In my mind’s eye, I see my great-aunt Amy.
She is leading a march, striding toward a line of police officers wielding batons, her hands clenched in determination and worry.
She is speaking at a rally, extolling the need for working men and women to organize, warning that the bosses will resist efforts to reduce their power.
She sits in a jail cell, angry at being arrested for challenging authority and the status quo, frustrated at being behind bars when the struggle continues on the outside.
She strikes the keys on her typewriter as she describes labor struggles in the mines, on the docks and in the mills.
After digging into her life for the past 16 years, I “know” Amy but still seek a better understanding of what compelled the youngest child of Solomon and Mathilde Schechter to turn her back on family and faith — on her “petty-bourgeois” upbringing, as she called it — and devote her adult life, more than 40 years, to the Communist Party.
The prelude to this pursuit was a question I asked my father when I must have been 12 or 13 years old: Did your father have siblings?
My father, Daniel Solomon Schechter, was born in New York City in 1926, the only child of Frank Isaac Schechter and Alice Greenzeig. Dad was 11 years old when his father died in 1937. He was raised by his mother and her sister in a 12th- floor apartment at 115th Street and Broadway. He opted for a career in journalism instead of academia. He was a New Yorker transplanted to Chicago. He was a proud and learned Jew.
Yes, he said in answer to my question, two sisters. Ruth went to South Africa, and Amy was a Socialist who was arrested during a strike in North Carolina.
Dad offered no more. And for three decades, that was all I knew.
In July 1999 my father received a letter from Harvey Klehr, a professor at Emory University, in Atlanta. Klehr is an expert in the relationship between the Communist Party in the United States and at its home office in the Soviet Union.
Klehr asked if my father knew of Harry Kweit, whom he described as one of the “mysterious figures” of the Communist International underground. He knew that Kweit was married to an Amy Schechter, a leading figure in the 1929 Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. He had learned that she was the daughter of the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter. An Atlanta rabbi put Klehr in touch with my brother John, himself a Conservative rabbi, who directed him to our father.
At my parents’ home north of Chicago later that summer, my father handed me Klehr’s letter, saying, “This might interest you.”
My attention was grabbed by what came with the letter, a two-page, heavily redacted 1943 report by the San Francisco field office of the FBI about the activities of Amy Esther Schechter.
Amy was, as the saying went, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, and a busy one at that. Two years in Siberia and two more at the International Lenin School, in Moscow. A defendant in the trial that followed the shooting death of the Gastonia police chief. Party work from New York to California. Married to Kweit and also a soldier named Charles Putnam Safford. Said to be “a very important member of the Communist Party and one of the most brilliant of its writers.”
“We did not see much of Amy,” my father wrote to Klehr, “and knew little of her travels and activities, beyond a very occasional call for help, and it is an odd footnote to my personal history that as a teenager I tried to find out when she was in New York by checking the log in the Slavonic room of the New York Public Library. When she was in New York she used a typewriter, which she had bought for $15 from a Norwegian seaman, and kept it at the library.”
“You asked how she earned a living, and we wondered about that also. Certainly it was not from the articles I saw. When she was in real financial need or was ill, she would contact my mother for help. My mother worked as a secretary after my father’s death. She was not in a position to offer large financial help, but she did her best with small sums or clothing despite her disappointment that Amy was seldom, if ever, present to visit my father during his illness.
“I have great regret that I did not know my Aunt Amy better. It was, however, to her credit that she was so concerned lest she taint what she saw to be my academic career that she took pains not to be identified with me” during the anti-Communist fervor of the early 1950s.
My parents met after World War II at Brown University and were married August 27, 1950, in my mother’s hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. “Aunt Amy was concerned enough for my welfare that, as you know, she declined to attend our wedding but sent a beautiful telegram couched in terms of social issues and concerns,” my father once wrote to me. Amy’s message was that the world needed good people to fight for social justice. My mother, Sally Schechter, never met her.
