1924, the year my father was born, was the height of the reborn Ku Klux Klan, the Second Klan as it had sometimes called (the hateful organization took a nap until Woodrow Wilson came into office, it appears).   Klan membership reached a peak of  almost two and a half million the year my father was born, in a nation of 114 million.   One of the Klan’s pet projects, restricting immigration, was made law in the 1924 Immigration Act, then known as the Johnson-Reed Act. [1]  

Luckily for the baby who’d grow up to be my father, his mother-in-law and father-in-law had arrived from the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, which they referred to from lifelong habit as Russia, in 1921 and 1923.   His own mother had come over from Belarus on the eve of World War One.   Outside of those parties, and the mysterious man who was found to marry my maternal grandmother and contribute DNA to the fetus who’d grow up to become my father, everyone left behind in Europe was killed.   Without a trace.  

The closest thing to a trace I found of any of them was a reference in a New York Times travel piece to tiny fragments of crushed bones blowing from the side of a ravine on the north end of Vishnevitz.   Those were fragments of the bones of those taken to that ravine, forced to lie down and shot.   The next group was forced to lie on top of the dead and wait for their bullet.   I read, in the online Yizkor book of Vishnevitz, what happened to those poor Jews in the months leading up to their eventual slaughter that August night in 1943, any surviving members of my mother’s large family among them, some of the most horrific details I’ve ever read.   No word was ever reported about the fate of the muddy little hamlet across the Pina River from Pinsk where my father’s mother’s family was killed.  The hamlet itself left no trace on modern, or even contemporary, maps.  Like it never existed at all, except that my great uncle and my grandmother were both born and raised there.

My father’s father was never able to make a living in the teeming slum of New York’s Lower East Side in the mid 1920s.  Uncle Aren, older brother of my father’s mother, took the family up to Peekskill where he supported them.   In those years before the Great Depression hit, my father’s family was among the poorest in Peekskill.   When the stock market crashed and suddenly everyone worldwide was scrambling for jobs and food, my father’s family fortunes fell further still.

My father grew up in what he always called ‘grinding poverty’.  A poverty as unimaginable as life in that muddy hamlet south of Pinsk in the days before darkness closed in forever, as hard to truly picture as the march to the Ukrainian ravine where everyone was to be killed.   Growing up in dire, humiliating poverty left deep scars in my father’s life.   His identification with the poor and the powerless was no pose, no effort for him, it was in his blood.   That he instilled this identification with the poor and the powerless in his children strikes me as pretty remarkable, as neither my sister nor I ever experienced even a moment of want in our lives.

When FDR proposed a Second Bill of Rights, Freedom from Want was a right of American citizenship, a human right. [2]   Those who profit from poverty, which allows employers to have every advantage in the workplace, would not move one more step toward this Communistic anti-democratic freedom from want business.   Without want what kind of limp whip are you holding over the pathetic masses who have no choice but to eat the crap that is served them, in whatever portion the boss deems fit.  Shoot, we’re a country founded on slave labor and indentured service of various stripes!

In 1924 there were no Child Labor Laws, no Minimum Wage laws, no forty hour work week, no agency overseeing workplace safety, no national right of collective bargaining.  In 1930, if things had been better economically, my six year old father could have started a Dickensian life as a gainfully employed urchin.   There was no law to prevent it, until he was fourteen.   The Fair Labor Standards Act was New Deal legislation enacted in 1938. [3]  It was the first time rules were set restricting child labor, setting out a pathetically inadequate minimum wage, a forty hour work week and many other things we now take for granted.

As I dig through some of the history surrounding my father’s life it is hard not to see unsettling parallels to the world as it is today.   Immigration, and restricting it, is suddenly a popular talking point on the right.  Racism, apparently, is nothing to be ashamed of or shy about expressing as these same cynics sell the idea of Making America Great Again.    Restricting the rights of workers, with state laws like Right To Work (think “Arbeit Macht Frei“), only doing what’s right by the job creators.   Giving huge tax gifts to the wealthiest humans and corporations while millions of American children live in dire poverty and two hundred million more adults are one twist of fate away from homelessness — only fair.  Blaming immigrants for the deep troubles inflicted by America’s greediest and most ruthless on the rest of us– fair is fair.  As Groucho once ad libbed, during an argument with the Italian accented Chico, “I rest my case, restrict immigration!”

On this eve of the holiest day in the Jewish year it strikes me that my father’s life is also a reminder that racism is a very common evil.  Jews sometimes dwell on anti-Semitism, as well we might, but it is one more form of racism.  It has a venerable and twisted history, yes, it has certain features that seem unique, OK, but it is made of the same material that all racism is made of.   Fear and hatred, used by the greediest and most ruthless, to focus anger away from them and on to a people that can be bullied, menaced and, in certain emptily cathartic moments, killed.    Racism is always the same.  It is used to keep the powerless divided.   It works like a charm, better than a rabbit’s foot in the old watch pocket.


[1]   “The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.”   source

[2]  The economic freedoms were the right to a decent job that provided income for food, clothing and leisure, the farmer’s right to a fair income, freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, a right to housing, medical care, social security and education.  A quaint and dreamy list, by today’s more rugged standards, proposed toward the end of FDR’s life and quietly consigned to the footnotes of history, as here.  

[3] The FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments. Covered nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009. Overtime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay is required after 40 hours of work in a workweek.      source

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