Commentary Magazine


What My Father Knew

On the morning of June 22, 1940 my mother, my elder brother, and I fled the Romanian city of Czernowitz to join my father in Bucharest. The signal for our departure was a phone call from one of my father’s former employees, a certain Boncescu, and it had not been entirely unexpected. Boncescu asked for Father and, when told that he was in the capital on business, instructed my mother to prepare a bag for the children and to take the next train there. She had two hours to pack. We left the house where I was born at 4 Urban Jarnik without good-byes. Years later the neighbors’ son described to me how he had come to visit my brother as they had arranged, but found the door bolted, his knock unanswered.

My father was by profession a chemical engineer. In 1934 he had been sent to Czernowitz by his Polish employer to build the first rubber factory in northern Romania, and within a year he had Caurum up and running (as it does to this day), employing between 600 and 900 workers in two or three shifts, producing rubber boots, hospital sheeting, tubing, bouncing balls for children. For his achievement he received a medal from King Carol. It was this medal, along with his skills of persuasion and probably significant bribes, that after two months in Bucharest, and on the condition of no return, finally secured for us the exit visas we needed to leave the country. Since my parents’ Polish papers would have doomed us, we traveled across Europe as stateless persons, with Lisbon as the port of departure and Montreal our final destination.

Father plotted our future and our itinerary as carefully as he could. South American papers were the easiest to buy, and given his passion for rubber, he should have taken us to Venezuela. But after six years as a Romanian manufacturer, he said he did not want to live again where there were only two classes—the rich and the poor. He decided to join his brothers who had recently immigrated to Canada.

We took the first leg of our journey by train. A photograph of the four of us at the Acropolis shows what improbable tourists we made, standing impassive in brilliant sunshine with our backs to the glory of Greece, white shoes scuffed in the sand. Athens was the high point of the trip. Through the Mediterranean we cruised by boat, anticipating the dangers at each port of call. At age four, with blond hair, my precocity sharpened by the tension, and speaking German as my mother tongue, I was the one the officials questioned at points of inspection, or if not, I was encouraged to volunteer the answers. In Italian waters, where my father had expected trouble from the fascist militiamen, there was only a perfunctory passenger check on board; at British Gibraltar, smiling soldiers in short khakis did their work so scrupulously that some hapless souls were left ashore.

In the way of such things, the real danger came to us as a complete surprise.

We had reached Lisbon in the middle of September, two weeks before our ship was to sail. Our Canadian visa authorization had arrived—how, is another story—but because our ship would be docking in New York (from where we would take the train to Montreal), we were also required to have transit visas for the United States. Before giving us these documents, the American consul wanted proof of our wealth and our health. Instructing my very short-sighted father to undergo an eye examination, he gave him the name of the local opthamologist. The doctor turned out to be away on holiday, scheduled to return several days after our ship would leave port.

No refugee family is without at least one story of this kind, of the moment their lives hung by a hair. We went back to the consulate and Father explained the situation: could the consul please give him the name of another specialist? The consul could not. Father stressed the importance of this journey for us as prospective Canadian immigrants (not as Jews—the dread word was never spoken), and the value of four trans-Atlantic berths. The consul regretted that he could not change the rules. Then Father lost his head, or else chose to gamble. Grabbing the consul’s hand, he pointed it at my brother and me and shouted, “You are a crazy man! Will you throw away the lives of these children? Give me the name of another doctor or I will kill you!”

His English was not strong, nor was he, so I cannot imagine that his words struck fear into the consul’s heart. Mother, recalling the scene, said she knew we were finished. But perhaps something in Father’s desperation forced the American to recognize him as a man. Without saying a word, he extricated himself from Father’s grasp and issued us the visas. Consequently, we were able to leave Lisbon aboard the New Hellas on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 1940—the same day, 36 years later, that my father died.

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Having perused many such accounts of Jewish flight across Europe, my reader is now probably imagining us spared the Nazi death camps. But like the history of our time, our family’s history was more complicated than that. It was the Soviets, not the Nazis, we were fleeing—and had we not eluded them, my father and probably we, too, would have expired somewhere in the gulag along with many more victims than were killed in the Germans’ crematoria.

