Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Harry's memories of a woman of valor

These early photos of Greenbelt, MD, show the center of town from across the street. Built in the 1930s under FDR's New Deal, the city was one of the first planned communities in the country -- and it left indelible memories on its pioneer families. The grassy hill leading down to the underpass was the best sledding slope I'd known as a child. And I can still hear our songs echoing loud and clear from the underpass.

You may wonder why I’d want to share eulogies that Harry wrote. Three reasons: First, for readers of this blog who came of age in Greenbelt's tight-knit community of pioneer families, the eulogies bring back precious memories. One reader said it well: “No one understands when I say that I had a lot of parents in Greenbelt and that they stayed our parents even when we grew up.”

Second, when I recently discovered these eulogies, I could see they offer great examples for writers and storytellers, of style, eloquence, and phrasing. And third, extended family and friends are learning more about their brother-in-law Harry, Uncle Harry, Cousin Harry, and dear friend Harry. They tell me they love that.

Where do I begin? How do we describe in a few brief words the impact that Florence Shinderman had on our lives? There are too many impressions, too many occasions, too many times, too many conversations, too many events, too many memories, all crowding in on us at once. The best we can do is to say how we remember Florence now. And then, as time goes by, each of us individually can allow the remembrances of her to rise to the surface of our minds and examine them in the privacy of our thoughts, where we can treasure them and dwell upon them until they slowly wipe away the pain and the grief of this moment, and we are left with a clear memory of the joy and the pleasure she brought to us.

What a remarkable woman she was! Long before the “feminist” movement became fashionable, she was a woman in her own right. Sure, she was a wife and a mother, a housewife and a homemaker, all of those so-called traditional things that were supposed to distinguish women from men. But we did not think of her so much as the wife of Nat Shinderman – or the mother of two lovely daughters – which she was, of course. We thought of her, though, as an individual, a separate, distinct personality, a woman of great strength and character, completely apart from the connection to her family. She was truly unique.

We can remember so many times when a circle of people would be heavily engaged in a discussion, each of us thinking we knew so much about the subject at hand, when suddenly she would insert a comment in her quiet voice that would set us all back on our heels – because what she said cut right through to the heart of the subject and made sense. She had that rare ability to perceive the essentials and to recognize the important truths, no matter how hidden they were behind a wall of nonsense. She had no pretensions or affectations, and she could see through the pretensions of others and quickly deflate anyone who had an exaggerated opinion of his own importance with a dry and delightful sense of humor.

But she never tried to hurt anyone or to wound their pride. Everyone who knew her can attest to her extraordinary sensitivity, to the fact that she cared about people – and cared, deeply cared, for them. She demonstrated, in countless ways, her concern for others. She made each of us consciously aware that she wanted to be sure that we were all right, and that if we had any kind of a problem, she was ready to share it with us. Her heart was big enough to include all of us.

She was knowledgeable and informed about many things, but she didn’t flaunt her knowledge the way so many of us do. We remember so many times when we thought we were talking about things she knew little about, only to be surprised when she would come up with observations that indicated a depth of knowledge we never suspected. She had such an active mind and such an agreeable disposition, and even in these latter days when the medication and treatments she was receiving would have dulled anyone’s mind, her wit and her intelligence shone in her eyes and she remained sharp and aware. All of us marveled at her ability to overcome.

She was a woman of great courage who met life and life’s challenges head on, without fear, and all of us who were blessed with her presence were inspired by her. In the highest tradition of our heritage, she was a woman of valor, and we will cherish the memory of her for as long as we live.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Harry recounts McCarthy-era case in our Greenbelt (Maryland) hometown – Part 2

In 1954, Harry was enjoying an active community life with his family and friends in Greenbelt, MD. He had been working at the Pentagon for only a few years when he stepped up to testify on behalf of fellow Greenbelters.

In my previous post, I shared the first part of Harry’s informal account of a McCarthy-era case in Greenbelt, MD. I left off where Harry was sworn in to testify on behalf of men dismissed by the Navy as security risks. Harry was friends and community volunteers with these men. He wrote this account in February 2010 when he was 88; I found it in his files in 2015, a year after he died.

