My father Robert Klonsky was born in 1918 in a house off of Eastern Parkway where Brownsville meets East New York in Brooklyn. His parents, my grandfather and grandmother, were Russian immigrants, religious Jews, and poor.
My grandfather was either a rabbi or a cantor, depending on who in the family tells the story. Dad had four brothers and a sister. The boys all sang in my grandfather’s synagogue. My father had a beautiful, deep, rich voice that sounded to me like the Paul Robeson records I heard around the house as a child.
The brothers ended up going in very different directions.
My uncle Ben, for example, did not follow in my father’s radical footsteps. Instead his beautiful voice led him to become the chief cantor of Reading, Pennsylvania.
Like many of the poor, uneducated (Dad never got past the eighth grade) Jews in Brooklyn, my father and his brother Mac became communists. My father always said it was either be a Red or do what the others in the neighborhood did, the “Jews without money” as the proletarian writer Michael Gold called them: become gangsters (Uncle Ben, notwithstanding). My father chose to be a Red.
In February 1937, answering the international call to defend the Spanish Republic from the fascist rebellion led by General Francisco Franco and backed by Hitler and Mussolini, my father left New York, his Brownsville neighborhood, and his family.
My father set sail for France aboard a freighter using the passport that belonged to Uncle Mac. He followed the well-worn path over the Pyrenees to Bilbao and enlisted in the International Brigades. From there, he wrote of us his travels and travails.
February 14, 1937
Just arrived at destination at the border of Spain after traveling all night. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Just finished our lunch. Mail is very slow so don’t expect too much of it. Revolutionary greetings to Mac.
A decade and a half later, after fighting fascism in Spain and the Pacific, my father was indicted by the United States government. He was charged with violating the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate for revolutionary change. Dozens of other communists in cities across America were also indicted.
It was a time of fear, blacklists, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, Red Channels, namers of names and witch hunts.
It was the time of the Cold War that followed World War II. The United States faced a challenge for superpower status by the Soviet Union and their socialist camp. This so-called Cold War broke out hot in places like Korea. The global battle was reflected at home with a furious political attacks on liberals, socialists and especially the Communist Party.
This was the McCarthy Era. And, no surprise, they had come for, among others, my family.
March 4, 1937
Dearest Mama, Papa and family,
It is very difficult for me to express all I feel. I can only say that I’m working very hard. There is much to be done. Tell Eileen that I would just love to hold her in my arms for just five minutes, and her uncle would be very happy. Mama and Papa, if letters don’t come for long periods of time, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean I don’t think of you, or that anything is wrong. I’m in perfect safety.
Tell Mac that I met Moish and Danny about a week ago. They passed through our place. I hope Sylvia and Dave are enjoying married life. Tell them I expect another nephew to be on the way when I get home and I believe it that will be sooner than expected. Regards to all and take care of
Helen Wainer was also a member of the Communist Party.
My mother, Helen, loved telling the story of the first time she saw my father. Being a secretary was a job my mother held her entire working life. But at that time she held that job in the New York offices of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. She would laugh as she described to us my Dad walking in, all big-headed and full of swagger. After all, he had been a soldier and now a veteran having just returned from the Spanish front.
My father tried to hit on her, but she would have none of it and blew him off. She was quite used to meeting plenty of guys who had just returned from Spain and so she had no reason to find my father particularly impressive on that account. Only later would she agree to a date.
Over the years I knew many of my father’s fellow male veterans and a few of the women who volunteered too. Women members of the Brigade often worked as nurses at the front, facing no less danger than the men. It took a special kind of person to risk it all to fight the fascists in Spain, ending up being what the McCarthyites labeled, “premature antifascists.” Many of my father’s comrades echoed my father’s swagger.
I heard more than a few claim that they were the model for Ernest Hemingway’s Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. My boyhood friend Mike Goff’s father, Irv Goff, may have actually been the one Hemingway chose. Irv Goff fought alone as a guerrilla, behind enemy lines, blowing up bridges just as the Robert Jordan character did in the Hemingway novel.
