Growing up as a communist kid in the 1930s
A Communist Party-sponsored march outside Philadelphia City Hall, May Day 1935. | People's World Archive

This is the second of a number of excerpted stories from a memoir “Where Were You on May Day? Transitions in Red, 1930s-1960s” The first story can be found here.

My father Meyer rarely talked about his childhood, but some of his experiences gradually became known to us. He had served an apprenticeship, starting at the age of nine, to a harness maker/coachbuilder in Zagare, Lithuania. As an apprentice, he was required to become part of the employer’s household almost as a servant and to perform all sorts of chores, including taking care of the employer’s baby. That experience was double-edged. It provided him with a skill, with food, such as it was, and a roof over his head. At the same time, it required him to submit to mistreatment, even abuse, from the employer’s family. He and a fellow apprentice, forced to wait until the employer’s family had eaten their fill, usually ate scraps and leftovers.

When Meyer arrived in the United States, automobiles and trucks were replacing horse-drawn vehicles. His skills were immediately transferable to automobile and truck work. His immigration papers in 1911 show his occupation as “harness maker.” His application for U.S. citizenship in 1920 shows his occupation as “auto trimmer.” An auto and truck trimmer deals with all aspects of vehicle upholstery: making and repairing seats, canvas curtains, head linings, isinglass windows, leather straps, seat covers, and cloth and convertible tops. Prior to 1935, when the auto industry introduced all-steel bodies, much of the upper body and roof of a car were made of leather, canvas, and a variety of waterproof fabrics. A trimmer had a better chance than most auto/truck workers did to obtain work. Trimmers were scarce and talented ones ordinarily could survive, even in hard times.

Meyer becomes an American and a radical

Meyer took the path to Americanization followed by most immigrants: learning to speak English, adapting to American customs, finding employment, and identifying with a sustaining community. Most Eastern European immigrant Jews were poor and worked at various manual trades. Many were plasterers, carpenters, glaziers, plumbers, painters, shoemakers, cap makers, furriers, millinery and garment workers. In the course of their work, they encountered union organization and radical ideas, especially the idea of socialism. In the old country, unions and the idea of class struggle influenced many of these workers. They soon found similar strong radical influences in their new communities.

Between 1911 and 1920, Meyer adopted the ideas, values, and characteristics of most radicalized Jewish immigrant workers. He became a socialist, an atheist, and a left-wing political activist. He followed a plan of self-education. His formal education in Lithuania had been minimal, although he had a good command of written and spoken Yiddish and had facility with an elementary level of prayer Hebrew. Many of the Yiddish language books in his collection dealt with such topics as psychology, economics, politics, literature, poetry, and Marxist theories of class struggle. These books and the popular Yiddish language press were the main sources of his self-directed education. Scattered through these volumes, now in my possession, are “bookmarks” he made with his thumbnail. These marks, faint but visible, provide an immediate glimpse into what he was thinking about when he last read those books almost a century ago. He was intellectually capable and developed a facility that enabled him to read novels and other complex works in English.

A view of a working-class area of Philadelphia in the 1920s. | Courtesy of Noyma Appelbaum

He worked at a number of manual jobs, only some of which allowed him to use his leather-working skills. The Belber Luggage Co. employed him, and for a time during World War I, he made a relatively good living by providing Army cavalry officers with specially designed saddles. Also during WWI, he worked as an unskilled laborer at the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which had been an employer of last resort for thousands of Philadelphia workers during its long history.

Meyer was unemployed for varying periods. In those winters when he could not find work, he and other unemployed men huddled for mutual support around fires they built in empty oil drums at street corners in South Philadelphia. In 1920, he went to work for the Darien Body Co., a builder of truck bodies at 26th and Moore Sts. in South Philadelphia and was employed there until the mid-1930s.

A Communist

Between the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the end of the civil war in 1920-21, socialists in the U.S., as in other countries, split on the issue of support for the Bolsheviks and their seizure of power in Russia. The shifting debates and choosing of sides finally resulted in the formation of two groups, those who supported the new Communist (Bolshevik) Third International and those who adhered to the old Socialist movement that identified with the Second International. My father, who had been a Socialist activist, became one of the early supporters of the Communist movement and a founder of the Communist Party of the United States. It is not clear whether my mother Esther actually joined the Party, although there is no doubt as to where her sympathies lay. In her later years, she made a point of not being a Communist Party member, since she was not a citizen and could be subject to deportation.

