Writing For His Life

My father, Ted (Terry) Rosenbaum, is 93. Recently, he handed me a hundred page document he’d titled, “A Life Journey – Working for Social Justice.” It’s not quite a book; it’s more like a booklet, with a plastic cover and a spiral spine. He’s been mailing it to people across the country which, given his short term memory loss, is a much bigger challenge than it used to be.

For my dad, this book has been an act of defiance. He has decided it’s time to speak out about a period of his life which, for the last 57 years, he had kept relatively hidden from all but family and close friends.

In 1954, he was fired from his job as a public high school teacher in Brooklyn, New York and never taught American history again. As a civil rights activist, he supported a community protest against the killing, by a police officer, of an unarmed local black man who had dented a parked car. The New York City Board of Education demanded that my father submit to questioning about his political affiliations. Like many teachers, he was eventually summoned before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate investigating committee and asked if he was a communist. He never was, but if he answered, the next question would be, who do you know who is a communist? Not to “name names” meant he could be found in contempt and threatened with a jail sentence. He took the Fifth, the Constitution’s right against self-incrimination. After he was fired and blacklisted he became almost unemployable. Later, when he worked his way back into the work force and up the ladder, he changed his unusual first name and told no one why he was no longer a teacher.

It is hard to imagine the atmosphere of fear that pervaded American society during the Fifties. Lillian Hellman called it the Scoundrel Time. Terrified of what would happen to his family if he went to jail, my father’s good friend, a high school French teacher named Max Gilgoff, died of a heart attack in the street just before he was to testify. He was 38 years old.

My father never really talked about the toll his blacklisting took on him personally, but this week, as he began to distribute his book, he confided something that surprised me. His fear didn’t end with McCarthy, who died in 1957 after being publicly discredited. It didn’t even end in 1972, when the US Supreme Court reinstated him and other blacklisted teachers for their unconstitutional firing. “Twenty, thirty years later,” my father said, “I was still looking over my shoulder. I had made a life. I had a wife and two children, but anybody could come along – maybe someone who wanted to move up, or someone who didn’t agree with my politics – and say, hey, he’s that guy who was blacklisted, and I could lose my job. In my position as director of development at a major medical center, I couldn’t have a questionable reputation. It wouldn’t just hurt me, it could also hurt the institution.”

I wondered why now, 57 years later, my father had decided it was time to compile his old leaflets and documents outlining the injustice done to him. He still has misgivings about people knowing he was blacklisted. He wouldn’t even include the official transcript of his hearing before Senator McCarthy, which I had found online. In it, he sounds just like the man I grew up with, telling the Senator, “I stand with those patriotic Americans who wrote the Bill of Rights as a protection for innocent people against inquisitions of this kind.”

I asked him, why tell your story now? He said, “I never thought I’d see another time when people are so obviously being frightened into giving up hard won freedoms. What I did, standing up and speaking out, cost me a lot. Looking back, I realize the most important thing I can do at this stage of my life is to accentuate the positive by sharing my experience. If what happened to me can reach people and make them think, if I can teach American history again this way, then I’ve done my job as a citizen.”

This past month, people who call themselves the 99% ers have been staking their claim on the American political landscape. Their message has won the support of the majority in this country. To me, this says we are still a nation which remembers its aspirations; that we have not only individual rights but also social responsibilities to one another. In Laguna Woods, California, there’s a former American history teacher who would give them an “A.”

14 thoughts on “Writing For His Life

  1. Sounds like a fascinating story. I think it’s so important that none of
    us forget this part of history, and hopefully it will help us all to recognize
    that these difficult choices have consequences, but that ultimately it is
    easier to live with those than with NOT making the moral choice. Kudos
    to your dad for all that he has done!

