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Rabbi Oren Hayon @RabbiHayon
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1/ A LONG THREAD. In which I discuss a remarkable discovery about my grandmother, and what I learned from it.
2/ While going through some of my late grandmother’s papers, I came across a curious file: a large binder marked “CONFIDENTIAL” with the seal of the Department of Justice across the top. What was this?
3/ Some background: My grandparents were both longtime employees of the federal government. My grandfather worked for the WPA and then the Postal Service; she worked for the Dept. of the Interior and then the INS in Virginia.
4/ During WWII, while my grandfather was overseas, my grandmother received a transfer to work as a clerk in the Signal Corps. While there, she received two commendations for her contributions toward the war effort (this photo is from 7/27/44).
5/ After the war ended, my grandfather came home safe, and the two of them moved from New York to El Paso, Texas. Jeannette got a new job with the INS, processing the paperwork for deportees.
7/ Soon a letter arrives from the Justice Department, which makes everything chillingly clear: Jeannette is charged with “sympathetic association with the Communist Party of the United States…within the purview of Executive Order No. 9835.”
8/ Jeannette and Lou are panicked. Where did this come from? How do they respond? And what will this mean for their livelihood? The letter contains no details, but instructs that a hearing will be held on November 16, 1948.
9/ They quickly reach out to their Senator, Clyde M. Reed, to ask for assistance and guidance, but learn from his office that he is on vacation and unable to reply. Genuine fear begins to set in.
10/ November arrives, and Jeannette comes to the “Loyalty Board” hearing, unsure about what to expect. She asks for more time to prepare her defense. They are disinclined to grant the request, but they are eventually convinced.
11/ The hearing will be pushed back until April 6, 1949. My grandmother is initially relieved, but then she sees something that makes her feel sick to her stomach.
12/ She recognizes the court stenographer. It’s a woman named Connie from her steno pool at work. Jeannette realizes, with a sinking feeling, that the news of her hearing will now spread throughout her office and her community.
13/ Jeannette takes the next few months to prepare. The new hearing will be held on April 6, 1949 at the U.S. Court House, in El Paso. My mother would turn two years old four days later.
14/ Her attorney, Ernest Guinn, opens with a request that only fair evidence and competent witnesses should be admitted into the Loyalty Board’s deliberations.
15/ A member of the Board reassures him that this is just an informal “administrative proceeding.” But this also means, he adds slyly, that the hearing “is not bound by the strict rules of evidence adhered to in the courts.”
16/ The Loyalty Board begins laying out the evidence for the charge that my grandmother is a Communist.
17/ Her mother, a Russian immigrant who lived with them in the Bronx, had been a member of the Communist Party.
18/ Jeannette had attended a meeting of the “Southern Conference for Human Welfare,” and there were reports from informants that some of the people who attended these meetings had “communistic sympathies.”
19/ The FBI had received information from a childhood friend had suggested that between the ages of 13 and 18, Jeannette had been “communistically inclined.”
20/ There was a report from a neighbor who stated: “I believe they are Communists because they had large pictures of Lenin and Trotsky on the wall of their apartment.”
21/ (This last one puzzled Jeannette. Her best guess was that a neighbor had seen family photos of mustachioed relatives from Eastern Europe on the wall, and mistaken them for Lenin and Trotsky.)
22/ The questioning begins. They ask about Jeannette’s employment with the government, her work with the War Department and the Justice Department.
23/ They seize on the fact that she had had a security clearance, and that her secretarial work involved administrative tasks with lists of U.S. warships overseas.
24/ They examine that photo of her with Capt. Harry A. Hollinger when she received an award. She replies demurely that it’s not a good photo of her. Guinn replies “We are dealing more with your soul now than with your outward appearance.”
25/ Davis Green, a close family friend, is called to testify. The Loyalty Board grills him on his political affiliation and points out that he is a liberal democrat.
26/ Then they turn back to Jeannette and ask about who she knows. Many of the people they ask about appear to have been Jews. “You know the Shapiros?” “Did you associate with a Sarah Klein?” …
27/ …“Do you know a person named Anna Gelb?” “Do you know an Eva Rosenbaum?” “Have you become close friends with Mrs. Nathalie Gross?” Jeannette claps back: “No, we haven’t. She is positively obnoxious.”
