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Gleanings

We arrived in New York City, my parents and I, in early August l943, and immediately moved into a small apartment near Van Cortland Park, in the Bronx, courtesy of the Jewish Labor Committee. In l940 and 1941 the JLC had come to the aid of my parents, members of the Jewish Socialist Bund, who like many other labor leaders were trying desperately to leave Soviet occupied Vilna. With the committee’s help we were able to make our way via the USSR and Japan to the United States. Now, two years on, the JLC again came to the aid of its European comrades by furnishing them with accommodation and — whenever necessary — with some funds to tide them over until they found work and could resume a more normal existence. Our apartment, on the fourth floor of a six-story building, consisted of two rooms, a bathroom and a tiny kitchen, just large enough for the three of us to have our meals at the table. My mother could dish out the food without having to stand up, the oven being only inches away from her chair.

All the windows looked out on an empty lot and beyond that onto an equally empty street, which led to Van Cortland Park with its many trails and a lake where you could swim in the summer and ice skate in the winter. Our small group — mostly children from Bundist families — would go on long walks. Our passion for the outdoors was a legacy dating from our membership in the Bundist children’s organization SKIF (sotsyalistisher kinder farband) in Poland. In early autumn some of the older members of our group, thirsting for a more organized form of activity, banded together in a “Club of Jewish Youth from Poland,” later renamed Hemshekh (Continuity) so as to accommodate some “natives” (much as we considered ourselves considerably “superior” to the Americans). Discussions, communal singing, puppet-shows and other semi-theatrical performances staged for our parents and friends, celebrations in honor of Yiddish writers past and living — all these were organized and run by ourselves, with an occasional assist from a teacher at the Workmen’s Circle School, whose premises we used. In time Hemshekh became the nucleus of the Yiddish Youth Federation with its journal “Yugntruf,” the latter extant, mirabile dictu, to this day.

Nearby Sedgwick Avenue, our main drag, boasted several housing projects, one of them named the Sholom Aleichem Buildings after the Yiddish writer. Its most celebrated resident was the aging Yiddish poet Avrom Reisen, a legendary figure for my friends and myself — for hadn?t we declaimed and sung his verses in the Yiddish elementary schools of Warsaw and Vilna? A year after arriving in New York, I gathered the courage to ring his doorbell. A slightly stooped figure with gray hair opened the door, obviously quite taken aback by my presence — Reisen would often be invited to Yiddish schools for celebrations in his honor, but clearly it had been a long time since anyone under 40 had appeared at his doorstep. He admitted me courteously and then led the way to his book-lined study, all the time peppering me with questions about myself, my parents and the source of my fluent Yiddish, already a rarity among American Jewish youngsters. Then he took a book off the shelves, saying he would read me lines by “the greatest poet who ever lived.” This turned out to be Heinrich Heine, whose verse he read to me in German. I hardly understood a word, but felt terribly excited that Reisen would treat me so respectfully, while also marveling that he would so adore a German poet. (In this Reisen was not alone; many Yiddish poets and writers of the early and mid-20th century were admirers of German and Russian l9th-century authors.) For several weeks thereafter, I walked with my head in the clouds, proud that a giant of Yiddish literature had received me so graciously.

In September 1942, as American involvement in the Second World War intensified, I enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School on Sedgwick Avenue, at that time an all-boys school known for its high scholarly standards and lively political atmosphere. No subject aroused more passion than the Soviet Union, until recently America’s bête noire, now its staunch ally in the war against Germany. Having lived for more than a year (roughly l939-l941) under Soviet rule in Vilna, I had acquired a certain rough sophistication about things Soviet, which few of my American friends could match and which proved most helpful in our debates. And not only with my coevals. There was a teacher in our school by the name of Stone, a large hulking man with a crew cut, probably in his early 50s, whose English classes mostly turned into vigorous discussions about American politics and current events. Stone came from Arkansas, where he said he had never seen a live Jew, imagining them, he said, as two-horned creatures. And so he was pleasantly surprised to find out that Jews looked and acted like most people he knew, and we in turn were pleased to find a man who so frankly confessed to having at one time harbored, as he put it, “ancient and ridiculous” prejudices.

But in one area Mr. Stone would not compromise: the Soviet Union. He was an ardent reader of the fellow-traveling newspaper PM, and he and I would get involved in lengthy arguments. It was a curious duel — on the one side a thoroughly American middle-aged man, and on the other an adolescent only recently arrived from Eastern Europe. Stone invariably remained courteous and calm, while I was given to emotional crescendos. I loved him for his honesty and directness, while some of his political notions drove me to despair. Though in his youth Stone knew probably even fewer Communists than Jews, he was firmly convinced that its charges against the Allied powers were correct and that the Soviet Union was a splendid if much-maligned country gallantly bearing the heaviest burden of the war effort. His innocence was as appalling as it was attractive. I wonder what Graham Greene would have made of him.

From “Journey Through Doomed Worlds,” a memoir by Abraham Brumberg.

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