I GAVE UP my Hunter College work mainly because I felt I could not serve two masters. If I remained a teacher, I felt my undivided attention ought to be given to my students and not shared with outside organizations. I was afraid also that, if I remained a teacher, as many teacher politicians did, there would be a conflict between my desire to serve the interests of the college and my sense of dedication to the interests of the “downtrodden.”
I made the choice without regard for the future, confident that in the working class I should find satisfaction and security. As the legislative year again approached, I became a full-time employee of the Teachers Union at sixty dollars a week. This is the salary I received during the years I worked for the Union. I did not then or later ask for an increase. I was sensitive about workers’ money. I had heard so much about “pie card artists” who were the opportunists and careerists in the trade-unions movement that I did not want to tempt myself. I worked for the Union for eight years at that salary.
In that first year I devoted myself especially to pressuring the New York Board of Education to fulfill its moral obligation to thousands of substitute teachers who had been in the schools during the depression as per-diem employees. They taught a full program on a par with the regularly appointed teachers in all things except that they did not receive an annual wage, had no vacation pay, and were docked for every day ill or absent. These teachers hated holidays, for on those days they went unpaid, and they had no pension rights. They were called “substitute” teachers, but they were not substituting for anyone.
The result was an educational jungle in which only the most strident voices could be heard. In fact the law of the jungle itself was sometimes followed. The WPA teachers, the substitutes, the instructors’ associations in the colleges, were goaded by a sense of injustice and a fear of failure. This was the lush soil in which the communist teachers’ fraction in the Teachers Union flourished.
The fact that the opportunity for free public education was provided in New York City from grades through college without expense to parents, with even textbooks free, created an intellectual proletariat. These men and women needed jobs commensurate with their education, and teaching at that time was the work most sought by them. When these would-be teachers began to run into the political ineptness and the callous do-nothing policy of the educational authorities there was bound to be conflict.
In the substitute teachers’ campaign I attracted thousands of nonunion teachers. I felt I had to find a way to help them. And in a quiet way they began to be grateful to the Communists.
There were dark by-products of the struggle. The younger teachers who had been forced into the WPA and substitute-teacher categories were the children of the most recent immigrants, the Italians, the Greeks, the Jews from Russia, and the Slavs. Merging with this group were the children of the expanding Negro population of the city who were qualified educationally for professional jobs. The positions of power and of educational supervision, however, were held mostly by persons of English, Scotch, and Irish origin.
The Communists, who are unerring in attaching themselves to an explosive situation, had their answers for these troubled young teachers. Their chief answer was that we had reached the “breakdown of the capitalist system.” To those who were self-conscious on race or religion they said that “religious or racial discrimination” was the cause. When individual instances of bigotry and discrimination arose, the Communists were quick to note them and to exaggerate them. So a cleavage was established between the older teachers, who were largely Protestants, Catholics, and conservative Jews, and the new teachers who were increasingly freethinkers, atheists, or agnostics, and sometimes called themselves “humanists.”
The Teachers Union was in a dilemma on the substitute teacher question. On the one hand, it wanted to cater to the older and more established teachers who were saying that the Union was championing only the rag, tag, and bobtail of the profession. On the other hand, it knew that the substitutes of today would be the regulars of the future, and besides more Communists could be recruited from those pinched economically.
The fraction leaders of the Union were divided on the issue. Some were willing to drop it because they wanted to hold a position of authority among the regular teachers, so that they could influence educational policy and curriculum change. I sometimes came back from Albany to find the old guard with set, grim faces, and I knew they had been discussing the disavowal of the campaign for the substitute teachers.
To me it was a cause, and I appealed to the Party for a decision. I received a favorable one.
I now began consciously to build new Party leadership in the Union. I surrounded myself with younger Party members who were more alert to new situations and did not think in rigid Marxist patterns.