Based on nothing more than that FBI report, I suggested to my father that Amy’s life might be worth a book or an article. His reply was bracing. “Don’t you think that if there was something to write, I would have written it?” he said.
I was taken aback, but not deterred. There was a limit to what my father knew, and he was protective of the memory of his father and mother and of the Schechter name, a legacy from his paternal grandfather, who died more than a decade before he was born.
Still, I wanted to know more. What had Amy done in Russia? What happened in Gastonia? What did she do for the Communist Party? Who were Kweit and Safford?
Amy left no journal or letters that might have answered my questions.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained hundreds of pages of FBI reports. A colleague in Moscow helped me procure Amy’s Lenin School file from Soviet archives. I talked with elderly relatives and two aging comrades who recalled the Amy they knew in California decades earlier.
Though she was only what my father called a “minor functionary,” she was respected by her peers and regarded highly enough by party leaders to be deployed throughout the United States and sent to the Lenin School.
Amy was neither a policymaker nor a rank-and-file member. She was “cadre,” a “professional revolutionist,” in the words of a party manual. She played a role in noteworthy pieces of U.S. history over the first half of the 20th century. It was not a life for everyone, but it was the one she chose, the struggle she sought.
Amy was born August 4, 1892, in Cambridge, England. She was raised by parents who would have taught their children the concept of tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning to “repair” or “heal the world,” and the injunction in Deuteronomy that “justice, justice you shall pursue.”
On a questionnaire at the Lenin School, Amy wrote in 1931 that her father (who died in November 1915) would have opposed her Communist politics; her mother was “at least sympathetic, if not understanding,” and her brother “definitely reactionary.” She made no mention of her sister, who took her own path in a similar direction.
My great-grandfather journeyed west, in body and in thought. Given the name Schneur Zalman, for the founder of Chabad, he became Solomon. He was born in Focsani, Moldova, and moved, from local yeshivas, to centers of learning in Vienna, Berlin and London, and from there he went on to Cambridge University and finally, in 1902, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His prodigious academic reputation was enhanced by the trove of communal history he uncovered in the Genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, the old city of Cairo. Researchers at Cambridge today continue to pore through the more than 140,000 fragments and documents he was permitted to remove.
A generation earlier, the family name may have been Moskowitz but apparently was changed (as best I can tell) when Solomon’s father became a shochet, a slaughterer of meat and fowl according to Jewish law. Isaac the shochet became Isaac Schechter.
Solomon’s intellectual reach extended beyond matters of Jewish law. Redheaded and sturdily built in his younger days, he had a noted temper. His lack of concern for personal appearance, turning up at formal events less than formally dressed, was a habit that others found endearing but one that frustrated his wife. Similarly, his generosity with money proved a headache for her.
Like her father, Amy demonstrated an apparent apathy regarding personal appearance. Her hairstyle and clothing choices ignored the fashions of the day. Amy’s eyes were her most distinguishing feature. They were green and set on either side of an aquiline nose, Like her father’s, those eyes could bore through a camera lens when angry, though his appearance as a gray-haired eminence tempered that impression.
My earliest awareness of Solomon came as a boy, when I asked my mother why our name was on the side of a school bus I saw on a highway near our home. There is a familial pride in such a forebear. After some years, I grew more comfortable with the “Are you related?” conversations. My favorite was when the author Chaim Potok asked me that question as I was sitting down to interview him.
Mathilde Roth likewise journeyed west, from Breslau, Germany, to study at Queens College, in London. The story is that she met Solomon, who was tutor to the scion of a wealthy Jewish family, in the library of Jews’ College, also in London, where he helped her find books.
They were matched intellectually. She taught art and history to faculty wives in Cambridge, translated Heinrich Heine’s poetry to English from German and used her superior grammar and syntax to improve her husband’s writings in English. In New York, Mathilde helped Henrietta Szold found Hadassah, created a school to teach immigrant girls job skills and Jewish fundamentals and aided in the integration of music into worship services.