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Meyer considered his work as a Communist an extension of his Socialist activities in a new political period.

He admired such Socialist Party leaders as Meyer London, Victor Berger, and Eugene Debs. In 1937, when his second son with Esther was born, Meyer made sure to name him Eugene Victor, after Eugene Victor Debs, the foremost Socialist leader in the United States prior to the founding of the Communist Party. I say “made sure” because he claimed my mother had named me in 1928 without his input. Apparently, while recovering in the Women’s Hospital after I was born, she had read in the radical Yiddish press of the exploits of a Jewish boy in the Soviet Union. She was impressed with him and his story and decided to name me after him. His name was Nyuma, a diminutive derived from Benjamin (Binyumen in Yiddish). It was a name familiar to Jews who had lived in Europe but hardly recognized by Americanized Jews. She did not know how to render it in English, and her nurses, who were Irish, tried to help her. They knew as little about Yiddish pronunciation as she did of English pronunciation, and they jointly came up with “Noyma,” the name as it appears on my birth certificate, though close family and friends call me Nyuma. Most everyone else I know calls me Noyma according to phonetic rules of English.

During the 1920s and ’30s, Meyer, Esther, and friends of similar social background and political belief worked to build the Communist movement despite the jailing and deportation of foreign-born radicals. The membership of the Communist Party in the United States at that time was comprised of a significant number of foreign-born persons, most of them manual workers. They risked a great deal in being active Communists. Deportation and separation from their families were ongoing concerns. Nevertheless, they attempted to organize workers on the Philadelphia waterfront, coal miners in the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania, and needle trades workers in Philadelphia.

They had great energy and zeal, but their efforts brought mixed results. In some cases, they attempted to organize workers into Communist-led industrial unions to fill the organizational vacuum created by the inactivity of the conventional craft-oriented trade unions. In some cases, they tried to influence workers in existing unions. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had had a long history of activity and accomplishment on the Philadelphia waterfront. The IWW’s Local 8 dominated the Philadelphia docks from 1913 to the early 1920s. During its hey-day, it had created an interracial organization that did away with the worst abuses of the dock workers.

Dockworkers were very militant, but their current union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, was controlled by gangsters and careerists, who collaborated with management in retaining the “shape-up” system of hiring, a key means of controlling the docks because it determined which men received job assignments each day. Communist organizers tried to encourage dockworkers to organize for greater control of their union and achieve worker-friendly job practices, especially an end to the “shape-up,” but they failed to win over a significant number of dockworkers. Philadelphia dock workers today are organized into highly effective International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) locals.

Meyer recounted amusing stories of their efforts to organize workers on the waterfront. One of the organizers was a young woman, Clara Bachman, a red-haired firebrand who spoke English with an especially heavy Yiddish accent. Apparently, the dockworkers, most of them African Americans or of Irish, Italian, and Polish extraction, could not understand what this passionate little woman wanted.

Efforts on the waterfront yielded few results, although leftist influence among dock workers continues to the present day. Efforts in the Anthracite region were a little more successful. A long tradition of struggle in the coalfields, starting with the Molly Maguires, made the miners receptive to radical ideas. A significant number of miners joined the Communist-led National Miners Union, which unsuccessfully challenged the power of the conservatively led United Mine Workers. The Jewish Communist organizers were most successful in the needle trades. They had immediate cultural rapport with the Yiddish-speaking workers and built a sizable Communist-led fraction within the men’s and women’s garment industry.

Workers International Relief

Meyer participated in a variety of projects sponsored by the Communist organization in the Philadelphia area in the 1920s. One project involved creation of a summer camp for workers and their families called WIR. (Workers International Relief). Located on a steep, wooded hillside above Lumberville, Bucks County, a tiny village on the Delaware River, the camp provided workers with an inexpensive place to rest and restore their energies. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, it was a popular site among Party members and sympathizers for summer vacations and weekends.

