I am the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to America in the second decade of the twentieth century. During my childhood, my father taught me Marxism and hard work. My mother taught me Judaism and compassion for humanity. Both of my parents taught me to love learning. To know these simple facts is to know much about who I am and why I have led my life the way I have.
Siberia to San Antonio
My father, David Rapoport, was born in Dvinsk, Latvia, which at that time was a province of czarist Russia. He was the son of lawyer Boris Rapoport and the grandson of a man who played an important role in the building of the first railroad in Russia. My father's family enjoyed a relatively affluent and privileged life despite being Jewish in a country deeply marked by vicious anti-Semitism. Because of my great-grandfather Rapoport's involvement in the first Russian railroad, his family had been allowed to reside outside the so-called Jewish Pale of Settlement, a region in eastern Poland and Ukraine where the czar's government forced most Russian Jews to live. This special status made it possible for my grandfather and his brothers to enter professions from which most Jews were banned and to accumulate property and other assets such as a major interest in a salt mine.
I know very little about Papa's father and grandfather. I know nothing about the nature of my great-grandfather's contribution to the development of the Russian rail system. Separated from his parents at an early age, Papa never had the opportunity to learn about his family's recent past, much less his genealogy. When he was a teenager, Papa became a dedicated Marxist and an activist in the Russian Social Revolutionary Party. After the czar's military forces murdered several hundred peaceful demonstrators in the snow-covered streets of St. Petersburg on January 22, 1905 (the day known in Russian history as Bloody Sunday), Papa joined in the anticzarist uprising that rapidly spread across the country.
One of the most significant events in Russian history, the Revolution of 1905 ended when the czar agreed to accept certain governmental reforms, including the creation of an elected parliament. Months before the revolt ended, however, the police arrested Papa for distributing anticzarist propaganda. The usual punishment for crimes against the czar was death, but because of Papa's grandfather's contributions to the country and his family's well-known reputation as conservative subjects loyal to the czar, the government spared his life. He was saved from the hangman's rope, but not from harsh punishment. The Russian High Court of Appeals sentenced him to two years and eight months hard labor and banished him to northeastern Siberia for life. He was only seventeen years old.
Papa endured several harsh winters in Siberia, barely surviving the epidemics that swept frequently through the region. One of my most treasured possessions is a photograph of Papa in that bleak and bitterly cold country as he posed with fellow exiles and their armed guards. One day, after years of suffering intense and debilitating hardship, Papa decided that he had to escape or die. He walked away from his compound when the guards weren't looking. Papa told me that it was easy to leave the camp because there were no physical barriers to keep prisoners inside. The challenge was to survive outside. The camps were so isolated and the climate so hostile that the odds were heavily against anyone's surviving the trek back to the west.
Somehow, Papa beat those odds. He walked hundreds of miles across the Russian landscape, literally trudging much of that incredible distance through ice and snow. He also managed to sneak rides on passing freight trains. With the help of peasants and workers who fed and clothed him along the way, Papa eventually made it back to Dvinsk, where he hid for a brief time with his parents. There he learned that his older brother Raphael had fled Russia to avoid military service. He had immigrated to the United States and had settled in San Antonio, Texas. Facing arrest and a forced return to Siberia or even execution, Papa decided to join his brother in America. With money from his parents to pay the way, Papa traveled to Paris and then to Belgium, where he linked up with a group of exiled Russian socialists who helped him book passage on a steamboat to America. Before he left Europe, Papa's socialist "brothers" in Belgium gave him a letter of introduction to their comrades in the United States. I have that old document hanging in my office. When I show it to visitors I tell them that it is my father's Ph.D. degree.
It is fascinating for me to think about how the course of one's life is directed by a strange mix of conscious decisions, accidents, and sheer coincidence. For example, when my uncle Raphael departed from Europe on a ship bound for the United States, he did not know to what port the boat was going. It landed in Galveston, so that is how we all ended up in Texas. If the boat had docked at Ellis Island instead, it is likely that Raphael would have remained in New York and my story would be much different. But Raphael went to San Antonio from Galveston, and that is where my story began.
Papa departed from Europe in 1913 on a boat bound for the U.S. immigration processing facility at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. From New York, he traveled by train to San Antonio. He could not speak English, so he did not understand that he had to pay for his meals while on the train. Papa's ship fare across the Atlantic had included all meals. He had not eaten well on the boat, so he was eager for some good food. He went to the train's dining car and ordered everything on the menu. When the waiter brought him the check, he realized for the first time that the meals were not included in the price of the train ticket. The train fare had exhausted his remaining funds, so Papa washed dishes all the way from New York to San Antonio.
