Encircled By My Heritage
by Gabi Clayton
This started as a paper I wrote for a film class in 1988 when I was a senior at The Evergreen State College. We had just moved from Mississippi to Olympia, Washington. It is full of quotes from other people, and there is a bibliography. I have added to it over time as I learned new things or found photos that would be good to include.
Anything about my father's side of the family may be inaccurate. He died when I was 12 and I was out of touch with his side of the family until a few years after this was written, so the family history comes mostly from my mother's memory with a little added later.
For those of you who are curious, it may tell you something about me. I decided to publish it here as my personal response to a Human Rights Campaign's Family Holiday Action Alert, which said:
"Telling the truth about who we are -- even to just one more friend or relative -- can start to
break down walls of silence and isolation that may have taken years to build up. "
Here goes ...
The painting that hung over my parent's couch showed peasants on a farm, working in the fields and eating lunch under the trees. It was painted at a time when some artists were moving away from painting saints and aristocrats, discovering that common people were worthy subjects. For me, that painting is a symbol of a joining of the ideals of social change and the ideals of art. Both were encouraged in me since childhood.
Dad in his knickers.
Dad looking left.
My mom in her beret
My mom with her hair curly.
My mother's father, Louis Schmidt, was an Orthodox Jew from Lithuania. When he was twelve years old, he walked across Europe, alone, to Amsterdam, where he caught a ship to join his father in New York. When he arrived on Ellis Island, an immigration official changed his last name to Smith. Welcome to America! They were poor, and saving money to send for his mother, so Louis went to work immediately in a factory on the Lower East Side. Later, as a young man, he was studying to become a rabbi. Something caused him to break with his father and become a militant atheist (and socialist). When he married my grandmother, he was working as a trolley car operator. Later he was a subway conductor, working long hours. My mother remembers him mostly for his love of learning; he was self-educated and read whenever he got a chance. This love came from his background as an Eastern Jew, where,
Historically, traditionally, ideally, learning has been and is regarded as the primary value, and wealth as subsidiary or complimentary.(1)Astrid Nina Rebekka Hagerup, my mother's mother, was the daughter of the mayor/chief of police of a seaside resort on the Norwegian coast. She was a romantic who loved gypsy music and poetry. When she left home she found that the only skills she had were domestic, so she worked as a cook and ladies companion in England for two years before coming to New York. There, she met Louis Smith when she was almost dead from an (illegal) abortion. Louis nursed her back to health; they married and had two daughters. I'm sure my mother's love for the arts, especially literature and music, is a gift from her mother.
Louis died in 1935, when my mother was 16 years old. Within a year, Astrid married Thomas Lappin, a Communist shipyard mechanic from Scotland. Tommy had arrived in New York during the Depression and was lucky to find a job as a janitor. He had dropped his party membership because he did not believe that Russia should dictate to other communist/socialist countries. But he remained an active Marxist, out on picket lines, organizing unions and going to meetings. Eventually he re-joined the party and sold the Daily Worker in the streets in his free time.
To my mother, Tommy gave his passion for social change, a belief that it is possible to make the world a better place for everyone.
Such poverty as we have today in our great cities degrades the poor, and infects with its degradation the whole neighborhood in which they live. And whatever can degrade a neighborhood can degrade a country and a continent and finally the whole civilized world, which is only a large neighborhood... The old notion that people can "Keep themselves to themselves" and not be touched by what is happening to their neighbors or even to people who live a hundred miles off, is a most dangerous mistake, The saying that we are members of one another is not a mere pious formula to be repeated in church without any meaning; it is a literal truth, for though the rich end of town can avoid living with the poor end, it cannot avoid dying with it when the plague comes. (2)My father's mother, Emma Dellheim, came from a family of middle class Jewish shopkeepers in Mutterstadt, Germany. She married Ferdinand Schott, a wandering Jewish socialist, Emma's brothers considered Ferdinand a "neer-do-well", but they helped the couple open a haberdashery anyway.
