The personal is political.

August 16, 1944

Wednesday

My darling,

How does one write a letter of this kind. How does one say my sister received a wire from the War Dept. that her husband was killed in action. To write these words down — to have finally put these words of misery on paper are almost more than I can bear. The war is over for us, Hy, when we know that when the war is over, our family circle will not be complete. To know that Harold is not coming home to Annie and Susan. Oh, my darling, how hard I prayed to God to be good to us. I pushed any other thought in the background. Don’t tell me he was in the Marines on combat duty — others have returned. Why not my sister’s husband? Oh, God. Hy, to look at Susie at 17 months and think she should never know her father’s wonderful smile and the love he has for her.

I tell Annie to keep going for Susan’s sake. We give her pills, I tell her how mistakes have been made before and can be made again — But how much longer can I bear that look in her eyes. I know her soul is dead. She only thinks it can’t be true and that is why she opens her eyes at the beginning of another day.

Monday night Annie called me to say “Lillian, my husband — is dead. They told me so. But it isn’t true, is it? No, Harold can’t be dead. Not Harold. He promised to come back to me.”

Ruthie came over and stayed with Robin so Marty, Dad and I could come over here. I’ve been here since then. Mother is taking care of Robin. I can’t go back to my house when I have so much — and Annie has nothing — nothing.

All day long they sit on the couch and talk to themselves — to Harold.

Dad is gone this time. Whatever mind he had is holding on by a thread — that Harold will come back — that somewhere a mistake was made.

If ever I asked you for anything, hear me now — Work, Hy. Finish your school and then go over there. Finish your work — not for bars and a salute, but to carry on where Harold left off. They made him a first lieutenant — do you hear that — “We deeply regret to inform you that your husband 1st Lt. Harold N. LeVine was killed…”

You know how proud we were of our lieutenants in the Marine and Air Corps — they didn’t have much chance. You give them that chance. Give them that chance, Hy. You have always done what you have set out to do. Let nothing interfere with your work. Annie is proud of you, Hy. Even now Hy, when her life has fallen to pieces she tells everyone her sister’s husband is going to Officer’s School. She tells them about Artie when they come to talk about her husband. Don’t fail her, Hy.

Don’t worry about us. Put every thought out of your mind except school. That is what I need from you, Hy. That will help me bear this misery — if ever I am to have happiness, it must be because my husband brought it to me — by hitting back in the only way he can now. God will help you, Hy. I know he will. He must.

Love,

Lillian

Annie writes to Harold every day. Give her hope, Hy. She has had enough of death. The only way she can live is to keep that hope. Nobody must take it away from her.

I love you very much.

Lillian

Sisters: Annie & Lillian
Sisters: Annie & Lillian

This was the letter my grandma sent to my grandfather 73 years ago today when her sister’s husband was killed in the Second World War.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this letter today. About Harold, an American Jew who died on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from his home in Chicago. About my other great-uncle Art (“Artie”), an American Jew who was shot down in a plane by Nazis and kept as a prisoner of war at the infamous Stalag Luft III in modern-day Poland. Art and Harold went missing within weeks of one another, and three tight-knit families in Chicago were shattered with grief.

This weekend, a vile torch-lit parade of bigots marched into town armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry under the false guise of “historic preservation.” Don’t be fooled — none of this is about a statue of a confederate general who believed in human enslavement. This is about a sense of biological superiority, about power, about masculinity, about a fictional notion of purity — and it’s a fundamental and willful misunderstanding of the past. It’s the absurd ideology that this country belongs to a fraction of the population, as though this land was not forcibly and violently purloined from its ancient occupants by colonialists. It’s the preposterous longing for a version of this country that never existed — because this country was built on the backs of brown and black people, because it has been home to all colors and creeds since its inception, however imperfectly. Do these neo-Nazi fascists truly believe that what was popular on television in the 1950s is “the way it used to be?” How ironic, considering they don’t trust the media! Underrepresentation of people of color, queer people and all other minority groups is not new, and just because you only saw Donna Reed on television doesn’t mean that Donna Reed was the only kind of American. It just means America was even more racist then.