After Papa arrived in San Antonio, his brother, who had changed his first name to "Foley," helped him get a pushcart so that he could peddle blankets door to door. Uncle Foley was a peddler and he just assumed that Papa would be one too, so that is how Papa supported himself for several years. He walked up and down dusty unpaved streets on the west side of town selling cheap blankets and clothes for 10 cents down and 10 cents a week to the poor Mexican-American families who resided there. He had to return every week to collect the 10-cent payment until the item was paid off. Because all of his customers were recent immigrants from Mexico, Papa knew Spanish before he learned English.
About three years after Papa settled in San Antonio, he met my mother, Riva Feldman. A native of Sevastopol, a major Russian port city on the Black Sea, Mama immigrated to the United States in 1908 with her parents, Chaim and Sarah, and two sisters, Frieda and Fania. She and her sisters had participated in the antigovernment protests during the 1905 revolution. They had escaped punishment, but as the months passed, Mama's parents worried that the girls might be banished eventually to Siberia. They decided to immigrate. Mama's brother, Morris, came to America first, settled in Fort Worth, Texas, and established a junk business that prospered and eventually became a major company called Commercial Metal. Morris sent for the rest of the family to come to Texas.
Mama's parents were Hasidic Jews--deeply devout and learned. Her father, Chaim, was a shocket who was part owner of a kosher butcher shop on East Fifth Street in Fort Worth called the Feldman and Coplin Meat Market. In the Jewish religion, there is a special ceremony that a shocket must perform when animals are slaughtered for their meat. That ceremony makes the meat kosher, which allows Jews who follow the Judaic dietary laws to eat it. Grandfather performed that particular function. I never really knew Grandfather Feldman because he died early, but his love for books and learning made a deep impression on Mama and her sisters.
My grandfather was an eloquent and wise man. Mama told me that he believed that for religion to be worthy it must be concerned with humanity and that it should be an agency for spreading knowledge among the people. She often quoted one of his favorite sayings: "Wisdom is the unspotted mirror of the power of God and the image of His goodness. Knowledge is the path to wisdom. Knowledge is the Messiah of humanity." That beautiful saying of Grandfather Feldman's made a powerful impression on my young mind. It guides me to this day.
My grandfather loved his adopted country. Mama and her sisters liked to sit on the front porch of their little house and sing Russian revolutionary songs. Chaim would tell them to sing their hearts out. "Here in America it's all right," Chaim would say. "In Russia you would be sent to Siberia for that."
My maternal grandmother was Sarah Aronson Feldman, whom we called Bobo. Although she resided in this country for about forty-five years, Bobo always lived as if she were still in a ghetto town in the Crimea. She lived into her early nineties, but she never acclimated herself to this country. She always spoke to me in Yiddish because she never learned English. Mama's youngest sister, Fania, was a poet who married Sam Kruger, a jewelry store entrepreneur in Wichita Falls. An internationally known poet and essayist, Aunt Fania personified the learned and introspective inclinations that characterized the Feldman family. Her best-known works are her books of poetry, Cossack Laughter and The Tenth Jew. Fania's daughter, Bert Kruger Smith, a distinguished educator at the University of Texas at Austin for many years, continued her family's tradition of scholarship.
Another of my mother's relatives who immigrated from Russia was a rabbi in San Antonio named Gerstein. It was he who invited Mother to come to San Antonio for a visit. She met Papa during that trip, and they soon fell in love. They were married in 1916 when they were both in their middle twenties.
From Buena Vista Street to West Woodlawn
I was born on July 17, 1917, a little more than one year after Mama and Papa married. They were living on Buena Vista Street on the West Side of San Antonio, which is the section of town where Papa peddled blankets. Mama and Papa named me after my paternal grandfather, Boris, which is "Bernard" in English. My sister, Idel, my only sibling, was born three years later.
I have few memories of Buena Vista Street because we moved to another neighborhood when I was about five years old. My father sold the Buena Vista Street house for a few hundred dollars profit. It was enough to allow him to make a down payment on a new house near his brother Foley's on West Courtland Place, completely on the other side of San Antonio from Buena Vista Street. This was a major step up the social ladder for us.
