Interview

Listening to Sylvia’s Children: A response to Briv funem Arkhiv: Letter from Sylvia Schneiderman to Itche Goldberg

Amye Rubinschneider

INTRODUCTION

On December 5th, my friend Mal sent me a message saying, “I think your grandmother made it into In geveb.” I clicked on the link, expecting another general discussion about the Red Scare that happened to mention my grandmother, Sylvia Schneiderman, as the first teacher blacklisted by the New York City Board of Education during the 1950s. Instead, I found a letter from my grandmother about my Aunt Louise. And I cried.

In the letter, my grandmother requests an extension on my Aunt Louise’s scholarship to Camp Kinderland and states that my aunt had “undergone a severe emotional disturbance because of the circumstances surrounding [my grandmother’s] dismissal from the school system.” My grandmother did not like to ask for help, and seeing a letter from her, which both asks for help and hints at residual feelings of guilt surrounding her dismissal, was at once sweet, sad, and deeply unnerving.

It took me a few breaths to begin reading Josie Naron’s article. As I read, I was struck by her assertion that “perhaps less ink should be spilled on the sweeping impacts of McCarthyism—and more spent on the voices of women like Sylvia.” For me, to know my grandmother was to know that she was a global thinker. She often explained and judged harm by the way it fit into a larger political context.

I had the opportunity to interview my grandmother when I was a junior in high school. She discussed her experience during the Red Scare by telling me about the Teachers Union, that it was different from the UFT (which had been created later), that she and other members of the Teachers Union had been working (alongside other groups) to improve conditions and address the racism and structural inequality within the New York City school system, and that therefore, the Board of Education went after them. She did not discuss how any of this made her feel.

Were my grandmother alive today, it seems to me that she would have found more comfort in discussing the “sweeping impacts of McCarthyism” than in focusing on her own personal experience. However, my grandmother spent her life dedicated to education. Although she had lost her job working in the New York City public schools, she tutored neighbors’ children in the 1950s and 1960s, taught Hebrew to any relatives who were willing to learn from her, and volunteered at a local elementary school when she was older. She continued her own education by taking classes in Jewish Studies at Brooklyn College throughout her seventies and eighties. My grandmother might not have felt comfortable discussing the personal or emotional impact the Red Scare had on her; however, I believe that in the service of education, particularly Jewish education, she might have been willing to share.

In her article, Josie Naron asks: “How did children like Sylvia’s daughter, Louise, understand the intense political surveillance their parents were placed under?” Inspired by Naron’s work and my grandmother’s commitment to Jewish education, I spoke with both my aunt, Louise, the subject of the letter, who was seven years old at the time of my grandmother’s dismissal, and my mother, Helen, who was thirteen months old, about the personal impact that the Red Scare had on their lives. Among the topics we discussed were the role that surveillance played throughout their childhoods, as well as the role that both religion and Yiddish had in the family. The following passages are excerpts from these conversations.

On Sylvia

Amye: How would you describe Grandma as a person?

Louise: [She was] an extremely honest person. However, in this case, apparently she wasn’t honest. [She signed a compulsory oath stating she had never been affiliated with the Communist Party when she applied for a license to teach in the New York City school system], and she probably felt they were violating her civil rights by asking her [to sign the loyalty oath].

Helen: She was very moral. That was the most important thing to her — being honest and truthful and following a strict code of morality. I always wondered if she thought [losing her job as a teacher] was some kind of punishment — because, you know, the one time she lied [by signing the oath] she got into trouble.

On the Impact on Sylvia

Louise: When she lost her job, she was the second person on the line — the first person that they intended to treat like they treated her committed suicide.

Helen: She was traumatized by [being blacklisted]. People avoided her during that period. They would cross the street so that they didn’t have to see her. We were told not to let anybody know who she was, or to talk about what happened, because she was worried about their reactions. She had one friend, I remember, who would call every so often. She was really very fond of him because he stood by her, unlike a lot of other people.

She still had [her best friend] Ida. They’d been friends since they were thirteen, and Ida and her husband stuck by my mom even during this time period. But I found out later from Ida that she and her husband had a discussion about what to do about my mother’s situation because he had a job teaching. He was paid by the state government for his job. They were worried that his job could be impacted, and he said, “No. This is Sylvia — of course we are going to stand by her,” and they did.

