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Subtitle Children of the Blacklist

Children of the Blacklist:  Alan Snitow

Documentary filmmaker Alan Snitow is the son of Virginia Snitow, who missed by a few years getting entangled in the New York Board of Education investigations, as he describes here in his essay. He and his partner Deborah Kaufman, whose family history includes lifelong Zionist activism, used their different backgrounds to explore American Jewish cultural and political conversations in their movie “Between Two Worlds.”

My mother Virginia Levitt Snitow was a member of the Teachers Union in the 1930s and early 1940s. She taught high school English most of that time at Wadleigh, then an all girls public high school in Harlem. The school was in a rapid transition toward an almost all-African American student body.

My mother organized the school's Black History Pageant, oversaw the student literary magazine, the Owl, brought the black press into the classroom, advocated for teaching Langston Hughes and other black writers, and later in 1942 wrote an essay on her experiences for The New Republic called "I Teach Negro Girls." The piece was later made into a radio play starring an unknown young actress named Ruby Dee. She also spoke on street corners against Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest.

Virginia Snitow, left, outside Wadleigh High School
Virginia Snitow, left, outside Wadleigh High School

My sister Ann and I knew bits and pieces of this history, but only as suggestive odds and ends--the way kids know about their parents--not a chronology, but a jumble, out of order, without continuity. We suspected that there might be something more, but it was not until my late 20's that I sat my mother down and asked her only half in jest: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" She laughed and answered: "Yes, for thirteen years."

Here I had been a radical all these years, and I didn't know that I had a red-diaper pedigree!

There were certainly enough clues that should have led us to ask my mother about the party much earlier than we did, but her leftism, curiosity, and occasionally scathing rhetoric seemed to us to be just part of her nature rather than a sure sign of the Red Menace. We also set it down in part to the influence of her father, Louis Levitt, who was a member of the Workmen's Circle.

However, the biggest clue to her CP past was her trip to the Soviet Union during her summer vacation from Wadleigh in 1936.

Virginia's trip was actually an extension of her honeymoon with my father Charles (never a communist himself, but a New Deal liberal, lawyer, and businessman). After three weeks in Europe together, he went home to work and she headed east on her own through Berlin during the 1936 Olympics where she was followed by Nazi agents, and then on to Moscow, Kiev and Kharkov--and possibly other places that we don't know about. She had a great time, although we only have one letter from the trip, which indicates her excitement and commitment. "Everywhere is change and in the hope of the people you can see the comfort and beauty which our own poor must carry as only a dream under our present system.".

Disillusionment would come later with the Stalin-Hitler pact, "which we turned ourselves into pretzels to explain." However, one other area of disenchantment started earlier and it had to do with her being an English teacher.

"I couldn't stand to read the Daily Worker. We were required to read it. It is the most horrible, revolting--have you read the Daily Worker? And I as an English teacher... I mean if there was any self-sacrifice about being in the party it was really the Daily Worker."

In spite of her activism and public speaking, the FBI had no files on my mother. Her teaching career was tapering off by 1944, and she had a small child at home. She and my father got involved in organizing the Downtown Community School.

Virginia Snitow played a leading role in the American Jewish Congress after leaving teaching.
Virginia Snitow played a leading
role in the American Jewish
Congress after leaving teaching.

In the late 1940's, Virginia and Charles moved to the suburbs, away from her communist political connections. She didn't want to talk about her years as a Red with her children, fearing that we would spill the beans if we were asked. " I could not do a lot of the things I was doing if I had that. It was like a stigmata."

Virginia learned paranoid skills earlier than many others, keeping her mouth shut, not reading left-wing papers in public, and developing the habit of taking her name and address off the many magazines she subscribed to.

Perhaps her care paid off. She is not mentioned in about two thousand pages of American Jewish Congress FBI files we obtained under FOIA. She wouldn't become a significant player in AJCongress until years after communist groups were purged in the late '40's and early '50's for their factionalism.

For our film, "Between Two Worlds," my partner Deborah Kaufman and I visited Wadleigh, interviewed current and retired teachers, and found two students from my mother's era, Hilda Wradge and Sylvia Burnett, both now, in their eighties. "She had beautiful diction," Burnett remembered almost seventy years later as she showed us Virginia's signature in her 1942 yearbook.

Her work with American Jewish Congress was in keeping with her work as a teacher at Wadleigh and in the left. It was not just that AJCongress supported labor and civil rights and opposed loyalty oaths. The group's women's division also gave space for an organizer to really work hard. She brought together dozens and eventually hundreds of suburban Jewish women in study groups, training housewives how to do research, how to do public speaking, and most of all how to think critically about the major issues of the day. "I've always been a teacher," she told us.

Virginia and Charles Snitow with Alan and his sister Ann.
Virginia and Charles Snitow with Alan and his sister Ann.

During the fifties, she wrote and lectured against the atom bomb and the dangers of strontium 90. After becoming national president of the Women's Division in 1965, she immediately went south to join the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march and she was deeply engaged in swinging AJCongress to oppose the Vietnam War, the first major Jewish organization to do so.

"The Women's Division was for peace during the Vietnam War; the organization was not. And we had to push and punch our way, and bring this to conventions for votes... until finally, we got them [the men] to approve of it.... We never got much recognition for that. And later on, the [male leaders] boasted about it, saying 'We were the first American Jewish organization to criticize the Vietnam War.' But we did it. The women did it."

Her work is not done.

Virginia Snitow died in October 2000, three months after her husband Charles, and we miss them to this day.

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