Sometime in 1937
Dear Mom, Pop and family,
This past Friday was my 19th birthday. Was I proud! I’m one of the youngest men up here, that is excluding the Spanish boys themselves. One feels very old when he sees children of 14 and 15 years going on the front lines to fight. And one feels very proud to be part of it all. I can’t really find the words suitable to describe the country. Acres and acres of olive groves and orange groves cover the country. Spain is so rich in resources, especially agriculture.
But the people. The poor Spanish people. One wonders what has kept the workers and peasants in ignorance and subjugation until now. The worst slum sections of New York are a paradise compared to the living quarters of the working people here.
But those things are coming to an end. They have begun to realize that the labor and sweat that they have put into the soil and the factory entitles them to the right of self-rule, and the right to profit from their labor. And at the present time they are heroically fighting and laying down their lives so that the generations to come will have that right in a free, happy and rich Spain. When I get home I’ll be able to tell many an interesting story. But meanwhile that will have to wait.
Don’t be stingy with stationery. Tell me everything there is to tell. I’m starving for news from you all. Tell me how you all are, as far as health is concerned, especially is Mama and Papa alright? Write a lot about my niece and nephew. And if a new one is on the way. I want to know. Tell Mac to write about my comrades back home. How is the YCL getting along, especially without me (heh, heh)? How is Mr. and Mrs. Glazer? In other words, I want to know everything.
Say Mac. Just a reminder. I think it is time you started getting our brother Abe interested in the Movement. Don’t you think so? (How about it Abie?) Keep up the Klonsky tradition. I expect to find him at least a section organizer when I get back.
When word came of the Smith Act indictments my father went underground. The view of the Communist Party leadership was that the criminal charges against the party leaders augured impending fascism. Two years later, my father was arrested by the FBI in Boston. By then the party leadership in New York had sent word to those like my father to end their time underground and emerge to defend themselves and the party in court.
On a typically hot humid Philadelphia summer evening, Dad returned home to our row house in north Philadelphia.
I looked up from my favorite summer dinner I was six and had been without a father for two years.
Ironically, I was also probably the safest kid in Philadelphia. My brother and I had an FBI escort to school every morning. They kept a watchful eye in case Dad tried to make contact.
As the trial proceeded, the story of the Philadelphia Reds made front page news. It was not hard for our Strawberry Mansion neighbors, mostly African American, to know about the Reds who lived on their block. Yet I had no trouble finding friends to play a game of marbles with in the curb or play some stick ball while dodging the cars in the street.
One of the nine co-defendents, Sherman Labovits, later wrote a book, Being Red in Philadelphia. He described the trial in great detail.
Dad and his eight Philadelphia comrades, including the noted poet and Daily Worker editor, Walter Lowenfels, were all convicted.
Eventually the Supreme Court would overturn the convictions, but not before my father and many of the other defendants spent time in federal prison.
Dearest Mama, Papa and family,
We’re all confident out here that the government forces will, in a very short time, be able to finally and completely crush the gangsters and mercenaries that compose the fascist forces. And it certainly seems that way after the magnificent victories that have been won in the past few weeks in particular, the decisive
Victory on the Guadalajara front, which no doubt, you have read about in the American newspapers.
And so, for all you know, in a few months I will be back home with all of you celebrating victory together.
May 9, 1937
Dear Mama, Papa and family
Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten. Today is Mothers’ Day. As far back as I can remember I don’t think I every observed Mothers’ Day. I never bought flowerpots or handkerchiefs or sent greeting cards, except once in a while, when we had the dairy store on Sutter Avenue. At that time the little silk lace handkerchief was bought with Sylvia’s money. Then again, I don’t think I had the brains enough to understand what it really meant at that time. Don’t let me give you the impression that I’m a hard, emotionless person, or that those things don’t mean anything to me. It’s just that I always thought, and I say this honestly, that a flowerpot or a card one day a year was a superficial and false way of showing one’s appreciation and gratitude to one’s mother. Perhaps it’s just another one of those strange thoughts that communists have. And as communists have done with other occasions, they have changed the meaning of Mothers’ Day where now, today, it is another day when we, the present generation of sons and daughters, can consolidate and strengthen the gains we have made toward a future when Mothers can bring up their children in a saner, happier world in which those who today seek to disrupt and destroy the family with wars, economic crises, etc., etc., will no longer exist.
