Memories of a Jewish American red diaper baby
Susan Gosman, almost 3 years old. | Courtesy of Susan Gosman

Memories are powerful. Certainly they inform who we are, but they can be tricksters. We own them, but others may also lay claim to them, and despite our best efforts, they can become a contest of wills, a battle over who did what and why, who had more, who was prettier, who was smarter, who was more talented, who was more favored. These memories are mine, what I remember and what I felt, what I feel. I am writing them mostly for myself, but if someone else learns something about me and enjoys reading them, be my guest.

Many of my childhood memories have not been good ones. The good memories seem to center around the adults I adopted and revered, some from afar like Dorothy and Frank Wilkinson (he was involved in equal opportunity housing struggles in Los Angeles for many years until he was red-baited out and jailed). Some I only glimpsed, like Bill in his jumpsuit. But put all together, like a memory collage, they reflect on what it was like to grow up in a commie household and community, and that too is part of the fabric of American life especially during a troubled time in our history.

Susan’s parents, Lorry and Mollie Gosman. | Courtesy of Susan Gosman

HUAC days, or, no good deed goes unpunished

So my dad, Lorris Gosman, was in charge of the People’s World yearly bazaar, held in a big building, filled with booths selling all kinds of things—food, toys, clothes, a bit of everything. Uppermost in my memory is a little old lady holding a fistful of the most goddamn awful ties you’ve ever seen—wide, shiny, bluepurplepinkgreenyellow—trying to convince a laughing Ben Karr he needed at least one. We kids ran around, having fun, laughing, being silly, always in danger of having our cheeks pinched and our sheyne punims (our pretty Yiddish faces) kissed.

But of course, a few weeks later, early one Saturday morning, the doorbell rang. Two men in suits and hats stood on the porch. “Is your father home?”

“No, he’s not here.” Then I glimpsed his car in the driveway. “Oh, wait a minute.” I woke him up, and one of the men handed him some papers. The other one asked, “Is your wife home?” A growl from my dad, “You’ll have to find her yourselves.” The men left, I cried, we packed our clothes and made our getaway to

Alamitos Bay

where we and other lefty families spent time during summers. Circumstances being what they were, this year we arrived a little early. And under those circumstances, our parents told us that if anyone asked, we were to say our last name was “Schaefer.”

I remember Dorothy Healey was there, head of the Communist Party in Southern California. One local newspaper said of her, “Mrs. Healey is very attractive, unlike most Communist women who look like lumpy mattresses with ears.” (No editorializing, of course!) Also there was her ex-husband, Don, a machinist who worked for my dad, and that sweet couple Bill and Evelyn strolling down the sidewalk in the evenings wearing matching jumpsuits. They had two daughters and I was impressed by what a very close-knit family they were. We went to the beach every day, and Mom sat in the shade slathered with suntan lotion (even her ears and toes) and somehow always ended up with the best tan.

A Yiddish language Communist button, “Freedom – Six Years,” from the 1930s. | CPUSA Archive

Later there were Annette and Harry Cimring, their daughters Margaret and Ruth, the baby. Harry was an orthodontist, so they were our rich friends. Once when we were having dinner at their house, Harry said, “Of course I give a little hush money, maybe $100, now and then.” By that time, I was aware of HUAC, I so knew what hush money was, but I don’t remember if it was his act of giving it or the fact that he had so much money ($100!) that shocked me more.

Anyway, for my sister and me it was just the usual vacation and, apart from our early arrival and name change, I don’t remember anything being that different. (Sounds funny reading that now, but it’s true: My mother’s philosophy was we couldn’t tell what we didn’t know.) My parents became friendly with another couple who had a little girl my sister’s age; there was a lot of drinking and a lot of hilarity and we tasted guacamole for the first time. He was a rep for Paul Masson wine and was always being plied with free bottles when we went out to fancy dinners with them (finger bowls!). I was very impressed when the wife said their house was “colonial” and that they had two phones. When it was time for us to go home, my sister and the other girl decided to exchange phone numbers. They each had a piece of paper and a pen. My sister carefully printed her first name, then paused and called out, “Hey Mom, how do you spell ‘Schaefer?’”

2019 marks a century since the founding of the Communist Party USA. To commemorate the anniversary of the oldest socialist organization in the United States, People’s World has launched the article series: 100 Years of the Communist Party USA. Read the other articles published in the series and check out the guidelines about how to submit your own contribution.

Speaking of names, a few months before he died, some of the family met with Dad around the kitchen table to share reminiscences and stories as you do at those times. I remember him telling my cousin that he “was in and out of dream land” and not much else, except this: How it came about I do not know, but someone asked him who my sister and I were named after. He answered in the most ordinary tone of voice, “Well, Louise was named after Lenin and Susan was named after (wait for it…) Stalin.” Oy vey!! You know how when you’re at a party or in a class and as an ice breaker you’re asked to tell the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you? Well, I’ve got you all beat, but am happy to report that no one has stopped speaking to me after this revelation.