We did not succeed in passing the substitute-teacher legislation for which we fought at Albany. But we made it the most controversial legislation of the 1938 sessions. Later, when it was passed by the legislature, Governor Lehman vetoed it reluctantly after the entire Board of Education had used its power against it. However, in vetoing it he urged New York City to do something about the situation. He added that if the city failed to do so he would act favorably on such legislation in the future.
The Union and the communist group grew immeasurably in stature and prestige among the new crop of teachers and among other civil-service employees. Even politicians and public officials respected us for our relentless campaign.
I was weary at the end of that session. Yet I stayed in Albany to attend the State Constitutional Convention, determined to write into the new constitution guarantees for an expanding public-school system. Charles Poletti, former lieutenant governor and Supreme Court judge, was secretary of the Convention, and he, together with Edward Weinfeld, now a federal judge, was helpful in safeguarding the achievements of the public-school system.
In the fall of 1938, the American Labor Party nominated me for the Assembly in the old Tenth Assembly district, the area including Greenwich Village. It was a famous district represented at various times by Herbert Brownell and MacNeil Mitchell. On the ticket with me and running for Congress from the same area was George Backer, at that time married to Dorothy Schiff, owner of the New York Post. It was the period when the Alex Rose-David Dubinsky wing of the Labor Party and the communist wing were still in coalition — an uneasy alliance born of expediency. Both were seeking control of New York State politics.
The Teachers Union organized my campaign committee. We wrote political songs, made recordings, and did a great deal of street-corner speaking. By this time I had taken part in so many election campaigns in difficult areas that I developed a facility for speechmaking. One of my favorite charges was that the candidates of the Republican Party and of the Democratic Party were lawyers connected with the same law partnership, a firm which represented the public-utility interests. We used to enlarge on this fact, and concluded with “Tweedledum and Tweedledee — you’d better vote the ALP.”
Late one evening, as I was winding up a street-corner meeting at Seventh Avenue and Fourteenth Street, I saw David Dubinsky, who lived in the neighborhood, and George Meany go by. They stopped to listen for a few moments, then smiled at each other, and went on. Suddenly, and for the first time, there came over me a sense of futility over this endless activity in which the Communists were involving me.
That year John and I were living in a small and charming house on West Eleventh Street. My parents occupied one floor, John and I the next, and the duplex above us we rented to Susan Woodruff and her husband. Susan was a dear old lady whose husband was a Princeton graduate and a Republican. Susan, on the other hand, was an avowed Communist and admirer of the Soviet Union, though like her husband she traced her ancestry to the early settlers of America. Later she became one of the three old ladies who ostensibly owned the Daily Worker.
I loved Susan and respected her for the honesty of her open affection for the Soviet Union. She had gone to Russia in the thirties and had taken pictures of Soviet scenes. These she had arranged in slides and she offered to show them free as well as give a lecture to churches and Y’s. She genuinely believed that the Soviet Union meant an advance for humanity and she was eager to do her part in strengthening it.
The Party was always happy to use such voluntary propagandists. Even anti-communists never attempted to show such people as Susan that Communists and their fellow travelers were helping to undermine not a selfish capitalist class, but the very life of her own group. She was surrounded by like-minded people, Mary van Kleek of the Russell Sage Foundation, Josephine Truslow Adams, Annie Pennypacker, and Ferdinanda Reed. When I saw Susan and others of old American families devoted to the principles of service to humanity it helped to allay any doubts I had.
At the end of 1938 we gave up our house in the Village and moved to one in Poughkeepsie because my parents wanted to be in the country. My father’s health was failing. My mother welcomed the chance to be in the country again. I kept a room in the city and went home for week ends. John was often away on business and the rest of the time he stayed in Poughkeepsie, for he, too, preferred country living.
The legislative session of 1939 had reflected the now deepening depression which had been gathering momentum. The public hearings on the state budget which took place on Lincoln’s Birthday brought demands for a cut
in state aid to education. It was a struggle now between the organized taxpayer group with the slogan, “Ax the tax,” and the Teachers Union which led an army of teachers and parents with the counter slogan, “Don’t use the ax on the child.” But a ten per cent cut in state aid was passed — a cut which we felt endangered the education program and meant a loss of teachers’ jobs.