By all that, I don’t mean to say that those who buy their mothers Mothers’ Day gifts are not sincere. Without a doubt, when you, Sylvia, or you, Abie, bought a present for Mama, you were showing your sincere and heartfelt love and gratitude to Mama. I don’t want to sound too much like a Daily Worker editorial – you observe Mothers’ Day the one day of the year and then you allow the forces of reaction and fascism to counter act a thousand times all that your greatly appreciated token has meant.
Think it over, all of you, and especially you, Sylvia. You who have every right in the world to a happy life. You belong with those people who as this writing are celebrating Mothers’ Day as a day of peace. Today, all over the country, US mass meetings are taking place, organized by the Women of America (Progressive Women’s Council, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, AWF, etc.) So I repeat. Think it over. And as far as I’m concerned, I believe that all of us, all the sons of mothers who are in Spain, are building the very foundation for future Mother’s Days that will be more secure and happier than perhaps they are today.
Dad came home from Spain before the final victory of Franco in 1939. By 1944, he was back on the battlefield — this time, in the Pacific. He was a battlefield soldier in a flame-throwing tank in the Battle of Okinawa and then was part of the postwar US occupation of Korea.
He did some writing for the US Army’s Stars and Stripes but was removed from that position, always the organizer, for advocating that US occupation troops to be sent home.
One day in 1956, Dad came home and took down the picture of Stalin that hung on our living room wall. He had quit the party following Nikita Khruschchev’s “secret”speech denouncing Josef Stalin.
We eventually left Philadelphia where he had been a Communist Party leader for a decade, for Los Angeles. At some point in the sixties, Dad rejoined the Communist Party and became even more devoted to his defense of the Soviet Union.
Like many of those who rejoined or never left the party, I think it was too difficult for Dad to surrender a belief he had fought for on so many battlefields for over three decades. The sixties inspired him, as many of us were inspired to action; by the Southern Civil Rights Movement, by the rise of the student movement, and by the mass protests of the war in Vietnam.
He may have been caught up in all the early inter-party fights of the CP and the Left, but he held on to his view that the socialism of the Soviet Union, in spite what he viewed as errors, was a model for the future of the world. It remained a constant. It had become a religious belief and a matter of faith.
Dad died in 2002. He lived long enough to witness the fall of the Soviet Union. Our family scattered my father’s ashes in Spain, off the coast of Barcelona.
June 10, 1937
The “Danny Haskell” branch! Gee, Mac. That sounds swell! And listen Mac. Don’t let Sarah in on this, but I expect you to give me a “knockdown” to some of those charming young darlings in your branch when I get home. How about asking them to write me, enclosing their photos.
Mac, go slow with Abe. If there is a possibility at all of his getting into the movement interfering with his schoolwork, well, then the movement will just have to get along without him. Understand me Mac, there’s no one that would like to see him in the YCL than myself. But his finishing his school career would mean a hell of a lot to the folks, and Jesus Christ, Mac, they’ve taken enough for a while. The kid’s got to graduate school with honors!
Hey Mac. Just between you and me I want to tell you something that must not reach Mom and Pop. Definitely. When you read this I hope you won’t begin to write those worried, frantic letters again. When I reported back to the front at the completion of my course at Officers’ Training School, I was made sergeant, open for promotion to lieutenant. Then the trouble started. In quick succession I contracted weakened kidneys, causing me to get up during the night to urinate an average of eight to ten times. Immediately after and combined with that came bronchitis and chronic colic, or heat cramps. Because of my weakened condition, I asked to be relieved of my position, which required a certain amount of stamina and energy. I was transferred to the job of assistant Battalion Observer, a job I studied at school. But even that was too much and the doctor ordered rest. Not wanting to leave the line, I asked for some work that they might have for me. So they ups and gives me the job of Battalion Cultural Director. Not physically difficult. Interesting.
In a few days our Battalion is going “on leave” for a few weeks away from the front. We are going to rest up, tighten up, strengthen our organization and then return to one of the fronts for active duty once more.
Then sit tight and bet on the horse marked The Lincoln Battalion.
Your comrade and brother,