The first half hour was just chatter, so to speak, when the tape ran out, and then the Assistant Secretary said to me, if you’d like to say anything off-the-record, while the tape machine is not working, feel free. So … this may not be exactly verbatim, but this is pretty much what I said to them – and I have told this to very few people before. …

I told them I felt proud and privileged to be working for the Dept. of Defense, but that I was intensely and profoundly ashamed of the Navy for its action in dismissing these five people as security risks. The fact that they were all involved in organizing the residents of Greenbelt into a cooperative housing group to buy the community from the government should have alerted their investigators. The fact that the accusations of communist leanings or similar vague assertions all came from the same sources – people who were opposed to the sale of the community to residents – should have alerted them. The fact that all of the dismissed persons were Jewish should have given them pause and caused them to ask if there was some anti-Semitism involved – actually there was, but I considered it a minor thing, more of a coincidence than a causal factor. (But for the Navy, it had the appearance of anti-Semitism.) And finally, the Navy investigators had taken the accusations by the accusers, and the Navy Dept. had acted on them, without ever actually investigating and interviewing others in the community to confirm or refute the allegations.

They had branded the newspaper that I was the Editor of, as a communist rag without ever interviewing me and my associate editor as a communist fellow traveler, also without ever talking to me. And I was ashamed of the Navy for having caved in to the witch hunt that Sen. McCarthy was conducting, and I said flat out that anyone who considers my associate editor as a communist sympathizer or a security risk ought to have his head examined. Now the Navy is being subjected to public scrutiny because of the case I mentioned before – the guy who went public – and you need to find a way to back down without appearing to back down. The three guys who aren’t fighting it – that’s moot over with and gone – but these two, you ought to just clear them and let them get back to work. It’s my guess that if you reinstate them, they’ll resign gracefully and disappear from public view. After all, why would they want to continue to work for the Navy after this experience?

About then, the tape recorder guy said the tape is up and running again and the Assistant Secretary called the meeting to order again and said to me, we’re back on the record. Then they asked me a few more questions, touching on the things I had just unloaded on them but not in depth. My feeling was that it was all just a formality, that they had already made up their minds and were just going through the motions. Anyway, it took another year before they announced that the two guys had been cleared and reinstated in their jobs.

So, my associate editor, who was very grateful to me, told me that during that two-year period, he had had several jobs, selling shoes, selling cars, and finally, working for the Park and Planning Commission as an urban planner – and he thought when he was cleared and reinstated he would get all his back pay – two years’ worth. Not true. What he got was all his back pay minus what he had earned in other jobs during that time. It amounted to only a few thousand dollars, most of which went to the lawyer. Both guys, by the way, resigned two weeks after they were reinstated.

After I testified, Secretary Talbott called me in and asked how it went and I told him what I just told you – all I had said at the hearing. He told me that the whole subject of those security dismissals had come up at the weekly meeting of the Service Secretaries with the Secretary of Defense, several times, and he had personally told the Secretary of the Navy about me, that I worked for him and that he fully supported me.

Many, many years later, when Fritz Kramer was a Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army, he told me that a Navy investigator had come to see him when he was still in Army Intelligence to ask about me and that he had let the guy know in no uncertain terms that the idea that I might be sympathetic to communism was ludicrous. And he asked me what that was all about, so I told him the whole story, too. Well, most of it. The whole story is much too complicated. I have tried to condense it here which necessarily leaves out a lot of pertinent information. It’s ironic, by the way, that Secretary Talbott had to resign under a cloud, so to speak. As I understand it, he had used his office as Secretary of the Air Force for some personal business. Still, I remember him with gratitude for his support when I needed it.

 You can read more on this case and about Greenbelt history in “Greenbelt, Maryland, A Living Legacy of the New Deal” by Cathy D. Knepper. The book includes several quotes from Harry.

Harry in 1951 above, 1953 below (with me)
  Copyright 2015, Elaine Blackman

The (mostly) fabulous '50s

In 1949, the Zubkoff family of three left Buffalo and moved to an apartment near the "Center" in young Greenbelt. In 1953, the family of four moved close by to a row house at 17-H Ridge Rd., where we lived till 1963, when I was 11. I have an early memory of one night watching Harry and a few others working on the newspaper at the dining room table. Maybe they were discussing the outcome of the McCarthy case that had upset the whole community for the past year or more.