Ferdinand was a funny loving, gentle man who posed for my father's camera in the snow wearing nothing but his rolled up long johns and a hat. My sister Mimi reminded me that he did other kooky things too. He once kept a live frog in his mouth and went to a dinner party, and when the time was right he opened his mouth and let the frog jump out onto the dinner table - to the horror or maybe the amusement of the dinner guests!
When my father was thirteen years old, in 1933, the Nazis became the most popular party in Germany, It had become a dangerous place for Jews to live, even for those, like the Schotts who were proud of their heritage but not particularly religious. With financial help from Ferdinand's wealthy brother Max Schott who lived in Colorado, my grandparents and father were able to escape to France.
Grandma Emma was a woman who had no sense of humor, and now I know it was at least in part because Ferdinand was a philanderer. Our second cousin Arthur told my sister that Ferdi had an affair with a woman who was not Jewish which was illegal, and the woman got pregnant. Arthur says we have a relative in Germany - Ferdinand's daughter from the affair - who we hear wants no connection with our family. So though I first understood that the family knew it was getting dangerous there with Hitler coming into power and left because of that, but now I know Ferdinand's behavior was real reason they left Germany.
My father was sent to a boarding school in England, for his further safety. Emma and Ferdinand were sent to an internment camp when Hitler occupied France. When the war was over, Max helped them move to New York City. They died within days of each other in 1956, when I was three years old.My father, Werner Schott, was first sent to an English school for refugee children, then to Dartington Hall, a progressive high school in the town of Totnes. When he graduated, he entered the London School of Economics.
Being a Jew is not cause for despair or depression; such despair and agony as the Jewish people have had to endure over the past thousand years is the result, not of what they are, but of what the Christian world has inflicted upon them; and since so many Jews stubbornly remained Jewish in spite of that, the fact of being Jewish must hold an enticement in itself.
I think there will always be Jews -- if only because the fact of being a Jew is a special kind of wonder... a condition of civilization, of being a little bit of an outsider with the outsider's point of view, so that at least some of those who are Jews see the world more clearly because they are apart. The world needs its outsiders... (3)I'm not sure when, but at some point the English government decided that my father was an "enemy alien" because he was a German. He was -- arrested -- deported -- something, and put on a ship to a Canadian internment camp. On the ship and in the camp were other German Jewish refugees, and another group of "enemy aliens" -- German Nazis. Although they were separated, it shocks and confuses me when I think of them being together at all, lumped into the same category.
Werner Schott, 21 year-old student at the London School of Economics, left his home in Cambridge at nine o'clock this morning with a rucksack on his back to hitch-hike his way to Leeds. Four hours later, with speckless shoes, he registered at the University Union here as the first of 500 student delegates. They will discuss war, democracy, education, and a new world order at the annual six-day conference of the National Union of Students... (4)
Here is a photograph of my dad and on the back it says: "In Canada Camp during second World War."
In the camp, my father joined a Marxist study group.During World War II my mother, Naomi Smith, joined the army as a registered nurse, and worked in a military hospital in North Carolina -- one mile from Black Mountain College. She walked through the woods to the school to take violin lessons, to attend occasional lectures, and for parties. She was impressed with the atmosphere of openness. Among the faculty and students were "people of every shade of political opinion, from Marxist to Nazi to Capitalist."
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again. In the meantime, I must hold up my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.(5)
Strange double exposure of my mom and a tree.
After a very short time my mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and was given a medical retirement with a pension which she received to this day. (Note: mom was still alive when I wrote this.) She credits having that income as a major factor in her independence and being a feminist, but she would sometimes worry that if she was too politically radical the government would find a way to discontinue it.
When the war ended my father went to McGill University and graduated with a degree in Economics and Political Science. John Grierson, the documentary filmmaker was looking for an apprentice film editor with a background in Political Science. My father was hired and worked with Grierson at the Canadian Film Board, where he made friends with Norman McLaren and others.