As general manager and part owner of Romania’s largest rubber factory, my father was the very model of the class enemy. He was also a well-read and intelligent political observer. Monitoring the threats from both ends of Europe, but especially from the East, he had asked the trusted Boncescu to wire immediately if the Russians should cross the border and, anticipating their invasion that summer, had already gone to Bucharest to try to get us exit papers. No one could have known yet of what the Nazis were capable, because despite the virulence of their anti-Semitism, the scale of governmentally-organized killing in Germany was still relatively small.

By contrast, Russia had already registered its trademark on state murder. The kulaks lay forcibly starved by the millions. The purges had set a record in the elimination of elites. Many of my parents’ friends who had crossed from Poland into Russia to participate in the great socialist experiment were already known to be dead or missing “in Siberia.”

But, of course, the main reason my father knew just what he had to fear from the Communists was that he had once been attracted to Communism himself.

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“Your mother would shoot me if she knew I were telling you this, but your father Leibl was a Communist in the 1920’s.” The woman who favored me with this information in Jerusalem in 1980 had grown up with my mother in that legendary life called “Vilna,”1 and had stayed on in Communist Poland after the war. She and her second husband had come to Israel only in 1968, when Europe’s most durable ideology claimed Poland anew, making reluctant Zionists of yet another group of Jewish internationalists.

Now that she had settled among the Jews, this woman’s Communism rested uncomfortably on her conscience, like a mink coat that becomes embarrassing once public opinion clamors for animal rights. That is to say, she felt obliged to apologize for her political views only out of deference to the scruples of others. Assuming the same held true for my father, she thought it unlikely that he would have risked the scowl of his Americanized children by recounting his political past. But she was wrong: my father’s experience with Communism was precisely the sort of thing he was willing to talk about. What better form of moral instruction than to try to understand the nature of error?

Leibl had been initiated into Communism at its source. The story had begun with an earlier expulsion, this one from Bialystok, Poland, in 1914, when the Germans captured the city. The entire family had fled to Russia, where my grandfather and his two elder sons tried to continue the family business by starting up a small textile mill near Moscow while his wife and their three younger children—Leibl being the littlest—sought safety in Saratov on the Volga. In the absence of a Jewish heder, Leibl was sent to the local school.

Only in 1917, after the February revolution, was the family reunited in Moscow, and there they reaped the fruits of liberty. The factory my grandfather had started in the nearby town of Pavlovski Passad, employing Russian workers, produced cloth that he could now sell legally in the city, and within a short time he had amassed enough capital to consider expanding the business. Under the czar, Jews had been prevented by discriminatory laws from living in Moscow, but now Grandfather could legally rent a room for his family, legally send his children to school, and legally instruct his youngest son for his bar mitzvah.

But by the time Leibl came to read his portion of the Torah in the small synagogue and to taste his reward of brandy and cake, there had occurred a second revolution. Lenin had replaced the young parliament with a dictatorship of the proletariat and set up the Cheka, the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Counterrevolution and Sabotage, or political police, with orders to shoot “speculators” on sight. The press, the schools, the law were nationalized, along with the banks and industries.

The Soviets confiscated Grandfather’s business and his savings without any right of appeal; he was told he could stay on as the state’s temporary manager. Trying to recoup some of his losses by selling a fraction of the production on the black market, he eluded the Cheka for three years, once daring to drive a wagon of his goods through the Moscow streets.

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While Grandfather tried to exercise his freedom, his youngest son fell in thrall. The year of his bar mitzvah, 1918, Leibl stood among thousands listening to Leon Trotsky (né Bronstein) in Red Square. As between the two Jewish lawgivers, he much admired the perfect orator of Moscow over the all-too-human stammerer of Sinai. By the time the family returned to Poland, he had decided to claim his independence. Refusing to study in a yeshiva, he attended the Polish high school in a neighboring town, then passed the entrance exams for Stephen Bathory University in Vilna. He supported himself through tutoring, and performed prodigious feats of memory. Once, during a set of final examinations in mathematics, he pointed out an error in the test, and after being threatened with expulsion, was vindicated when a supervisor came in to report the mistake.