Despite the turbulence of the McCarthy case, and I'm guessing many more crises to come, Harry often claimed he "had the best job in the world" for 36 years at the Pentagon. Here are a few 1950s-era photos of Harry at work: getting an award; gathering with associates at an event (by the time I worked for the government, alcohol was not allowed on the premises); and posing with a group of young adults, possibly interns or the flying club he taught.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Harry recounts McCarthy-era case in our Greenbelt (Maryland) hometown

In 1952, Harry and his family had settled into the young city of Greenbelt, MD. The next year, he found himself immersed in a political drama involving both his community and his workplace.

Do you know anyone who was accused as a communist sympathizer during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s? “McCarthyism” hit close to home when I discovered the following informal story that Harry wrote for someone (unknown) in February 2010, when he was 88. It was part of a larger historical piece about his Pentagon office, from 1950 to1987. I'm sure Harry's extended family will be awed by yet another experience of his life.

In 1953, I came forcefully to the attention of the Secretary [of the Air Force]. Here’s what happened. This has nothing to do with my Air Force [civilian] career. You may recall that this was the era of Senator Joe McCarthy, who accused the State Dept. and the Defense Dept. of harboring a bunch of communists. Security considerations took precedence over everything else in DOD. Early in 1953, the Navy Dept. fired five people as security risks.

Now, at the time, I was working part-time as editor of a weekly newspaper in Greenbelt, MD, where I was living. I did that from 1950 to 1961, and Greenbelt was a predominantly democratic community of politically aware and activist democrats. It also had a hard core minority of conservatives, mainly centered in the local American Legion Post.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a supporter of Greenbelt, 
visited the new Center School in 1938. I was 
excited to find this original photo in Harry's files.

Greenbelt was a government town, built by the WPA [Work Projects Administration in the New Deal Agency] under FDR mainly for government employees, and managed and administered by government employees. Working on the community newspaper was a volunteer thing. All of the businesses in Greenbelt were cooperatives and, in the eyes of the conservatives, cooperatives and communists were closely related, although the most successful in the country in those days were the big farm cooperatives, organized and run by conservative republicans. The huge agribusinesses of today grew out of those farm cooperatives.

In 1953, the government decided to get out of the housing business. There were three towns in the country built by the government; one in [Greenhills] Ohio, one in Greenbelt just outside of Washington, DC, and the third in [Greendale] Wisconsin. The government offered to sell these towns to the residents if they could organize themselves and put up the money – otherwise, they would be sold to developers. The other two towns were sold to developers.

But in Greenbelt, we were successful in organizing a cooperative housing company and putting up the money, but there was stiff conservative opposition and some of those hardline conservatives accused the organizers of being communists. We were all renters, you see, and many of them did not have the money to put up to buy their homes, and they wanted the town sold to a developer so they could continue paying cheap rent.
Harry with Jeanette and his associate editor friend, 1953

Well, any rumor that someone’s a communist was dangerous in those days. The Navy fired five men as security risks, all of whom lived in Greenbelt and all of whom were among the organizers of the housing cooperative that was planning to buy the town. One of them was my associate editor on the newspaper and all of them were friends of mine. Three of them decided not to fight it. They just left town and moved to other parts of the country and started new lives. Two stayed and fought. One of them went public and became famous, in a way. They made a movie about his case called “Three Brave Men.”

The reporter from The Washington Post who covered the story won the Pulitzer Prize and went to work for The New York Times. The three brave men were: the guy who was fired, his lawyer, and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy who made the final decision to reinstate him, and defy Senator McCarthy. The actor who played the part of the main character was an Academy Award winner. He won the Oscar for “Marty”.

My associate editor fought it, too, but he didn’t go public. The problem for me was two-fold. First, I was associated with him and there was a lot of talk at that time about “guilt by association,” and second, the newspaper itself was accused of being a communist paper and I was the editor. All of which placed me under suspicion. And I had a Top Secret clearance from the Air Force, etc.