At the end of the session the legislature passed a resolution calling for a legislative investigation into the costs of education and of the administrative procedures of education. There was a rider at the end calling for an investigation into the subversive activities of teachers in New York City.
I called immediate attention to the fact that the study of the costs of education was tied to one for investigating subversive activities. I concluded that the legislative leaders wanted to reduce costs, but that in order to do so it would be necessary to smear the teachers. I charged they were using a Red-baiting technique to undermine education.
Neither Mayor LaGuardia nor the officials of the American Labor Party would move to ward off this attack. A legislative committee was appointed, headed by Senator Frederic Coudert, a Republican from New York City, and Herbert Rapp, a Republican from upstate. Other teacher organizations discounted this attack on the educational budget and regarded it merely as an attack on the Teachers Union, and no doubt were secretly pleased.
In April 1939 John called me in Albany and urged me to come home immediately. My father was dying in St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie.
I was very grateful to John that despite his hostility to Catholicism he had recognized my father’s wishes and had called a Catholic doctor and then taken him to a Catholic hospital. Ruth Jenkins, my secretary, drove me at a furious speed through a night of sleety rain. When I reached the hospital, my father was alone behind screens with an oxygen tank beside him, unconscious or asleep.
A nun attending him told me he had received the last rites. I felt thankful though I had long since ceased believing in such things myself. I did feel that something was needed to lessen the pain of dying and to give life meaning.
As I stood by my father’s bedside looking at him, my hand over his, he opened his eyes, still so blue and bright, and, though he could not speak, he looked at me steadily, and then a single tear fell from his eye. It cut into me and troubled me for years afterward, for somehow it seemed to represent his sorrow about me. I thought, with remorse, how in these cluttered years I had failed him as a daughter and had left him without my companionship.
He was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery at Poughkeepsie. There were not many at the funeral but the town officials gave him a motor escort to the cemetery, as evidence of their affection for him as a friend and good citizen. After the funeral I went back to Albany with a heavy heart to face a mass of work.
The Communist Party had been quick to realize that to avert the attack on the communist teachers, a thing which might lead to the heart of the Party, it must help the campaign against the pending Rapp-Coudert investigation. In a move to spare the Union the strain of all this and also to bring people other than teachers into the fight, we organized a committee called “Friends of the Free Public Schools.” Under its aegis we collected funds, more than $150,000 the first year. We published attractive booklets which we sent to teacher organizations, to trade unions, to women’s clubs, to public officials.
I set up a booth and an exhibit at the New York State Fair in Syracuse and I covered numerous county fairs, issuing a strident call for aid to the public schools. We got free time on dozens of radio programs. We put on interesting programs over a radio station in New York. We organized “Save Our Schools” community clubs, made up of teachers, parents, trade unionists, students, and young people. We were a well-trained army and by our well-organized action we gave people a feeling that in the long run we would win.
That summer saw a new attack on the New York Teachers Union. Friends of Dr. Lefkowitz, largely from the professorial group in the American Federation of Teachers, together with a socialist bloc, some old-line A.F. of L. members, and some anti-communists, were organized. They were under leadership of Dr. George Counts and Professor John Childs of Teachers College, Professor George Axtelle of Chicago, the socialist teachers’ bloc of Detroit, the Teachers Union of Atlanta, Selma Borchard of Washington, and George Googe who was the A.F. of L. representative at the convention that year. These, together with New York City minority groups, chief among whom were Lovestonites led by Ben Davidson (later secretary of the Liberal Party of New York City) and his wife Eve, formed a mixed group but it united for one objective.
They planned to take the leadership in the Federation from the Communists. But the Party brought in reserve strength from the Northwest, from California, from the South, in addition to its forces in the East and New England. We had not been too successful in the Middle West, where the conservative Chicago Teachers Union and the St. Paul and Minneapolis teachers with their large locals swamped the small locals of college teachers and private schoolteachers which we had been able to establish. Loss of control faced the Communists.