Their daughter Ruth (Hedwig was her given first name) was born in London in 1888. She received an education in languages, religion, literature and other topics at home. At age 12 she was courted in Cambridge by a visiting 23-year-old law student from South Africa, whose advances were spurned by her parents. A smitten Morris Alexander waited until Ruth turned 18 and in New York he proposed again. At 19 she married Alexander in a ceremony at the seminary and left for Cape Town.
In South Africa, as Ruth was mentored by the activist and author Olive Schreier, her politics moved left, past those of her husband, who was a lawyer, liberal parliamentarian and a pillar of the Jewish community. The night before leaving in July 1914 for England, and then for his triumphant return to India, the Indian lawyer Mohandes Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, were guests of the Alexanders. Ruth later sent Gandhi a letter in which she said, “Let me tell you, for the pleasure it gives me, that you have always been, since I knew you, and always will be, until I die, one of the three great souls with whom I live from day to day, beyond those who speak to me from the printed pages. My father and Olive Schreiner are the other two.”
Ruth raised a son and two daughters, both of whom suffered from mental illness. She warned Alexander that if he forced her to register to vote in accordance with a new South African law — at a time when neither black men nor women could vote — she would divorce him. He did, and in 1933 she did. Several years earlier, Ruth had found a kindred spirit in Benjamin Farrington, an Irishman (and supporter of Sinn Fein) who taught classics in South Africa. Their political compatibility grew to something more, and when she returned to South Africa after a year’s visit to New York, Ruth and Farrington wed. They moved to Wales, where Ruth joined the Communist Party in the United Kingdom. She died in 1953.
Both Schechter daughters took the lessons they learned at home and, after finding Judaism sincere but perhaps not muscular enough, turned to communism.
Frank was born in Cambridge in 1890, where Solomon was a lecturer in talmudics. He bore the weight of his father’s expectations. He earned his degrees at Columbia University, including the school’s first doctorate of jurisprudence, authoring a treatise that became a foundation of the nation’s trademark laws.
Frank died September 26, 1937, at the age of 47, succumbing to respiratory illness, likely aggravated by exposure to poison gas, while he was serving as an Army intelligence officer with a unit that saw frequent combat in eastern France in the closing months of World War I.
As for young Amy, a family story, perhaps apocryphal, illustrates her nascent social conscience. As a girl (she was 10 when the family moved to New York), she left the family apartment on Riverside Drive one winter’s day and returned home without a recently purchased coat. The story is that Amy saw a woman on a sidewalk shivering and begging for money and gave her the coat,
I imagine that 18-year-old Amy probably paid attention to accounts of the Triangle Waist Company fire on March 25, 1911. Many of the young women killed, either by smoke inhalation or by leaping to their deaths to escape flames, were Jewish and close to her age. Perhaps protests by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, resonated with her.
After attending the all-girls Wadleigh High School, Amy graduated in 1915 from the all-female Barnard College, with a degree in languages. She joined the newspaper and literary magazine as well as the philosophy club, and sang in the glee club. She was a member of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League of New York State but eschewed the campus socialists.
I have wondered whether Juliet Stuart Poyntz, Barnard class of 1907, influenced Amy politically. Poyntz was a brilliant student who defied convention and worked with immigrant populations in several cities. I imagine Amy in February 1915 listening to her speak at a Women’s Day event sponsored by the socialists at the Pabst Auditorium and being drawn to the charismatic Poyntz, who later was among those who established the party in the United States. Years later, Poyntz turned up in Gastonia, bringing Amy and two other women defendants new dresses to improve their appearance in court.