The Navy had scheduled a hearing for my associate editor and I offered to testify as Editor of the paper on his behalf along with the Minister of the Community Church and the local Chief of Police. But, before I did, I told my boss, the AA to Secretary of the Air Force, that I was going to do that and if it would embarrass the Air Force I offered to resign. He said let’s talk to the Secretary who, at that time, was Harold Talbott, which we did. Talbott said to me that if there is anything in your background that could lead anyone to believe that you’re a communist or are sympathetic to communism, tell me now, because we will put a special investigation on you and it’s bound to come out. I said I’ve already been investigated and cleared and my life is an open book. But, I said, I plan on being harshly critical of the Navy, and since I work for you, it might hurt you or the Air Force. And he said, if you’re clean I’ll back you all the way, and f--- the Navy.

Well, it took almost a year before a hearing was scheduled and I was called to testify. A guy named Adam Yarmolinsky wrote up a report on several of those security cases, including this one. At the hearing was the Navy’s Assistant Secretary, the Navy Vice Admiral who was the Navy JAG officer, and the Navy’s General Counsel, and a couple other Navy folks whose jobs I didn’t catch, and one person who operated the tape recorder. It was a formal hearing in a formal setting and I was sworn in.

They asked me a few questions about my background, my education, and my service in the army during the war. Then they asked me about my associate editor and about the newspaper, what my job as editor entailed, etc. The first half hour was just chatter, so to speak, when the tape ran out, and then the Assistant Secretary said to me, if you’d like to say anything off-the-record, while the tape machine is not working, feel free. So … this may not be exactly verbatim, but this is pretty much what I said to them – and I have told this to very few people before. …

To be continued next week ...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jews playing poker, a tribute

Now I understand why Harry gave so many eulogies. Eloquent and relatable stories -- that's how I would describe the eulogies and tributes I discovered among Harry’s writings. Let me know if you agree. I’ll give you several samples in this blog, starting here. Harry wrote “We Remember Ben” in August 1993, for the Mishkan Torah Synagogue newsletter in Greenbelt, MD. 

A few of the poker players gather, in April 1961, with others outside of the Jewish Community Center, later renamed Mishkan Torah, in Greenbelt. These and dozens more Greenbelters pitched in their time and labor to build the synagogue. I'm sure I'll come across Harry's writing about this construction project -- the epitome of community spirit. 

Ben Herman left Greenbelt some fifteen years ago and not too many of us are left who were here during the three and a half decades that he lived among us. It is, after all, a half generation since he left and almost two full generations since he first came to live in Greenbelt. But those of us who count ourselves as the first generation of Greenbelters, those who settled here between the late 1930s and the late 1940s, remember him well. Ben was the original quiet man, soft-spoken, gentle, self-effacing, almost shy, and yet, at the same time, genial, sometimes even jovial, always friendly.

A group of us played poker with Ben once a week for more than 30 years; that’s 3 or 4 hours of intense camaraderie each week, 150 to 200 hours a year, between 4,500 and 6,000 hours over a 30-year period.

Social poker, as opposed to cutthroat or professional poker, is a game that inevitably exposes any person’s character traits to friendly scrutiny. A poker club is something like a carpool, a small group of people brought into close proximity on a regular basis to share a common experience. Inevitably, the individuals involved begin to share with each other their concerns, their fears, their triumphs and their tragedies. They confide in each other, they consult with one another, they seek each other’s advice and counsel on many of the problems that vex us all in our daily lives.

You want to build an addition on your house? Consult the poker club or the carpool. You want to invest in a particular stock? Consult the poker club. You want to buy new furniture? Buy a new car? Move to a new house? Join a golf club or a country club or a book club? You got it – consult the poker club. Not only do they share their problems, they share their experiences so that no one will make the mistakes that someone else has made before.

In a very real way, it’s almost like therapy, this close and intimate sharing experience. In today’s vernacular, it’s like belonging to a support group.

In all those thousands of hours of close and continuing contact, Ben was never once heard to raise his voice in anger. Unlike the rest of us, you see, he was the consummate listener. He was always the confidee, not the confider, the giver of advice and counsel, not the seeker. In his quiet and unassuming way, he often came up with the wisest comments, the sagest advice. And, frequently, delivered with a devastating sense of humor, a sardonic wit, a wry twist of phrase that would invariably evoke a deep, hearty chuckle from all of us.