How shall I characterize Leibl’s idealism during his student days in Vilna? Idealism was then as plentiful as food was scarce. With the release of moral energies that Judaism had historically tried to discipline, idealism gushed from Jewish youth as from a thawing mountain, spilling down into many rivers and streams. Historians try to sort out the Communists from the nationalists, the Hebraists from the Yiddishists, the Bundists from the Labor Zionists, the anti-Zionist Orthodox Agudah from the pro-Zionist Orthodox Mizrahi; but, swept up by the yearning for a better world, the young people who had come of age during the war were not always on Sunday what they had been before the latest rally on Saturday.

Leibl, for instance, originally wanted to study agriculture because he had decided to become a farmer in Palestine. When he learned that the university would not accept Jews into agriculture, he settled for chemistry (like Chaim Weizmann). His colleagues in the chemistry lab found him a room in the house of Anna Vladimirova Rosenthal, Vilna’s inspiring Bundist leader, for whom Yiddish was a sacred trust but whose Jewish nationalism was thoroughly anti-Zionist.

But it was the Communists who held the moral edge over all the other political groups. Outlawed under Poland’s Pilsudski regime, they were the only ones who had to function clandestinely, thus arousing sympathy as well as respect. By contrast, the Zionists who promised to take Jews out of Poland to Palestine seemed at times to be working hand in hand with the Polish nationalist government, and their popularity among some of the wealthier and religious Jews of the city almost lent them a bourgeois respectability.

Leibl put study ahead of politics, but he developed a reputation for foolhardy courage. He brought food to political prisoners, pretending to be their relative. One night, walking with his cousin, he refused the orders of some drunken Endecs, Polish nationalists, to get off the sidewalk, and when one of them brandished a pistol, Leibl tore open his shirt and cried, “Go ahead, shoot!” The Endec was with difficulty restrained by his friends.

The high point of Leibl’s political activism came at the request of Chaim S., a childhood friend from Bialystok and an affiliated Communist who planned to slip from Poland into Russia on a party mission carrying 200 rubles in cash. Leibl helped him raise the required sum, and organized the illegal crossing. The two boys hired an experienced border-guide, giving him a down payment and promising the rest upon his return to Vilna with a prearranged password that Chaim would give him once he was safe on the other side. The friends mischievously agreed on the word k’mat, Hebrew and Yiddish for “almost”—but, when misspelled, an acronym for the Yiddish hush mir in tukhes, or kiss my ass.

Their plan succeeded, up to a point. The guide delivered passenger and password and was paid in full, but Chaim was never heard from again. According to rumor, he had been seized as a Polish spy and deported into the Russian interior. For years afterward, Chaim’s mother in Bialystok would hound my grandparents, threatening to denounce Leibl to the authorities, holding their son responsible for her son’s death. Grandfather, who was by then completely blind, took to sleeping with a wad of rubles under his pillow for the moment he would have to buy off an arresting policeman. He dubbed Leibl “Fishke the Red,” after the beggar-hero of the Yiddish romance Fishke the Lame whose tender sympathies exceed his practical abilities. Since Leibl had in fact developed a limp, thought to be caused by rheumatoid arthritis, the epithet exposed the political idealist as an incipient cripple in more than one respect.

To the extent that Leibl had ever “been a Communist,” he soon ceased to be one. Trotsky’s aura may not have faded all at once, but neither did that non-Jewish Jew become my father’s hero. Trotsky’s prosecution of revolutionary terror against the rebellious sailors of Kronstadt and other real and imagined enemies weighed on my father’s conscience, since he felt he had delivered his friend Chaim into the hands of the bloody regime. Until he left Vilna in 1929 to take his first job as a junior engineer, Leibl warned his Communist friends against slipping into Russia, as many were doing to escape local conditions and in expectation of a finer life. He began to understand the Revolution through its consequences, Marxism through Trotsky’s enforcement of it.

But unlike his earlier boyish exchange of Moses for Marx, the collapse of his faith in Communism left his moral yearnings unchanneled. The search for truth that brought him such satisfaction in the laboratory had no parallel in politics. His questions could never be answered: must idealism, in its haste to perfect the species, become a murderous torrent that sweeps human beings away? If a man’s good intentions bring evil consequences, is he still entitled to claim innocence? Might the Jews have been right after all to limit the human tendency to wickedness through a strict religious regimen, before aspiring to usher in a messianic age?