Amy joined the Socialists in 1917 but quit several months later, opposing the party’s stand on the Bolshevik Revolution and U.S. entry into the great war. She joined the Communist Party in London in 1920 during a six- month trip to France and England. Her membership transferred to the U.S. branch when she returned home in 1921. Jews were members of the Communist Party USA in disproportionate numbers— as many as 15% of party members in the 1920s and higher in the 1930s and ’40s.
Amy crossed the Atlantic Ocean again in the summer of 1921, traveling by boat to Russia and then enduring a 2,500-mile rail trip to southwest Siberia from St. Petersburg. In the Kuzbas Autonomous Colony, along the Tom River near Shcheglovsk (later renamed Kemerovo), a mix of idealists and tradesmen set out to prove that a Soviet enterprise could be managed by mostly American workers using American methods of production in coal, steel, chemicals and farming. Amy was put in charge of the school for colonists’ children who did not attend Russian schools. Based on histories of the colony, which survived only several years, life was challenging (not just because of the Russian winters), and Amy’s tenure as schoolmarm was fraught with problems, not the least of which was the angry mother of two boys she disciplined, who smacked her in the face.
Amy sailed home from Hamburg, Germany, in October 1924, missing by two months Mathilde’s death after several years of illness. Also on board the SS Hansa was Harry Kweit, the man about whom Klehr had written my father. Kweit, the son of Russian immigrants and a native of Queens, was a graduate of CUNY in chemistry and a skilled radio operator.
On various forms, including passport applications, Amy and Kweit claimed to be married, but Kweit also called Amy his common-law wife, and no known documentation of a marriage exists. There were no children (one elderly relative said Amy told her the marriage was sexless). Whatever the relationship, it continued at least through late 1925, when they were in Chicago, but as Amy was deployed to Pennsylvania coal fields and textile strikes in Passaic, New Jersey and in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Kweit worked for the party, teaching use of clandestine radio systems, a fire kindled in Siberia cooled.
Kweit was killed in March 1943 when a German submarine torpedoed the USS Oglethorpe, the Liberty Ship on which he served as a radio operator, in the north Atlantic. Amy then was living in California. When she grieved aloud to a friend, the FBI found out (the friend’s Oakland, California, home was bugged because the FBI suspected her husband, a CPUSA official, of being a conduit for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets).
Amy’s greatest notoriety came in 1929, when she was sent by the party’s Workers International Relief to North Carolina to care for the families of 1,700 striking workers at the Loray Mill, a 600,000-square foot, five-story tall behemoth that held 110,000 spindles and 300 looms, producing cord fabric for automobile tires.
Amy arrived days after the start of a walkout engineered by the Communist-backed National Textile Workers Union in response to the pleas of workers hard-pressed when the mill increased the output demanded of them without an increase in time to accomplish the tasks, allowing management to reduce its payroll while maintaining production levels. National Guard troops protected the plant. The local newspaper, the Gastonia Gazette, railed against the Communists.
Odd as Amy may have seemed (with what remained of her English accent, and her often disheveled appearance ), she impressed her colleagues. “If you asked her to get up at dawn and walk five miles for the Party, she’d do it,” wrote Vera Buch, an organizer who would be a co-defendant in the trial. “Eventually, when I got to know Schechter well, I valued her highly. That she had guts and really wanted to be in Gastonia were points in her favor. Her little peculiarities didn’t matter, though for the strikers the first impression wasn’t too good. And they couldn’t pronounce her name… But Amy worked hard and her inborn kindliness and her dedication won their confidence.”
In her memoir, Buch said that Amy “told of the fluffy white dresses with blue ribbon sashes she and her sister used to wear on Sundays. From her English days she had a stock of songs which she would sing with a Cockney accent: ‘Oh girls, oh girls, take warning, and never let it be. Never let a sailor go higher than your knee.’ How she had gotten into the movement was not accounted for. We were all such disciplined dyed-in-the-wood comrades that it hardly seemed necessary to explain.”