  2. My father went through the same thing. He even tried using a pseudonym that didn’t sound Jewish, to get work- which didn’t last long when his mother called his job looking for him. You didn’t have to be blacklisted to be affected. While an army engineer during the war, he had the use of Bell Laboratory’s facilities to invent a circuit that prevented the enemy from interfering with our radar. When my dad was honorably discharged, Bell Labs was interested in hiring him until they found out he was Jewish. During the McCarthy era, so many employers refused to hire Jews who were categorically branded as communists. Kind of interesting our country never had that kind of fear of fascists.

    While my dad was always vocal about his feelings on the McCarthy era, he became more adamant as he slipped further into dementia. And, while he forgot many things, before succumbing completely, the one thing that stuck with him, even when he could barely remember his children, was that Joe McCarthy had ruined his life… or at least put insurmountable obstacles in his path, depriving him of opportunities that could otherwise have led him to a more illustrious career.

    I feel it’s our duty, as our parents’ generation moves along, to remember these historical injustices, and teach them to the next generation, to avoid their repetition in the future.

    God bless your father – and you for blogging his story.

  3. Just re-read your comment and realized I never responded Delin. Apologies! Thank you so much for sharing your own history here. The indirect impact of the blacklist was so tremendous. People like your father were discriminated against in the job market, many progressive academics and scientists, afraid of being targeted, re-characterized their findings,. This was particularly true among anthropologists, as I am now discovering in researching my new novel. How much was lost, we wonder, from all these acts of omission? Your father is a tragic example. And yes, it all has had an impact on succeeding generations.

  4. Hi,

    According to his daughter, Diana, Herbert S. Michaels (commonly called Herb or Herbie), who taught English at Commerce High School in Springfield, Mass and later at Holyoke (MA) Community College, and who died in 1998, was friends with a man named Rosenbaum (or perhaps Rosenblum) who had been called before the HUAC or the McCarthy senate committee during the 1950s. Apparently your father was forced to appear before the Senate committee. Do you happen to know if your father was friends with a teacher named Herb Michaels? Herb got his advanced degree at the University of Illinois, taught for a while at Colby College in Maine, before going to Springfield, MA. He lived and worked for a short while in New York in 1946.

    Thanks for any help you can give.

    Brian Turner
    bturner@smith.edu

    • Hi Brian,
      Sorry to have taken so long to respond. I checked with both my parents about whether they remember a Herb Michaels and I’m afraid it didn’t ring a bell with either of them. If you don’t mind my asking, are there any more specific connections Diana recalls about their connection that might jog their memory? (i.e. people, organizations like the teacher’s union, American Labor Party – they knew in common?) Was Herb Michaels also a blacklisted teacher?
      Lisa

      • Thanks Lisa. Herb managed to escape being called before a committee. But my interest in his friend’s situation came about because it came fairly close to Herb’s circle. Diana remembered the man’s name — Paul Rosenkrantz. I’ve been able to look into his case. He was a 41-year-old student at Springfield College in 1958 when he was called before HUAC. He did not name names and so spent time in prison for contempt. He went on to become a college professor, as did his wife, Barbara Guttman Rosenkrantz, who ended up teaching at Harvard no less. For her part, Barbara was arrested along with several other Massachusetts people, all active communists, in 1954. One of her “co-conspirators” was Daniel Boone Schirmer; another was Otis Hood, who regularly ran for governor of Massachusetts on the communist ticket; and Anna Burlak Timpson, AKA “The Red Flame,” a labor organizer from the 1930s — all Massachusetts people. Their case was overturned in 1956, since they had been charged with conspiracy under the Smith Act, and conspiracy is notoriously difficult to prove. Contempt, however, is difficult to dismiss.

        I have been struck by the fact that the Rosenkrantz’s careers suffered little long-term damage compared to all the people hauled before the various committees in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (Later in life, Schirmer earned his doctorate at BU, studying under Howard Zinn.) I think the ferocity of the attacks upon the New York teachers might have had something to do with the determination of the government to break the “subversive influences” in the NYC union? Or just plain old union-busting, period. Separate but somewhat related research into similar witch-hunts going back as early as the 1930s taught me a little about the American Labor Party as well as the plight of the NYC teachers. Please thank your parents for me, and thanks once again to you.