Esther, Meyer, Noyma, 18 months old, at Workers International Relief camp. | Courtesy of Noyma Appelbaum

I had great fun at the camp. Even though I was under the age of five, I participated in large-scale group games and helped members of the Young Communist League collect wood in the surrounding forest for nighttime campfires. I particularly enjoyed splashing in the Delaware River literally in the shadow of the old covered wooden bridge that connected Lumberville to New Jersey at the time. Meyer managed the camp on a part-time basis from the time he and a group of comrades established it until it closed for financial reasons in 1933. Skilled in working canvas, Meyer made the tents we lived in at WIR. A photograph taken at the time shows Esther and Meyer sitting and holding hands under the tent’s canopy on the wooden floor to which it was staked.

My parents and their friends were at the camp in August 1927, the night Sacco and Vanzetti, two immigrant Italian anarchists who were convicted of murder in a Massachusetts robbery, awaited execution. Part of a worldwide movement that opposed the conviction and the death sentence on the ground that the two were being persecuted because of their radical opinions, they joined thousands of Americans in maintaining a vigil in hope that the governor of Massachusetts would cancel the execution. They walked down to River Road, which borders the Delaware River, on the evening of Aug. 23 to use a public phone to find out whether a last-minute appeal had succeeded. Both men were executed.

From a WIR document of 1934, the organization provided a three-point program: “Solidarity and aid to the struggles of striking and unemployed workers. To fight against misery and starvation of working-class children. To unite neighborhoods for neighborhood welfare.” It mobilized for food for strikers and their families, sanitation, clinical services, and housing, free milk for babies, free lunches for school children, free medical attention for the sick, and all forms of social insurance, including unemployment insurance. The influence of such radical demands can readily be seen in many of FDR’s New Deal programs.

I pick up the cry

During my early years, my parents involved me in many Communist-led activities. I marched with them in parades in which participants shouted current left-wing political slogans. In one such parade, whenever the shouting stopped or lagged in energy, I picked up the cry in my child’s voice—“Free the Scottsboro Boys,” “Free Tom Mooney”—and the adult marchers chimed in. In later childhood years, I participated in demonstrations in support of the Spanish Republic, against lynching, against appeasement of Hitler and the Nazis, and in support of unions and striking workers.

A young Noyma Appelbaum in the 1930s. | Courtesy of Noyma Appelbaum

Slogans at many of the political meetings I attended included “Hands Off China,” “Hands Off the Soviet Union,” “Black and White, Unite and Fight.” In addition to militant political demonstrations, I attended cultural and fundraising activities like lectures, picnics, bazaars, rummage sales, concerts, and banquets. I did not always understand the nuances of the political arguments advanced at some of these gatherings, but I always felt comfortable in the warmth of a movement that had as its professed goals brotherhood of peoples and human liberation. Human liberation referred first and most importantly to an end to capitalist exploitation. It also referred to an end to racism, anti-Semitism, male domination of women, and class domination of cultural and social life. These ideas constituted the core of my understanding of the Communist movement’s principles and remained with me all my life despite the ebb and flow of the movement’s fortunes in the U.S. and internationally.

My parents proclaimed few ethical or moral absolutes. Three issues, however, had the status of commandments in our household: 1.) Always support the Negro people in their struggle against oppression; 2.) Never cross a picket line conducted by striking workers; 3.) Always support and defend the Soviet Union.

A tangle of confused and sometimes contradictory subtexts characterized the ideology of the movement in which I grew up. For example, while it was clear that one always should support striking workers, it was a debated question whether one should leave a tip for a waitperson in a restaurant. Waitpersons should not demean themselves and depend on tips to make a living. Instead of functioning as individuals in relation to their customers, they should organize, form a union, and collectively demand higher wages from the boss to eliminate the need for tips. According to this hard-line leftist position, it was not appropriate to encourage the practice of tipping. Yet, the waitperson needed to earn a living. Despite our misgivings, we always left a tip.