The ascetic habits Leibl had developed as a self-supporting student made him stricter than his father when it came to self-imposed discipline, but he lacked the advantage of his father’s Sabbath days, which is to say the pleasure his father took in obeying God’s law. In the years that I best remember him, my father’s Sabbath mornings in Montreal were spent writing checks to charities, cultural projects, and individuals he helped to support. This might seem a decent substitute for the Jewish commandment of tsedakah, except that the checkbook does not sing out like a congregation of living Jews when a man is called up to the Torah to pledge his charity aloud.

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Father’s life in Canada defied the dichotomies of success and failure, rich and poor. What do you call a man who forfeits the profession he loves? From the moment he arrived as a new immigrant, Leibl, now also Leo, tried to find work as an engineer in the Canadian rubber industry; but as it was not yet hiring Jews, he went to work instead in the textile factory his family had bought in Huntingdon, Quebec, about 60 miles south of Montreal.

He did not like textile production as he had adored experimenting with rubber, and having once managed a factory he himself had built, he could not have relished his new job as a small shareholder in the family business. Mother, who took it upon herself to voice his unspoken thoughts, always referred to his work as “slaving for his brothers.” He spent most of the week at the mill, staying overnight in a room he shared with one of his brothers at the Huntingdon Chateau. This grand hotel had been built during Prohibition as a whiskey hole for thirsty Americans. Its empty grandeur gave a man the sense that they had both seen better times.

Leo was a good manager and a good negotiator. The mill turned a profit, and as long as my father represented management, there was never a strike. Back in the city, he brought the same negotiating skills to the board of the Jewish day school that his children attended. My father is credited with having led the fight for expanding this school to the upper grades, in appreciation of which the library of Bialik High sports on its wall his name and a picture of him smiling.

As the factory prospered, we moved in 1950 into a splendid old house where each of us (by then) four children had his own bedroom, with a sun porch and basement apartment to spare. Mother used the magnificent living room for literary receptions in support of Yiddish culture. Invitations to her soirees required the purchase of a recent Yiddish book by a local writer, selections from which the author would read as the evening’s entertainment. It goes without saying that Father’s subsidy had helped to pay the publisher.

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And politics? By the end of the war, Communism should have lain buried along with fascism in their respective ruins. Certainly, where we lived in Montreal, the atrocities of the Soviet system were no secret. Many of the refugees who joined us in Montreal had spent the war in Russia; they spoke of Soviet commissars and victims, and of some of the former who had become some of the latter. A number of our acquaintances, sympathizers of the Jewish Bund, continued to mourn the execution by the Soviets of their beloved leaders, Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter, despite many appeals from socialists around the world.

In 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, gave the Canadian government abundant evidence of Soviet spy rings operating right under its nose. Whether or not his disclosures triggered the cold war, as some historians think, they did lead to the conviction for treason of Fred Rose, a Communist member of the Canadian parliament from the largely Jewish district of Montreal-Carder. Eventually deported to Poland, Rose did not become a martyr like the executed Rosenbergs in the United States; in particular, having betrayed his Montreal constituents as well as his country, he aroused little sympathy on the Jewish street.

I think I know what people mean when they describe the 1950’s as a decade of complacency, lacking in idealism. They mean that the Left in general, and Communism in particular, were losing influence. At the beginning of the decade, in Korea, Communism suffered its first major defeat, challenging the belief that its expansion was historically determined and inevitable. Khrushchev’s revelations at the 20th Soviet Communist party conference that under Stalin the dictatorship of the proletariat had been the dictatorship of a tyrant were followed almost immediately by the march of Soviet troops into Hungary, crushing hopes for the promised thaw in Russian politics. Memoirs seeped into the West, any one of which (try Gustav Herling’s 1951 A World Apart) could have condemned an empire.

Yet even my father felt uncomfortable invoking “fascists and Communists” in a single phrase. He wanted to distinguish between an ideology of power that had realized itself in totalitarianism and (what he saw as) a positive ideology that had deteriorated into totalitarianism. I think he clung to this distinction less for the sake of his own battered beliefs than for the martyred Rosa Luxemburg, Chaim S., and many other friends who had seemed to him pure of heart. He would have liked to condemn the historical consequences of Communism without damning splendid men and women who sacrificed their lives to it. He was not yet ready to give “idealism” a bad name.