To make matters worse, news of the Soviet-Nazi pact broke during the week of the convention, with the result that we were now driven into a minority position. Even though some hidden Communists remained in office, we were powerless to use the American Federation of Teachers to help the distraught New York locals. We feared that the newly elected officers would do their own investigating of the New York situation, and perhaps lift our charters.
The Soviet-Nazi collaboration came at a time when the civilized world could no longer remain silent at the Nazi atrocities against Jews and other minorities. The large Jewish membership of the unions under the leadership of David Dubinsky and Alex Rose had its own reasons for hating the Communists, reasons arising out of the old feuds and the struggle to control unions, and because of the untrustworthiness of the Communists in joint enterprises. Now these people were genuinely outraged at the picture of Molotov shaking hands with Von Ribbentrop.
The Jewish people within the Party were also disturbed and quite a few left it. Those who remained, rationalized the event on the ground that the warmongers of the West wanted to destroy the Soviet Fatherland, so in self-defense it had outfoxed the Western “warmongers” by making an alliance with their enemy. I was too busy with the teachers’ problem to give much attention to this outrage though it troubled me.
Though the Communists supported Mayor LaGuardia in the election campaigns I became impatient with his attitude on teacher problems and finally to exert pressure we threw a picket line around City Hall. We made a singing picket line; twenty-four hours of it, an all-day and all-night picketing and, as a publicity stunt, I announced to the press that there would be prayers at sunrise. I tried to get a Catholic priest to say the sunrise prayers for us, but even the priests from the poor parishes around City Hall looked at me oddly and said they could not do it without permission from the chancery. I offered to pay them, to make a contribution to their charities, but they only eyed me more oddly and refused with thanks. Eventually a liberal minister agreed to come and lead our pickets in prayer.
The Party did not arrange for that picket line but it was pleased when the news hit the front pages of the newspapers and they used pictures of the pickets at morning prayer. Strange as it may seem, I believe we did pray that morning.
This episode ended my friendship with LaGuardia, for he was furious at the adverse publicity. It did accomplish something. The Board of Education was ordered to look into the situation of the substitute teachers.
By fall of 1939 the Rapp-Coudert Committee had settled down to work with a score of investigators. On the committee were men I could not dislike, mild, fair men such as Robert Morris, Philip Haberman of the Anti-Defamation League, and Charles S. Whitman, son of the former governor of New York.
Assemblyman Rapp was an up-stater concerned chiefly with educational finance and administration. So he played a negligible role in the investigation.
That left one person on whom to turn our combined fury. Senator Coudert was a Republican, cold and patrician in appearance. Because of his international law firm with an office in Paris and the fact that it acted for many White Russians, we looked on him as an agent of imperialism. From the Communist Party and from the men who represented the Soviet interests in this country we got the go-ahead signal to make him our target. The Party placed its forces at the teachers’ disposal, since the teachers were now in the vanguard holding the line in defense of the Party itself.
I knew that the fight would be bitter, but I was not prepared for its violence. The first attack was on the membership lists of the Teachers Union. Within the Union there were still those who belonged to the splinter groups, Lovestonites, Trotskyites, Socialists, but in the course of the fight in 1940 these splinter groups left the Union and busied themselves in other organizations. Local Five was served with a demand, a subpoena duces tecum,by the Rapp-Coudert Committee to produce all our records, membership lists, and financial reports.
There was general consultation. The Party established a joint chief-of-staff group with several from the teachers’ fraction. It included such Party leaders as Israel Amter, Jack Stackel, Charles Krumbein, all from Party headquarters, and several of the Party’s lawyers. They were a top command to direct operations. The strategy decided on was to defend the teachers by defending the Party. The lesser policy, or tactics, was to be established from day to day.