Similarly, what attitude should we have toward beggars? Beggars, as the thinking went, were “lumpen” proletarians, demoralized and declassed workers who subsisted outside the struggles of the organized working class. Should we encourage them by giving them money, of which we did not have much? Should we refuse to give them money because according to another hard-line leftist position the “correct” thing for them to do was to join (rejoin?) the struggle of the organized working class and not depend on handouts? Sometimes we gave them money, sometimes not. However, how should we regard those itinerant workers, sometimes referred to as hoboes in the literature of the IWW, who panhandled and did not hesitate to accept a free meal or bed, yet who still retained a working-class consciousness? Were they “lumpen elements,” or dislocated workers?

A streak of rebellion against established ways appears in my parents’ attitudes. Marxism, as interpreted by the Communist movement, formed the basis of their beliefs, but one can trace strands in their beliefs to anarchist thought and practice, and to the Jacobins and sans-culottes of the French Revolution. Their personal ideology echoed the French Revolutionary call for liberté, egalité, fraternité.

They were atheists who firmly rejected all forms of organized religion. Their opposition to religious belief and practice was a mainstay of their outlook during their entire lives. They were disciplined radicals, but they welcomed spontaneity and authenticity in militant action. They were comfortable with the centralized leadership style of the Communist Party, but they were also comfortable in groups that arrived at decisions informally by consensus.

They were at home in cooperative activities and in movements that called on selflessness and curbing of individual egos. I think we would have functioned successfully as a family according to the cooperative principles of an Israeli-style kibbutz. During the years that she lived and worked in New York in the early 1920s, Esther participated in the activities of a left-wing camp its Yiddish speaking members had named “Nitgedaiget”—“No Worries,” or “Forget Your Cares.” Located outside New York City, it functioned on cooperative/communitarian principles as it served as a rural retreat for activists.

Because of their influence, the cooperative/communitarian idea became a characteristic of my psychological makeup. I still respond positively to social reform movements that foster ideal communities promising to harmonize human relationships through cooperative effort. In my later years, I enthusiastically read B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Skinner’s proposed community seemed to have the qualities of an ideal cooperative world toward which I intuitively leaned. He injected something new in the literature of ideal communities, the psychological principle of positive reinforcement, that draws out of people a generous, non-competitive attitude toward others. His theories totally discarded the practice of punishment. His language of “operant conditioning” and “schedules of reinforcement” repel some people who regard themselves as humanists. His ideas also raise important questions about the role of free will and conscious decision making by human beings as opposed to conditioning. Nevertheless, I found a progressive note in his ideas and a coherent technique by which one could draw out the best in people.

Esther and Meyer did not believe in sexual promiscuity, but they were supportive of unmarried pregnant women. They thought society’s mistreatment of such women was a typical inhuman byproduct of capitalism. In their personal behavior they did not support “free love,” but in their own lives, they were willing to defy conventions regarding traditional marriage. When I was 16, I talked with my father about unmarried parents and “illegitimate” children. At that point, I did not know that my parents had not married. Meyer said that the phrase “illegitimate” as applied to children is a misnomer; all human beings are “legitimate,” period.

They were proud of their Jewish heritage and identity but were friends with people of other races and ethnicities. Openness toward people of various backgrounds manifested itself in relationships with Black people, and Armenian, German, Italian, and other foreign-born workers. Karl Marx’s statement “Workers of all countries, unite!” was more than a slogan to them. It was a principle that guided action. These friendships lent an international flavor to our lives. In the late 1930s, Meyer was part of a group that sought volunteers in the Pennsylvania coal fields for the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, an activity that provided me a personal connection to the worldwide struggle against fascism.

An important feature of my upbringing was our family’s connection with people in interracial marriages or relationships. There were more than a few in the Communist movement and my parents were friends with several such couples at a time when many people in white neighborhoods viewed those who had Black household visitors with antagonism and suspicion. The example my parents set served me well in a variety of situations in which I found myself later in life.

An emphasis on honesty in their various activities and in personal relations was characteristic of Esther and Meyer. It was important to them that Eugene and I be honest in our dealings with the world. They were not only honest about money matters and material things. They also were honest in that they were direct in their personal relationships. Directness is part of what it means to be honest (although there are times when indirectness is called for). Their direct personal manner helps account for their effectiveness as union and political organizers. Their peers knew them as people who could be trusted and relied on. Obviously influenced by them, I have had difficulty in being indirect; I tend to meet situations head-on and deal with them in a straightforward way. Today, I realize that there have been times when I did not pick up messages because I was not sufficiently sensitive to indirection.

