Monday, July 4, 2016

The Declaration of Independence, Donald Trump and America's promise

On July 4, 1776 members of the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most stirring, democratic and egalitarian statements of the modern era.

Donald Trump, the presumptive republican candidate for president, who has elevated xenophobia and immigrant baiting to an anti-American art form, would benefit from a careful reading.   

The Declaration was a revolutionary document. Not only did it declare the thirteen colonies independence from the British Monarchy, but it challenged the accepted structures of inequality that had previously governed the affairs of mankind.

For centuries human beings had lived in highly structured, hierarchical societies. Economic and political power was the inherited birthright of a privileged few. Most people were subjects, slaves, indentured servants, and peasants, destined to serve their superiors, the lord, the monarch, and the priest. As Aristotle wrote, “Some men are born to rule and some to be ruled.” 

 The Declaration of Independence challenged the idea that all men were created unequally by asserting the opposite: “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This document turned man’s understanding of the world upside down and laid the basis for an expansive and inclusive democracy even if its principle author was the  slave owner, Thomas Jefferson.

The defeat of the British led to the establishment of a new government that restricted citizenship to white male property owners. But the Declaration inspired labor republicans, country democrats, abolitionists, suffragettes, freemen, immigrants, civil rights and LGBT activists who used the words to extend the rights of citizenship more broadly.

The Declaration lists a series of grievances against King George, the British monarch who ruled the thirteen colonies. While it is well known that the patriots opposed taxation without representation, being forced to house and feed the occupying British troops, and the British monopoly control of commerce, it is rarely mentioned that restrictive immigration policies were another important grievance. Yet the document condemns King George for preventing immigration to the colonies, “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither….”

The nation the Declaration inspired had no laws restricting immigration until the racist Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. As the Statue of Liberty proclaimed, we were a nation that welcomed the world’s hungry and poor yearning to breathe free. Only after WWI were discriminatory quotas imposed on immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

In the Twenty-First Century,  undocumented workers who do our nation's hardest, most dangerous and dirtiest work and their children have picked up where the Patriots left off, asserting that they are human beings with rights denied. Their dream is the same as earlier generations of refugees and immigrants from England, Ireland, Poland, Germany, Italy, Russia and elsewhere to work hard, provide for their families and contribute to America’s great experiment in democratic governance.

Donald Trump’s threat to deport elven million immigrants who live and work in the United States and his plan to build a wall between the United States and Mexico are contrary to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and its vision of a new, free self-governing nation.

So as we celebrate this weekend, take a moment to remember that two hundred and thirty-seven years ago thirteen sparsely populated Atlantic outposts of farmers, servants, slaves and merchants declared that all men were created equal with inalienable rights. Since that day freedom loving people from Selma to Tienanmen Square, from France to Arizona have been inspired by the patriots’ struggle to create a nation of free and equal citizens.

There is no better way to celebrate July 4th than to work for the defeat of Donald Trump. A resounding repudiation of his anti- American views will  pressure Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for our nation’s latest wave of immigrants. That would give all of us who love this country’s promise something to celebrate.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sam Berman, U.S. Army Air Force, returns to Corsica

My mother's ninety-two year old brother,Sam Berman, served in the United States Army Air Force during World War II. He participated in seventy bombing missions from a base in in Corsica. Forty-five years later he returned to Corsica. This is his story. 
Vivian (my wife) and I have friends in France whom we have known for years and with whom we have made many trips. Roger Blachon, a cartoonist, had been a rugby player. Rugby players remain good friends. We met many of these wonderful, funny guys in many places throughout France.  One of them, François Grimaldi, was actually Corsican. I told him that I always wanted to go back to Corsica where I had been stationed during WWII. So he and his wife, Eliane, invited us to be their guests in May, 1989. Their house turned out to be in the mountains overlooking an area that had once been a U.S. airfield where I had been stationed. It turned out to be a very nostalgic trip.
Corsica was important to me because In December, 1942 I volunteered for the Army Air Force hoping to become a pilot. I volunteered because I knew if I were drafted I would be in the infantry, but if I volunteered I could choose the Air Force.