My mother spent some time in a tuberculosis sanatorium in North Carolina near Black Mountain College. She told me she walked to the progressive college for violin lessons and events.
I am not clear on what she sudied where after that. I think she received a bachelors degree in Pre-Social Casework at New York University (NYU) and then got her masters degree in Social Work from the Smith College School for Social Work which I know she was an alumni of.
And she met and married my father who had moved to New York for a job (and to re-join his parents).
My parents on their wedding day.
Wedding day with the family.
My mother's mom: Astrid Nina Rebekka Hagerup Smith Lappin (now there's a name, eh?)
and mom's step-dad Tommy, mom's sister Lorraine, my mom, her sister Jeannie,
my dad and his parents Emma and Ferdinand.
I was born in 1952. The Queens, NY neighborhood we lived in had been one of all-white, "old-line reactionaries" Black families were buying homes there, and left-wing white families (like my parents) who believed in integration moved in also. They started the St. Albans Interracial Fellowship Council, and a community peace group which was anti-nuclear and against things like U.S. involvement in Korea. My father turned our basement into an informal screening room for a neighborhood film society. I remember seeing children's films there, like "The Red Balloon", and other films too: Norman McLaren's "The Story of Transportation", newsreels, and documentaries. (When we recently watched "Salt of the Earth" I thought I must have seen it as a child. I called my mother and she remembered that Daddy showed it to the film society when I was a little girl.
My mother the drama queen.
It was a frightening time to be Marxist/Communist/ politically active/outsider/etc., but both of my parents stayed committed and involved. My mother walked on a picket line, pushing me in a stroller, to protest against the death sentence given to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I must have been under a year old, because their execution took place in 1953. My father was working as a film editor on various projects -- documentaries, newsreels, and commercials. At one point, the FBI approached a company he was working for and tried to get him fired because of his politics. An English airline pilot friend of my fathers was questioned by the FBI at the airport after staying with us between flights. They wanted to know who he had seen at our house. The government also threatened to deport my mother's parents for their political beliefs. It frightened them so much that they moved to Florida and completely dropped out of their involvement with the Communist Party; they were afraid to even subscribe to the left-wing periodicals they had read for years....the old left, the left of the Communist Party in the thirties and forties, had always practiced a certain defensive secrecy. Most parties members simply did not talk openly about their political affiliations; and the investigations of the Cold War era, only one episode in a long history of persecutions, seemed to validate their habit of silence...When I read this in our readings for "Salt of the Earth", I remembered something else I had read. It was something from Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru. The book was from India and out of print, but my father wanted me to have it. He hunted in used bookstores for a long time and finally found it. It is his very cherished gift to me -- the letters from Nehru to his young daughter, Indira. When I read the words, I feel my father speaking through them.
Today, some former party members...regret the old lack of openness... They believe that the atmosphere of secrecy made the Party seem more devious and threatening than it was, turning into exposures information that should have been common knowledge, feeding the paranoia that sustained the witch-hunts.(6)
How shall we bear ourselves in this great movement? What part shall we play in it? I cannot say what part will fall our lot; but whatever it may be, let us remember that we can do nothing which may bring discredit to our cause or dishonor to our people. If we are to be India's soldiers we have India's honour in our keeping, and that honour is a sacred trust. Often we may be in doubt as to what to do. It is no easy matter to decide what is right and what is not. One little test I shall ask you to apply whenever you are in doubt. It may help you. Never do anything in secret or anything that you would wish to hide. For the desire to hide anything means that you are afraid, and fear is a bad thing and unworthy of you. Be brave, and all the rest follows. If you are brave you will not fear and will not do anything of which you are ashamed.(7)
My parents, my sister Mimi and me.
I remember my father as a warm, loving man who believed in me completely. My memories of him include sitting with him, listening to short-wave radio from all over the world, and discussing the programs and the different languages; going to the workshop in our basement to build wooden sailboats out of scraps while he worked on some project; and going with him to his job -- fascinated by the editing machines and other film equipment.