The Hunger March, demonstrations, unions, and strikes

Meyer participated in a Communist-led Hunger March in Washington, D.C., in December 1932 that involved several thousand people who converged on the capital from various parts of the country to demand government action in combatting the devastating effects of the Depression. A skilled leatherworker, he made a belt-like contrivance that enabled him to carry a blanket roll and other light equipment across his back in the fashion of Russian soldiers in wartime. I recall a front-page newspaper photograph of the Hunger March which showed him in a line of marchers, the blanket roll slung across his back.

Not every activity was directly political, although Meyer did run for the office of Magistrate on the Communist ticket in one local election in the mid-1930s. My parents supported other participants in the movement by helping comrades in various ways. In one case, Esther ministered to a Black woman comrade who became sick at a Communist Party conference in Pittsburgh. This comrade stayed for several weeks in the apartment from which later the constables evicted us until she regained her health.

Meyer occasionally talked about an exploit in which he played a key role in a Communist demonstration in 1930. The Party, which had its headquarters at 8th St. & Spring Garden Ave. at the time, was experiencing difficulty in holding demonstrations in center city. The authorities refused permits for outdoor meetings and police broke up picket lines. They roughed up and arrested many picketers. The Party leadership carefully devised a plan to hold a surprise demonstration without a permit on City Hall Plaza at a midweek noon hour, when foot traffic would be heavy. According to the plan, a platform would suddenly be set up, a speaker would begin addressing the surrounding crowd, and sign-carrying demonstrators distributing leaflets would appear from all directions in support of the speaker.

The Party’s District Organizer chose Meyer, who had a reputation for militancy and physical courage, to carry the platform from a vehicle parked at the curb. This was a daring, even dangerous assignment. There was every expectation that the police usually on duty at City Hall Plaza would club anyone attempting to set up the platform. A comrade, Archie Coleman, brought the platform to the curb in his small truck. Meyer picked it up and quickly put the speaker’s platform in its place on the north plaza of City Hall. Demonstrators surrounded the speaker who addressed the gathering crowd. Completed before the police could organize themselves, the exploit was a topic of conversation for a long time in Party circles. A photograph depicting this event appears in a book entitled, Philadelphia: 1920-1960.

Reports of police attacks on Communist-led demonstrations appeared in the local press periodically. The Philadelphia Inquirer, an extremely reactionary paper then, published the names and addresses of those arrested and always singled out African Americans by identifying them as “colored.” In reviewing these reports, which are stored in Temple University’s Urban Archives, I found that a surprising number of the demonstrators lived in my old neighborhood in West Philadelphia, and a fair number of the demonstrators were African Americans.

As a Communist, Meyer participated in the efforts of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), one of the organizing vehicles sponsored by the Communist Party in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The TUUL undertook to organize industries, particularly heavy industry, which the conventional trade unions failed to organize. In Philadelphia, one organizing target was the commercial truck body industry. A specific target was Meyer’s employer, the Darien Body Co., one of several truck body manufacturers in the Philadelphia area. The separation of workers in small, scattered plants made the commercial truck body industry difficult to organize. The decentralized nature of the industry determined the strategy of organizing one shop at a time. Other TUUL targets were small machine shops scattered in and around Philadelphia, which ultimately the CIO United Electrical Workers organized.

The organized Philadelphia truck body workers were members of the Commercial Truck Local of the Automobile Workers Union, an organization built by Socialists, Communists, and other militants in the previously non-union auto/truck industry. The AWU’s main base was in Detroit. Forerunner of the CIO United Automobile Workers, it disbanded when the CIO undertook to organize autoworkers at the major mass production plants. His stamped AWU 1933 dues book is one of the few tangible remembrances I have of Meyer.