Unfortunately I did not pass the eye exam to become a pilot. So I was sent to radio and gunnery school instead. In July, 1944 I was sent overseas and eventually to Corsica where I flew in combat missions in B25 bombers over southern France and northern Italy. My unit was in the 12th Air Force and the 321st bombardment group.
The Army Air Force was segregated. We had Hispanic kids, but no black kids.
On the first mission I flew we had 10 planes in formation. When we spotted an enemy plane, German, all of us began firing because everyone wanted to kill. Because we were in formation, many of us were shooting though our own formation. We were more likely to hit our own planes than the enemy, particularly because the German plane was to far away.  I don’t know if any of us hit US planes, but that happened frequently during the war.
Another incident: The first time I went up and saw the anti-aircraft I thought, “Gee they really want to kill me.” We had gone up and I saw a military base below.  I grabbed my machine gun and aimed it at the base. Then I called the pilot through the intercom. I asked.” should I strafe the base?” He said, “For Christ sakes no. That’s where we live. It’s our home base. “
In September, 1944 a shortage of bombardiers developed. Since the B25 air crew required that the bombardier also be trained as a navigator I was given quick training as bombardier and navigator.
On November 10, 1944 I was assigned to a crew that was flying to knock out a railroad station in Ostiglia, Italy in the Po Valley. We were attacked by a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft weapons. Our plane was severely damaged. We lost one of our two engines and several of our crew members were injured.  We dropped our bombs. Our plane was diving toward the ground. I decided it was time to get out. I went to the hatch with a parachute about to jump when I realized that no one else was bailing out. I looked at the pilot’s compartment and saw that both pilots were slumped over. A fragment of an anti-aircraft bomb had shattered their Plexiglas window. They were both stunned. Their faces had so many cuts it almost seemed that they had been skinned. I shook the co-pilot and pointed showing him that we were diving toward the ground. He smiled, tested the controls and the plane responded. He shook the pilot. He also appeared uninjured except for the many cuts on his face.
I was asked to fix a course out of Italy that avoided further anti-aircraft weapons. I looked at my charts which showed known anti-aircraft installations and picked a course that I hoped was ok. Luckily it was good enough to get us back over the coast and headed to Corsica. 
Shortly after we returned safely, a formation was called. We all turned out. The General was there. He went down the line. When he got to me he awarded me the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the men on my plane.  The General asked me, “how old are you son?” I suppose because I looked very young.  At the time I didn’t realize that this was a major award. I don’t remember talking about it with the other guys either.
I ended up flying 70 missions. The maximum was supposed to be 50. But they were short of replacement men so they asked us if we would agree to continue flying. I agreed because I had volunteered because I believed the war was a fight to save the Jews in Europe and defeat Hitler.  I remember a Woody Guthrie song from that period: “Round and round Hitler’s grave, round and round we go. Gonna lay that poor man down, won’t get up no more.”
In 1989 Corsica was much the same as I remembered it. But there was no sign of our airfields that had been restored to farmland. We asked a farmer if he knew exactly where our airfield had been. He pointed out the location that had been the airfield.
He said that he was a young child at the time of the war; that he and others counted our planes going and coming back to be assured that we all survived each flight. I was moved by that because we thought the locals were indifferent and only tolerated our presence there. After all, they didn’t need us to liberate them; they had driven the German’s out before we got there. Even now I relive the time there when I write about it.
Other members of the family who served were my brother Jack who was in the Merchant Marines, Arnold in the infantry who was wounded in Okinawa, Sam Rosen in the Navy and Irwin Corey who was in the Entertainment Division of the army but got kicked out, section 8. The only one wounded was my younger brother, Arnold.

Monday, May 23, 2016

R.I.P. Pinius Bergmann (1925-2016)

Five years ago I traveled to Copenhagen to meet my mother’s cousin, Pinius Bergmann, his wife, their children, and my Danish relatives.  

Late one afternoon Pinius said, “Come with me, “I have something I want to show you.”

