascists. This was a literary coup which confused many men and women. Violent communist literature repeatedly lumped all of the Church hierarchy on the side of the Fascists, and, using this technique, they sought to destroy the Church by attacking its priests. This was not a new tactic. I had seen it used in our own country over and over again. When the Communists organized Catholic workers, Irish and Polish and Italian, in labor unions they always drove a wedge between lay Catholics and the priests, by flattering the laity and attacking the priests.
In the Spanish campaign the Communists in the United States followed Moscow directives. They were the distant outpost of the Soviet realm and co-ordinated with the Communist International in details. When the call came to organize the American contingent of the International Brigade, the communist port agents of the National Maritime Union along the East Coast provided false passports and expedited the sending of this secret army to a friendly country.
Various unions were combed for members who would join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which was the American division of the International Brigade. The Communists used the prestige of Lincolns name as they had other patriots names to stir mens souls for propaganda purposes.
I, myself, swallowed the Partys lies on the Spanish Civil War. There was little forthcoming from American national leaders to expose this fraud. The Party, from time to time, produced a few poor, bewildered Spanish priests who, we were told, were Loyalists and these were publicized as the Peoples priests as against the others, the Fascists. In retrospect it is easy to see how completely they twisted the Americans love of freedom and justice to win emotional support for the Soviet adventure in Spain.
Through numerous committees the Communist Party raised thousands of dollars for its Spanish campaign. But the tremendous advertising campaign could not have been financed from the contributions made at mass meetings and other gatherings, though these were not small sums. I remember one mass meeting (where I made the speech), held under the auspices of the Teachers Union. It netted more than twelve thousand dollars.
It became obvious, as the extensive campaign went on, that some of the funds were coming from sources other than the collections. It is now well known that the Soviet Union was doing everything in its power to bring the foreign policy of the United States into conformity with its own devious plans and that it did not hesitate to use trickery to do so. It wanted the United States to support Soviet policy on Spain. I did not understand this at the time. After that odd pieces of information and desultory recollections of events stayed in my mind and finally pieced out an understandable picture.
As one example of the puzzle that finally became a picture there is the story of the Erica Reed, which will serve as an example of hundreds of others. It was supposed to be a mercy ship taking food, milk, and medicines to hard-pressed Barcelona. It was chartered ostensibly by the North American Committee for Loyalist Spain. In reality it was financed by Soviet agents.
The Erica Reed was laid up in New Orleans. At that time anti-communists were in control of the National Maritime Union in the Gulf, and the ship was manned by a crew which was either anti-communist or nonpolitical. This did not fit into the plans of the Soviet agent and the American Communists working with him. So it was decided to bring the Erica Reed to New York and there replace her crew with trusted Party men.
The little Soviet agent in a rumpled suit who sat in a New York hotel with several Communists from the National Maritime Union, and with Roy Hudson, then the Party whip on the water front, excitedly peeled off hundred-dollar bills from a huge wad and insisted that a trustworthy crew be placed on the Erica Reed, even if the old crew had to be removed by force and hospitalized.
Later, I talked to one of the men assigned to switch crews. A group had been ordered to board the vessel at night. Armed with blackjacks and lead pipes, they set to work. Some of the crew suffered broken jaws, arms, and legs,, and, as the little Soviet agent had planned, some were hospitalized. In addition a crowd of boys from the fur market, who were told they must fight fascism, congregated near the East Side pier where the ship was docked. They attacked the members of the crew who escaped the goon squad on the ship. They did not know that they were assaulting fellow Americans and were confused as to what the fracas was about.
Only the captain, an old Scandinavian, remained of the original crew. The new crew signed on by the New York office of the Union were nearly all pro-communist sailors, some of whom were looking for an opportunity for violent action and adventure.
When the Erica Reed left Sandy Hook, customs inspectors swarmed over her. But they found no arms or ammunition, and left the ship with only one bit of contraband: a communist blonde who was determined to go to Spain, and who was removed from the cabin of the chief engineer.
When the Erica Reed cleared Gibraltar and nosed toward her destination, Francos gunboats ordered her to stop. The captain, concerned for the safety of his vessel, made ready to do so. As he turned to give the order, a communist member of the crew held a pistol to the captains head and commanded, Proceed to Barcelona.
The Spanish gunboat, reluctant to seize a ship flying the American flag, returned to headquarters for further instructions. The relief ship with its supplies reached Barcelona where she was immediately ordered to Odessa. And so the Erica Reed, ostensibly chartered by the North American Committee for Loyalist Spain, was sent to Odessa by her real charterer, the Soviet Union. The Spanish people were expendable.
During those years house parties were held by our union members to raise money for Loyalist Spain. Union and nonunion teachers were invited. Communists and non-communists rubbed shoulders and drank cocktails together. Eyes grew moist as the guests were told of bombs dropped on little children in Bilboa.
The International Brigade was eulogized by many Americans. They failed to realize that the first international army under Soviet leadership had been born; that though all the national subdivisions had national commissars, these were under Soviet commissars ! There was the Lincoln Brigade and the Garibaldi Brigade. There was the emerging world military communist leadership developing in Spain. There was Thompson for the United States, Tito for Yugoslavia, Andre Marty for France, and others to act as the new leaders in other countries.
We teachers recruited soldiers for the Lincoln Brigade. I learned that Sid Babsky, a teacher of the fifth grade in Public School Number 6 in the Bronx who had been a classmate of mine at law school, was among the first to go. He did not return. Ralph Wardlaw, son of a Georgian minister, suddenly left his classes at City College and, without even packing his clothes, left for Spain. Six weeks later we received word of his death. Some of our substitute teachers enlisted and were spirited away to Soviet agents who got them out of the country with or without passports. In Paris they went to a certain address and there were directed across the border.
During this time communist girls wore gold liberty bells inscribed Lincoln Brigade, as a symbol of their pride in those fighting fascism. One of our talented Teachers Union members wrote a marching song which we sang at our meetings:
Abraham Lincoln lives again. Abraham Lincoln marches.
Up tall he stands and his great big hand
Holds a gun.
With the Lincoln Battalion behind him,
He fights for the freedom of Spain.
And at various social affairs we also sang Non Pasaron; and sometimes with fists closed and lifted we shouted the German International brigade song, Freiheit.