For the “Committee to Defend the Public Schools” we hired a battery of lawyers, as it was impossible for one lawyer to attend to the many demands. We decided to fight the seizure of our Union membership lists all the way to the Court of Appeals. This would gain time and enable us to continue organizing the mass campaigns against the legislative committee. It would also serve to wear out the investigating committee.
To protect our membership lists we appealed for tradeunion support. We sent speakers to union meetings on the water front, to the hotel and restaurant workers, to the meat cutters, to the state, county, and municipal workers, both A.F. of L. and CIO. We trained speakers, prepared speakers’ outlines, mimeographed form resolutions, and sent hundreds of form telegraph messages to the governor and to majority and minority leaders.
We tried even the impossible. I remember one state A.F. of L. meeting in Albany presided over by Tom Lyons, then its president. I asked for the floor, made an appeal for support, reminded the delegates that the struggle for union organization had been a long and tough one, that at one time union men carried their cards in the soles of their shoes. I pointed out that though it was our Union which was under attack, it might be theirs tomorrow. Then I moved for support.
I got none whatsoever. The communist delegates in that audience were afraid to speak up. And then I saw that there was more compassion in the face of Tom Lyons who was opposed to everything I stood for than in the faces of the comrades who were preserving their own skins.
It had been our decision that membership lists were not to be turned over to the Committee even if we lost in the courts. The membership files were turned over to me and I was ordered to refuse to turn the lists in, preferring jail if necessary. I happened to be out of the office when the Committee came to demand them, and Miss Wallas, in whose custody were the public schoolteacher lists, gave them to the representatives of the Committee, presumably at Mr. Hendley’s direction.
I burned the lists of the college Union teachers which were in my possession. We were afraid that through them the Committee would be able to trace a pattern of membership, since our cards showed who sponsored each individual and the date on which he joined.
Once the Committee got the cards it began to issue subpoenas. We instructed those teachers who were not Party members to appear before the Committee and to tell the truth. But there were hundreds for whom the truth might mean dismissal, and these we decided to protect.
The Party now placed at our services its intelligence apparatus, for the Communist Party has its own intelligence officers, in splinter groups, in the trade unions, in major divisions of our body politic, in the police departments, and in intelligence divisions of the Government. I was to see some proof of its efficiency. For no sooner did the Rapp-Coudert Committee begin to issue subpoenas than I got a message from Chester, who was in charge of the Party Intelligence, assuring me he had arranged for a liaison who would meet me regularly with information on what was going on in the Rapp-Coudert Committee.
I met my contact daily, in cafeterias, restaurants, and public buildings. She was an attractive, aristocratic blonde, well-dressed and charming. She gave me slips of paper which bore the names of those witnesses whom the Committee was using to get information and a list of those who were to be subpoenaed.
Armed with this advance information, we would go to the Union members who were to be called and warn them. If we wanted to gain time, the person was told to send word he was sick, even enter a hospital if necessary. If it were feasible, he was to move. If not, we assigned a lawyer or a Union representative to go with the person to the hearing. Most of the teachers were instructed not to answer questions and to take a possible contempt citation. Some were instructed to resign from their jobs, because we feared the Committee would publish the facts about their international connections. If the teachers told the truth, they might involve other Party contacts.
The Coudert Committee issued more than six hundred subpoenas. The teachers over whom the Party had control followed our directions and instructions. Because they were forewarned by us they were able, with our assistance, to prepare defense stories to give the Committee. After each person had been down to the Committee meeting he was instructed by us to write an exact resume of what had transpired with all the questions and answers, and these were delivered to our Defense Committee. We studied these resumes for possible evidence of the trend of the Committee’s inquiry so that we could better arm the next batch of teachers to be called.
