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Subtitle Children of the Blacklist

Children of the Blacklist:  Deborah Heller

Deborah Heller, a retired professor of Humanities at York University, Toronto, Canada, is the daughter of Teachers Union members Bertha and Isaiah Heller. Deborah is the author of Literary Sisterhoods: Imagining Women Writers, Daughters and Mothers in Alice Munro's Later Stories, and, most recently, The Goose Girl, the Rabbi and the New York Teachers: A Family Memoir, from which the following account is adapted.

I was born in 1939 and grew up in Sunnyside Queens, which was home to a small enclave of left-wing Jewish schoolteachers, most of them Teachers Union members. Growing up, I knew that my parents and the private "progressive schools" to which they sent my sister and me during our elementary school years held views that somehow set them apart from others, even if exactly how remained fuzzy for some time. I also knew about Senator McCarthy and what my parents referred to as the "witch hunt", and specifically that some Communists had been jailed under the Smith Act. (My mother had explained to me that the prosecution read from books by long-dead writers to prove them guilty.)

Bertha and Isaiah Heller at Sacandaga Park, New York, 1941
Bertha and Isaiah Heller
at Sacandaga Park, New York, 1941

Yet while I understood in a general way that the views shared by my parents and their friends were under attack, I never considered that my parents themselves might be vulnerable. At least, not until one day in early February 1951, when I was returning home on the subway from the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village and my eye was caught by the headline in a newspaper held by a man sitting across from me. Eight New York City schoolteachers had been fired for being Communists. I was eleven years old, heading to meet my mother at a station in Queens (Hunters Point), where she often left her car in the morning before taking a different train from mine to her school in Manhattan; sometimes we would arrange to meet at the station on the way back so I could drive home with her. Seeing the headline, I experienced sudden anxiety: Was it possible that my mother was one of those fired red teachers? What would I do if I didn't find her in our usual meeting place when I got off the train? The fear lasted only until I saw her, but that afternoon marked the beginning of my realization that my parents could be vulnerable.

Although my initial worry had been for my mother, it turned out that my father was the one who was targeted. During my last year in the neighborhood junior high school, in spring of 1953-a little more than two years after that newspaper headline-my father began to phone home regularly at the end of his school day to ask, "What's in the mail?" But somehow I had not received a call from my father on the day the dreaded letter finally arrived. Perhaps I had not come directly home from school. However, I was there when he returned and went to his desk for the mail. "It's come," he said; "Moskoff wants to see me."

My father was going through a difficult period then for other reasons as well. He was suffering from a painful case of diverticulosis, which made him fear he had cancer. Still, after receiving the letter from Superintendent of Schools William Jansen, he consulted with the Teachers Union and arranged an interview.

As my father related, Moskoff read aloud a letter from his informer (unidentified, of course). The letter said something to the effect that no one had joined the Communist party more reluctantly than Isaiah Heller, nor had more doubts while there. It pointed, further, to the brief time he had spent as a party member. Moskoff then asked for my father's "help"-meaning, of course, the infamous naming of names. My father's response was, "I'm a sick man-I have problems enough of my own, I may have cancer-I don't understand what you're talking about." Describing the scene to me afterwards, he observed that his performance was more one of hysteria than of bravery. In any case, at the conclusion of the interview the situation was left open-ended: either my father was to think things over and get back in touch with Moskoff again, or ...?

The high anxiety my father had felt prior to the interview did not abate as he waited in protracted suspense for the second call. He could hardly believe Moskoff would take no for an answer. Yet Moskoff did, and the other shoe never fell.

Isaiah Heller in the classroom at Boys High, 1930s/1940s
Isaiah Heller in the classroom at Boys High, 1930s/1940s

When I was in the last stages of checking through the typescript for my book, The Goose Girl, the Rabbi, and the New York Teachers: A Family Memoir, in which I discuss this period, I stumbled by chance across Amy Kesselman's article on the Dreamers & Fighters website, describing her father's involvement with Moskoff. Amy is the daughter of my parents' good friends Ethel and Bernie Kesselman, though since I was several years older than Amy, I had not really known her in childhood. Nonetheless, I immediately emailed her, expressing my appreciation of her article and saying that her description of her father's involvement with Moskoff echoed my own memories. She replied telling me that I could now access my father's file.

By a lucky chance I was heading to New York a few days later. After contacting the archivist in charge of the files, David Ment, I arranged to visit the New York Municipal Archives in downtown Manhattan. Viewing at last what Ment described as "a very slim file" was enormously exciting to me. It confirmed what had hitherto been only my thirteen-year-old's memory of my father's account, while supplementing this with information I learned for the first time. Along with various items of personal information about my father (whose name is frequently misspelled as Isiah Heller), the file contained Jansen's letter to him, Moskoff's account of their interview, and accounts and transcripts of Moskoff's interviews with three informers.

The personal information included my father's, birthdate, height, weight, the fact that he wore glasses, his birthplace, naturalization records, U.S. passport number and date of issue, sabbatical record, and various addresses at which my parents lived before our house in Sunnyside. The informer's account that Moskoff read to my father confirms my memory of what he told me. The summary of Moskoff's interview with my father-there is no transcript-harmonizes roughly with my memory of my father's account to me but portrays him as rather more forceful in his refusal of cooperation and less "hysterical" than he had led me to believe (or believed himself to have been): "SM [Saul Moskoff] solicited his cooperation in determining what the facts are and stated that SM was not saying however, he is now a Communist and sought to have HELLER give him the facts. HELLER stated that he was terribly upset and nervous and that he resented having received the letter, he had been seriously ill in the last year, that he was suffering from an ulcer and he suspects that he may have cancer. He would not admit or deny the truth of the allegations of the information and did not at all appear willing to discuss the matter any further."

The memorandum leaves vague just what Moskoff meant by soliciting my father's "cooperation in determining what the facts are." Was Moskoff more specific in the interview-specifically, did he ask him to name names? Without the transcript it is impossible to know. The most important new element in the summary was Moskoff's concluding comments that if my father "felt that way about it he would not seek to persuade him and he could leave knowing that nothing further would be done about the matter." If Moskoff actually said this, either my father did not hear it or he did not believe it. The terror of being summoned to another interview remained with him for a long time.

Isaiah Heller in his Boys High office
Isaiah Heller in his Boys High office

In addition to the informer's account that Moskoff read to my father, the file contained two other interviews with "sources." Both repeat or confirm what Moskoff read to him. But while one of these interviews took place a week before my father's meeting with Moskoff, the other took place about a week later. So perhaps my father's fears that Moskoff was not yet done with him were not entirely unfounded.

One particularly chilling minor note included in my father's personal information relates to "one Stephen M. Heller," who had lived some five blocks away from my parents in Manhattan and whom an agent for the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI) surmised-falsely-was "probably related to your subject." As a result, the man was investigated and found to have signed two "C.P. nominating petition[s]." This bizarre little investigation tells much about the climate of the period.

Deborah Heller's family memoir can be ordered from Amazon:

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