On Saturday, I saw a throng of armed white men stomp through American streets yelling “Jews will not replace us.” I saw them attack, like rabid, vicious animals made violent by their own fear, a twenty-year old black man trying desperately to save himself from their clubs, bats, fists and boots. I watched him try to stand, and fall, and stand, and fall, and I cried and I cried. Did they know him? No. What did they know? They knew he was black, and for them, that was enough to beat the living soul out of another human being.

In the early 1900s, roving bands of Cossacks would travel throughout the Russian Empire, ransacking Jewish homes and businesses, and violently murdering Jews — trapping entire families in their homes and setting them aflame, cutting out their tongues and eyes. My great-grandmother Clara screamed in the dark from nightmares her entire life after she witnessed those murders. What did those Cossacks know? Only that these were Jews, and so they did not deserve to live.

My great-grandparents were the lucky ones — of course they were, because they left. These are their names: Abraham Lazar Brodsky, Clara Reznikova Brodsky, Jacob Foreman, Rose Sherman Foreman. They came from Elizavetgrad, from Minsk, from Kalinovka. They came on boats, they lived in Ontario, Dayton, Chicago. They never saw their parents again.

In Chicago, Rose married Jacob, they had three sons and then he died in 1922 at age 37. My grandfather Hy was seven years old when he began selling newspapers on the street. He and his younger brother Art loved classical music and opera, and Rose sang Yiddish songs from back home.

Clara and Abe had their family in Canada before settling in Ohio and finally, Chicago. There were three older boys and two daughters, Lillian and Annie. My grandparents met at a temple dance. She refused to wear her glasses so all she could see were my grandfather’s white teeth in his tall blond head. They courted for years. He became a fixture at the Brodsky home. He wrote her letters every time he went on the road as a traveling salesman.

Lillian Brodsky & Hy Foreman
Lillian Brodsky & Hy Foreman

The family was poor. My grandma, a voracious reader and lover of poetry, wanted nothing more than to go to the University of Chicago. She attended Northwestern for one semester before leaving because of the cost. She tried to find a job but it was hard because she was Jewish. She changed her last name on her resume to Brodsly and told her future employer she was a Christian Scientist. She was a bookkeeper at the Easy Washing Machine Company at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

Grandma, far right, Easy Washing Machine Co 1941
Grandma, far right, Easy Washing Machine Co 1941

My great-uncles took jobs as traveling salesmen and my great-aunt Annie became a secretary in a law firm. She married a handsome lawyer at the firm in 1941, Harold Levine. It was a faerie tale for the littlest of the Brodsky-Reznikova clan who, according to legend, didn’t speak a word until she was six. But just a few months into their marriage, a bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor and Harold clamored to do right by his country. He joined the Marines and went off to training in San Diego before he was shipped overseas to the Pacific.

Harold & Annie Levine, 1941
Harold & Annie Levine, 1941

Everyone joined. They were Americans. Their Jewish countrymen were being murdered overseas, but they didn’t know that yet. My grandma’s oldest brother George was in a submarine. Next brother Joe was as handsome as Robert Taylor in his uniform. Third brother Steve was 4-F so he enlisted in Canada, as a Hamilton-born citizen.

Grandpa Hy was sent south, to Montgomery and Tallahassee. It was 1942 and the south was deeply segregated. He had never seen such rampant racism. My grandma visited him in Alabama and Florida, and was horrified by segregation, by the separate drinking fountains and overt white supremacy. Her intolerance for injustice was a defining characteristic.

unnamed

My grandfather went on to Officer Candidate School — something my grandma talked about until she died at 95. “You see,” she’d say, “he was Jewish, and he didn’t have a college education.” Despite these odds, he was admitted to OCS and trained African-American troops proudly. When my grandma wrote him in August 1944, they both believed he would be sent overseas.

And his younger brother Art? Art was sent overseas as a pilot. In July 1944, his plane was shot down by German fire. As the tiny metal casket filled with flames and black smoke, Art tried to cajole his fellow soldier to parachute out with him. The fear frozen on the boy’s face as he disappeared into the smoke stayed with Art his entire life, until he died at 93.

