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Page Title: Documentary

Irving Mauer

Like many bright, poor Jewish boys of his generation, Mauer took advantage of the firstrate free higher education offered by City College of New York. He was a football player, not an activist, but he remembered the tremendous political activity at the college, with young Stalinists, Trotskyists, and other varieties of left-wing students arguing nonstop about the causes of capitalism’s collapse in the 1930s, the rise of fascism in Europe, the union movement, and the scourge of racial injustice in America.

Mauer wanted to be a doctor but, as he recalled many years later, “the prejudice against Jews” in medical school admissions “was unbelievable.” He decided that teaching science was a more realistic goal. But after graduation, the city Board of Education was not giving teachers’ exams; instead, it was hiring people as trainees, “for what I would call slave labor” – working on a per diem basis, without benefits. He became a playground director and camp counselor. He watched with mounting alarm as Franco took power in Spain and union strikes were brutally repressed by employers and state militia.

Mauer was unemployed in 1942 when a friend invited him to a Communist Party(CP) unit meeting in Brooklyn. “I was aware that capitalism was having problems. Pigs and cows were being slaughtered, corn was being burned, and people were starving.” The CP was the most visible and active group campaigning against poverty, against lynching and the poll tax, and against fascism both in Europe and the U.S. Two communists had been elected to the New York City Council, and Earl Browder, the CP general secretary, had run for president. The Party was legal, and it did not occur to Mauer that he was doing anything wrong.

From February to September 1942, he attended unit meetings, and although he never formally signed up, he sold The Daily Worker on Sunday mornings. He tried to learn about unionism, but “when they asked me to read Marxist material, I didn’t; it was terribly boring.” He never heard a word about overthrowing the government by force or violence; if he had, “I would have taken a hike.” In September ’42, his short career as a communist ended; he got a federal civil service job in Wisconsin, training soldiers in electronics; later, he enlisted, and the job turned into a military assignment. After the war, he attended one further CP meeting at the behest of his old friend, but he was no longer interested: he was now a married man, a father, and ill with a debilitating case of pleurisy. There was also, he said, “a new rigidity” in the Party “that I didn’t care for.”

After he recovered his health, Mauer passed two teacher exams and taught at an all-black, all-boys junior high school in Harlem. The students were mostly well-behaved and studious. He loved the work, but watched with trepidation as colleagues were called before the Board of Education’s chief anti-communist interrogator, the lawyer Saul Moskoff, and fired for “insubordination” if they refused to answer questions about their political affiliations and beliefs.

The targeted teachers were often the most dedicated. Mauer recalled that Morris Seltzer, a math teacher at his school, would work overtime, without pay, to prepare students for the city’s highly competitive exam schools: Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant. About ten students from their junior high were admitted every year. But Seltzer was fired in the early 1950s for refusing to answer questions posed by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee; after that, “no boy to my knowledge” made it to an exam school because “nobody with the feeling and fortitude of Moe Seltzer” was there to coach them.

Mauer’s turn came in 1955. In March of that year, the Board of Education created a new policy, which required not only that ex-communist teachers tell all about their political histories, but that they name every other person they knew who had been in the CP or close to any of the movements in which communists had been prominent: aid to Spanish Civil War refugees, opposition to fascism, May Day parades, racial equality, and so on. This “inform or be fired” policy was widely criticized at the time, but the Board of Ed persisted. Mauer and four others were prosecuted for refusing to become informers. As Mauer told Moskoff, both his father and a prominent rabbi warned him against being a “moser”—in Hebrew, an informer, who under Talmudic law cannot be buried in hallowed ground. If he had seen someone committing a crime, he said, he would have reported it, but he could not in conscience save his job by naming people who had been young idealists like himself, and not done anything wrong.

In August 1955, New York Commissioner of Education James Allen noted in a ruling concerning a fired teacher that the Board of Education did not have the authority to force teachers to become informers as a condition of keeping their jobs. The next month, Allen ordered the Board not to proceed further against the five teachers who had refused to inform. In a decision the following year, Allen wrote: “The indiscriminate use of this type of interrogation immediately engenders an atmosphere of suspicion and uneasiness in the schools and colleges … A school system which sets one teacher against another in this manner is not conducive toward the strength and cohesion which needs to exist in order to instill character into the student body.” The state courts affirmed the decision. But the Board of Education, instead of acknowledging the error of its ways, looked for other charges to levy against the five. For Mauer and two others (Julius Nash, a fellow science teacher, and Samuel Cohen, a principal), these included falsely answering “no” to a question about present or former CP membership on their teacher applications years before. It was a lie common enough in the 1930s and ‘40s when people understandably feared that an affirmative answer would cost them a badly needed job. Mauer was not alone in believing that the city selectively pursued teachers on this charge; only those who refused to “name names” were prosecuted. The New York Times and the New York Post condemned the ongoing vendetta; Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her newspaper column: “these teachers have legally won their point, and should be returned to their teaching positions.” But Mauer and Nash, who had been suspended without pay since 1955, were officially fired in 1962 on the false application charge. Although the Board was willing to forgive Cohen for his false answer, it found Nash and Mauer to have been “evasive” in their interviews with Moskoff, and insufficiently persuasive in stating that they now rejected communism.

In 1967, Supreme Court finally ruled that loyalty investigations and job disqualifications based on allegedly subversive beliefs or affiliations violate the First Amendment. Attorneys representing New York teachers who had been unjustly fired, most prominently Victor Rabinowitz, began to push the Board, the city’s attorneys, and members of the City Council to reinstate them. It took another six years before 33 teachers, including Irving Mauer, were reinstated as retirees, with pensions for the years they would have worked had the witch hunt not intervened. In the 18 years between his suspension and his reinstatement, Mauer scraped together a living as a TV repairman; then taught science at a private school in Queens. He never considered himself a victim; rather, he said, like a soldier wounded in war, he recovered and returned to the battle. But the years of blacklisting, obloquy, and FBI surveillance were hard on his children, and especially on his wife. Students, especially in the poor communities of New York, suffered from the removal of their most dedicated teachers. And to Mauer, the repression of the Teachers Union, whose primary concern was the students’ welfare, was equally damaging. “They succeeded in destroying the Teachers Union, but they didn’t succeed in destroying me,” he said in 1998. “I was wounded. I recovered. I beat the shit out of those bastards. But my family suffered very much. My wife never recovered.”

– Marjorie Heins

© 2011 Marjorie Heins. Heins is a former ACLU lawyer, a writer, and a First Amendment expert, whose last book was “Not in Front of the Children: ‘Indecency,’ Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth.” This article will be part of Heins’ forthcoming book on the Supreme Court, academic freedom, and the New York teacher purges (tentative title: “Priests of Our Democracy,” NYU Press, projected publication 2012). Sources for facts and quotations: Irving Mauer interview for the documentary “Dreamers and Fighters”; court and agency decisions, and materials in the Rabinowitz Boudin law firm archives at the Tamiment Library, NYU.


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