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A Radical's Departure: One American immigrant's Story

by Lewis Rosman

Spring 2004, Vol. 67, No. 1

All Americans are descended from immigrants. Invaders, settlers and slaves. Fugitives from war, famine and religious and ethnic persecution. Expelled convicts. Seekers of fortune and asylum. Even the indigenous people of the Americas, prevailing theory goes, are descended from Asian émigrés who thousands of years ago crossed land connections over the Bering Straits. Despite this shared background, recently arrived groups have often been treated with suspicion and hostility. They are less likely to speak our common language and they bring new customs with which we are not familiar. They may not have obtained legal authority to work or, indeed, to even be here at all.

In a time of rising national hostility to immigrants, we would do well to remember where our own immigrant families came from, how they got here and why they stayed. This is the story of one American immigrant, my grandfather.

Jacob Mendl Lieberman was born in December in the year 1900. Although he knew the date on the Hebrew calendar, the Hebrew and our Gregorian calendar are quite different, and he never tried to precisely match the date back in 1900. Jacob Mendl was the third of eight children in a Yiddish-speaking and observant working-class Jewish family. His father, Tevia, owned a small garment-making business in a large, industrial city in central Poland named Lodz (pronounced “Ludge”). At that time, Lodz was roughly half Jewish. Jacob was not tall, but he was wiry and the best wrestler of his elementary school class. He was good looking and always well-dressed. Jacob liked to read, but his schooling ended early, and he learned the garment-making trade from his father.

As a teenager, Jacob was absorbed with the leftist political movements gaining strength in Eastern Europe. He read Marx. He supported the efforts of his father’s four employees to join the local “bund” (or guild). Believing Marx’s criticism of religion as the opiate of the masses, he rejected Judaism and surreptitiously ate bacon in the street behind his parent’s house. In 1919, Jacob watched as parents accompanied their sons to report for Polish military service. Fearing conscription, and shortly before the authorities began to look for him, Jacob decided to follow his older brother, Harry, who made his way to Canada.

Tevia brought Jacob Mendl by train to the Polish border with Germany. Jacob found assistance there from a German man who, believing it helped weaken Polish defenses against Germany, ran an informal operation smuggling Polish boys into Germany. The German man helped arrange passage for Jacob to Berlin.

In Berlin, Jacob found friends from his hometown of Lodz (landsmen, in Yiddish), who gave him a place to stay. Jacob’s brother, Harry, sent him a ticket to sail to Canada from France. The French consulate in Berlin, however, refused Jacob a visa into France, on the grounds that he had no visa to Canada. If he were to be rejected entry into Canada, the French authorities said, he would be sent back to France. But the Canadian consulate in Berlin also refused him a visa.

Jacob enjoyed cosmopolitan Berlin, where he heard Rosa Luxemburg speak near the Alexanderplatz. His father sent him money through a Berlin shopkeeper who bought clothing in Lodz. But after six months, the German government found him and he received an official notice that he was no longer welcome there. Jacob decided that if he could get to Belgium, he could pass more easily into France and then use his ticket to Canada. He traveled to the Belgian border, walked across the forests of Belgium and made his way to Antwerp. By that time, Jacob had little money left. As luck would have it, he met a man whose sister lived in the same Montreal apartment building as Harry. With the man’s help, and some money he received from a Jewish immigrant-aid society in Antwerp, he arranged for a seat on an old boat sailing from Antwerp to Canada. He sailed across the sea and never returned to Europe.

In Montreal, Jacob was held for six weeks in a detention facility. He was not fearful; if he was returned he would have had places to go. He met many others there who would have had no place else to turn. The authorities determined that Jacob was healthy, confirmed that his brother would help support him, and admitted him into the country.

In Canada, Jacob became known as Jack. He found work among the Yiddish-speaking “machine operators” in the garment industry and joined the union local. Harry and Jack saved money and brought the rest of the Liebermans to Montreal, likely saving them all from perishing in the Holocaust.

Although his formal education ended at an early age in Poland, Jack read the Jewish and socialist newspapers and was engaged with the issues of the day. Jack and two of his brothers became active in union organizing and politics, and remained so for many years. In the 1920s, he was a member of the Communist Party and a strident Trotskyite. He took politics extremely seriously and harshly judged others based on their political views.

Jack took English-language classes with a woman named June Croll, a committed Stalinist. June’s sister, Masha Croll, known as Mary, taught English to Finnish communists who cut logs in the Canadian forests. The Crolls were Jews from Odessa, on the Black Sea in the Ukraine. Mary and Jack met and fell in love.

In the late 1920s, June Croll moved to New York to work at the national offices of the Communist Party. Jack and Mary visited her there and moved to New York themselves in the early 1930s. By then, Jack, aware of Stalin’s purges of Jews, and particularly Jewish intellectuals, had left the Communist Party. He also recognized that the revolution was unlikely to come to America, which had proven resilient to economic hardship and where left-wing movements had succeeded in obtaining worker’s benefits that reduced calls for radical change. But he remained committed to the union movement and knew many of the leading leftists of the day, such as three-time Communist Party presidential candidate William Z. Foster.

As a member of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, Jack was a loyal supporter of union president David Dubinsky, who believed that involving radical elements of the movement in the ILGWU helped breath life into the union. (Dubinsky was another landsman from Lodz; as a child, Jack bought rolls from Dubinsky’s father’s bakery.)

In 1932, Jack and Mary had their only child, a daughter named Basha (my mother). The family lived in Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. They spoke Yiddish at home; Basha did not learn English until she was 4 years old. But when she went to school, Basha became known as Bernice.

