Where were you on May Day? A communist schoolboy’s memoir
Children of Philadelphia attend a Communist Party event in the mid-1930s. | People's World Archive

This is the third of a number of excerpted stories from a memoir “Where Were You on May Day? Transitions in Red, 1930s-1960s.”

The school’s principal in the middle to late 1930s was Dr. Raymond Pizor. I had no idea at the time why teachers called him “Doctor,” but I understood that his title was very important and one simply did not address him or refer to him without using the title. He was a stocky, balding man of middle height. He wore rimless glasses and dressed stylishly; one could call him a dandy. He had a deep, resonant voice and a commanding air. The teachers treated him with great deference, partly because of his position as a principal and partly because as Doctor Pizor he seemed to represent wisdom and authoritative knowledge.

Today, I realize that as the only adult male in the building other than the custodian, he dominated the teachers. American schools, especially elementary schools, were outposts of male domination. Principals and other administrators ordinarily were males and maintained a hierarchical dominance over the more numerous but institutionally less powerful female teachers. It is interesting that Dr. Pizor was the only Jew on the school’s faculty at that time. All of the teachers were non-Jewish, in a school whose pupils were 98% Jewish. At least one Jewish teacher, Miss Nowich, later Mrs. Greenfield, joined the faculty the year before I graduated.

One morning in May—May 2 to be exact—when I was eight years old, Dr. Pizor called me to his office. He seated me next to his desk and asked why I had not attended school the previous day, May 1. That day, May Day, is the international workers’ holiday and was honored worldwide with parades and demonstrations by leftist and radical working class groups. In Philadelphia, the Communist Party for several years had held a May Day parade on North Broad Street, which began around Fairmount Avenue and ended at a rally at Reyburn Plaza, the site of the current Municipal Services Building, across from City Hall’s north plaza. For a number of years prior to World War II, Reyburn Plaza had been a traditional site for meetings and rallies organized by radical groups.

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The mass May Day rallies featured speeches by leading Philadelphia Communists, trade union activists, leaders of such groups as the Workers Alliance, and a variety of other speakers. The audience, normally comprised of several thousand people, held aloft signs displaying Communist and other radical slogans of the time.

I enjoyed the annual May Day festivities. The weather usually was pleasant and I was happy to skip school for the day. Participating in the parade and mass meeting gave me a chance to wear my Young Pioneer uniform. The uniform consisted of a white short-sleeved shirt open at the collar, white short pants, a red neckerchief imprinted in black with the hammer and sickle and profiles of white and black children, and a light blue overseas cap trimmed with red piping. It was great fun to march down Broad Street with other Young Pioneers and members of the YCL to the beat of drums and cymbals.

Noyma Appelbaum as a boy, dressed in Young Pioneers uniform and holding a portrait of Lenin. | Courtesy of Noyma Appelbaum

The Young Pioneers, a youth organization sponsored by the International Workers Order (IWO), had a slight similarity to the Boy Scouts. They provided a left-wing alternative to conventional “bourgeois” youth groups, which the Communist left considered “agents of imperialism.” I do not recall group meetings or activities of the Young Pioneers. My membership amounted to wearing the uniform occasionally and receiving mail about their activities. My understanding is that the Young Pioneers led an active group life in New York where they had significant membership.

Here are fragments from two song lyrics I read in a Pioneer newsletter:

As we go marching and the band begins to play,
You can hear us shouting, a bunch of Pioneers is on its way!
Cis, boom, bah!

A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go,
We’ll catch a boss and put him in the sauce, a hunting we will go.

A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go,
We’ll catch a cop and put him in the slop, a hunting we will go.

A Young Pioneers pamphlet from the 1930s. | CPUSA Archive

My parents obviously excused my absence from school on May Day, but Dr. Pizor did not excuse it. He asked where I had been the previous day. I knew that absence from school to attend a May Day demonstration would not please Dr. Pizor. He certainly would not consider it an excusable absence. Something told me that this one time I should lie, and I said I had gone shopping with my mother, as though shopping on a school day was excusable. Dr. Pizor snorted in disbelief: “Are you sure you didn’t attend the May Day rally?” I said nothing incriminating, and he dismissed me.

In thinking back on that episode, I ask myself why Dr. Pizor went to the trouble of personally challenging a third-grade child as to the reason for absence from school, especially in view of the fact that he knew our family’s politics and he obviously knew why I was absent. In asking the question, he indicated that he knew the answer. Probably the whole school knew. Clearly, he did not intend to elicit information by questioning me. What then was his purpose? Was he attempting to intimidate me, a child? Was he merely baiting me? Was he gathering evidence to prove that my parents were irresponsible by encouraging truancy? Was he trying to show that he knew everything about his pupils and their families? Was he trying to record his opposition to Communism? Perhaps, all of the above.