Art Foreman, early 1930s
Art Foreman, early 1930s

As Art parachuted out of the plummeting plane into a field of landmines below, he ripped off his silver dog tags and hurled them away from his body — the word HEBREW stamped into the metal. He landed among a Nazi detail. As he lay on the ground, his skin warped and burning, a Nazi stomped on his contorted face with his giant black boot.

Pilot Art

Art was held as a Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft III, the camp made famous by the film The Great Escape. He was missing for weeks, coinciding with Harold’s death, and the letters between my grandparents — which they wrote daily — are agonizing to read. My grandfather and his older brother kept the news from their mother Rose until they couldn’t keep the secret any longer. After the war, Art went through a series of facial reconstructive surgeries in an attempt to recast his handsome face. He married a wonderful Danish woman whose brother was killed in the resistance, fighting Nazis.

Off to War: Hy, Lillian, Art
Off to War: Hy, Lillian, Art

And Harold.

Harold’s death still reverberates in my family. It never left Annie. It took something fundamental away from that generation of my family — I found a letter from my great-uncle Joe to my grandma Lillian, written on December 7th decades later, and the date was circled with a note about how this was the day that changed their lives forever.

Annie & Harold with baby Susan
Annie & Harold with baby Susan

Annie didn’t believe that her true love was really gone. She wrote letters to politicians, to generals, to fellow lieutenants. She tried to find eyewitnesses of his death. She never got Harold’s body. Harold’s death must have felt like a hole drilled in her center, for her whole life. She married twice more, and her third husband was an extraordinarily kind, gentle soul who was with her until the end. But the work she had to do, compared to her sister, must have felt unconquerable.

When I was a little girl, I would read and watch A Little Princess over and over again. Near the end, abandoned orphan Sara meets a soldier suffering from amnesia and realizes it is her father. I would dream, in my childlike understanding of time, that this could still happen to Harold and Annie.

Harold with Susan
Harold with Susan

Harold’s daughter Susan became a Naval nurse in 1967 and cared for Marines — like her father — returning from Viet Nam. As the war became increasingly meaningless and unresolvable, she became vocally anti-war, and eventually distributed anti-war leaflets from a helicopter over an army base — while in uniform. She became the first woman in United States history to be court-marshaled for her anti-war activities and was discharged by the navy in 1969.

schnall

Susie, as I call her, has been an anti-violence activist for decades, keen on getting the United States military to take responsibility for its actions, particularly involving Agent Orange. She is an active member of Veterans for Peace and a college professor. Her dedication to non-violence and her commitment to social justice were early influences on my own beliefs.

Susan 1967
Susan 1967

So too were the political activities of my grandma Lillian, who spent two decades of her life grassroots organizing to free Jews from oppression in the Soviet Union. When her closest friends Selma and Hal Light and Rose and Ed Tamler began the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews in 1967, my grandma was fully on board. She devised a magnificent filing system documenting thousands of Refuseniks and held names and faces in her head. The note at the American Jewish Historical Society (where my grandma’s papers are archived) reads: her system “became a resource for BACSJ and other Soviet Jewry organizations in the United States. Foreman helped connect Jewish families in the US and USSR with special projects such as Adopt-A-Family and Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning. She visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s and met with many Refuseniks and Prisoners of Conscience, including Ida Nudel and Leonid Slepak.”

Often overlooked by historians is the enormous impact of women driving this movement. During Natan Sharansky’s prison interrogation, the KGB itself derided the American Soviet Jewry movement for being mere “students and housewives.” But what power these women and students held.

Lillian at San Francisco Soviet Consulate, 1981
Lillian at San Francisco Soviet Consulate, 1981

In the 1980s, my grandma became president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews. She traveled to the Soviet Union multiple times, smuggling in goods that could be sold on the black market to raise money for Jews and other Refuseniks to escape the oppressive USSR. The KGB had a file on her and she was followed for her activities in Russia. She put her life on the line to save strangers because her sense of moral righteousness and personal convictions taught her to treat all humans equally, with dignity and with compassion.

I didn’t know when I began writing this that it would turn into a personal history of my family, or attempt to address the maelstrom of violence this past weekend. I simply went searching for Lillian’s letter and was surprised — but not shocked — that it was written on this exact day. There are moments when I feel my grandma speaking to me so clearly or holding my arm so firmly that I know she’s locked deep in my heart, and that coincidences aren’t always so.