Amy was arrested twice in a week not long after arriving. On April 18 she was charged with disorderly conduct for verbally abusing police, whom she felt showed up conveniently after a pre-dawn masked mob destroyed the wooden strike headquarters and trashed the relief store’s brick storefront, scattering foodstuffs on the floor and on the street (but were careful not to break windows at the diner next door). Cooler heads prevailed, and the charge was not prosecuted.
A few days later, Amy was arrested as she helped lead a march to test a new ordinance against parading. (The strike’s male leadership avoided marching and the confrontations that came with it, irritating Amy and other women organizers.)
As a Jew visiting from out of town, the daughter of Solomon Schechter might have been invited to a Seder by members of the Hebrew Congregation of Gastonia on the first night of Passover, April 24, 1929. But not when she was helping lead a strike against the town’s major employer, not when the congregation included brothers who owned other mills in the area and not after she was released from jail that morning. Then again, Amy wasn’t looking for contact with the local landsmen.
Tensions escalated, and the relief store was evicted from its brick storefront and moved to a location where a new strike headquarters, one protected by armed guards, had been built on land across railroad tracks north of the factory. A tent encampment also was erected for families evicted from company-owned houses.
Friday, June 7, was the night of a new moon, meaning there was minimal natural light. With Buch, Amy led a column of mostly women and children, headed toward the mill, to greet workers rumored to be walking out. They were intercepted and roughed up by police and forced to retreat.
A couple of hours after dark, the chief, Orville Frank Aderholt, and three deputies turned up at the tent camp, claiming to have received a disturbance call. Words and then gunfire were exchanged. Aderholt was struck at least once and died the next morning. Exactly who fired the fatal shot has never been clear.
Dozens of people were rounded up. Police held 13 men and three women — Amy, Buch and Sophie Melvin — for trial on charges that included first-degree murder. The death penalty was a possibility.
Amy’s combative attitude was evident during an exchange with prosecutor Clyde Roark Hoey during a habeas corpus hearing in mid-June.
“Do you believe in God?” the silver-maned, frock coat-wearing Hoey asked.
“I don’t believe I can answer in one word,” Amy replied.
“Yes or no,” Hoey demanded.
“Well, then, no,” she said.
“Then you don’t regard the oath you have taken on the Bible?” Hoey continued.
“Yes, I regard it as part of the court proceeding and an obligation to tell the truth,” Amy countered.
When Hoey asked if Amy wanted the U.S. to adopt a Soviet form of government, she answered that political power should be held by “a majority of the people, which happens to be the workers and the farmers.”
“It is a case which may become as much a cause celebre as the Sacco-Vanzetti trial,” The New York Times said, referring to the Italian-born laborers and anarchists executed in 1927 for the 1920 murder of two pay clerks at a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts.
A change of venue was ordered, from Gastonia to Charlotte, 23 miles to the east. If the governor hoped this would reduce the light being shined on his state, he was wrong.
Frank Schechter could have monitored the trial from New York City, but, their political differences aside, Amy was his sister. When the trial began on July 29, he sat at the defense table as an observer. Amy likely never knew how he worked behind the scenes on her behalf. Ironically, in private practice he was trademark counsel for the underwear manufacturer BVD, which operated a mill in Lexington, North Carolina. Frank distrusted the party’s lawyers, whom he thought too eager to create martyrs from their clients.
When the prosecution announced that the women would not be tried for first-degree murder (though other charges remained), they sent a telegram in Amy’s name to the International Labor Defense headquarters in New York, reading: “We object to any favored treatment on account of our sex. The others are no more guilty than we and if we are released on bail, they should also be released.”
A mistrial was declared on September 9 under bizarre circumstances. A life-size effigy of the dead police chief, clothed in his blood-soaked uniform, had been constructed secretly in the courthouse basement and wheeled into the courtroom. The chief’s widow and daughter shrieked; the defense objected, and an angry judge ordered it removed. One of the jurors went mad, asking deputies for a gun to kill himself and confessing his sins.
