On My Mother’s 120th Birthday: The Ideas of a New Generation

 

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Anna Rosenbaum with Meyer Lederman, 1922

LEW ROSENBAUM· SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2016

My mother, Anna Hodos, was born June 24, 1896. The place was Oshmyany, a town at that time in Lithuania. I write “at that time” because it was close to the border with Russia, and, from time to time, was either in the Russian empire. . . or not. Borders are often political constructs imposed by imperial states, after all.

My grandfather brought his family to the United States ahead of the Russian (czarist) army attempting to conscript him (we believe that he assumed the name Hodos to escape conscription; when we talked about it, my sister Greta and I could never be sure what their real surname might be). They came to the U.S. after the failure of the first Russian revolution of 1905, traveling across Europe and shipping to the U.S. from Liverpool, England. Arriving in Ellis Island in 1906, my grandmother was turned away because she had an eye infection, trachoma. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, trachoma was the leading reason for immigrants to be deported from Ellis island. She returned to Europe with her youngest child, to return some time later through Canada. I can only imagine her fear at leaving her family behind to go back to Liverpool, knowing no English; her strength returning to Liverpool, only to fight her way back to her family in the U.S.

The family must have had some kind of network to rely on. It was a time of great Eastern European immigration to the U.S. The garment factories and the tenements where the garment workers lived in New York were filled with Jewish refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Upton Sinclair wrote about Lithuanian immigrants to Chicago in his epic novel of the same period, The Jungle. Several Lithuanian language newspapers served that large community and periodicals in nearly every other European language brought the news to those working in the stockyards and the steel industry. Branches of my family would settle in New York and Chicago, but my grandparents settled in the small industrial and farming community of Ansonia in Southern Connecticut. The town was situated on the Housatonic River valley, the home of metal industries and textile mills. My family must have brought some resources with them, because they established a feed and grain store serving the agricultural community.

I believe that my mother finished high school. She was slated to work in the store while her younger brother went to college. Regardless of her educational level, she was caught up in the intellectual ferment of the period. She would have none of being bound to the small town store. Greta told me that she ran away to New York to try to make her way there, but her father came after her and brought her back to Ansonia. She remained rebellious, however, and joined the radical movement of the time, the YPSLs or Young People’s Socialist League, and was influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1919, John Reed (at that time perhaps the best known journalist in the U.S.) published his pathbreaking Ten Days That Shook The World, describing his observations while in Russia during the revolution. Anna got a letter from Reed along with a copy of the book. Reed wrote that “the Capitalist press is endeavoring to suppress the sale of the book,” refusing to review it and give it any distribution outside of the big cities in the Northeast. He appealed to the Comrades to help distribute the book and to make money for their collectives at the same time.

New ideas permeated the immigrant working class movement in this period. The big garment workers unions, headquartered in Chicago and New York, led organizing drives in New York and New England. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911 killed over 100 workers and sparked the fight for labor law reform for the next two decades. The Bread and Roses strike engulfed the textile mills of Lawrence, MA in 1912, with 23,000 workers taking to the streets, defying ethnic differences that the employers had used to keep them apart.. Workers and intellectuals around the world rallied in defense of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, accused of murder in 1920 and executed in 1927 in Boston.

In this turmoil Anna met Meyer Lederman, pictured above in 1922 with her. He styled himself something of a “socialist Zionist,” though I never knew what he meant by that. There was, among the socialist leaning Jewish workers of the period and going back to the late 1800s, a trend who argued that wherever there was a Jew, the Jewish nation existed. This group refused to integrate themselves into the revolutionary organizations of the nations in which they lived, demanding a separate organization for themselves. This strand of socialism sparked debates in the garment workers movement. Perhaps this was a fundamental disagreement between Anna and Meyer; that I do not know. After the Communist Party was formed, she became part of that movement, but she and Meyer remained friends to the end of his life.

But somewhere in the early 1920s she met George Rosenbaum, whose last name she would assume without ever getting married. George never became a citizen.. Anna considered him an anarchist if he had any definitive political philosophy. He made friends with people on Book Row in Manhattan, worked in the Dauber and Pine used book shop, and then opened up his own store as the depression deepened. The store went out of business in a few years, and from the store he took what he thought were some of the valuable titles — and about 25 volumes of Russian and Soviet politics and history. The fear of deportation hung over his head throughout his life. His and Anna’s memory of the Palmer raids to arrest and deport radicals (1919-1920) revived in the post WWII McCarthy witch hunt.

From this union came my sister in 1928, and me in 1942.

I’m thinking of Anna today, June 24, of course, since she would have been 120 years old on this day. But there’s more. We are immigrants, the objects of the kind of hatred that the presidential race in the U.S. today is stoking. My people would have been those Trump would ban from immigration: after all, we bore the infection of Bolshevism. We were the wave upon wave of immigrants who took jobs from Americans in the steel plants and stockyards, driving the wages down. We were the scum feared by the voters in the British election to exit the European Union. I’m thinking of Anna today, because the Lithuanian/Russian border is today even more a figment of the political imagination, as is the U.S./ Mexican border.

In the era of globalization information flows freely ignoring borders. Capitalist relations have flown freely to the far reaches of the earth, leaving no nation untouched. Attempts to limit labor migration fail very much for the reason that labor follows the trail of capital and information. You can no more build a wall against labor than you can against electrons. But just as in 1919, when John Reed wrote to my mother, the new ideas and experiences of the immigrants in our society add to our understanding of the world. A social revolution is brewing today, even more than in 1919, because of the globalization and the electronic/technological revolution that has taken place.

Anna died in 1983, the same year that the bookstore I worked in got a computer. She would not recognize the world of today, almost 100 years after the third Russian Revolution of 1917. She would see instantly that the expectations of her working class life no longer beckon to the class created by the computer. And I suspect she’d quickly understand, that broad equality of poverty represents something fundamentally different in the new class structure of America and the world. Her generation could expect to participate in the expanding economic benefits accruing to workers. Reforms would take care of that. This generation can only reform society by taking it over, by wresting power from those who control the means of producing what we need to survive. By wresting power from those who are accelerating their calls to ban immigrants and build walls.

Our ideas and hopes, which come from the lived experience of our expectations, pose the real danger to the rich and powerful. I think Anna would be eager to distribute these ideas, just as she was called on to distribute the ideas of her generation.

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