‘Kinderland’: A documentary visit to two century-old secular Jewish summer camps
Camp Kinderland's communist sympathies were on proud display in this photo taken in August 1935. | Tamiment Library / NYU

The new (2021) documentary short (32 mins.) Kinderland tells the story of two secular Jewish summer camps in upstate New York that have cultivated social activists for almost a century and are still in existence today. Both camps were founded by secular working-class Jews on either side of the leftist political divide. Kinderland, founded in 1923, was communist; Kinder Ring, established in 1927 and sponsored by The Workmen’s Circle (recently renamed Workers Circle), socialist.

Already by the late 1920s, a bitter split in the Jewish workers’ movement had emerged, coincident with the fissure in the global socialist movement. Judging from its public utterances, the WC (or Arbeter Ring, to use its Yiddish name), founded in 1900, hailed the overthrow of the Czar in Russia, from whose lands many of its members came. But the modern socialist democracy they envisioned did not take root in the new USSR. As Joseph Stalin consolidated his control over the Soviet Union and the world communist movement, WC joined the anti-communist opposition, while still remaining within the socialist orbit.

Thousands of WC members, however, were drawn to support the world’s first socialist state, hemorrhaging WC’s ranks and funding sources. If WC had its own internal system of fraternal benefits—schools, camps, educational courses for adults, and secular Sunday schools for children, choruses, theater groups, insurance, healthcare, burial plots, etc.—the new fugitives from the organization established the International Workers Order, allying with groups from other national and ethnic groups, to offer a similar package. Within the IWO, the Jewish section was always by far the largest. IWO fell victim to McCarthyism in the 1950s.

The two groups shared numerous commonalities, movements that both traced their inspiration to Karl Marx and widespread consciousness of class struggle. Their respective summer children’s camps occupied acreage on opposite sides of Sylvan Lake in Dutchess County, N.Y. The stories of mutual contempt are legendary, the socialist kids hurling the epithet “Stalinist!” and the Kinderland kids responding, “Bourgeois fascists!” from their circling canoes in the middle of the lake. Though beyond the feuds there are tales of secret cross-sectarian teenage romances, too.

The film is titled after Kinderland, though historically it’s almost impossible to speak about one without the contrasting other. The documentary balances film footage and interviews pretty evenly between the two ideological camps.

Over the course of almost a century, the missions of the two children’s summer resorts have drifted. Kinderland no longer identifies with the communist movement per se, nor organizationally with the Communist Party, which many of the parents belonged to in years past. It is still oriented toward bold social activism, however, and has become much more internationalist in scope, with a broad interracial population, though still formally Jewish in inspiration.

Kinder Ring started off as a WC camp for the kids of their working-class Jewish members, but over time, and with the specter of anti-communism haunting America, it more and more came to reflect the suburban, assimilated, patriotic mindset of their by now third-generation American parents, recalling their radical roots at best as nostalgia and song.

Both camps remain largely secular still, and though Kinderland emphasizes social activism primarily, Kinder Ring continues with its middle-class, more apolitical approach, the use of Yiddish, or a smattering of it anyway, substituting for the class-consciousness of yore. WC, along with many other prominent “socialist” allies in the 1960s, for example, supported U.S. intervention in Vietnam out of their fervent anti-communism.

The role of Yiddish in the two camps reflects a much larger place for Yiddish in contemporary American life, perhaps even worldwide. On the one hand, the affinity for Yiddish does not oblige Jews to declare loyalties to the modern State of Israel, which adopted Hebrew as its language and deprecated Yiddish as the language of exile. And concurrently, with its rich traditions in literature, folk culture, song, humor, history, the love for Yiddish shows there are other ways to affirm Jewishness than being forced into opportunistic Holocaust memorialization and worship of the Israeli Golden Calf.

Director Amy Grappell filmed Kinderland mostly between 2017 and 2019, although it includes clips of some individuals, such as centenarian Fanny Jacobson, who had died in 2015, and others who have since passed away. Other interviewees include Dr. Barney Zumoff, Robert Kaplan, Maddy Simon, Michael Meeropol, a number of camp counselors, and lots of kids. The film’s time frame takes us to a summer when visitors from WC went to Kinderland to learn from the affectionately-dubbed “Commie camp” how to engage children in more socially committed ideas and projects, how to make their experience more foundational to the kinds of activists Kinderland hopes they will become in later life.

The girls of Bunk 4 salute in August 1935. | Tamiment Library / NYU

Ben Bath, a teacher and song leader then working for WC, appears in the film remarking on the resurgence of fascism, and asking what kind of society will we be? One youngster from Kinderland is asked about values taught and absorbed there: “Ending capitalism is a big one,” he says, as the song “Joe Hill” is heard.

Scenes back at Kinder Ring portray a more standard-issue nonpolitical summer camp that is more about competitive sports and middle-class success, the comfortable life of what American Jews deprecatingly called the “alrightniks,” people who had started to “make it” in America. It’s hard to see how summers spent at KR would lead young people to nonconforming lives of protest.

McCarthyism took its toll, more on Kinderland than on the anti-communist WC camp Kinder Ring. Chroniclers recalled that at the height of the repression, officers from the county sheriff’s department monitored the road leading into the camp and took down license plate numbers of arriving cars. Camp registration plummeted for some years until the terror passed.

There’s a kind of “feel-good” scrim laid over this short documentary: Ah, the two old warring camps have finally reconciled, and the elders can go in peace knowing their labors have not been in vain. For an unpretentious, modestly proportioned film, that’s fine, but the essential issues after decades of estrangement have not been resolved at all. The contradiction is still between two cultures—one of acceptance of the established order, and the other of resistance; reformism vs. revolution. At least they’re talking to each other. By titling her film after only one of the two camps, Grappell would seem to tip her hand.

Kinderland is currently on the documentary film circuit.

(The author was director of the Southern California District of Workers Circle/Arbeter Ring from 1995 to 2011, and personally knew many of those interviewed in the film.)


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

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