Amy felt insulted again in September 30, when the second trial began and all charges against the women (and six of the men) were dismissed. “Oh well, I suppose they feel the mob will take care of us,” she indignantly told reporters outside the courtroom. “I would rather have gone through with it. We must fight this out together.”
The seven men who remained defendants eventually were convicted of lesser charges; they posted bail and fled to Russia.
In 1944, the Charlotte field office of the FBI interviewed John G. Carpenter, chief prosecutor at the Loray Mill trial. “Mr. Carpenter said that the organizers readily admitted their Communist affiliates at that time and that the subject of this case (Amy) was at that time a ‘dyed in the wool’ Communist, and at times he believed her to be half crazy,” the report read.
When Amy returned to the South early in 1930 to open an office of the party’s Trade Union Unity League in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she delivered what the local newspaper called a 45-minute “harangue.” The TUUL was “an avenging angel sent to strike down the bosses and heal the wounds of the working man,” she said, calling William F. Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, a “tool of the bosses and the businessman’s friend, who lolls in Florida with his executive council while 3,000,000 workers are unemployed.”
The other highlight of Amy’s time in Chattanooga came on March 6, a day of international protest against government inaction regarding unemployment. Amy and five men (two of whom The Associated Press identified as “Negroes”) were arrested for blocking an intersection. A headline in The Washington Post the next day declared “Woman Red Faces Charges of Lunacy,” with a subhead “Alternative of Leaving City of Chattanooga Given Miss Amy Schechter.” “Municipal Judge Martin Fleming said Miss Schechter would have to face the lunacy charge if she remained in this city,” AP reported. “I believe you are sincere, but you have such an overdose of this stuff that you’re crazy,” Fleming told Amy. She was fined $50.
A year later the party sent Amy to the International Lenin School, where promising leaders were groomed. At age 38, Amy was older and more experienced than the average 25-year-old student. While in Moscow, she served as a referent to Comintern, which made her a source of information about America for the party leadership.
The leadership was not her future. After returning to New York in 1932, she worked increasingly as a journalist. Amy wrote for the party press, both the Daily Worker and People’s World Weekly, as well as for The Nation, New Masses, the Guardian, March of Labor and Soviet Russia Today (later known as New World Review.) During the next nearly 30 years, she wrote about disputes on the West Coast docks and in Eastern coal fields, the quality of life in the Soviet Union, and bleak Christmas prospects in rural Pennsylvania mining towns.
This last piece is my favorite. “Miners in western Pennsylvania coal country go all out for Christmas — when there is anything at all to go out with. A big Christmas is a mining-camp tradition, along with halting work when a man is killed in the mine or refusing to work without a contract; long before the day itself Christmas color and light break through the greyness of the mine section,” Amy wrote.
The party sent her to San Francisco at the end of the 1930s, to aid publicity efforts against the government’s (ultimately failed) attempts to deport Harry Bridges, the salty Australian who ran the longshoremen’s union.
Amy supplemented her party stipend by joining the Federal Writers Project, a branch of the Works Project Administration, one of the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s “alphabet agencies” that put people to work during the Depression. She received an editor’s credit on the Northern California section of the 1939 federal guide to that state. She taught labor history in Chino, California, at a union school that trained leaders among the migrant farm workers (whom The New York Times called the “Grapes of Wrath” people), and worked for several months in the party’s Los Angeles branch.
Most of Amy’s West Coast years were spent in the San Francisco area, with a foray to Seattle where, through a party connection, she was hired as a ship scaler on the docks. She held a series of jobs, none lasting more than a couple of months; she quit employment at a frozen food warehouse, a print shop and a loading dock. She moved at least eight times in San Francisco, likely for reasons of personal finance and concern about government surveillance.