On the Impact on Childhood

Amye: How would you describe yourself during that time period, both before and after [Grandma was dismissed from her job]?

Louise: You know it’s hard to remember because I was only seven years old. I was probably an average seven year old, and never thought about these things.

[The day it happened,] I came home. I had gone to the movies with a friend, a girlfriend that lived next door. I had made plans to go out with her [again] after I got home. [When I got home] my mother said, “No. Something’s happened, and we’ll have to wait and see how they feel about it.” I didn’t understand what she was talking about. When this happened it was all over the newspapers, and I remember particularly the Daily News. I think the headline on it, although I may have found this out later in life — I think I probably did — was “Red Liar Fired.” I didn’t know what “red” meant. To me “red” was a color. I saw her a few days later wearing a red suit, and I couldn’t understand why, if red was such a negative word, she would wear a red suit.

Helen: I mean, I always felt that I had been born into a “file,” which I probably was, seeing how I was on the front page of the New York Times [in a story about my mother’s dismissal]. At the age of thirteen months, I hit the front page of the New York Times.

On the Impact of Surveillance

Louise: I suspect it had a major influence on me because I felt removed from the general population and I was taken out of school. In the 4th grade, I was moved from the public school to the [Brooklyn] Community School because my mother felt that the teacher was holding what had happened against me.

Amye: Did you feel like the teacher was holding it against you?

Louise: I don’t know. I really don’t know.

Amye: How were your experiences in the Community School — were they any different from your experiences in the public school, and if so, how?

Louise: What I remember mostly about Community School is that you could wear jeans and a flannel shirt to school, and I didn’t have to wear dresses, and I found that very relaxing. I did not get along with a number of kids at Community School, and that was the first time that that had happened to me, that I didn’t get along with people. But there were some kids there that were rather vicious.

Helen: I think [the FBI] came to my father’s work at one point- There may have been [FBI agents] outside the house, but I was not aware personally of those things [at thirteen months]. But I always knew that you had to be careful what you said over the telephone because there could be people listening in.

I remember being three years old and riding into the bathroom on my tricycle, and seeing my mother standing over the toilet burning literature. This [was] not normal: to see somebody with a match, holding leaflets and burning them. It was not the norm in my family. I mean, books and written material were to be respected, not something to be burned. She stopped when she saw me. I think she was in a moment of panic. I don’t know what set the panic off. I don’t think I ever asked.

I think the [the Red Scare] contributed a great deal to my being shy. For instance, when I was 4 years old, I went to preschool so my mother could go to work. My mother discovered that I didn’t speak to anybody, and she pulled me out because she was concerned. [However], I probably didn’t talk to anyone because I had been told not to say certain things to certain people, and I think that that affected me a lot. I was always more open and more comfortable within the family setting than I was in public. And it’s something that I really had to fight to try to get past.

I still have to push myself in public — in social situations and groups — because again, I’d been taught you don’t trust groups.

On lessons learned

Helen: When I was five years old, we were sitting [in a circle] in the coat closet in my school, and one of the girls was going around [the circle] saying, “I don’t like this other girl. Do you like her?” and everybody would say ”No I don’t like her.” When it came to me I had to tell the truth. I’d always been told how people had abandoned my mom, and therefore, I couldn’t do that to somebody else. So I said, “I like her,” and I discovered another thing: when I said that — me, who was at the bottom of the pecking order— other people turned around and said, “I like her,” “I like her,” “I like her,” and that when you stand up you make a difference.

On Camp Kinderland

Louise: When I was [at Camp Kinderland] initially, I called home all the time, and begged to be taken home, not because I didn’t like the camp, but because Helen was born — and I was afraid that she would take over for me, that my parents would switch their affections for me to her. So I begged to go home. But when they finally had visiting day, and [my parents] came, I didn’t want to go home because I liked it there, and so I asked if I could stay. That was probably what generated the letter.

Amye: What did you like about Camp Kinderland?

Louise: Well, it was fun. It was relaxing. I was away from the pressure that was in the house, and you could be sure there was a lot of pressure in the house. We lived in a very closely-knit [family]. [My mother’s] two sisters lived upstairs, and her mother lived with us for a short while, and then she moved upstairs to live with my aunts and my two cousins.