I have wracked my brain for memories of that time, but remember only fragments. Yet the horror of that time is very real to me and has informed so much of who I am. One memory: attending a fundraising event for the victims of HUAC. There was a play, a satire on “brainwashing,” and every time that word was mentioned someone on stage had his head dunked in a bowl to pantomime the evil commies. The audience found this hysterical, so the children did, too.

One of the performers that night was “Gypsy Monya,” an elderly lady wrapped in colorful layers who played the violin. The adults chuckled condescendingly during her performance, but I thought she was wonderful.

I don’t remember how I found out that my Uncle Harper had been served with papers, but he, my Aunt Hilda, and my cousins Mark and Lory also hid out during that time. When my uncle appeared, he did not take the Fifth. He told the Committee he would tell them about himself, but he refused to talk about anyone else. I remember that my mother was furious at him and cried at his decision.

My dad was always a man of few words, but when McCarthy came along, they became fewer and he always seemed to be angry. His complete HUAC testimony of September 4, 1958, can be read here, beginning on page 140. Both my parents were on a short leash, and you never knew when they would snap. They didn’t yell at each other—they never did—but we girls got the brunt of it many times and it could be terrifying. I do remember that every once in a while the phone would ring, Mom would pick it up, yell something into the receiver and hang up with a slam.

A peace demonstration

Was it May Mayer and Aunt Hilda or just May who arranged for me to go on that demonstration?

We were given headbands to wear, pink with white paper doves glued all around. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever worn. We sat on wood benches in the back of an open truck, children and one or two adults. Someone sat in the cab and made a spiel through a hand-held mike, and there would have been a speaker affixed to the top of the cab. As we drove along, the wind picked up and blew my hat off, but I dove and rescued it before it blew away. I was scolded for doing such a dangerous thing, but that hat meant so much to me. That drama over, we continued our drive until the police pulled us over and took us all to the station.

It was not scary: We mostly just sat around while the adults negotiated our release with the police. A young woman whom nobody knew came in with our group, and she had a little boy with her. She had a lovely shy smile but looked scared. One of the cops asked the child his name. “Mr. Fireman,” he replied, and kept on replying no matter how many times he was asked. Finally, the cop turned to the mother demanding to know his name. “He knows his name. He’s Mr. Fireman,” she smiled, and kept smiling and answering the same no matter how many times they asked. As I remember, we children were also asked our names and this became a sticking point as the adults insisted we did not have to give them. Finally, we were released. I don’t remember much about the rest of that day, but I often think of Mr. Fireman and wonder who he was and what happened to him and his sweet mother.

The Rosenbergs

This time holds more memories for me. I was a little older now, and my parents, who were active in the fight to save their lives, were more willing to talk politics with us than they had been before: The Rosenbergs were not guilty, there were no atomic secrets, they were framed for their political beliefs. They were good people who wanted peace and equality. Their enemies said they were communists, but communists were not bad people.

At that time, we spent a lot of time with my aunt, uncle, and their two children, our cousins. One night at their house, after we kids had gone to bed, I was awakened by the sound of adults talking in the living room. I don’t remember what they were saying, but someone put a record on. As I lay in my bunk bed listening, I realized I was hearing a re-enactment of a visit the two Rosenberg boys made to their parents in prison. They were interacting with two guards who were unbelievably cruel, taunting and laughing at the children. I was paralyzed with fear and sadness. I never told anyone about this experience, but I believe it was the real beginning of my political consciousness.

The singing

We were a small family. My mother had no siblings, my father had a sister, and she and our uncle had two children. My uncle had brothers and sisters but they were long gone, and anyway they had denounced him years before for his politics. There was one pair of grandparents—my mother’s father and my father’s mother. They had known each other for many years, had an affair when their respective spouses were dying, and married after their deaths. Things like that can happen, why not?

Family celebrations usually took place at our grandparents’ apartment, gallons of soup, vast platters of chicken, and then when everyone was stuffed and glassy-eyed, Grandma would bring out the pièce de resistance—a huge eggy platter of matzo brei! The children were in heaven, and we were extremely unhappy when the adults finally convinced her to give up that particular tradition.

Sisters Louise and Susan Gosman, named for Lenin and Stalin. | Courtesy of Susan Gosman

But what I remember most about those times was the singing. Sitting around the table singing The Banks Are Made of Marble (“with a guard at every door, and the vaults are stuffed with silver that the people sweated for”); Joe Hill (“from San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill, where workers fight and organize, it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill”); We Shall Not Be Moved (“just like a tree that’s standing by the water…”—of course we sang the Pete Seeger version, not the one made famous by Mississippi John Hurt, “I’m sanctified and holy, I shall not be moved”); and my own favorite, The Peat Bog Soldiers (“not a bird sings out to cheer us, oaks are standing gaunt and bare”). When I have talked to friends about childhood songs, most of them are just dumbfounded at what I thrill to remember. But those songs were my school. Sitting around the table, stuffed, safe, and with loved ones, I believe we learned not only what was wrong in the world, we learned the power of courage and the need to work together to change it.

