Why We Organize.

By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

After seven years as a researcher with locals of the Service Employees International Union, I sat down with my 74 year old father to look at some family photos a few weeks ago.  The photos contain a story, of Jewish refugees escaping pogroms and Nazi death camps to find a better life in America; the memory of the Holocaust is a big reason why my parents spent their careers studying and teaching movement history, and why I became a union organizer.  

Within the contents of that dusty brown box stored in a cobwebbed corner for the past fifteen years, neatly folded in scrapbooks and envelopes wrapped in old plastic bags, were pictures of my father, his brother and their parents in 1950s Maryland.  There were other photos and family letters of my grandparents on my father’s side, and my mother’s. In one family photo I sat on the floor clutching my head; I drank too much red wine at my bar-mitzvah back in Charlottesville, Virginia.

As we flipped through shoe boxes of photos, old letters, and scrapbooks, the memories these triggered were overwhelming; the story of how the Nazis came to power when my grandfather Theodore was a senior in college.  Two months later Adolph Hitler passed the Civil Service Restoration Act, which expelled Jews from universities and government jobs. My grandfather never graduated. He boarded the SS Manhattan in Hamburg and arrived in New York City on May 16th, 1935.

This history is why my father Nelson, like many first generation Jews of his generation, got involved in the civil rights, peace, and labor movements.  While many of his colleagues and comrades got jobs as Teamster truck drivers, auto workers, and even teachers, my Dad became a historian. As a kid I heard him often quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” 

During the Great Depression, while Hitler was building detention centers and broadcasting hateful speeches blaming Jews for the unemployment and hard times German workers faced, union militants in the United States organized to unite workers across ethnicities and religions; Poles, Italians, Germans, Irish, English, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, whites and blacks; to organize together in solidarity for good paying union jobs where one could raise a family, and earn a piece of the American dream.

There were courageous  general strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo in 1934.  It seemed like the whole city was on the picket line, just like the teachers strikes we’ve seen recently.  A few months after my grandfather landed in New York fleeing Nazi occupied Berlin, a few militant unions and organizers broke with the slow moving hierarchy of old-guard craft unions to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations to build off the momentum from the energy of the 1934 strike wave.  It was this New Deal alliance between immigrant and native born workers, restless radicals, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt that overcame scapegoating and division in America, brought the nation out of the Depression, and beat Fascist Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, Imperial Japan in World War II.

My great-grandfather Herman was from Lviv, a city in eastern Europe’s Galecia; it was part of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire before World War II, then Poland, the Soviet Union, and now Ukraine.  He moved to Berlin before World War I, and fought for Germany in the Great War, earning a box of medals on the eastern front. In the 1920’s, the years of Germany’s Weinmar Republic, he became a successful merchant, a small businessman, but lost a good deal during the global economic downturn at the end of that decade.  

My grandfather Theodore was born in Berlin in 1911.  In 1933, when Adolph Hitler seized power, he was studying law and economics at the Frederick-Wilhelm University of Berlin.  As a kid my dad would recall stories he told, one day while sitting in a lecture hall taking notes, he was startled by a loud bang.  A Nazi brownshirt classmate behind him had been playing with his loaded pistol; it accidentally went off. On April 7th, 1933 Adolph Hitler signed the equivalent of an executive order barring non-Aryans, principally Jews from the government civil service.  On April 25th, the government barred Jews from no more than 5% of any public school. Theodore was expelled his senior year.

My grandfather immigrated to the United States using a phony student visa.  The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a refugee resettlement support group like the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society that Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue fundraised for, helped my Grandfather find a job as a salesman in the small town of Frederick, Maryland.  There he met my Grandmother Beryle, and ultimately opened a small “Five and Dime” convenience store.

Going through a scrapbook and letters from  the late 1950’s where my grandfather belabourdely petitioned West Germany for compensation for Nazi seizure of family property, we uncovered some surprising details of our family’s past.  After the Nazis annexed Austria in March 1938, Poland passed a law that Polish Jews who had lived abroad more than five years could not return home; many wanted to flee Germany and Austria.  Nazis began deporting Polish Jews against their will in October; stuck between two countries that didn’t want them, thousands were stuck in a refugee camp in Zbaszynthey, Poland on the German border.  Herschel Grynszpan, a son of one refugee family, shot a German official in Paris, France.  To retaliate, German paramilitaries and police vandalized Jewish businesses and synagogues, in what is now known as Kristallnacht.  My great grandparents, born in Galecia, left Berlin to return to Lviv in 1937 or 1938. When the Nazis invaded, Jews were rounded up and imprisoned in the sealed Lviv ghetto, where they stayed until they were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, my grandfather’s brother Duno was living in Warsaw.   In a scrapbook, we found an article cut out from the local paper that recounted the letter my grandfather received from his brother– how he escaped Warsaw during the Nazi invasion, traveled east to the Soviet Union, then to Japan, an across the Pacific to San Francisco.  At the port they were denied entry; they had U.S. immigration quotas. The family traveled south, settling ultimately in Mexico City. My grandfather was quoted in the article recounting how his brother Duno, his wife Nina, and seven week old newborn Tommy fled Warsaw along with 20,000 other refugees.  As they passed through a small town, German warplanes thundered overhead, bombing the refugee caravan. They survived hiding in a cellar; amidst the wreckage above, they found their car undamaged, and were able to flee east.

