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Subtitle Children of the Blacklist

Children of the Blacklist:  Ann Dermansky

Ann Ettenberg Dermansky, a freelance writer, taught for two a half years, long enough to join the Teachers Union. Her mother, Rose Ettenberg, a TU member who taught for 25 years in Brooklyn, was a target of the New York City Board of Education's witch hunt. Dermansky sees the Dreamers and Fighters website as a boon to scholars and a welcome gathering place for those whose lives were affected by the blacklist.

“Keep your mouth shut,” my mother told me. Sometimes I still do. Old habits die hard. I have worked for years as a writer. Give me an assignment and I’ll do it. But write about myself? Ah, that’s another matter.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I knew that my family was different, nothing like my friends’ families or the relatives who lived nearby. My mother was a teacher, a Teachers Union member; my aunts and my friends’ mothers did not work outside their homes. They had landscapes on their walls; we had Orozco and Rivera prints. They listened to “Amos and Andy” on the radio; we did not. I had a feeling that I was the only kid in the neighborhood who walked to a particular candy store on Avenue U to buy the Daily Worker, carrying it home folded over so the cover was inside, just as my mother told me.

I used to collect the mail that lay scattered on the vestibule floor before my mother saw it. I was on the lookout for an envelope with a particular return address: 110 Livingston Street, the headquarters of the New York City Board of Education. My mother was waiting for such a letter. She could be called in to answer questions, she could be fired, her name could be printed in the paper. “What should I do?” my mother asked. “Fight or quit?”

Rose Ettenberg taught math.
Rose Ettenberg taught math.

“Fight,” I said.

My friend Elissa, with whom I went to P.S. 206 and Cunningham Junior High School, remembers me as a free spirit, an admirably independent girl. But I do not remember myself that way at all. I was full of questions, full of fear. I overheard snippets of conversations that worried me. Something bad was going to happen in Peekskill. A college professor friend had to quit his job. What would happen to the Rosenbergs? Look what happened to Emmett Till.

I spent two summers at Camp Woodland, the very best summers of my childhood. There are pictures of me on visiting day, smiling broadly in front of my bunk. I loved the folk songs and the square dances. It did not occur to me that all my camp friends had families like mine. All I knew was that Woodland was a place where I could fully be myself. Rose Ettenberg taught math (In 1997, I attended a Camp Woodland reunion hosted by SUNY New Paltz. There was a panel discussing camps for “the children of Communist parents.” So you no longer have to keep your mouth shut, I thought, amazed and excited to hear historians and writers talking openly about what was kept unspoken throughout most of my life.)

The letter from s110 Livingston Street arrived in 1954, directing my mother to appear before Saul Moskoff, the chief inquisitor of the New York City Board of Education. She answered all his questions until he asked her to inform, which she refused to do. She was called to Moskoff’s office again in 1955. Again she refused to name names.

I was too busy trying to stay afloat at high school to pay too much attention to my mother’s problems. Neither she nor my father talked to me about those sessions with Moskoff. What I remember is stories she told me years later: Someone she recognized in the elevator at 110 Livingston St glared at her. “She must have thought I was an informer,” my mother said. Anyone who had been summoned to Board headquarters who was not subsequently fired was suspect, she told me. She thought she kept her job because my father went alone to see Superintendent Jansen. My father had had a major heart attack. If you fire my wife and her name hits the papers, you just might be the death of me, he warned Jansen. She wanted to teach math in high school, but remained at a junior high until she retired. It was dangerous to request a transfer, to deal with the Areyou- now-or-were–you-ever questions that were part of the process.

I joined the Teachers Union in 1959. I was an English teacher at Sheepshead Bay High School, only a few years older than my students. At my first TU meeting I was thrilled to find out that some of my favorite high school teachers were TU members. I have a vague memory of taking on Al Shanker, who came to my school to press the United Federation of Teacher’s suit to become the teachers’ bargaining agent. Why not the TU, I asked, the true champion of teachers and their students.

I must have read the June 2009 New York Times article about Dreamers and Fighters three times. So it really is possible to get my mother’s file, I thought. I got in touch with Lisa Harbatkin who put me in touch with David Ment at the Municipal Archives. Today the file sits on my desk.

We tell ourselves the stories of our lives. Maybe we have the facts straight; often we don’t. Time plays all kinds of tricks, blurring, distorting, and discarding memories. Here at last were the facts and a picture of my parents that I had not seen before. I had not known that twice my father accompanied my mother to110 Livingston St. I learned that twice she took Moskoff on, telling him when he promised not “to hurt” anyone whose name she might reveal that he had hurt her, citing organizations and even a Board of Education member who thought informing was wrong. Moskoff was good at his job, but not good enough to get my mother to do what he wanted. “Keep your mouth shut,” she told me. “Don’t talk back.” But she did. I’m so proud she did.

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Dreamers and Fighters: The NYC Teacher Purges

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