Meyer Appelbaum’s stamped dues book from the Automobile Workers Union. | Courtesy of Noyma Appelbaum

During its brief existence in the early 1930s, the Philadelphia Commercial Truck Body AWU local was one of the few and possibly the only organized autoworkers local functioning on the East Coast. Its members, led by Meyer, testified as the only representatives of organized labor in the auto industry at hearings in Washington, D.C., before a committee of prominent representatives of labor and management concerning the creation of industry codes under the National Recovery Act (NRA). The NRA provided for codes that included employment standards in various industries. The industrial codes drew on ideas submitted by both workers and employers. They covered such matters as the right to unionize, wages, hours, and working conditions. As spokespersons for organized labor, the Philadelphia AWU addressed a number of issues later incorporated into UAW contracts. One such issue concerned wage minimums. The unionists recommended as high a minimum wage as possible since minimums tend to become maximums in actual practice. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled the NRA unconstitutional. Many of its pro-labor provisions were included in the Wagner Act and in contracts won by the CIO a few years later.

In the early to mid-1930s, encouraged by the NRA’s provision for union organization, increasing numbers of workers in the U.S., including Philadelphia, went on strike despite the ravages of the Depression. During the winters of 1933 and 1934, the newly organized workers at the Darien Body Co. struck for union recognition and wage increases. They held out for nine weeks in January, February, and March 1933, but returned to work without achieving either goal. The workers struck again for several months in the winter of 1934. This time they won union recognition and wage and hour benefits. As part of the settlement, all the workers except Meyer returned to their jobs. The company owner, a man named Cohn, stood at the door of the shop as the returning workers filed in. He blocked the door as Meyer attempted to enter and said, “Everybody can come back except Appelbaum.”

His fellow union members could not help Meyer get his job back. The men had held firm in the winters of two of the most difficult years of the Depression. They supported Meyer’s leadership of the strike, but their situation required them to go back to work. They could not hold out longer for the sake of one man, even the strike leader. One casualty in the struggle was not too high a price to pay for victory. Meyer went back into the shop only to collect his tools.

Following the settlement, the union at the Darien Body Co. entered the AFL as a “Federal local,” in the absence of a specific union in that industry, affiliated directly with the national organization. The AFL was the only union with which the Darien workers could affiliate at that moment since the UAW-CIO had not yet formed and the AWU was not in a position to service the Darien local. Ironically, my half-brother Max (son of my father and his wife Ida), who had obtained a job at Darien with my father’s assistance, became a shop steward at the plant.

A further irony here is that because of his uncommon skills Meyer had not personally faced total layoff prior to the strikes. He was relatively secure in his part-time job in contrast to the insecurity of his unskilled and semiskilled fellow workers. He also earned more than most of the other workers because of his skills. Despite his comparatively favored situation, he chose to become active in the formation and leadership of the union. It was not necessary for him to jeopardize his protected job status, but he was not one to allow his personal interests to outweigh the struggle for a larger social goal. As a Jew and a Red, he easily identified and bonded with his coworkers, even though few of his fellow workers were Jews and fewer had sympathies for Jews or Communists. He became their leader because he was honest, principled, and competent.

Employers in the Philadelphia truck body industry knew Meyer as a Red and as a union activist and they would not hire him when he applied for a job. He left Philadelphia to find work and soon learned that employers outside of Philadelphia had blacklisted him as well. He tried to get jobs in factories as far away as Hagerstown, Md., and Gloversville, N.Y., but he could not find anything in the truck body industry. His public testimony as a labor representative at the NRA hearings made him a known figure in the industry. His shocks of gray-white hair framing his blue eyes and relatively unlined face helped employers on the lookout for troublemakers identify him.

Meyer never worked in the truck body industry again. Ultimately, he had no choice but to open a small auto and truck upholstery business, an especially difficult undertaking considering his lack of resources, the state of the economy, and his lack of business experience. In the late 1930s and early ’40s, despite his struggle to make a living, he was barely able to provide for us. We did not achieve a measure of economic stability until the U.S. entered World War II.


Noyma Appelbaum
Noyma Appelbaum

Noyma Appelbaum was born in 1928 in Philadelphia. In his youth, he was a member of the Young Pioneers of America and later the Communist Party. As a journalism student at Temple University, he wrote for and edited the Pennsylvania edition of the Daily Worker. After working in industry for a number of years, he became an educator in the Philadelphia area.