This story is why my dad went to work for a civil rights newspaper in Birmingham, Alabama in the summer of 1966, led a rent strike while a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1960’s, and became a volunteer organizer with the UVA living wage campaign when we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia in the late 1990s.  In many ways it is also why I organized protests, walked precincts, distributed leaflets, sat through long boring meetings, and crunched spreadsheets late into the night as a union researcher and community and labor organizer. Only strong multi-racial working class organizations can stop politicians and bosses from using racial and religious hatred to divide and conquer.

Politicians and corporations have always used these tricks to break workers’ unions and deflect blame from the consequences of their own reckless wars and greed.  It happened in Chicago in 1919, where the slaughterhouse owners whipped up racism in the city to break a union organizing campaign, leading to race riots. It happened again in the 1980’s, where to break the packinghouse workers union, meatpackers shut down their Chicago factories and opened new ones in Nebraska and Iowa, staffing them with undocumented immigrants supplied by human traffickers working for Tyson’s Foods to recruit cheap labor from Mexico.  German corporations threatened by socialists, communists, and labor unions turned to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to deflect workers economic frustrations towards anti-semitism; rhetoric quickly spiraled into genocide.

My family’s story is like many refugees, like many Americans who made this country great.  It’s similar to the story of the Pilgrims who escaped the religious persecution of the British Monarchy, landing on Plymouth Rock to build a City on a Hill where they could worship in peace as they wished.  It’s like the story of the Quakers who fleeing persecution founded Philadelphia as a city of brotherly love. Quakers, who advocated for peace and an end to slavery, formed during the English Civil War, a time when the British beheaded their King, and Diggers and Levelers emboldened by the Protestant Reformation claimed that men were created in God’s image, and the land should be owned by those who work it.  My story is the story of many immigrants; the Irish who made Boston and New York their homes after fleeing the potato famine, persecuted by large landowners; it’s the story of Salvadorans who sought refuge in Los Angeles following the assassination of Jesuit Priests like Saint Archbishop Oscar Romero; Mexican peasants displaced by haciendas and cheap Monsanto corn after NAFTA. My immigrant story is the story of the migrant caravan exodus marching out of Honduras to escape the death squads and tear gas of drug cartels and military police run by Trump backed strongman Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Today, over ten years after the stock market crash of the Great Recession, it’s funny how things have spiraled out of control so fast.  Net immigration is at its lowest level since 1992.  The percent of civilians working, the labor force participation rate which is a true gauge of unemployment without all the statistical gimmicks, is at 62.9%, it’s been stagnant since the end of 2013, and declining since the Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush President in 2000.  But rather than get America working again, Trump has blamed Mexican migrants and Central American refugees for taking American jobs. Despite economic stagnation and declining real wages, the stock market reached record highs yesterday, two days before Trump’s declared roundup of undocumented individuals.

What happened?  Things have changed so fast.   But as long as we breathe, there is hope.  Even with barbed wire checkpoints and Panzer tanks rolling through the streets, 300,000 Dutch workers in Amsterdam went on strike in February 1941 to oppose Nazis efforts to round up and deport Jews to death camps.  In 1935, as my grandfather landed in New York, while American workers still remembered the recent mass strikes like in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis, many were listening to the fascist rhetoric of Father Charles Coughlin’s nationally syndicated radio show.  But that fall, a group of union leaders and shop floor militants split with the entrenched officials of the old ossified labor fiefdoms. They knew something new was needed to meet the challenge of the times. America walked out on strike for a strong union and a New Deal, and from the car factories and steel mills mobilized a generation of working families across racial, ethnic, and religious lines to unify the country, raise the standard of living, and fight the threat global fascism..

We have done it before, and we can do it again.  As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t always repeat itself, but sometimes, it rhymes.”

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