Bernice Blohm Diskin, "Greatest Generation" communist, dies at 91

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One of the last Communist Party USA members from the "Greatest Generation" of World War II, Bernice Blohm Diskin, passed away June 25 at age 91. Bernice always said she was born a communist, as both parents became charter members of the Communist Party in 1919.

She grew up in a German working class home in the single tax colony of Free Acres, New Jersey. Most of the families were communists, socialists or left-wing single tax advocates. Bernice became a member of the Young Pioneers, the children's organization related to the Communist Party, and then of the Young Communist League.

The most outstanding thing about Bernice was, perhaps, her love of working people and her hatred of the bosses and big capitalists. She was a fierce but persuasive opponent of racism.

She was a warm, outgoing person, with a big smile, a big voice and a hearty laugh. Wherever she went she struck up conversations with working people - at work, on the subway, in the grocery store, in her apartment building, walking along the street. She always wore a big political button or two - for peace and against some imperialist aggression, for jobs, against racism, for democratic rights, or whatever the issue of the day was. These buttons often led to conversations.

When the People's World had a print edition, Bernice would wait until a subway pulled into the station and she would talk to the motorman and the conductor. Then the paper would come out. She built a paper route among these transit workers and riders.

Bernice became a respected tenant leader in Chicago and in Weehawken, N.J. She knew everyone in her building and became especially close to the Latino families who shared her building in Weehawken. Bernice taught English to the Spanish-speaking children there, on her own time with her own materials, free. The Weehawken newspaper carried a front-page story headlined, "Weehawken senior fights for tenants' rights, helps kids read."

In her early years, Bernice hoped to become an actress. She loved to dance and loved l music of all kinds but particularly protest and folk songs. This led her to write her own songs about issues of the day.

She wrote the words, set to familiar melodies, in the style of Woodie Guthrie, whom she much admired. The subjects ranged from her mother's political activities, to the fight for public education, and the "Reds." At one of the annual people's folk song conferences which she attended regularly, Pete Seeger singled out Bernice Diskin as the most outstanding writer of political songs at that time. She made two tapes and one CD: "Coming On Strong" and "Paint The Town Red," (1987 Brass Tacks Music) and "Hurry Home" (CD, 1994, Brass Tacks Music).

In the late 1930s Bernice met Lou Diskin at a YCL dance in Ridgewood, Queens, where Bernice had become part of the anti-fascist German community movement. They soon became lifelong partners in the struggle for social progress and socialism.

Lou and Bernice were married just a few days before Lou was drafted as a private in early 1942. He went to Europe and became a military hero, receiving two bronze stars for bravery under fire and a battlefield commission as a lieutenant, and fought his way to the meeting at the Elbe with the Red Army.

During those four years, Bernice went to work in a factory that made metal parts for the war effort. For many years after that, Bernice worked in offices in semi-skilled jobs until she retired.

Bernice and Lou moved first to Chicago, then 20 years later to Los Angeles and then back to New Jersey to take up activities for the Communist Party. In each place, Bernice was active in housing and community work and served on leading committees. About 1986, Bernice undertook to chair a CPUSA national commission concerned with cultural workers and their activity. She served as a member of the party's National Council.

Bernice and Lou celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary shortly before Lou passed away in 2003. Since Bernice's only close living relative lived in upstate New York she moved there, and continued to be a champion of working people and fervent opponent of exploitation and oppression.

I kept in touch with her by phone these final years. In every phone call, Bernice would ask me, "Danny, is the party growing?" I usually answered that it was growing slowly. She would then say, "It needs to grow faster. The people need it."

All those who knew her in the different parts of the country in which she and Lou lived know they have lost a good friend, a loving person, and a skilled warrior for social progress and justice.

Photo: Bernice Diskin, 1960s. Tamiment Library.

 

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  • Wow, another friend's passing. I just learnt of Grace Bassett's passing and now Bernice Diskin. She was a wonderful volunteer. Kel and I were very fond of her. When I served as pastor of New Hope United Church of Christ of Owensboro, Kentucky, one of the congregations favorites songs was one of Bernice's. It was entitled "Catch a Second Breath". Part of the lyrics went .... "we're not working on a con man's scheme, we are working on a living dream." Kel and I will always remember her fondly. Her songs, her spirit and her great capacity to love.

    Posted by Michael Adam Reale, 12/24/2013 12:47pm (4 months ago)

  • A great article about Bernice, Daniel, thank you. I met Bernice shortly after she recorded, "Hurry Home, Child" in 1994. On this cd it displays Bernice's love and knowledge of jazz. She hired the fabulous jazz singer Carla Cook. On the tune "Wandering" the bass and drums are swinging - right in the pocket. Each song is different and the lyrics are great! "Catch your second breath, Rain or shine or in between- we're working on a living dream." or "This old world needs a friend, if the world is gona live" and a comical favorite of mine- "Got to win the Lotter this week." are snippets of the word gems found in this cd.
    Her musical ideas were complicated, sexy and soulful. In my opinion, Bernice's music palet was far removed from the style of Woodie Guthrie. She reminds me of Laura Nero or Curtis Mayfield. Bernice was an unsung gifted musician.

    Posted by Ayana Lowe, 11/04/2012 4:58pm (1 year ago)

  • beautiful story. you really captured her spirit danny. I will always picture bernice on stage, singing. I also remember her mom, a staunch communist.

    Posted by bobbie, 07/13/2012 9:52am (2 years ago)

  • A beautiful tribute to a wonderful member of the human race and especially one who loved the working class.
    I had the good fortune to know Bernice in her later years when she would come to the NY office to pick up her Weekly World newspaper for her distribution on the way home to NJ.
    Yes indeed, she will be missed.

    wage peace

    Posted by Gabriel Falsetta, 07/12/2012 11:37am (2 years ago)

  • Thanks Bernice for sharing a great life and making this a better world! Above all, Bernice was a fighter and optimistic and it came through in her cheery personality no matter the ups and downs. I'll always remember her and be inspired by her life.

    Posted by , 07/10/2012 5:27pm (2 years ago)

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