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This is a follow-up to the July 1947 PM article about my hometown titled “Utopia in the Catskills” that appeared on the September 30 CounterPunch. Like the PM article, the documentary “Commie Camp” that showed at the Tribeca Theater in New York last June celebrates the leftist subculture of resort areas within geographical and financial reach of working class Jews in the 30s and 40s—in this instance the children’s summer camps favored typically by those working in the garment district.
Among the powerful trade unions that existed in that period, none had a more openly Communist leadership than the furrier’s union. I have vivid memories of visiting relatives in Flatbush who worked in this trade in the mid-50s when I was 10 years old or so. I innocently tuned in “Amos and Andy” on their television (we did not yet have one of our own at home) and was instructed by the man of the house, a furrier, to turn it off since it was racist. It was the first time in my life that anybody had ever acknowledged that racism existed, let alone spoke against it.
“Commie Camp” was directed by Katie Halper who has worked both as a journalist at places like the Nation as well as on documentary films, most notably Naomi Klein’s “The Take”, an excellent study of worker-run factories in Argentina. The camp in question was Camp Kinderland that was founded in 1925 by the Communist faction of the Workman’s Circle. This organization played an important role in my own hometown (my grandfather Louis Proyect was the president of the Workman’s Circle there but affiliated with the Socialist Party faction.)
Despite being hounded by professional witch-hunters in the 1950s, Kinderland never went out of business. In fact, Katie Halper’s parent sent her there in in order to deepen her ties to the left and to absorb Yiddishkeit, the “Jewish wisdom” found more typically in a Lenny Bruce monologue than a synagogue prayer.
Halper was inspired to make the film after noticing that Tucker Carlson, the terminally obnoxious right-winger, had featured a redbaiting attack on his Daily Caller website titled “Obama labor agency nominee sent her kids to Communist-rooted summer camp”. It detailed how Erica Groshen, Obama’s nominee for BLS commissioner, sent her children to Camp Kinderland.
Redbaiting such camps is a time-honored reactionary tradition. In “Raising Reds”, a study of summer camps, the Young Pioneers (the CP version of the boy scouts), and leftist children’s books, Paul Mishler cites an August 1937 exposé of commie camps that appeared in the N.Y. World-Telegram, titled “Comrades on Vacation”. Despite this author’s base intentions, he could not suppress some admiration for his subjects:
“To address another as comrade at Nitgedaigit [the Yiddish name of a camp that meant not to worry in English] was more than social convention. It was an expression of the common bond created by a shared political faith.
“Something should be said here about the fetishism made of the word comrade. It is a word you hear spoken most frequently, and it means much more to them than the uninitiated can comprehend.
“It is not another way of saying friend or mister to them. It is rather an expression of spiritual kinship. It is the establishment of a psychic bond between the user and the one it is used on. The word is used to express meanings these men and women have made for themselves. One day this writer was walking up a steep hill with a man and woman. Both are party members. The woman was having difficulty walking up the incline. She called to the man:
“‘Comrade, give me a hand.’
“He turned and looked at her and smiled a close secret smile. Then he extended his hand and said:
“’Here it is. Take it.’
“He helped her up. For a moment they held their hands together.”
Fifteen years later such an article would be a lot more venomous. “Commie Camp” gives ample time to interviewing Camp Kinderland’s survivors of what Lillian Hellman once called “scoundrel time” but most of it is a loving examination of how kids spend summers there now.
For all practical purposes, it is like other summer camps but with a leftist tilt. For example, they have “color wars”, a competition in which the camp is divided by color in order to gain the most points in tug-of-war, volleyball, etc. At Kinderland, the groups are named after famous institutions of the left like Greenpeace, Center for Constitutional Rights, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and the Highlander Center.
When the kids are not out doing what kids do at other summer camps, they often meet with counselors to discuss problems of American society like racism or economic inequality. All in all, it seems like a good way to spend a summer. For more information on Camp Kinderland, go to their website (http://www.campkinderland.org/) to see how to enroll your own kids.
The Camp Kinderland website has a testimonials page where alumni talk about what the camp meant to them, including the great director Jules Dassin who was on the cultural staff there in the mid-1930s.
