I grew up in the forties and fifties. My father’s family, like many other Polish Jewish families in Canada, were avowed Communists. They were dedicated to workers’ rights and marched in the streets. They even managed to get one of their own, J P Salsberg, elected to the Ontario legislature representing the Communist Party, then called the Labour-Progressive Party.
I was old enough to remember the heated debates on the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, the Doctor’s Plot as alleged by Stalin, and the McCarthy hearings. I even watched the hearings on that newfangled device called television. I read the Bintel Brief and The Rise of David Levinsky by the editor of the Forward, Abraham Cahan. I was an avid reader of IB Singer, Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth (I married a Communist), Irving Howe, Chaim Grade, Sholem Asch, I.J. Singer, and many others. I went beyond the tribe and read Theodore Dreiser, John dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck. That was my generation. My Zionist readings had not yet begun.
Massive Jewish emigration from Russia to the U.S. was caused by a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms sponsored by the tsarist government after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Russia wanted to suppress those advocating reform. The minister of the Interior gave a speech in 1903 in which he said:
In Western Russia, some 90 per cent of the revolutionaries are Jews, and in Russia generally — some 40 per cent. I shall not conceal from you that the revolutionary movement in Russia worries us but you should know that if you do not deter your youth from the revolutionary movement, we shall make your position untenable to such an extent that you will have to leave Russia, to the very last man!
And so they did.
By 1924, two million Jews had arrived from Eastern Europe. Growing anti-immigration feelings in the United States at this time, resulted in the National Origins Quota of 1924 which severely restricted immigration from many regions including Eastern Europe. The Jewish community took the lead in opposing immigration restrictions, which remained in effect until 1965.
Thereafter, Jews came to Canada as their second choice. These included my father’s family, which were Communists, and my mother’s family, which were Zionists.
In the thirties, America was plagued by the Great Depression. I was proud of my father’s family because they fought for workers’ rights and a better world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the promise of a New Deal, was elected president in 1932, an office he held until his death in 1945. The Jews, Communist or otherwise, worshiped Roosevelt. That worship was little diminished by Roosevelt’s failure to bomb the extermination camps or to allow Jews, even those fleeing the Holocaust, to enter the U.S. He would not allow the Jews on the St. Louis to disembark, leaving them to their fate, which was a return to Europe and death. It was of no concern to U.S. Jews that the New Deal was unconstitutional or ultimately was proven to have extended the Depression. And it was of no concern to the Jewish leadership that Jews were dying by the millions in the Holocaust.
The Jews remained loyal to the Democratic Party throughout. They also remained loyal to liberalism and secularism. Communism was embraced because it offered an antidote to discrimination and persecution as it existed in Russia and in America in the first half of the 20th century; you know, “Workers of the World, Unite!” Even though Communism proved to be a false God, duly noted by Kunstler’s The God That Failed, the Jews continued their quest for equality and civil rights. They believe as a result in the separation of church and state and the responsibility of the state to provide for those in need.