Glorie and I got in his car.  He drove us to the picturesque, fishing village of Gilleleje where homes with thatched roofs sat juxtaposed to more contemporary abodes.

We pulled up to the village’s museum, a small, modern building. Behind it was an old, worn-out fishing boat, the sea and a 20 foot high statue of Gideon blowing his horn, a gift thanking the people of Gilleleje for their WWII heroism.

It was nearing twilight and so quiet you could hear the waves lapping the shore.   “See that boat,” Pinius began. “I have a story I want to share with you.”

“During the war the Nazis occupied Denmark. But, we were a neutral country so we (jewish people) were not being arrested as we were in other European countries.  Every day the Danish King would ride his horse through Copenhagen to assure us that we were safe.”  

All of that changed in early October, 1943, when the Germans began rounding up Denmark’s Jews for deportation to concentration camps and certain death. 

Pinius continued, “One night my father (Hirsch Barosin) came to me and said,’ it’s time to leave.’  He told me go to the harbor where his friend, a fisherman, had a boat. He didn’t say why. But I did as I was told.  I put on my best clothes because you get dressed up to travel. Little did I know what lay store for me.”

“When I got to the harbor, I was told me to get in the boat, a vessel just like the one you are looking at.  He motioned to a hole. It was covered by a hatch, leading into the boat’s hull. The boat was filled with fish guts.  We climbed down into the fish guts which rose around our necks. The hatch closed behind us.”

“It smelled so bad”, Pinius said tapping his nose.  “I can still smell it today.”
Pinius’ father hoped that the rancid smell of fish guts would deter the German soldiers from searching for the hideaways.  And the German soldiers came. But when they opened the hatch the smell was so bad, so putrid, they slammed it down, gagging. assuming no human being could possibly stand the stench. . .   

The little boat with its lights turned off crossed the channel carrying Pinius and three others to freedom. “I took three baths a day for a year to get rid of that smell,” he told us. 

Six percent of Danish Jews were captured. But with the assistance of Denmark’s citizens, 7,200 Jews, including my uncle Pinius and his future wife Gyda, made it safely to Sweden along with 700 non-Jewish relatives.

Gilleleje’s five hundred households cared for hundreds of refugees, hiding them in a local church attic before ferrying them across to Höganäs, Sweden. Pinius reunited with his family in Sweden. Following the war he returned to Copenhagen. Later he married Gyda with whom he had three daughters.  

Pinius died last month in Copenhagen, Denmark, his adopted city, the city whose people had embraced and saved him and thousands of its Jewish residents during the Holocaust.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Trumbo,the red scare and one family's story

The movie Trumbo is a powerful reminder that democratic values and practices are easy prey in periods of fear and political hysteria. During the Red Scare in the late '40's and '50's, careers were ruined, decent, law-abiding citizens were jailed, families and friendships destroyed and lives lost. This is my family’s story during that era-where in my father’s words, “our lives were turned upside down for quite a while."

Sam Rosen, the third and last child of Louis (Laib Razumm) and Belle ( Baila Kurtz) Rosen, Jewish refugees from near Odessa, attended the University of Wisconsin Madison where he studied with the noted labor economist, Selig Perlman. After graduating in 1941, he joined the Navy, participating in the invasions of Anzio and Northern Africa. Following the war, the GI Bill enabled him to pursue a graduate degree in economics at Harvard.

It was an exciting time filled with possibilities. Hitler and fascism had been defeated. CIO organizing had succeeded in bringing millions of additional workers of all races into the ranks of labor, racial segregation was being challenged, the world's first consumer-based, middle class economy was emerging, and an independence movement was freeing many of the world’s colonized peoples.

The Harvard economics department was home to many prominent economists.  One was the “American Keynes,’ Alvin Hansen who helped create the Council of Economic Advisers and the Social Security System. Another, Joseph Schumpeter, best known for coining the phrase “creative destruction of capital" and developing the theory of innovation, had mentored doctoral student Paul Sweezy. Later as colleagues, their debates on the "Laws of Capitalism" became legendary among my father's generation of Harvard students. Sweezy eventually left Harvard to found the Monthly Review.   