Dr. Pizor was not only an anti-Communist; he was a public school type who seriously believed that occasional absence from school deprived children of a vital part of their education. I heard this argument as an adult when conservative, old-line teachers voiced concern that if teachers unionized and they chose to strike, children would lose out educationally. The concern would be even greater if the absence connected with a Communist holiday. What he did not understand was that the May Day experience probably had more educational value for me than anything the school might offer. Certainly, I missed nothing of importance.

Read other stories from Noyma Appelbaum’s memoir:

My parents were Communists: The story of our 1934 eviction

Growing up as a communist kid in the 1930s

Today, this early experience in Dr. Pizor’s office of not incriminating myself amuses me. Repeated minor experiences such as this one in resisting established authority and the dominant culture in matters of principle, helped prepare me for the very serious attacks that came about 15 years later. The core values of our household, established at a very early age, were strong enough to help maintain my self-esteem in the face of the principal’s efforts at intimidation. He obviously did not appreciate the ludicrous aspect of the situation: Principal goes head-to-head with eight-year-old. Yet, there was a serious aspect to this incident.

Think about the Russians

Another episode, which occurred in fifth grade when I was 10, reveals the extent to which Communist ideology and naïve uncritical support of the Soviet Union had penetrated our family’s thinking. Miss Woods gave us a weekly current events assignment. We were to locate a news item and report on it to the class. On one occasion, I came prepared to talk about the Soviet Union. I had read the Daily Worker regularly. I particularly enjoyed the Sunday Worker, which had begun publication in 1938 and for a while included a sepia-colored rotogravure insert. The insert ran feature stories, many of which were about heroic accomplishments of Soviet citizens. Of special interest to me were the stories about Soviet scientists who were rescued by Soviet airmen after drifting on an ice floe in the Arctic Sea.

The Soviet Union, as reported in the Communist press, was making great progress in advancing the living standards of the people, increasing production of raw and manufactured materials, and setting an example to the world in harmonizing relationships among people of many diverse cultures. It was said that the former Czarist prison house of nations was now a house of free cultural expression.

“The epic of the Soviet Union’s conquest of the North Pole,” including the rescue of stranded Arctic scientists by Soviet airmen, captured the attention of a young Noyma Appelbaum. Here, the story is recounted in the Feb. 21, 1938 edition of the Daily Worker. | People’s World Archive

I needed some but not very much coaching from my father. He recited and I memorized a lengthy list of facts and statistics taken from the Communist press about the Soviet Union: its huge area, one-sixth of the earth; its enormous population; the number of ethnic groups and diverse languages spoken there; how many tons of coal were mined and how many tons of steel were produced. If statistics and hard physical facts denoted the greatness of a country, the Soviet Union was the greatest country in the world. The report was about the status of the Soviet Union at the time, not about a specific news event. I accurately transmitted the bits of information to the class and I conveyed my ideas with enthusiasm. The point of it all was that the accomplishments of the Soviet Union were proof of the success of socialism. The class and the teacher received the report in a matter of fact manner. They neither criticized it nor praised it.

The significance of the innocent faith and confidence my parents and their associates and I had in the Soviet Union cannot be overstated. Its existence and its successes, as described to us, guided our way. The existence of the Soviet Union served a useful function in our household. We measured many aspects of life by this benchmark. Merely knowing the Soviet Union existed comforted us in times of doubt or despair.

One night, when I was about eight, I awoke suddenly from a deep sleep and called for my mother. I had imagined that she had died and the realization that my parents would die someday had upset me. I was perspiring and my heart was beating wildly. I was frightened. I could not come to terms with the idea that my parents would die someday. My mother came to my bedside, sat down and tried to comfort me. She said what all parents tell their children at such moments: “Don’t worry. I will not die for a long time. Think about happy things.” Then she added a thought that was characteristic of the thinking of both my parents: “Think about the Russians.”

In other families, the parents might have invoked God, heaven, and the happiness to be found there as an alternative to thinking about cold death and the loss of a parent. There are no comforting thoughts one can have in confronting the existential issues of life and death, unless one believes in life after death or rebirth in a new life. In my secular Communist family, the idea of the benign and courageous Soviet Union comforted us now, not in an afterlife. Our assurance that the Russians and the Soviet Union were creating a better world made it easier to bear the thought of death and nothingness. Thoughts about the new Soviet man and the new Soviet society were by their very nature happy thoughts.

Soviet films helped shape our understanding of the Soviet Union. My parents frequently took me to the Europa movie theater in center city, later renamed the Studio, to see Soviet films. Chapayev, a legendary Bolshevik civil war figure, became my hero. I saw Chapayev, in which he routed the White Guards, several times, and I was thrilled each time he mowed the White Guards down with his wheeled machine gun. The film If War Comes Tomorrow depicted the invincible might of the Soviet Union. Soviet tanks destroyed enemy invaders with ease. These, and other Soviet films, such as Dr. Mamlock, Gypsies, and Road to Life, gave us confidence in the strength and humane values of the Soviet Union and that it would survive and win any war forced upon it.


CONTRIBUTOR

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.

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