Not long after this happy move, however, my family's upward financial mobility ended rather abruptly. My father was unable to make the monthly payments on the house, so the mortgage company had to foreclose and evict us. The sheriff posted a foreclosure sign on the front door of our house. Several burly men soon followed him and unceremoniously moved all of our furniture out on the street. After this traumatic eviction from our new home, we found a rent house at 706 West Woodlawn Avenue, which is the place where the childhood of my surviving memories was spent. The house was a couple of hundred yards from some railroad tracks. As a kid, I had a lot of fun counting the hoboes who were riding the freight trains as they passed our home.
A Radical Heritage
Papa was not religious in the spiritual sense, but he did have a secular religion and that was socialism. He retained his political radicalism after he moved to the United States, which greatly irritated my politically conservative Uncle Foley. As a child, I deeply resented my uncle because he was always picking on Papa and criticizing his political views. You know how it is if someone seems not to recognize the virtues of someone you love, especially if it is your mother or father.
But Papa did not need his brother's approval when it came to politics. For ideological support, Papa could depend on his close friends from about a dozen Jewish Russian immigrant families in San Antonio. The members of this tiny group of Jewish intellectuals were very radical. None of them could speak English fluently—they spoke Yiddish primarily. The rest of the community never accepted them. As a result, my father never let me forget that coming from a Jewish revolutionary family meant that I would have to work twice as hard to get half as far.
We hear constantly today about how Americans are anti-immigrant. I must tell you that it was worse when I was a child, because people were much more obvious with their bigotry and prejudice. In the 1920s many people in Texas were quite suspicious of "foreign elements" in the country. I can remember how people in San Antonio laughed at my father and his friends because of their thick accents. Those Jewish Russians sounded strange to native Texans, many of whom would make fun of them in a rude and disrespectful manner.
Anti-Semitism was also a more overt problem in those days. The Ku Klux Klan had a large chapter in San Antonio, and Jews along with Catholics, blacks, and other so-called "undesirables" were their favorite targets. Our family was so unmistakably Jewish that we were frequently the object of anti-Semitic remarks and jokes. I honestly can't say that I had any frightening experiences. A typical incident would be some kids yelling "Jew boy" at me. Whenever we were with our non-Jewish acquaintances, we frequently had an uneasy feeling that someone would tell some stereotypical Jewish joke or make some disdainful remark. I try to eliminate unpleasant memories like that from my mind, so there might have been more of that type of thing than I care to admit.
Barney and I were visiting our teacher at her house one afternoon after school. Barney and I got into a friendly wrestling match in the front yard of her neighbor's house. Barney injured his leg and had to be carried home. The neighbor was very upset because he was afraid that Barney's father would sue him because Barney had hurt himself in his yard. People didn't sue other people in those days like they do now, but this neighbor knew the Rapoports are Jewish and he believed the anti-Semitic stereotype. You know, "the Jews will sue me or something, they're always money-grubbing," and so on. —Fred Schmidt, B's lifelong friend
People were not as willing to reconcile themselves to ethnic and racial differences in those days as I believe they are today. There is no doubt in my mind that we have made great progress as a society when it comes to accepting people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. We still have a long way to go, especially in black-white race relations, but we are much farther down the road to true tolerance and respect than we were in the 1920s and 1930s.
A heavy Russian accent, of course, was not the only reason my father and his friends remained isolated from the rest of the community. Papa and his comrades were proud of their socialist beliefs, and they were true believers in every sense of the word. Their eagerness to expound their socialist beliefs publicly won them few friends in San Antonio.
I have Papa's membership certificate in the Socialist Party of America framed in my office. He joined the party in June 1914, just a few months after he arrived in San Antonio. That certificate was one of his most prized possessions. My father's politics resulted from his intense and sincere idealism. That idealism permeated his worldview, and it totally defined my early thinking. This is difficult to believe in the context of today when personal agendas dominate public policy debates, but never was my father's idealism related in any way to self-interest.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Papa and his friends firmly believed in the inevitability of a worldwide workers' revolution. For them, communism meant something totally different from what it does today. They were advocating the creation of a state based on a utopian type of communism, not communism as it evolved in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere. These were aesthetic people who were sincerely and profoundly concerned about the pervasive injustices resulting from an unregulated capitalist economy. For them, Karl Marx had the simplest answer to eradicating these very real injustices.
Soap Box Forums
We had a number of fund-raisers at our house for socialist political causes. I remember watching in awe as people who were tottering on the sharp edge of poverty contributed their quarters to whatever cause Papa happened to be pushing at the time. Twenty-five cents was a lot of money to us. You could buy a good meal for that amount. On those weekends when Papa and his comrades were not raising money, they went to Milam Square across from Santa Rosa Hospital and made speeches on soap boxes. I carried my father's soap box to many of those meetings.