Several of my father’s classmates were international students. Andreas Papandreou became the Prime Minister of Greece. Another, Pu Shan, was from China. After graduation, he returned to his country, served as Chou En Lai’s secretary and in the 1980s helped reform the Chinese economy. He renewed his friendship with my parents in the 1990s when he returned to the United States as a visiting professor at Carleton College.

Among my father's American born classmates was Robert Solomon who became the chief international economist for the Federal Reserve Bank.

Solomon was an upperclassman who taught an economics class at the progressive Sam Adams School in Boston. Upon his graduation and departure from Harvard, Solomon prevailed upon my father to assume his teaching responsibilities at Sam Adams.

1952, the Rosen family had settled in Delaware where my father was employed as an assistant professor of economics at the state university. He liked his department chair, Charles Lanier, a labor economist, and Lanier apparently felt the same about him. Annual raises, summer grants and committee assignments followed.

By 1954, with the aid of a low- interest GI loan, my parents purchased their first home in Brookside, Delaware.  During the move, our lives were in my father’s words “turned upside down” when he and my four-year old sister, Laurie, were confronted at our old house by two FBI agents. The formally dressed men flashed their badges, demanding to interrogate my father. He was, of course, surprised. But he was not unaware of the nation's anti-communist hysteria. His sister, Gertrude, had been forced to resign her teaching position in the Baltimore Public Schools after she joined her American Federation of Teacher colleagues in refusing to sign a loyalty oath. A few years later, Gert's husband, Jimmy Ginsburg, was threatened with deportation. The FBI accused Jimmy, brought to the states as an infant by his immigrant parents, of being a foreign spy. This in spite of the fact that this sporting man, know as "Captain Shmetena (sour cream)" because of his basketball prowess and his father's occupation as a "butter and egg man,"  held the national record for points scored in a basketball game in the 1920’s.

My father, with daughter in tow, informed the FBI that he was too busy to talk. He suggested they meet later, a suggestion he came to regret. When the FBI called a few weeks later, they agreed to meet at our new home. The doorbell rang. Two FBI agents were at the door. My mother took my sister and me to the back of the house. The agents began to interrogate my father. It quickly became clear that they were confused, perhaps mistaking my father for his brother-in law Sammy, a decorated WWII veteran, coauthor of the hit song "Charlie and the MTA," who was active in the Progressive Party, the Boston Folk Society and the Creative Arts Workshop. Or perhaps they confused him with someone else. When they asked my father to provide them with the names of alleged subversives, he informed them that they were no longer welcome in his home. Before departing the agents threatened that if he did not comply with their request they would make life difficult for him. Several days later two agents confronted my father, ordering him into their vehicle.He refused.

Shortly after these incidents, Lanier informed my dad that he had been accused of being a red. “That’s ridiculous isn’t it Sam,” he asked incredulously of his Keynesian colleague.

But the damage was done. No longer was my father asked to serve on university committees. Lanier subsequently informed him that his contract would not be renewed.  My father's close friend and colleague, Abe Shuchman, a professor of marketing at the University of Delaware, was fired. Ironically Shuchman went on to a career as a highly renowned professor of marketing at Columbia University. His contributions are still recognized through an award given annually in his name to a graduating student in the MBA or Executive MBA program. 

With his career at the University of Delaware ruined, my father re-entered the job market. He was hired by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) to which he devoted his professional life.  

Shortly after these events, dad visited Robert Solomon in Washington DC.  In the course of their discussion, Solomon acknowledged that he had informed the FBI about my father's participation in the Sam Adams School, the very position Solomon had recruited him to. This was shattering news.  Solomon offered excuses. They never spoke again.

Sam Rosen taught at the University of New Hampshire until he retired in 1978. He led the effort to establish the University's Ph.D. program in economics ('71), helped organize the Whittemore School of Business and Economics ('62), and was a founding member of the university's chapter of the AAUP. He died in October 2004. The University of New Hampshire awards its outstanding graduate student in economics a scholarship in his name.