We Americans are a nation of gripers. We gripe about everything. It doesn’t matter whether our circumstances are good or bad – there is always something to gripe about. But those of us who happen to be Jewish have refined griping to an art form, only we call it complaining, and complaining is just another manifestation of worrying, which is something we do very well. We complain about everything. Your child got all straight A’s on his report card? You complain (worry) that the schoolwork was not challenging enough, too easy for him. You pass your annual physical with flying colors? You complain (worry) that the doctor didn’t give you all the possible diagnostic tests. In the best Jewish tradition, as the sages would put it, “So long as you complain, you know you’re alive.”

And so it is with all of us. We constantly complain about problems, real or imagined. But not Ben Herman. He had problems, real ones, some serious ones about the state of his health, among other things, but never, never once, did we hear him complain. He just went quietly about handling things as best he could and stoically shrugged off the things that were beyond his control. He took our finest Jewish tradition and turned it completely around. “So long as you’re alive,” he would say, “don’t complain.” In a way, that sums him up. A man of infinite patience, of quiet strength, and above all, a good and trusted friend who left this world last month but who will always be alive in our memories.

As more of Harry's friends passed away, and he moved to more suitable apartment communities, he continued to play poker with other groups of friends. The last few years, as the players' eyesight declined, he bought large-faced decks of cards whenever he saw them (and family members kept an eagle eye out for them in stores, too) because each weekly card game required two fresh decks. When Harry died in 2014, we donated about 100 new decks he'd accumulated to his final poker group, and I believe they appreciated the inheritance.

In these 1953 photos, pioneer families of Greenbelt, MD, were developing lifelong friendships through socializing, community activism, and of course, poker. Stay tuned for more of Harry's eulogies for his Greenbelt friends. But first, Harry had something else on his mind in 1953 -- a case of "McCarthyism" that hit this young Greenbelt community. Read his reflections next week on this blog.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Let's give it UP for English!

Harry Zubkoff was a wordsmith, an original Word Nerd. He devoted the following musing in 2010 to one versatile, little word. I discovered this musing in his files of emails, as I did many of the writings on this blog.

Harry's great-nieces puckered up for this 2011 photo, taken up in Baltimore. 

English really is a crazy language and, as I have often noted, it is especially frustrating for foreigners who are trying to learn to speak it. Aside from all the idiomatic expressions, there is one word, perhaps the shortest word in English, that has more meanings or more uses than any other word I can think of. It is, of course, the word up. I will list uses that immediately come to mind, but I have no doubt that if you put your mind to it, you can probably think of many more. Anyway, here goes:

Up may mean a direction, like up to the ceiling, but it’s also used in so many other ways, like at a meeting: a subject comes up; a speaker speaks up; a member brings up a subject; another member talks up a subject; a secretary writes up the minutes; the treasurer counts up the expenses; a committee writes up a report; and officers are up for election.

We call up our kids or our friends; we straighten up a room; we polish up the furniture; we wash up before eating -- then we eat up. When we sit down we sit up; after we eat we clean up the kitchen and wash up the dishes and let them dry up before we stack them up in the cupboard. We lock up the house when we go out; we tune up the car and tune up the piano; we fix up the car even if it’s not broken.

We do other less definable things, like line up to check out at the store; go to the doctor for a checkup; stir up trouble when people are late for appointments; dress up to go out; work up an appetite for dinner; make up lies; make up time when we’re late; open up a door and close it up when we get back. We dream up excuses for not doing something, and sometimes we’re confused and mixed up about everything.

Well, I suggest you look up up in any dictionary; depending on which you use, up may take up as much as a half page of definitions. If you feel up to it, try to build up a list of your own of the many ways you can use up up. It may take up a lot of your time, but if you don’t give up, you will probably wind up with a list of a hundred or more.

Meanwhile, it’s clouding up outside and looks like rain. I can’t wait till the sun comes out and it clears up again and streets and sidewalks dry up. So for now, I’ll wrap it up, and my time is up, so I guess I’ll shut up. Now it’s up to you to follow up.

Take Harry's challenge: Can you come up with more uses for up?

In 2014, at age 92, Harry enjoyed zooming up and down the store aisles. Here he was shopping for office supplies, such as labels and tape for boxing up items he mailed regularly to family and friends. He also enjoyed opening up his own piles of mail and packages every day.