My brother's birth ("release"!?) announcement with my parents, Mimi and me ...
Michael probably under 2 years old.
When I was a child my family belonged to the leftwing family camp, Camp Midvale in Ringwood, New Jersey. (See more about Camp Midvale by scrolling about half way down on this page on The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives page on Summer Camps hosted at the NYU Libraries.) We had a cabin there and went every summer until my parents divorced when I was nine years old.
My dad died at Camp Midvale of a heart attack when I was 12 years old. My sister, brother and I were there with him because he had found out where my mother had illegally 'kidnapped' us from him -- he was supposed to have joint custody but she secretly moved with us to Puerto Rico. Dad had already had heart attacks and he got his doctor to write my mother and tell her she should send us to see him because he might not live long. My mother agreed to a visit and sent us to New York City. Dad didn't want us to go back so he put us in a boarding school (the Green Chimneys school) to hide us from our mom. I didn't understand that was what was happening. He told us we were going to live with him as soon as he could get a bigger apartment and I was fine with living with him because I adored my dad. He picked us up at school and brought us to Camp Midvale for an Easter weekend holiday. He died that night when he had a heart attack while we were with him in the dining hall of the camp. It was a place he loved - we all did.
There is some good history of Midvale here: "Escape 10: Ringwood, N.J. A Hideaway for Nature's Friends." I was sad to learn that in October 1966 a suspicious fire burned the Nature Friends' old clubhouse to the ground. The clubhouse was the dining hall/rec hall and more.
My father had tickets to take us to the Freedomways Quarterly magazine's celebration tribute of Paul Robeson's 67th birthday in New York City on April 22nd. After he died of a heart attack on April 17th my mom found the tickets and she took us because she knew dad wanted us to be there. The Freedomways celebration was produced by Harry Belafonte and chaired by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee at Hotel Americana in New York City. It was attended by 2,500 people and it was Robeson's last major musical performance. Among the 60 sponsors and those paying tribute to him were James Baldwin, Earl Dickerson, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Linus Pauling, Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger, Billy Taylor, Olatunji, and I.F. Stone. I wish I remembered more of that night.
They got our ages wrong in dad's obituary above. I was 12, my sister was 10 and our brother was 6. I'm pretty sure dad was 44.
I see that without always being aware of it I have believed and tried to connect with what I was taught through words and example as a child. The important things are love, art, and a commitment to social change, I became a practical nurse. I worked for years for room and board for a social service organization in New York City; and with my husband in Mississippi edited first a weekly newspaper and then a magazine devoted to the arts. We also ran a shelter for homeless persons, including battered wives. At the age of thirty-three I went back to college, and after two years as an art student changed my major to film and video production. As a student I discovered, or rediscovered, a number of artists whose statements have touched something in me, who have, as the Quakers say, spoken to my condition. One artist/ poet who has had a particular impact on me is Kenneth Patchen, who said:Why shouldn't you think it's crazy to believe in a green deer? All your life you have been taught to believe in only what you can use -- to set on the table, to put in the bank, to build a house with. What possible use would a green deer be to anyone? Who would believe in a man with a blazing bush in his cart? Then let me tell you that it is beliefs such as these that are the only hope of the world. Let me tell you that until men are willing to believe in the green deer and the strange carter, we shall not lift our noses above the bloody mess we have made of our living.(8)This class has been exactly what I have been looking for, a chance to blend form and content. Something challenging that offers me new perspectives: an education. Early in the quarter I started to realize that I was being exposed to stuff that was meant to make me think (finally!). I think the films that have made the biggest impact on me were "Thriller," "One Way or Another," "Made in China," "Quilombo," "Naked Spaces: Living is Round," and "Salt of the Earth." Seeing "Salt of the Earth" again, while I was writing this paper, was like being encircled by my own heritage. Although my father didn't work on the film, I knew that it had come from people within the same Marxist tradition as my parents.
