A Granddaughter’s Rite of Passage: Tales from the McCarthy Era
by Julie Gilgoff
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The challenge of relating history is so often making the events of yesterday connect with us through the intervening years. This book succeeds in making a fearful time personal as the reader follows the author's passage of discovery into the life of her grandfather and the forces that led to his untimely death.
It's a stimulating read and more than a labor of love, although that love and sense of loss are evident. This is not a story of anyone you've heard of, which makes it all the more relevant to anyone not particularly wealthy or powerful. The people affected by the red scare were not all in Hollywood or Washington DC, and, as this book demonstrates, the consequences of that period persist to the present day some 60 years on.
Don Charlie “DC”
A Granddaughter's Rite of Passage illuminates an era that is not particularly familiar to my generation (Gen X) or those following it. However, the author of the book, who is also of Gen X, has clearly been touched by its effects. Her grandfather was accused of being a Communist, an event so stressful that it led to his death at the age of 38.
The book is a fascinating and poignant search for the details of this event, taking the author from library archives to the homes of people who knew her grandfather to the depths of her own memories of her deceased father, Henry, and how he was profoundly affected by these events.
Every step of the journey is interesting in its own way. The book largely focuses on the author's relationship and conversations with her father as a way to bridge history with present-day events. It all amounts to an eye-opening and satisfying read.
NFI “Lit Chick”
From the back cover:
"A Granddaughter’s Rite of Passage brightly illuminates the dark history of the McCarthy era. Combining affecting memoir with dogged journalism, Julie Gilgoff takes the reader on a search to piece together her family history and to understand the roots for her own passion for social justice. This is a heart-felt and deeply compelling story."
- Richard D. Kahlenberg, author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles overSchools, Unions, Race, and Democracy
"Fifty years after the end of the McCarthy Era, the story of its impact on blacklisted families has scarcely been told. Julie Gilgoff’s poignant, well- researched memoir is both a tribute to her extraordinary grandfather -- teacher, poet and community activist Max Gilgoff -- and a rare insider’s view of that “Scoundrel Time.” Threatened with dismissal by the New York City Board of Education, Gilgoff died in 1952 leaving behind a pregnant wife and two young sons. The story of Julie Gilgoff’s nation-wide search for her grandfather’s colleagues, friends and other children of the blacklist, is as compelling a personal tale as it is a valuable historic record."
- Lisa Rosenbaum, Author of A Day of Small Beginnings
"Julie Gilgoff sets off on a personal journey to discover the contours of her grandfather’s life during the McCarthy period and in the process uncovers a network of committed activists whose children and grandchildren still bear the marks of those persecuted. This book shows us how the past is inescapable and how it shapes our present actions.
- Irena Klepfisz, co-editor of The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology, Professor of Women’s Studies at Barnard College
"A gripping, soul-searching narrative written with passion, historical acumen, and a flair for revisionism. In masterful turns-of-phrase and insightful vignettes, Gilgoff connects strands of seemingly disparate histories; the Civil Rights saga, Communism, the Cold War, and religious intolerance. This book reminds us of the crucible that is the American experience, and speaks boldly across generational divides to achieve the ultimate accomplishment of all -- connecting contemporary society to its checkered past by means of redemption. This is a “must read” for all interested in recent U.S. history.
- Ben Vinson III, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Africana Studies, Johns Hopkins University
While sleeping on the living room couch in the winter of 2006, my father Henry saw an apparition of his parents standing over him. The couple gazed at their son with loving eyes. My father -- then 60 years old with a terminal illness called Amyloidosis -- kept this image with him as a source of comfort during the challenging times that lay ahead.
Henry's father, Max Gilgoff, had gone to mail some newsletters at a Brooklyn post office in 1952, and at only 38 years old, he died from a heart attack. Max was a political leader, about to run for Congress with The American Labor Party (ALP). The ALP was a minority party that was meant to create debate and divert votes to influence elections. It was the height of the McCarthy era, and Max was in the midst of being interrogated for allegedly allying himself with the American Communist Party.
In the early 1900s, the American Communist Party played an active role in the US Labor Movement, forming unions, and promoting racial equality. After World War II ended, the US's former ally Russia suddenly became America's greatest enemy. Once Russia caught up in the nuclear arms race and created an A-bomb in 1949, there was widespread fear that Communists or Communist sympathizers in our country were spying for the Soviet Union and threatening the demise of our Capitalist system. Thousands of Americans were questioned for their politics to see if they were leaking information to the Russians or spreading Communist propaganda. As a high school teacher and activist, my grandfather was suspected of brainwashing his students.