Tenderness for the failed ideology was far more complicated within regular party circles. There was no counterpart north of the American border for the investigative mania of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and so Canadian Communists and fellow-travelers could not relish a sense of victimization as a substitute for confronting their political sins. Shortly after the death of Stalin, Montreal’s United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO), the Jewish Communist organization, faced a crisis when one of its leaders traveled to Moscow to see for himself why so many acquaintances had not been heard from; on his return he confirmed that most of the Soviet Jewish intelligentsia had been murdered. Ironically, it had been the wartime visit to Canada of the Soviet theater director Solomon Mikhoels and the Yiddish Communist poet Itsik Feffer that had allowed UJPO to claim the moral high ground in the “united struggle against fascism.” Stalin’s execution of these men could not be written off as yet another necessary sacrifice on the road to socialism.

Yet neither could the UJPO’s members easily disband an organization that had claimed all their loyalties and, in providing for their social needs, defined the circle of their friends. To keep the face of Communism smiling, the organization now adopted the kind of cultural programming that had characterized the Popular Front of the 1930’s. It threw its energies into folk music. Long before rock impresarios took to marketing their clients as ambassadors of international good will, some of my Communist friends organized songfests, hootenannies, and festivals of youth, where by joining your voice to tens or hundreds of others you were invited to step into the great Brotherhood of Man.

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When I was at college, it was a little galling to realize that I would never hear anyone like Trotsky, never meet anyone like Anna Vladimirova Rosenthal, never have to sleep on straw sacking as my father had done. Before I learned the word, I considered myself an epigone, descendant of a generation whose deprivation had been so much greater than mine that I could never test myself against the same standard of adversity. I would have been embarrassed to mention to my father the toothless Communism I discovered through folk music, and I was a little embarrassed myself to join the Folk Music Club that replaced the earlier Labor Progressive Party Club at McGill University. Still, I, like so many of my generation, was eager to experience at least some of the afterglow of that great revolutionary idealism that was said to have illumined our century.

In 1949, while on his way to Israel to work on a kibbutz, my brother had picked up a copy of Youth Sings, published that summer by the International Union of Students to coincide with the World Festival of Youth and Students in Budapest. When I took up the guitar, this was the hymnal I used to practice my chords. The book’s preface, in vintage CP style, was irresistibly phony:

There is no more pleasant or inspiring way in which to express friendship, international solidarity, and understanding, the deepest and most joyous feelings of young people, than through song. Folk songs, songs of work, student songs, songs of struggle, expressing the finest and best from the national culture of dozens of countries will . . . help to ensure that the spirit of the festival is carried to all the corners of the earth.

Only Pete Seeger ever recited such lines with conviction. Still, the knowledge that one is being manipulated by propaganda never prevented anyone from falling prey to it. Passionate youngsters had composed these songs on their way to creating a perfect world, or, as in Spain, on their way to defeating the black beast of fascism. Singing their music joined us to their faith in an unmediated bond of exaltation. Indeed, their faith was brighter than anything we ourselves had been offered, no one having taught us to pray or to sing on behalf of any other ultimate cause. The songs on those pages, some printed in the Cyrillic alphabet, united us to the “Youth of the World,” a more potent abstraction than “God of our Fathers.”

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Britain:

The people’s flag is deepest red
It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their hearts blood dyed its every fold.
Then raise the scarlet standard high
Within its shade we’ll live and die!
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here!

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Germany:

Spanish heavens spread their brilliant starlight
High above our trenches in the plain;
From the distance morning comes to greet us,
Calling us to battle once again.
Far off is our land,
Yet ready we stand.
We’re fighting and winning for you,
Freiheit!

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Ireland:

Come Workers sing a rebel song,
A song of love and hate;
Of love unto the lowly
And of hatred to the great.
The great who trod our fathers down,
Who steal our children’s bread.
Whose hands of greed are stretched to rob
The living and the dead.