One of the strongest memories of my childhood is of Papa standing on his box, speaking fervently (with a Russian accent!) about the coming socialist utopia, waving his fist at the small groups of curious people who would gather around him. Papa's speeches often attracted the attention of Mexican laborers, men who had only recently crossed the Rio Grande in search of a better life. On those occasions Papa gave his speeches in Spanish, a language he knew much better than English. "Workers of the world unite," he would declare in Spanish, "you have nothing to lose but your chains." Recalling this many years later, I am amazed that Papa was not beaten up or arrested, because San Antonio was a very conservative place, with a heavy military presence because of Fort Sam Houston.
Papa and his friends spent nearly all of their spare time arguing among themselves about the world political situation. These immigrant Jewish radicals were the best-informed people that I have ever known in my life. They formed a socialist bund, meeting every night (often at our house) to debate the hot issues of the day. These discussions were always heated and emotional with a lot of yelling, but never to the point of fisticuffs.
I remember a particularly vehement argument one night when I was about eight years old. I woke up the next morning and asked Papa, "Why do y'all scream and yell so loudly? Why do you argue so much?"
Papa answered me in Yiddish: "Bloz twischen ses still," which translated to English means, "Only among thieves is everything quiet."
Ever since then I have understood that intellectual discussion fired with deep passion is good for the mind.
Mr. Rapoport was a very emotional person. I can tell you that there was a lot of yelling in that house. —Fred Schmidt
When I was in England I met a woman there. We were students together. We immediately had an affinity for each other because we found out that when we were little girls and had dolls, our dolls did not go to parties. Our dolls went to political meetings. So political activity, community involvement, contributing to the world—I mean Bernard and I got that with mother's milk. I just do not remember a time that my parents were not having meetings at the house, were not involved in discussing the world situation, and what to do about this or what to do about that. —Idel Rapoport McLanathan
Sacco and Vanzetti and Shock Waves from Moscow
Growing up in such a politically charged environment, I cannot remember a time when I have not had an interest in politics and public affairs. During my early childhood in the 1920s there were countless political events large and small that generated intense discussion in our home, but the one event that I can remember having the most distressing effect on my family was the Sacco and Vanzetti affair.
Papa followed the tribulations of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti so closely you would have thought he was the one on trial. Of course, in that case he had every reason to feel a personal connection. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and anarchists who were tried and convicted of the murder of two men during a robbery in Massachusetts in 1920. The controversial trial and the appeals that followed generated massive international interest. Their trial made a mockery of the American judicial system, and the prosecution turned it into an anti-immigrant and anti-leftist Inquisition. Having little evidence to connect Sacco and Vanzetti to the crime, the prosecutor systematically exploited their alien status, their poor knowledge of English, their unpopular political views, and their opposition to U.S. participation in World War I in his successful effort to convict them.
Papa felt that the prosecution's attack on Sacco and Vanzetti was an attack on himself, his radical friends, and any American who shared their immigrant, pacifist, and radical backgrounds. And he was right. The more I learned about the case while I was at the university, the more I understood how my father could feel so threatened by that affair. One of the vivid memories of my childhood was the night of August 22, 1927, when Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair. It was just like members of my family had passed away.
The year 1927 was a deeply traumatic one for Papa in a political sense. The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in August was followed in November by Joseph Stalin's expulsion of Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. To my father, Trotsky and Zinoviev had been heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution and the terrible civil war that followed, but now the Communist Party was saying that these heroic leaders actually were despicable counterrevolutionaries.
Until the late 1920s, my father, although never a member of the Communist Party of the USA, had been among those socialists who believed that the Soviet Union was in the vanguard of the historical process moving humanity toward the socialist utopia. The expulsions of Trotsky and Zinoviev, which were followed by the purge of several other old Bolsheviks, stunned my father and precipitated intense and emotional debates within his little circle of Jewish radicals. I believe that my father's disenchantment with Soviet Communism began with the purge of Trotsky. Unlike many radicals in the United States whose politics became more extreme after the Sacco and Vanzetti affair, Papa's views moderated. He became an evolutionary socialist instead of a revolutionary. But that transformation had nothing to do with the Sacco and Vanzetti affair. It resulted from the disheartening events in his native Russia.