It was while I was going over these stories that I realized for the first time just how important a part of the communist movement in America the teachers were. They touched practically every phase of Party work. They were not used only as teachers in Party education, where they gave their services free of charge, but in the summer they traveled and visited Party figures in other countries. Most of them were an idealistic, selfless lot who manned front committees and were the backbone of the Party’s strength in the Labor Party and later in the Progressive Party. Even in the inner Party apparatus they performed invaluable services. They provided the Party with thousands of contacts among young people, women’s organizations, and professional groups. They were generous in helping finance Party activities. Some supported husbands who were Party organizers or on special assignment for the Party.
There is no doubt that the Rapp-Coudert investigation of New York City schools provided the legislature with a great deal of information on how Communists work. It also provided a good example of how they fight back, sometimes by a defensive fight against those conducting the investigation and with every weapon at the Party’s disposal, including smearing, name-calling, frameup, careful combing of each investigator’s history and background. If there is nothing that can be attacked, then some innuendo is whispered which by repetition snowballs into a smear and makes the public say, “Where there is smoke there must be fire.”
Sometimes the campaign is on the offensive. Some angle is found to explain the evil motives of those who are conducting the investigation, perhaps to show that the investigation is itself a blind for some ulterior motive and that the result will deprive people of certain rights. In the teacher fight we steadfastly kept before the public the idea that the investigation was intended to rob the public schools of financial support and to promote religious and racial bigotry.
Little by little we won the campaign, at least in the opinion of many people; and we distracted the attention of the public from the specific work of the Committee. Support for the teachers, which at first had come only from the Communist Party, increased and included liberals, left trade unions, national group organizations, religious organizations, then political parties of the left, then leftwing Democrats, then so-called Progressive Republicans. All the support, however, was for tangential issues and not the basic issue. It did not matter to us so long as they marched at our side. Their reasons were unimportant to us.
The United States was in process of being coaxed into an alliance with England and France at this time. At first the Communist Party was in seeming opposition to this because of the Soviet-Nazi pact, and United Party members became anti-war. Party groups began making alliances with the most vicious pro-Hitler groups in America. These communist activities of a low order always suck in those who begin as more or less sincere but misguided idealists but remain to follow the Party blindly. The Daily Worker editorials continuously blasted the Rapp-Coudert Committee as a technique of the warmongers.
The American Communists came close to pacifism in those days. This phase did not last, but in the course of it the Teachers Defense Committee published a book called Winter Soldiers, of which some ten thousand copies were printed. It was beautifully illustrated. We had cartoons contributed by leading artists because the proceeds were to go to the Defense Committee. But we were forced to desist from further distribution when we learned that the International Communist line had changed once again and the Party was now pro-war, as the Communist International had always intended that America should be.
The International had frightened the Western world by its alliance with Hitler; now the campaign to involve America in the world war was once again in full swing. This time the Party had some difficulty, because so many new friends of the Party found it difficult to swing nonchalantly from a support of pacifism to a support of war. Thousands of students under the impetus of the Communists had taken the Oxford oath against war. Many had read with joy the anti-war poems of Mike Quinn, who had also provided the CIO with its slogan, “The Yanks are not coming.” Thousands of women had worked with the Party on its mass committees, such as the League against War and Fascism — a title which was later changed to American Committee for Peace and Democracy, and then to American Mobilization Committee.
In 1940 I had been selected by the Party to lead a committee called Women’s Trade Union Committee for Peace. We raised money, hired a young man to do public relations, and arranged a mass delegation to Washington. There we lobbied with representatives and senators. We went on the air with pro-German speakers. We set up a continuous picket line in front of the White House.
It had been at this time that a final break came between my husband and myself. For some time John had been disturbed by my increasing activity with the Communists. He himself was pro-British. He had served in the Canadian Air Service during World War I until America’s entry. He despised what he called the “phony peace” campaigns. There were other and personal reasons why our marriage had not been successful, but the breaking point came at this time. He told me he was leaving for Florida to get a divorce.
I stayed on at our apartment in Perry Street. My mother had come to live with us some months before. I shuttled back and forth between Albany and New York that spring, devoting all my time to the Union and other Party causes. It was during these months that I developed my deepest loyalty to the Communist Party. In great part this was because I was grateful to them for their support of the teachers.