Max fought for the working class and for racial equality. He was a member of the Teachers Union and helped pressure the Board of Education to integrate New York City schools. He was a community activist and out of his limited salary made contributions to the campaigns of political candidates, both black and white.
He even helped Jackie Robinson get into the Major Leagues by collecting signatures on petitions and spearheading letter-writing campaigns.
from chapter 5 "Robert Meeropol's Constructive Revenge"
Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, faced the opposite problem that I had; whereas I was trying to piece together my family history from scratch, everyone knew about his parents. More than fifty years after the Rosenbergs' execution, an active debate still surrounded Robert's parents' purported espionage in the Cold War.
When Robert was six years old, his parents were executed for allegedly leaking atomic secrets to the Soviets. In years to come, on television and in the newspapers, Robert saw graphic images of his parents killed in the electric chair. He then had to read accounts of his family history, some of which he found offensive or untrue. Â
I visited Robert one day in Massachusetts at his organization, the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC). As I stepped down off the Peter Pan bus into the town of Northampton, I noticed that there were no stores in sight -- I felt far away from my home in New York City. There was a line at the bus station to request a taxi, and when it was my turn I handed the man behind the counter the address of Robert's organization. After about twenty minutes, I got in a taxi and was dropped at a building more nondescript than the bus station. I nervously walked up the steps, unsure that I was even in the right place.
Once I saw the door labeled RFC, I was reassured. Robert's daughter, Jennifer Meeropol, greeted me at the door, warmly saying, "Come this way," motioning me to the back room. Jennifer works with her father at the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which provides monetary and emotional support for children of activists who are targeted by the government and end up on trial, in jail, or out of work, unable to provide
for their families.
Robert Meeropol suggested that I talk with his friend Tony Kahn, who was also a Red Diaper baby. I met Tony for an interview at his house, just outside of Boston, and he won me over instantly. Not only was this charismatic man the host of PRI's international news program, "The World," he had fascinating stories to tell and a hypnotically calming voice that made me feel completely at ease. I sat beside him on his living room couch, enthralled by his every word.
Tony's father, Gordon Kahn, was a screenwriter who, among other Hollywood entertainers, faced imprisonment in the 1940s and '50s for his suspected Communist ties. Tony's father was connected with the Hollywood Ten: a group of Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and directors, who were blacklisted from the entertainment industry. The Hollywood Ten was originally called the Unfriendly 19.
Nineteen artists were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) to answer the question as to whether they were Communists, but after the first ten refused to answer, they were held in contempt. This came with a sentence of six months to a year in prison. The Hollywood Ten appealed the verdict all the way to the Supreme Court, but their case went unheard. While the ten famous screenwriters, producers, and directors were serving their time, the Committee decided to take a break before calling the remaining nine artists to appear before them, and therefore, Gordon Kahn was never subpoenaed.
from chapter 8 "Activism and Gender
While my grandfather Max was out of the house fighting for social justice, my grandmother Mollie was taking care of my father and his older brother Nathan. I wondered if Mollie was satisfied with her life or if she felt stuck at home. What were gender roles like during that time, specifically among leftist circles, like my grandfather's, that promoted equality?
Although Communism upheld egalitarianism as the ideal, women were not given equal opportunity. According to the book Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation, women from the California Communist Party complained about gender discrimination in 1946. In that year they wrote a letter to the editor of the Communist Party's Sunday newspaper, The Worker, criticizing the Party. They went on to propose "an end to the separation of 'personal' and 'party' life," meaning that the sharing of child rearing and household duties must be part of the political agenda.
In her book, Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties, Sally Belfrage, an international journalist, writes about her politically active parents, Cedric Belfrage and Molly Castle. They were both members of the Communist Party and successful journalists working in London for the Daily Express at the time they met. After they were married, her mother gave up her job in order to take care of the children. Because of his political activity fighting Fascism abroad, Sally's father was in and out of jail. At one time, Sally and her mother didn't see Cedric for over two years. Although Sally was told that fighting Fascism was the "most important job in the world," she still wanted him home instead of fighting the bad guys.
Copyright © 2010-2011 Julie Gilgoff.
Julie Gilgoff has been a freelance writer for the past five years and has published articles in Newsday, Georgetown Journal on Law and Poverty, and The Jerusalem Post. She has worked as an elementary school teacher and volunteered in Nicaragua as an Environmental Education Peace Corps Volunteer. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College, majoring in History. Gilgoff currently resides in the Bay Area of California, working in immigration law, advocating for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
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If you are interested, or know of any bookstores, libraries, organizations, etc. that would be interested in having Julie Gilgoff give a presentation and reading from her book, please contact the publisher: mankh (a) allbook-books.com or Ms. Gilgoff: jgilgoff (a) gmail.com
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