I want to search for ways to make meaning, not only in my own life, but shared with others, reaching across the void that separates us. I turn back to Nehru's book and read:
Our age is a different one; it is an age of disillusion, of doubt and uncertainty and questioning... Sometimes the injustice, the unhappiness, the brutality of the world oppress us and darken our minds and we see no way out...
And yet if we take such a dismal view we have not learnt aright the lesson of life or of history. For history teaches us of growth and progress and of the possibility of an infinite advance for man. And life is rich and varied, and though it has many swamps and marshes and muddy places, it also has the great sea, and the mountains, and snow and glaciers, and wonderful starlit nights (especially in gaol!), and the love of family and friends, and the comradeship of workers in a common cause, and music, and books and the empire of ideas...
It is easy to admire the beauties of the universe and to live in a world of thought and imagination. But to try to escape in this way from the unhappiness of others, caring little for what happens to them, is no sign of courage or fellow-feeling. Thought, in order to justify itself, must lead to action...
People avoid action. Often because they are afraid of the consequences, for action means risk and danger. Danger seems terrible from a distance; it is not so bad if you have a close look at it...
All of us have our choice of living in the valleys below, with their unhealthy mists and fogs, but giving a measure of bodily security, or of climbing the high mountains, with risk and danger for companions, to breathe the pure air above, and take joy in the distant views, and welcome the rising sun. (9)
(1) Mark Zbrowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life Is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl, 1967 (Schocken Books, NY, p I74)
(2) George Shaw, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, 1928 (Brentano's Publisher, N.Y., pp. 42-43)
(3) Howard Fast, The Jews: The Story of a People, 1968 (Dell Publishing Co., p 371)
(4) from The Evening News; Leeds, England. (date and author unknown)
(5) Anne Frank, The Dairy of a Young Girl, 1967 (Pocket Books edition, Simon and Schuster, Inc., p, 237)
(7) Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History, 1962 (Asia Publishing House, India p.3)
(8) Kenneth Patchen, from Kenneth Patchen, by Larry R. Smith, 1978. (Twayne Publishers.) first published in The Journal of Albion Moonlight, by Kenneth Patchen, 1941.
(9) Nehru, p. 989.
Sharing this is probably a bigger deal for me than you may realize. Being open and honest with people about my family history or cultural background (or whatever you want to call it) is a scary process for me. I think I lived in Mississippi way, way too long - eleven years.
I remember one of the first days there - I was pregnant with Bill, and Noel was a little guy. It was 1977. We went to downtown Hattiesburg with Alec's parents, to the store they owned (sporting goods, house paint and stamps & coins). They always parked at the gas station across the street from the store. We got out of the car and Alec's mom introduced me to the man who ran the station. I can't remember now if she told him that I was from New York or if he reacted to my accent, but he turned to Alec and said, "Whadj'a do - marry you one of them New York Jewish princesses?" Alec remembers it different - that the man said "Yankee bride", and that someone else called me "a New York Jewish princess" later. But whatever the man said, it wasn't a friendly, joking comment. I think it was the first of many times that I realized how very much of an outsider I was there. Although we made some good friends, I almost never shared my background with people. It didn't feel safe.
And yet, we went on to publish an alternative newspaper that spoke out against all kinds of injustice for many years. We did crisis counseling and ran an emergency shelter from our home, and wound up sheltering many, many battered women and their children - causing one minister to tell his congregation that we were "Commies" who were taking men's property away from them. I can't tell you how many nights I went to bed wondering if I would wake up to a cross burning in our yard.
Finally we "burned out" - we were doing too much and had little support from the community. We were exhausted, so we closed the shelter, changed the newspaper into a statewide arts and literary quarterly magazine (which was named one of the 100 Best Fiction Markets in America by Writer's Digest magazine), and finally went bankrupt.
In some ways, that experience (the whole time in the deep south) has been the closest I have come to a personal understanding of what it feels like to live in the closet, and how very hard that can be on the soul.