I still did not see communism as a conspiracy. I regarded it as a philosophy of life which glorified the “little people.” I was surrounded by people who called themselves Communists and who were warmhearted people like myself. In the world outside there was immorality and decadence and injustice; there was no real standard to live by. But among the Communists I knew there was moral behavior according to well-defined standards and there was a semblance of order and certitude.
The rest of the world had become cold and chaotic to me. I heard talk of brotherhood, but I saw no evidence of it. In the group of Communists with which I worked I did find a community of interest.
In addition to the Teachers Union work I continued as an active leader of the American Labor Party. I was assigned to work with a committee to free the leaders of the Furriers Union who had been sent to prison for industrial sabotage. I organized a committee of women, including the wives of the imprisoned men, to visit congressmen and the Department of Justice.
We talked with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt at her apartment on Eleventh Street. She graciously agreed to do all in her power to get our memoranda into the hands of the appropriate officials. She was sympathetic with the wives of the imprisoned men who had come with me.
Only one note in the interview disturbed me. The matter of the right of Communists to be leaders of trade unions had come up in the general discussion. Mrs. Roosevelt said that she believed Communists should be permitted to be members but not leaders of trade unions.
The position seemed illogical to me and I said so. Communism cannot be right for little people, for the workers, and wrong for the leaders. There can be only one moral code for all. Perhaps Mrs. Roosevelt, like myself and many other well-meaning people in America, has by this time learned that there is no halfway house in which you can meet the communist movement. Co-existence is not possible on any level.
In the summer of 1940 we attended the American Federation of Teachers convention in Buffalo, fearful of our welcome. It was almost ironic that once again we were at a convention at a time when the international communist scene was stirred by a dramatic event. The previous year we had heard of the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact; now came news of the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico. The combined Socialists, Trotskyites, and Lovestone group practically held us responsible for this event. But the real result of that 1940 convention was the fact that the George Counts group took control of the American Federation of Teachers and soon after the New York, Philadelphia, and other communist-led locals had their charters lifted. In New York the coveted charter of the American Federation of Teachers affiliation went to Dr. Lefkowitz and the new organization he had built, the Teachers Guild.
This automatically ended our formal relations with the A.F. of L. The New York Teachers Union was now an independent union not affiliated with either of the great labor movements. I thought bitterly of that convention in Madison when we would have been welcomed into the CIO, but the Party forbade it. The loss of the charter had come about chiefly as a result of the unfavorable publicity given us during the Rapp-Coudert investigation and by foreign events.
I returned to New York to learn more bad news. Nearly fifty of our teachers had been suspended from their jobs. But perhaps the greatest blow was the indictment of one of our teachers, Morris U. Schappes, on the charge of perjury. An English teacher at City College, an ardent Communist, himself a graduate of City College, he was the child of parents who lived close to want on the lower East Side. With his devoted wife, Sonia, he lived as dedicated a life, that is, as dedicated to communism, as anyone I ever met. He was the flame that fired the City College boys, and the teachers, too, when their revolutionary devotion ebbed. Under the name of “Horton” he was the New York Party director of education while he was still teaching at City College. He had exercised tremendous influence on class after class in the college, and in the organizing of the college teachers into the Union he had worked indefatigably.
When he was subpoenaed by the Committee, it was decided that he should either refuse to answer certain questions and take a contempt citation with almost certain loss of his job, or resign from it. When I returned from Albany, I learned that the top-level committee in my absence had again changed the decision: he was to admit he was a Communist and say that he and three others published the Communist shop paper, the Pen and Hammer, which was circulated anonymously at City College.
The trouble was that the three Communists he named were either dead or gone from the college and the Coudert Committee was able to prove that his statement was a falsehood. Morris Schappes was indicted and brought to trial before judge Jonah Goldstein, remanded to the old Tombs, with bail set at ten thousand dollars.