Amy’s California contacts included Louise Bransten, an heiress known for her financial support of the party. Bransten was believed to be the paramour of Gregori Kheifets, listed as a diplomat at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco but in reality the KGB station chief. Bransten held a fundraiser for veterans of the Spanish Civil War at her home on December 6, 1941 (the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor), and among the guests was atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. I imagine that, as a Communist of some note, Amy also may have attended. Amy did seek Kheifets’s help in accessing information from the Soviet writers union for a book she hoped to write.
By the time I began my research, most of Amy’s contemporaries were gone, so I was thrilled to make contact in 2003 with a pair of 88-year-old California comrades, Dorothy Healey and Lilian Carlson.
Healey, whose party career began as a Southern California teenager, directed the farm worker school in Chino. “She was a kind of legendary human being who seemed to be everywhere you could think of,” she said of Amy. “My biggest memory of Amy was her disheveled appearance. None of us were too concerned about appearances in those years, but she kind of led the march,” Healey said with a chuckle. She recalled Amy as a heavy smoker.
“She was an important person, a distinguished person,” Healey said.
“She had a lot of respect from people who knew her,” said Carlson, who grew up in communist youth organizations. She, too, mentioned Amy’s appearance: “She always looked like she needed to comb her hair.”
“We used to joke about her,” Carlson said. “That she’s never going to finish her history of the labor movement because things are always changing.” The book was never finished.
The Federal Writers Project also was where Amy met Charles Putnam Safford. Like Kweit, he was several years younger than Amy. Safford ran away from his Indiana home as a teenager, studied art in New York and made his way to California, where he was in the early stages of making a name for himself as a painter. Whether theirs was a romance, a platonic relationship or just a friendship is not clear. He listed her on an Army enlistment form and she used his name, not only when they lived together for a couple of years in San Francisco’s famous “Montgomery Block” building, but also for a while after she returned to New York postwar.
The Amy who returned to New York after World War II was in her mid-50s, overweight and, according to the FBI, stooped, ugly and unkempt. Years of unremitting travel and work had taken their toll.
If there was a moment for Amy to question her loyalties, it would have been in mid-1956, when Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev denounced former premier Joseph Stalin for crimes against the Soviet people, specifically the arrest of 1.5 million individuals and the execution of more than 680,000 during the period known as the “Great Purge.” CPUSA membership already had declined from a war-time high of more than 80,000. The combination of Khrushchev’s speech and Soviet troops crushing the 1956 revolt in Hungary caused thousands more to quit. When loyalists were asked to re-register, Amy was among the 3,000 who remained.
At this point in her life, with her health deteriorating and her writing now less frequent, admitting doubts would have been crippling. Amy had nowhere else to go. The party was her life.
Amy rented apartments on the Upper East Side but lived part of the last couple of years of her life with a relative who resided comfortably in central Manhattan. “Amy was a terrible mess,” the elderly relative told me. The elevator boy in her building thought that Amy was mad. “She was just a sloppy looking person.”
Amy was 69 years old when she died on March 3, 1962, at Beth Israel Hospital. She was interred on a cold and windy March 4 in the Schechter family plot deep within the sprawling Mount Hebron Cemetery, in the Flushing section of Queens. Also buried there are Solomon and Mathilde, her parents; Frank and Alice, her brother and sister-in-law; Alice’s sister Fanny Greenzeig; Alice’s and Fanny’s mother, Dora Greenzeig, and Frank’s and Alice’s son Daniel S. Schechter, my father.
Communism may not been the right answer or even a good answer, and may have put Amy on the wrong side of history in the broadest sense, but the most ardent of its American followers believed in earnest that they were doing right by working men and women. The party gave Amy comradeship that substituted for emotional attachment to the family of her birth, and a belief system that substituted for the religion into which she was born. Hers was a life of the party.
Dave Schechter began his career in journalism as a newspaper reporter before moving to television. He worked for CNN as Jerusalem bureau producer in the mid-1980s and then for 26 years as a national editor. He now writes freelance, often on topics related to the Jewish world.