In the early 1940s the family moved to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, where Mary opened a small knitting shop. Mary was a strong believer in the need for a woman to maintain independence, and Mary and Jack kept their money separate. But despite her progressive views, Mary also kept their home; she and Bernice did all the cooking. Jack, who worked long hours (by then as a cloak maker), was often angry and stubborn, and they sometimes fought over politics and their home life.

Bernice’s education was very important to Jack and Mary and they encouraged her bookishness. They also got her piano lessons. When Bernice was born, Jack and Mary were not married because they rejected the need for government approval of their relationship, but for Bernice’s sake they married when she was a young girl. They remained committed leftists and raised Bernice singing songs of the worker’s struggle. But they also saw that America presented great opportunities to their daughter. The Roosevelts, particularly Eleanor, were heroes in their household, and Jack once had the honor of making Mrs. Roosevelt a cloak.

For more than ten years, Jack had been residing in New York illegally, having entered many times from Canada for “visits.” This caused him trouble only once, and then only with respect to the authorities of his legal home, Canada. On a trip back to Montreal to visit family, he was taken off the train by the Canadian authorities, who, upset by the length of this last stay in New York, detained him overnight in a small prison-like facility and threatened to deport him. He asked them not to return him on the boat that had brought him to Canada because, he said, “the boat was no good then.” Despite his sarcasm, he was released.

During WWII, FDR’s administration offered illegal residents an opportunity to register legally, which would allow them to apply for citizenship. In order to register, Jack was required to report to Ellis Island and stay there several weeks. He later traveled to Washington to attend a hearing in the immigration process. Before the hearing he asked a Jewish immigrant aid society to provide him with a lawyer. They suggested he represent himself because he was well-spoken, and appearing with a lawyer would only make it look like he had something to hide. Jack took the train to Washington, wearing his best suit. The immigration officers asked if he was a member of the Communist Party; he said no, honestly. The officers did not ask the follow-up question. Jack was sworn in as a citizen in 1946.

Jack was close to a man named Mutl, a fellow leftist from Poland. Mutl’s cousins, the Mauds, owned Maud’s Summeray, a small resort in the Catskill Mountains that catered to Jewish radicals. When Bernice was 15 or 16, Mary brought her to Maud’s for a summer vacation. (Jack considered the Mauds and many of their clients poseurs, so he stayed home.) Bernice met Abraham Rosman, the Mauds’ nephew and a busboy for the summer, who also lived near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Abe and Bernice fell in love and married several years later, over the objections of Jack, who believed the two were too young to marry and who judged Abe based on his family’s politics.

Jack and Mary enjoyed their middle years in New York. They were not wealthy and owned very little, but they had large extended families living in the area and a wide circle of friends. In the early 1960s, however, Mary was stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease; Jack remained devoted to her until her death in 1966.

By then, Jack’s daughter, Bernice, had graduated at the top of her class from Hunter College and had earned a PhD in Psychology from Yale. She had two children, me and my older brother, Daniel. In 1972, after my parents divorced, my mother brought us to Philadelphia, where she ran the research and training programs of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. We saw Grandpa Jack often, in New York and in Philadelphia, when he would take the train to visit us and share in my mother’s Jewish cooking.

I knew Grandpa Jack as a slight man of about five-seven. He dressed well (usually in a suit, always in a tie), was clean-shaven and had a full head of silver, slicked-back hair. Jack’s posture was good and his bearing was dignified; he was proud of his good health. He spoke English with a heavy Yiddish accent and had a wry sense of humor. His face reflected integrity, candor and satisfaction with his life.

By then, Grandpa Jack was living in the ILGWU Chelsea co-ops, in lower Manhattan. Many former union members lived in the co-ops, and Jack, a healthy septuagenarian, was sought out as a companion by many lady friends. He was active and liked to take long walks through the city, which he loved; he had been there fifty years. He frequented a number of delis, where he would eat corned beef sandwiches. When free concerts were offered at Lincoln Center in the summer, he would walk uptown to hear them.

Jack kept close contact with his extended family in New York and Montreal. In 1985, I took a back-packing trip in Europe and spent several days in Poland. When I told him I was going there he looked genuinely puzzled. “Why would you go there?” he asked, without wanting an answer. “There’s nothing there.”

In the summer of 1986, I spent a great deal of time with my grandfather, engaged in conversations that in part are the basis of this essay. We would often ride the Staten Island ferry for an inexpensive respite from the heat. On one such ride, as we passed the Statue of Liberty, I remarked that it was a beautiful sight. Imagine how it must have looked to immigrants who arrived in the 1890s, Jack responded, when coming to America was “really something.” But, he also remarked, nearby Ellis Island was also known as the Island of Tears because of the many thousands returned from there, for various reasons, to places that offered them no hope.

On one of our ferry trips I suggested that we get off the boat at Staten Island, which we had never done before. As we walked around the island’s historic borough hall, I told him of my plans to go to law school. He said that was good. His nephew made a good living as a lawyer in Manhattan, and his nephew’s daughter had recently finished law school, too. She was already making more than $80,000 a year, Grandpa mentioned. Well, I said, in any event I’m going to take a few years in between, to travel a little and take a paralegal job, to see if I think I’d like being a lawyer.

He thought I had not heard what he had said. “Why wait? Eighty-thousand a year!” the old communist repeated. I said, “but Grandpa, I’m not going to go to law school for the money. I’m interested in social change, like your work for the unions. I want to help people.” The old man looked at his imbecile grandson. “She makes eighty-thousand dollars—in a year!”

Near the very end of his life, as Grandpa and I walked across the avenues after a corned beef sandwich in Chelsea, I said, “Grandpa, I love you.” “What’s the matter,” he deadpanned, “you don’t have enough girlfriends?”

In the winter of 1988, Grandpa Jack passed away. My daughter, Basha Jacova, also known as Josephine, is named for him.