I got my first lesson in how the economy really works from the Nat King Cole TV show in 1956, so I was 12. I loved watching it with my mother, seeing him sitting on the piano bench, half turned to the camera, the big mike next to him. It was wonderful that he had no sponsors to interrupt the program with ads, just Nat, his mike, and his beautiful voice. But because no sponsors cared to be branded with an African-American performer, his show was canceled.

Unsolved mysteries

Now here’s a mystery: Before she married my father, my mother was married to a man named Karl Prussion. When were they married? When did they divorce? Why did they marry? Why did they divorce? All I know about him is that he was a “vicious anti-Communist” (a favorite phrase of my cousin Bill). My mom came from a communist background and her parents and my father’s parents had known each other through those circles. So what happened? And why?

Fast forward to 1963, I am 19 and pregnant, and Mom tells me that Prussion is holding some kind of anti-Communist meeting at Thomas Starr King Junior High School. Now, that had been my school, near my parents’ home, and since I was visiting them the night of his meeting, she asked me to waddle over there and report back to her what I had seen. Of course I had to swear that I would stay silent and just observe. Well, it turned out to be a pretty pathetic meeting, sparsely attended and not at all interesting. I returned to the house, made my report, she said nothing, and that was that.

But that was not that: I have not been able to let this go. So when in 2014 I found Inside a Communist Cell by ex-counterspy Karl Prussion on the internet, I figured all would be revealed. Nah. Nothing about my Mom, just “Karl followed the seditious, violent, vicious directive of the Kremlin. He pulls no punches in telling you what has happened, what is still happening, what is planned,” etcetera, etcetera. Oh, yes, and “Karl Prussion is on God’s side. No Communist is.” But if you go to the weird site conelrad.com you may be able to hear a re-enactment of an “actual Communist Cell meeting.”

When my father’s cousin Sylvia died about 15 years ago I inherited some of her paintings, a couple by a man named Harry Gottlieb. Of course I looked on the internet for some info about him and found a short bio written by his son, who lo and behold, revealed that his parents had been friendly with Mr. Prussion and his then-wife, not my mother, I am happy to report. It seems one of Prussion’s favorite tricks had been to preach communism in public. Evidently he was quite successful because people joined—and he would then turn their names over to the FBI. (I want to make it very clear that the Gottliebs were not close to the Prussions and were beyond incensed when this information came out.) If you have any further information that can help clear up this little mystery, please let me know.

One of my marriages

I met L. in my late teens. The first of my many marriages had ended, and he was smart, talented, and opened new worlds for me. “African-American” had replaced “Negro” by then, and if you were really hip you said “Afro-American.” Of course now we say “Black,” but I think that was still considered a pejorative then. Anyway, I dove in head first and just got it. That world and that culture became mine. Not that the rest of the world gave a damn. There were very few places to live, and ugly police harassment was a constant. Some friends fell by the wayside, but that was okay, they were replaced by others whom I still value today. I spent a night in jail after the church bombing and stood in what was then a vacant lot across the street from the Century Plaza Hotel staring down the barrels of police rifles to protest the Vietnam War. It was an invigorating time, we were full of life and constantly learning, and very sure of where we stood in the world.

My father, the Father, and me

My relationship with God has always been complicated. Of course I was raised to be a good little atheist, but never understood why my family and their friends felt so damn superior in their non-belief. Raised without a religion means your beliefs are only your own, and that’s how I’ve lived on and off over the years. Many years ago, for some unremembered reason, I got hold of my grammar school “permanent record.” One of my teachers had written that I told her I believed in God but was afraid to tell my parents. In another entry in my record, a different teacher wrote, “It seems like she’s keeping a secret.”

I actually did tell my parents one night after a big fight with them. My mother asked, “Do you believe in a personal God?” I had no idea what she meant, but figured saying “yes” would end the hostilities so I said yes. She said, “Well, that’s okay then,” and that was that.

Susan Gosman in her 30s. | Courtesy of Susan Gosman

One December many years later, my dad and I were having a meal out and he mentioned that his neighbors had borrowed his ladder in preparation for their Christmas party. “Great,” I said, “that’s an automatic invitation to the party.” And then this conversation happened:

“Well, we wouldn’t go.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’ll probably pray.”

“But Dad, you know my friends Stephanie and George. They invite me to their Christmas party every year, and I invite them to my Chanukah party.”

“Well, that’s okay, because you don’t believe in God and neither do they.”

“Dad. Actually I do believe in God.”

“Does your sister know about this?”

The episode did not end there. Early the next morning my phone rang. It was Minna, my father’s wife. “Hello, Susan, you are not religious, you are spiritual!” Slam went the phone, and once again, that was that.

I don’t know how or why it was so easy for me to grasp what communism is, what Black liberation means, to understand the hypocrisy of “liberalism.” I have to admit that I am not a student of the Communist Manifesto and that “dialectical materialism” still throws a curve at me. But I have absolutely no doubt that they are important and true.


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