Wo-Chi-Ca book offers glimpse of camp

Book Review

Tales of Wo-Chi-Ca: Blacks, Whites and Reds at Camp, by June Levine and Eugene Gordon, Avon Springs Press, 235 pages.

There have been a number of books published in recent years that have surveyed the role of the “Left” in the pre- and post-war periods – some in critical, anti-communist tones, and others, like Red Diapers, the collective memoir of children of Communists, in a more positive and rounded view.

The latest of this latter type is Tales of Wo-Chi-Ca, a portrait of the unique camp for workers’ children that was sponsored by the International Workers Order, a left-wing insurance plan that began in the pre-World War II period until it was forced out of existence by McCarthyite forces during the height of the Cold War.

In the twenty years that it operated in the “wilds” of New Jersey, Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, which stood for “Workers’ Children Camp,” became an ideal world of its own for the thousands of young children of all races and nationalities, most of them from the crowded, poverty stricken streets of New York, who came to cherish their time at the Camp as a high point in their lives.

The book is a compendium of personal memories, along with accounts of daily life at a camp that stressed interracial harmony and respect, and social and political consciousness, combined with cultural, sports, and varied other recreational activities.

The historical change and turmoil in the years of Wo-Chi-Ca’s existence, from 1934-54, had their reflection and repercussions at Camp Wo-Chi-Ca. Prominent, and running like a red thread throughout the book, is the role and impact of the great African American leader, artist, peace fighter and prime target of the witchhunters, Paul Robeson. Robeson first came to the Camp in 1940, and he returned every year to sing, play ball, talk to the campers and become a treasured memory to all.

“To this day,” say the authors, “more than sixty years later, when Wo-Chi-Cans reminisce about camp, their talks begin and end with the visits of Paul Robeson.”

But aside from Robeson, many other noted artists, like Charles White, Canada Lee, Kenneth Spencer, Pearl Primus, Ernest Crichlow, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Rockwell Kent, and political figures like Mother Bloor, Albert Kahn, Howard Fast and Dr. Edward Barsky, came and talked about their experiences and struggles to change the world.

All of this is presented in a lively, interesting fashion in the book, with photos, personal accounts and a great deal of humor.

Eugene Gordon is a former reporter for the Daily Worker who now lives in Northern California with his partner and co-author, June Levine, who dreamed all her life about writing a book about Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, and now has done it – and done it well.

For those who spent time at Wo-Chi-Ca, this book will awaken happy memories. For others, as Ronnie Gilbert, formerly of The Weavers, says in her introduction, “It will be a glimpse of a time and place when hundreds of youngsters every summer discovered that even as children we could think as individuals and also be part of a community, could participate in a life of ideas along with sports and games.”

– Herb Kaye (ncalview@igc.org)