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A summer reunion in the country, Jewish socialist style

Camp Hemshekh, which closed in 1978, was the summer home for hundreds of campers, many of them children of Holocaust survivors

It’s the last weekend in August. Several dozen older adults are sitting in lawn chairs under the stars, gathered around a campfire by a lake and singing Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” softly accompanied by several folk guitars. Soon afterwards, someone begins singing an old Yiddish labor song. Others join in, several of them clearly struggling to remember the lyrics. For many of them, the last time they sang “Di Shvue” (“The Oath”) was over 50 years ago.

This campfire was one of many activities at a recent reunion of campers and staff from a now-defunct Jewish socialist summer camp in the Catskills called Camp Hemshekh. The 120-plus participants, ranging in age from 50 to 80, had come from across the United States and Canada. One flew in from London, and another all the way from Melbourne.

Although there had been previous Camp Hemshekh reunions, they had taken place in New York City and lasted 3-4 hours. This was the first time Hemshekhists were meeting for an entire weekend in a camp setting. They aimed to recreate the camp experience of their childhood.

Hemshekh, whose name means “continuation,” was founded in 1959 by a group of Holocaust survivors, members of the Jewish Labor Bund. They dreamed of a camp where they could transmit to their own children the values they had been taught in Warsaw, Vilna and other Eastern European cities with large Jewish populations. They firmly believed in the importance of workers’ rights; of doikayt (hereness), which urged Jews to fight for their rights in the countries in which they lived; and of the principles of democratic socialism.

The camp, which was founded in Liberty, New York, and then moved to several other upstate New York locations — Turkey Point, Hunter, and finally Mountaindale — became the zumerheym (summer home) for hundreds of children and teenagers until 1978, when it was forced to close due to financial difficulties.

As a Hemshekhist myself, I took part in as many activities as I could. We ate together in the dining room, spent hours outdoors at activities like folk dancing, sports and group discussions, or simply chatting with old friends in English and Yiddish on topics ranging from the silly to the deeply personal.

Although in many ways Hemshekh was like other American sleepaway camps — its days were filled with sports activities, swim instruction, arts and crafts and first romances — it was also deeply countercultural. It elevated Yiddish at a time when many Jewish organizations ignored it. A number of campers and staff, especially in Hemshekh’s earlier years, came to camp already fluent in Yiddish thanks to their immigrant Jewish parents and shared this knowledge through classes and songs.

Many Hemshekh campers and counselors grew up with parents who had survived the Nazi genocide as concentration camp inmates, partisan fighters, hidden children, or by escaping to Russia. Although one day each summer at camp was dedicated to the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, we didn’t talk much about the horrors our own parents had endured. Many of us felt the wounds of our parents as a heavy weight that was never articulated.

As a child of a survivor myself, I felt deep relief spending my summers with kids who shared a similar family history. During the school year, I needed to hide who I was. At camp, I didn’t. My story was our story.

At the reunion, a number of people took part in a discussion on intergenerational trauma led by one of the early Hemshekhists, psychologist Rita Meed. Finally, we children of survivors got a chance to share our family’s experiences with each other.

Music was a highlight of the reunion, as it was in camp itself. Longtime Hemshekh music director Zalmen Mlotek led the morning singing as he did every day decades ago, with the help of an enthusiastic group of talented Hemshekh singers, as the rest of us pulled lyrics to the English and Yiddish songs from the recesses of our minds.

The campfires on Friday and Saturday nights were the highlight for me. We sang the Yiddish song “Arum dem Fayer” (“Around the Fire”), whose lyrics “Vayl tants un lid iz undzer lebn” (“Because song and dance are our life”) touched me deeply. In Hemshekh, song and dance made us who we are. While our friends back home were listening to the pop songs of the ’50s through the ’70s, we learned songs of class struggle, pogroms and the necessity of organizing. At the reunion, I was struck not only by the beauty of those melodies and voices, but by the genius of the Hemshekh administration and staff in imparting these values, not didactically, but through song.

The reunion also included a mini-version of Hemshekh’s color war, called Hemshekh yada. In contrast to other camps where this campwide event would pit a blue team versus a red one, Hemshekh teams were named for Yiddish writers like I.L. Peretz and Itzik Manger. During a period of three days, campers and counselors on both teams composed songs, wrote skits and painted banners representing the values and themes in that particular writer’s works.

At the reunion, the teams weren’t named after writers, though. Instead, this Hemsekh yada honored three of the longtime camp mothers, all Holocaust survivors. These women would comfort homesick campers, cut the fingernails of the youngest children and try to convince them to eat at least one nutritious food at meals (not an easy task).

Hemshekh’s last year was 1978; there simply weren’t enough campers to keep it running. Years later, as a young mother, I was sad that there was no Hemshekh I could send my own children to. But at the reunion, as we former campers and counselors sang dozens of Yiddish and English songs, our voices ringing out, with harmonies blending in the air, I was deeply grateful for the vision and devotion of the camp founders in forging this extraordinary spirit.

In his later years, my father, who was a tailor and supported our family with his modest wages, lamented that he had never built a fortune so that he could leave me a yerushe, an inheritance. At the reunion, experiencing the warmth, camaraderie and especially the exuberant singing, I realized that he did leave me one. That yerushe was Hemshekh.

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