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Spain:

Viva la Quince Brigada
Rumbala, rumbala, rumbala
Viva la Quince Brigada,
Rumbala, rumbala, rumbala.
Que seha cubierto de gloria
Ay Carmela, Ay Carmela
. . .

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USSR:

Through the winter’s cold and famine,
From the fields and from the towns;
At the call of Comrade Lenin
There arose the Partisans.

Battle-scarred and faded banners
Fluttered bravely on before;
But far deeper was the crimson
Of the recent wounds they bore.

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United States of America:

Gwine to lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside,
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside.
Gwine to study war no more.

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Among the questions that did not occur to us to ask at the time: why should Russians be drenched in fighters’ blood even as Americans were swearing off war? Why did Russians sing patriotically of “Moscow” and “Motherland” while Americans rejoiced in “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and rehearsed the sins of Jim Crow? How strange that the most powerful message of all—“Freedom!”—should be coming to us in German, while Canadians warbled “L’Alouette” and amused themselves with “Nous nous amusons tous, tous, tous, / Nous nous amusons tous.”

We did not think ourselves naive. We made fun of some of the cloying phrases as we sang them, mimicking foreign accents, composing our own parodies. All the same, when I plucked my guitar at the folk-music club, or sang along to my Folk-way records, I could have sworn that the banks of my country were made of marble with a guard at every door, and the vaults stuffed with silver that the workers sweated for. In defying my manufacturer-father, I began to feel like my revolutionary father’s daughter.

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In his own way, it was my father who rescued me from this sentimental Communism, just as he had saved my life once before.

One day in my final year of college we were sitting together in the living room, with time to spare before the arrival of guests. I think the family was gathering that evening in celebration of Hanukkah. The snow had been falling for hours, and apart from vague concern for the safety of our visitors in their cars, it brought me an uncommon feeling of security. My mother would soon seat herself at the piano, and sing her favorite medley of winter songs: “un do in heym iz freylakh reyn / on kelt fargessen mir.” Just as the lyrics said, our home was joyously clean, the cold banished from our minds. I was happy to be alone with my father.

The doorbell rang, too early to be guests. Father and I both went to answer it. At the door stood a man with a shovel. He was not one of those professionals with a truck and a plow, but a man on foot, in a worn windbreaker and wool cap, with weary eyes. He asked my father if he could clear our path for a dollar fifty.

The path needed clearing. The professional with the plow had come and gone several hours earlier. In fact, I had been thinking that I ought to go out and do the job myself, but had kept putting it off because it was so sweet inside. Now I was sorry. I prayed that my father would simply hand this man his dollar fifty, saying, “That’s all right, my friend. We’ll manage the job ourselves.” But Father accepted the man’s offer, told him to ring the bell when he was through, and closed the door behind him.

When we returned to the living room, everything had changed. I could hear the sound of the shovel, like a fist on my conscience, striking blow after blow. Out there was a poor man working, and here, overprivileged, sat I inside. I wanted to protest; I would happily change places and do the work in the man’s stead. I was angry at the unspoken accusation being leveled against me, and said to my father that he ought to have given the man the money, and let me shovel the walk.

Father looked genuinely surprised. “What does it have to do with you? If a man asks for work, and I have the work to give him, he is lucky and so am I. If he sets a reasonable price on his work, I pay him what he earns.” That put an end to our conversation, but not to the questions it raised for me. Why should I have put my guilt ahead of another man’s pride? Why did I prefer my father’s charity to the thought of him as an employer? Was it compassion for the shoveler that made me want to fob him off with a donation, or tender feelings for myself? Wasn’t it Father’s greatest achievement to have given employment to so many workers over a lifetime?

It is hard to negotiate the inequalities that—next to the common fate that awaits us all—are the most characteristic feature of the human condition. Our passion for equality may be so great that we cannot bear to employ a man, lest it remind us of the inequality that remains whether we employ him or not. My father, who had known inequality from both sides, was not afraid of the responsibility of being someone’s boss. As for me, I would soon enough look for shelter in the academy, where someone else hires, someone else fires, and in the still air of delightful study, the artifice of idealism can be kept alive.


Footnotes

1 See Ruth Wisse's “The Most Beautiful Woman in Vilna,” COMMENTARY, June 1981.—Ed.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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