28/ The Board is very interested in her work with Zionist organizations and her involvement in “the Palestine situation,” which seems to raise red flags for them.
29/ The Loyalty Board calls my grandparents' rabbi, Joseph M. Roth, to testify about them.
30/ He testifies that my grandparents wouldn’t associate with Communists. “They seek the better things of life. They are intellectual, and inclined to be idealistic. I doubt very much, to the best of my knowledge, that they would.”
31/ Just the same, the rabbi can’t resist a subtle dig. He laments that my grandparents don’t come to shul more often, and wishes that more people would support the synagogue financially.
32/ The interrogation about Jewish topics continues. They ask about what Yiddish papers and magazines they read. Do you read newspapers from New York? Do you read the Morning Freiheit? Did the Daily Worker come in to your home?
33/ Jeannette admits that she doesn’t have many friends in El Paso since moving there from New York. “…in New York we had more friends…we don’t drink, we don’t play cards, and lectures and concerts are really the only thing you can go to.”
34/ Maybe, the members of the Loyalty Board wonder, attending Communist lectures would be a “social outlet” for you?
35/ She asserts that she has been trying “to do a little bit to help” with racial tensions in Texas. “I remember one time a white man killed a Negro woman, and he was being set free. … [I tried] to interest people in becoming more community conscious.”
36/ The Board seems to think that sympathy for racial equity is a sign of Communist tendencies. They ask suspiciously, “You are not opposed to employing Negroes as household servants? Or Mexicans?”
37/ They confirm that Lou is a government employee. Jeannette says that it would be “catastrophic” if he had been investigated, because it would threaten their livelihood.
38/ They ask about her political opinions: Should the US abandon its position in Berlin? Are you in favor of the Marshall Plan? And the Atlantic Pact? Are you for the abandonment of our position in Japan? Shouldn't we bring our soldiers home?
39/ Noting that Lou had been stationed in the Philippines, can they assume that she would have liked our overseas soldiers to come home quickly? She agrees, and they interject that her position "happened to be a Communist party line.”
40/ Can you imagine how defeated and trapped she must have felt?
41/ She was a new mother with an almost-two-year-old. She had few friends. Her livelihood and reputation were on the line. She was at the mercy of anyone who wanted to start a vengeful rumor or spread gossip.
42/ And she was coming to the conclusion that all the things she believed in – Jewish life, liberal politics, racial equity, the safe return of U.S. soldiers – could be used as evidence that she was a Communist and a threat to America.
43/ And things would only get worse from here. Remember, this took place FIVE AND A HALF YEARS before Senator McCarthy was finally confronted with “Have you no decency, sir?”
44/ Both of my grandparents committed their professional lives to serving their country. Did Jeannette feel betrayed by this accusation, or was she just afraid?
45/ My grandmother’s lawyer has introduced lots of evidence (Exhibits A through T) and called a number of witnesses to defend her. Eventually the Loyalty Board has heard enough, and they adjourn the hearing at 12:30 pm.
46/ She doesn’t hear anything for two and a half months. The wait must have been agonizing.
47/ At last, on June 25, 1949, she receives her verdict.
48/ The Loyalty Board of the United States Department of Justice has ruled in Jeannette’s favor. Their reply consists of a one-sentence statement that they have dismissed all charges against her.
49/ She must have been relieved that she could keep her job. But what could be done about the rumors and innuendo that would continue to swirl around her?
50/ My grandmother kept this story secret for years. None of us knew these files existed. Eventually, she was able to look back on these memories and laugh. But it took a very long time.
51/ Remember, way back in Tweet #1, I promised to reflect a little bit about what I learned from this remarkable black folder I found? Well…
52/ I learned that it’s easier than one would hope to derail a good reputation and to cast doubt on years of patriotism and loyalty. A simple mistake, a scurrilous rumor, or “foreign-looking” photos of your family members can be enough.
53/ I learned that, no matter how “American” we feel, anyone who didn’t come over on the Mayflower (and probably some who did, too) can be accused of having divided loyalties.
54/ I learned that your most noble religious and civic impulses can still be seen as suspicious by others, and that even your most personal convictions might lead them to conclude that you cannot be trusted.
55/ I learned that America tries really hard most of the time. But we don’t always get it right.
56/ And I learned that my grandmother was a complete and total badass. /FIN
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