Something my grandma was truly talented at was reaching people — if someone professed an opinion with which she disagreed, she’d talk all the way to the end of that opinion. We joked she never lost an argument. But some of us on the radical left are under the misguided notion that everyone should know everything we know, that they should have read everything we have read, that they should be responsible for educating themselves on matters of race and gender and bodies and class and sexual orientation and equity and socialism and capitalism and feminism and religion and gentrification and ableism and ageism and the wage gap — and they don’t even know what some of these things are.

And when they ask, they are told by us that they are ignorant and bigoted because they don’t know what the proper terminology is, or they don’t know there is a difference between race and ethnicity — and then what they feel is shame. Then that shame becomes anger, and that anger forces them to walk away from us, from a conversation we could have had with them without judgment if we had only been able to see them as a fellow human. And we lose them — to white nationalism, to racism, to bigotry, to a fringe ideology that will validate their feelings of shame and anger.

This is not to imply that women or people of color or anyone who is not a white man is responsible for white men’s anger and isolation and terrorism, or that we should tolerate hatred and bigotry. But what I am suggesting here is for the radical left to demonstrate compassion and patience for people who are changeable, the way my grandmother was able to. She could connect with anyone, could find the goodness embedded deep inside them and pull it out, unravel it, unknot it, and help them see the world through fresh, compassionate eyes.

The next time someone asks a question you find ignorant, before you say “It’s not my job to explain this to you,” pause for a moment. Imagine how much impact you can have on someone else as a human to human, telling them your story. I think that’s why I’ve always loved my family history so much. It’s so many hundreds of stories, woven together in an infinite quilt, and those stories are what connect us to one another. I bet if I did a genealogy tree for every single one of those white nationalists in Charlottesville, I’d find a person of color, a Jew, a queer person, a Native American just one or two generations back in their family — because there is no such thing as a “pure” blood line. There is no such thing as a master race.

My grandma developed her fierce sense of humanitarianism as a child of Jewish immigrants growing up in poverty. She saw a burning cross in front of her synagogue as a child. She changed her name to get a job. She and her family faced prejudice regularly as Jews.

And then she went to the south, and she witnessed segregation. And she was apoplectic about the treatment of blacks under Jim Crow laws. She saw that other people were treated far worse than she was, and she used her privilege as a white person to fight bigotry. 

Years later, when my grandparents had settled in San Francisco after the war, my grandfather got a hole-in-one at his golf club. Told there’d be a party, my grandma got dressed up to go — and was told by the club that it was for men only. Guess who walked right into that ballroom?

Lillian

I don’t know how she always did it. She was practical but romantic, quick-tempered, affectionate, outspoken, with a laugh like a tinsel-coated cigarette. She was never lazy. Since January 20th, I wake up some days and waste all the sunlight hiding under a blanket beneath the guise of “self-care.”

But “self-care” is seductive, and can quietly become an acceptance of the banality of evil, as we continue to post well-lit photos of our kitchens and spend Saturday nights drinking cocktails. For months, we’ve been repeating the mantra This is not normal while trying our best to imitate normalcy. And now there are real Nazis in our streets. This is not normal.

My grandma wrote to my grandpa “You have always done what you have set out to do. Let nothing interfere with your work.” Let our work be to step up now, to take action, not to dwell in the lonely, never-ending staircase that is Twitter. Meet in real life, share your stories, share the stories of the people you love and who loved you. Be visible. Speak up when other people are too tired to. Do the work for Heather Heyer, for Deandre Harris, for every body that has been unjustly murdered because they were black or transgender or a woman or a Jew or a human being who didn’t fit the narrow criteria of what a person is according to a bigot. Do the work for Harold, a Jewish American who believed in democracy — for Art’s co-pilot — for every Jew and gypsy and queer and intellectual and Pole who died by the Nazis. Do it for all of the people who died doing it. Do it for the next generation. Do the work for my great-grandparents, for your great-grandparents, for our ancestors both free and enslaved. 

If we don’t do the work, no one will. 

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