When the doors of the dirty old rat-infested Tombs closed on him I hated the world I lived in. It didn’t seem possible that ordinary men could put a man in jail when his only desire was to improve the condition of the poor, when he gained nothing personally from his activities. I hated Tom Dewey, the district attorney, whom I blamed for the catastrophe. I hated the “system” which I thought was at the bottom of the tragedy. I went to Sonia and did what I could to help her.
We organized a committee for Schappes’ defense. We held a mass meeting in front of the New York Supreme Court in Foley Square and laid a wreath on the steps of the courthouse “in memory of academic freedom.” For this was the issue we injected into the Schappes case to gain public support. Meantime, I received ten thousand dollars in cash from one of the Party’s friends and Morris was out of jail pending appeals.
About this case there is still a certain irony. Schappes’ trial attorney, Edmund Kuntz, was one of the trial lawyers in the Rosenberg atom spy case. It is equally ironical that Morris Schappes was one of the teachers who inspired Julius Rosenberg at City College while he was a student there.
At the end of the trial Morris Schappes was convicted and sentenced to two to four years in State Prison.
A new period was at hand, a period of extremes, when the united front of Communists and the forces of national unity in the United States were to work together to win the war. Morris Schappes was forgotten except by his wife and a few loyal friends. The Communist Party was now in coalition with the forces which had prosecuted Morris.
Late 1940 and early 1941 had been spent in endless preparation of the defenses of individuals who were brought up before the school boards for dismissals based on the Rapp-Coudert Committee findings. When the smoke cleared, we found there had been a loss of from forty to fifty positions in the city colleges and in the public schools. The Teachers Union had, by and large, withstood the attack. Some loss of membership took place but we still had close to one thousand Party members in a union of about four thousand.
In February of 1941 my dearly loved mother was taken ill. The diagnosis was pneumonia. I was in Albany when word came. I hurried back to find to my distress that agents of the Rapp-Coudert Committee and overzealous newspaper reporters had broken into my apartment in search of teachers’ lists. My mother, in her broken English, had informed them that I was away and would be glad to see them when I returned. She refused to let them look at any of my papers but they had pushed her aside and tried to take over. I was furious when I learned of this illegal invasion of my home. But everyone disclaimed responsibility and my chief concern at the moment was my mother.
She was seventy-six years old. She had always been strong in body and she had continued to have the lively mind of her earlier days. I had never seen her bored. Her one worry was that I worked too hard, and she often pleaded with me to relax, but I was driven by inner furies. I took no rest. I did not take vacations. I liked to say there was no vacation from the class struggle.
For a long time my activities had no meaning to my mother. All she knew was that I worked too hard. But she must have known something in her later days, for once she shook her head and looked at me sadly and said, “America does strange things to children.”
She died in my arms one night several weeks later. In the repose of death her face was lovely, and as I stood by her body I suddenly saw my mother in her big white sweater with loaves of bread in her hands, striding across the fields at Pilgrim’s Rest. All around her were the wild birds who knew she had come to feed them. She helped birds and animals and children and grownups. I would miss her greatly.
Services for her were held at the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii on Bleecker Street. There were not many people in the church with me, but Beatrice came and some of the Party teachers were there, people alien to this house of God. They came to comfort my loss. I was deeply touched.
My mother was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Poughkeepsie beside my father and I came back to New York. Now I was entirely alone. My personal life seemed completely at an end and I belonged only to the cause I served.
I moved out of the apartment because I could not bear its loneliness. I found a tiny, inexpensive one on Horatio Street on the top floor of an old house near the Hudson River. There was a window beside my bed and from it I could see the morning sky when I woke up.
Sometimes I thought, as I lay there, how long a way I had come to loneliness. How far behind me was the room in the embrace of the horsechestnut tree in the house with my mother and my father and the children of our family, and where I had planned my future.
I still had a room and I still had a family. The room was far different from the one at Pilgrim’s Rest and my family was a great, impersonal family. In its midst I could find forgetfulness when my body was completely spent and my brain was weary.