        Brian

  5. I had your Dad as a History teacher at Tilden in the early 50’s.He was an admired teacher who was considered by students to be one of the best.I,personally,was saddened by the witchhunt
    that got him fired.Being left of center was not uncommon n the area that Tilden’s students came from.All the best to your Dad.

    • I am so delighted by your comment Martin and wondered where you ran across my blog post. Several of my father’s former students have gotten in touch and it is extraordinarily powerful for me, and perhaps others, to hear about how they saw what was happening at the time. If you’d care to share your memories of my father as a teacher and of your impressions of that period in Brooklyn or in general, I would be so grateful. Thanks so much for writing!

  6. This may seem quite odd and I am at loss for words in explaining that a package that was sent to me 5 years ago was just found and to my delight contained your wonderful novel and the disc from your Dad’s 90th birthday. First I must tell you and your family the disc, not only brought back memories of a time that was very important in a 17 year old Brooklyn Jewish girls life,, it also reminded me of how time moves far too quickly but we never forget those who have had an impact on our lives. Your dad was my American history teacher and I had the distinction of getting a 99% grade from him because he told me no one is a perfect 100%. He was a teacher that made even the worst student sit tall and listen, he taught with his heart. We all knew how he loved this country and that being in his class was a treat, not just a requirement. I remember when you were born and I brought a bay gift from some of the students and I had the privilege og meeting your very charming mother as well as a tiny little you. There is so much more, I put together a theater gathering to try and help your dad . You would be very impressed if you knew how many famous people of that particularly dark time in our history came out to perform, not because a 17 year old asked them if they would , but because they knew and admired your father. It really is a long story but my parents became friendly with both your mother and father and I became engagaed to my husband of 58 years and we went out together from time to time. Many years later your parent
    had a family occasion in Philadelphia and came to visit Jerry and I at our home in Cherry hill, NJ. Too much time has past without seeing each other but dad did keep in-touch with new releases and side comments in the margins and news of your mom’s MA as well as grandchildren etc.
    Now for your wonderful book! I just finished reading it and I think both your parents must be so proud ! I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY EXCEPT I just felt as proud as if you were one of our adult children . I was ,to put it Yiddishly “kvelling”. I think you must not only be very bright but also va very spiritually rich woman. Thank you for the gift of your talented and wonderful novel. Please take into consideration that there is so much history that I am sure you understand it just cannot be jotted down in a quick e-mail.
    With much affection from the heart, Phyllis Beck Farber

    • Phyllis, What an extraordinary gift to read your post! I forwarded it to my parents and of course they remember you well and fondly (especially for your organizing abilities at the age of 17!). It is one thing to hear the story of what happened to my father from him, but quite another to hear from a former student how well appreciated he was as a teacher. Thank you for saying so.
      It’s no less strange to think you once gave me a baby gift! I think we’re overdue for becoming re-acquainted – more years later than I’d care to think about!
      Last, thank you so much for your kind words about my novel. It was a long journey to research and write it and now I am on to a new novel which is set at the Cahokian Indian Mounds in East St. Louis but which is deeply concerned with the subject of the blacklisting of anthropologists during that period. With so much color in my family, I don’t have to reach too far to find a subject, but I am learning a great deal about archaeology and, of all things, the interstate highways – which often ran right through ancient sites as they were being built during that period (to protect us, presumably from a Russian invasion). I’d love to know more about you and your life since that fateful time your path crossed with Terry Rosenbaum’s. Let’s be in touch by email.
      All my very best,
      Lisa

  7. Dear Lisa,
    Please e-mail me your e-mail address so that, even if we know nothing is truly private, we can be more personal ! I was elated to get your reply !!
    Thank you so much for response.

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