While the late Fred Baker was not in Jules Dassin’s league (who is?), he too was a film business pro and a veteran of the commie camp experience. His best-known film was “Lenny Bruce Without Tears” that is available on both Netflix and Amazon.com.
In the late 1990s I sat down with Fred to interview him for a possible biography. He had his camcorder trained on him the entire time since he thought that it might be turned into a film. While Fred was never a member of the Communist Party, his father was during his time as a furrier in the 1930s and 40s. In the 1940s Fred spent his summers at Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, a contraction of Worker’s Children’s Camp. The parent organization was the International Workers Order, better known as the IWO. It served the same kinds of functions as the Workman’s Circle, providing low-cost insurance and the like.
Fred had a long and productive life, even staying active during his final 20 years when he suffered from HIV. Among the high points of his life were the summers he spent at this CP-run summer camp.
Two things stood out in the interview. One was the visit that Paul Robeson made to the camp one summer. The other was learning African drums from Pearl Primus.
As a football scholarship student at Rutgers, Robeson was as good with a football as he was with a spiritual. Fred talked Robeson into throwing him a pass that he caught in mid-air running at full tilt. It was one of his most precious memories. Apparently, Robeson liked to get involved with athletic activities at Wo-Chi-Ca as Mishler reports:
“Robeson umpired a baseball game between two teams of camp staff members. Noticeable in the description of the game is the informality of the occasion. Camper Serge Kanevsky wrote: ‘The game was a hilarious comedy from beginning to end. Paul Robeson did a fine job of calling balls and strikes. One of the unusual features of this umpiring was the fact that Paul was able to call the pitch before the ball left the pitcher’s hand. . . . The game was played in an atmosphere of friendship which helped make the game enjoyable for each staff member as well as for the spectators.’”
Fred learned to play the conga drum at Wo-Chi-Ca from Pearl Primus, the dance counselor. On September 13, Nelson George reviewed a book for the N.Y Times titled “Harlem Nocturne” by Farah Jasmine Griffin that dealt with Black women and the left during WWII, among whom was Pearl Primus. George writes:
“Primus was born in Trinidad and, as a child, relocated with her family to the city, where she was exposed to Afro-Caribbean dance, the innovations of Martha Graham and the sweaty swing style popular at the Savoy Ballroom.
“As an adult, Primus fused these movements with her own impressive physicality. Her ability to leap majestically high made her popular, and John Martin, the New York Times dance critic, praised her ‘tremendous inward power,’ ‘fine dramatic sense’ and ‘superb technique.’ Of the three women in Griffin’s narrative, Primus was the most progressive politically, joining the Communist Party when it was still one of the few organized white movements to challenge Jim Crow and the violence that fed it. The F.B.I. opened a file on her in 1944.”
One can understand why the ruling class would unleash a witch-hunt just around the time that the article “Utopia in the Catskills” appeared. Do not forget that it actually began during the presidency of Harry Truman who required federal workers to sign a loyalty oath. Despite the willingness of the Communist Party to work within the framework of the Democratic Party and the legacy of New Deal liberalism, it was simply too much of a wild card in a period of growing Cold War confrontation.
When I was up in Woodridge (the town featured in “Utopia in the Catskills”) recently, I interviewed a man in his 80s who came out of this milieu. He told me that in the mid-50s there was a group of 30 to 40 radicals that met on a regular basis to map out plans for building the trade union movement locally, to defend the Rosenbergs, and build the NAACP. Today you would be lucky to find 3 to 4 people there who were ready to do anything to oppose the status quo.
Destroying institutions like Camp Kinderland or the Communist Party itself would pave the way for a more docile workforce eager to work within the framework of the “labor-business partnership” embraced by the AFL-CIO leadership as long as it could benefit from rising wages in a period of American hegemony in global markets. Now that this period has come to a decisive end, it is time to begin rebuilding such institutions and on a more intransigent basis than before. Our enemies have made war on us and it is time for us to rearm as well.
(Fred Baker never turned the interview tapes into a film but after I received them a few weeks after his death, I went ahead and made my own documentary about his life and times: https://vimeo.com/37440591)
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.