On perceptions of Communism

Amye: How was communism treated in your household?

Louise: The thing is, I think my parents [initially joined the Communist Party because they] were trying to create a better world. They didn’t know anything about Stalin. They were really duped. That’s how I felt. They were really duped into believing these things. They had no idea what Stalin was like until later on — but they certainly didn’t want me to get involved in it.


Amye: You’ve mentioned in the past that when you were growing up there were Communists and Jews and anti-Communists and antisemites. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Helen: Well, we always knew, for instance, about people that you watched on TV, who was Jewish, who was not Jewish, who was a Commie and who was not a Commie, which people you could listen to because they had good politics and which ones were bad people because they had lousy politics. In other words, who named names and who didn’t name names — it was very important to know.

Pete Seeger did not name names, and Woody Guthrie did not name names, and the Hollywood 10. We had books by Howard Fast all around the house because he was one of the good guys.

On the role of religion in the household

Helen: I was always told they were atheists — though that’s debatable. We didn’t belong to a synagogue, but we always knew we were Jewish. That was very, very important to my mother.

There was not that much of a separation between her ideals and her Judaism. We were taught you give to other people and you always help out, and I think that was part of their Judaism.

Louise: We were very ethnically Jewish. We were not religiously Jewish. My mother never took me to shul, or my father, but my grandmother did. My grandmother kept kosher in the house, and I don’t think I ever ate anything that she made. Ever.

On the role of Yiddish in the household

Helen: We were brought up on the stories of Chelm. We always had books of Jewish folklore in the house [that had been written or translated into English] that we used to read.

Louise: I was the only one [in that generation who understood Yiddish]— don’t forget I lived with Grandma [Sylvia’s mother] from the time I was very young. She understood English, but she couldn’t speak English, so she spoke to me in Yiddish; as a child that was very normal because the house was bilingual. So, I learned both languages, but I didn’t have to speak it to her because she understood English.

Amye: Did Grandma [Sylvia] ever speak to you in Yiddish?

Louise: No, but she often spoke to Grandpa in Yiddish when they were talking about something they didn’t want me to understand. But of course I understood it because I was pretty fluent, at least in terms of understanding.

As an adult, I wanted to tell something to my parents, and I didn’t want the children to understand. That was the first time I ever spoke to them in Yiddish. And my father was very surprised. He said, “ I didn’t know that you could speak so well.”


Final Thoughts

I began these conversations in order to answer some of the questions Naron brought up regarding my family, to accurately portray how both my aunt and mother had been raised, and how they had been impacted by the Red Scare. I went into this process expecting both my aunt’s and mother’s experiences to be homogeneous. I was wrong.

When thinking of the “voices of women like Sylvia,” it’s sometimes easier to imagine a chorus of women reciting the exact same story of the way they were individually harmed by McCarthyism. With one unified story, the message seems clear and the feelings and suffering become something that together everyone can carry, but no one really has to touch.

My aunt, grandmother, and mother were all affected differently by McCarthyism. However, this does not lessen the harms or disruptions that McCarthyism caused each of them, or to countless others, each of whom has their own individual experiences, and some of whom may still be dealing with the trauma of the time period.

Naron’s call for individual stories is critically important. We as writers, historians, and scholars need to accept that these large scale political events cause not only political trauma but also individual personal pain. It is not a unified chorus, but a cacophony of harm.

MLA STYLE
Rubinschneider, Amye. “Listening to Sylvia’s Children: A response to Briv funem Arkhiv: Letter from Sylvia Schneiderman to Itche Goldberg.” In geveb, March 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/listening-to-sylvias-children-a-response-to-briv-funem-arkhiv-letter-from-sylvia-schneiderman-to-itche-goldberg.
CHICAGO STYLE
Rubinschneider, Amye. “Listening to Sylvia’s Children: A response to Briv funem Arkhiv: Letter from Sylvia Schneiderman to Itche Goldberg.” In geveb (March 2020): Accessed Sep 21, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amye Rubinschneider

Amye Rubinschneider is a playwright and performance artist living in New York City.