Papa supported American Socialist Party candidate Norman M. Thomas for president in 1928. Thomas was a former Presbyterian minister who had succeeded Eugene V. Debs as the leader of the Socialist Party. My father was head of San Antonio's tiny Socialist Party in 1928, and he worked hard for Thomas's presidential candidacy. The 1928 presidential campaign was the first political campaign that I can remember well. Of course, Democrat Al Smith and Republican Herbert Hoover were the major candidates that year, and Thomas had no chance of winning, but that made no difference to Papa. He was accustomed to supporting losing political candidates as well as hopeless causes. When Thomas came to San Antonio during the campaign, he stayed at our house, a memorable event for my family. He and Papa discussed politics until late that night.
Norman Thomas was a civil libertarian (he helped found the American Civil Liberties Union) and pacifist who espoused a moderate, non-Marxist brand of socialism. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Papa was not yet ready to jettison his Marxist view of the world, but he was strongly attracted to many of the ideas that Norman Thomas promoted. He again supported Thomas when he ran for the presidency in 1932. When Franklin Roosevelt launched all those wonderful New Deal programs that borrowed many of Norman Thomas's basic ideas, I asked Papa if he was sorry for not voting for Roosevelt in 1932. I have always remembered his answer to my question: "Son, if people like me hadn't voted and worked for Norman Thomas and put pressure on Mr. Roosevelt, he wouldn't be doing the things he's doing now." As I have gotten older and suffered through so many seemingly lost causes, that statement of Papa's has given me hope that it is not all in vain.
Mr. Rapoport always thought that President Roosevelt had stolen the Socialist Party platform, all the things that the Socialists had talked about since the days when Eugene Debs had first run for president: unemployment insurance, work relief, and things of this kind. He sort of disliked him for that reason. It ruined Mr. Rapoport's revolution. —Fred Schmidt
In the mid 1930s, when Papa learned of Stalin's murderous purges, his doubts about communism turned into total disillusionment. He understood then that Stalin and his henchmen were the worst kind of barbarians. To some extent, I feel that Papa lost interest in life when that happened. The 1935 Moscow show trials and subsequent executions broke up his band of Jewish radicals. It just took the revolutionary spirit out of them. They continued to visit socially, but they quit having those lively, noisy, emotional, political discussions that so often had kept me awake at night. I think that Mr. Stalin killed a lot more people than the records will ever show. He killed the hopes of millions of people all over the world when he proved to be the murderer that he was. At the same time that this political disillusionment took hold in the late 1930s, Papa's old comrades started dying off. Their circle got smaller and smaller, and my father got lonelier and lonelier.
Surviving the Depression
The tough times caused by the economic depression of the 1930s are etched deeply in my memory. About a year and a half before the stock market crash of 1929, Papa gave up his peddler's business and took a job as an agent for an insurance company called Texas Life. Like all of the other children in school, I had to write on my enrollment form at the start of the year what my father did for a living. It was a big thrill for me when I could say that Papa was an insurance salesman rather than a pushcart peddler.
Papa sold low-cost, small-payoff life insurance. By the time the Depression fell on us, Papa could afford a car that he drove around selling these insurance policies. I sometimes rode in the car with him just to keep him company. Papa's sales fell to nothing during the early days of the Depression, and his clients could not pay him the money they owed. He in turn was unable to pay the people he owed.
Mr. Rapoport worked all of the time. By the time I knew him, he had given up the pushcart that he had when he first came to this country and was in the insurance business. He had a little office in downtown San Antonio. The kind of insurance he sold was very common in those days. It was 25 cents down and 25 cents a week. He would go around collecting the 25 cents. It was real small stuff, and he was doing it largely on the West Side of San Antonio among lower income groups. —Fred Schmidt
I found out years later that Papa carried the payments for some of his clients when the economy hit bottom so that their policies wouldn't lapse. He was helping his friends even though we had so much trouble paying our own bills that it seemed as though the utilities were cut off at our house as often as they were on. I remember the sharp embarrassment that it caused me more than anything else. Whenever one of my friends asked to use our telephone, I would tell him to wait until I looked into something. Then I would slink over to the telephone to check if the line was dead. If it was, I made up some story about why the telephone was unavailable. Of course, it was even more embarrassing when friends visited and the lights wouldn't go on when they flicked a wall switch. There was no way to hide the darkness.
That is what I remember the most about the Depression, the embarrassment that it caused me as a child.
The family was poor and Mr. Rapoport was very tight with what little money he did have. Barney and his sister had no toys, nothing like that. Mr. Rapoport had no time for frivolities. There was no such thing as going out on a family picnic or going to a show together. —Fred Schmidt
There was so little money in our family, Mama would have to save for a year or two to buy one of us something. I still remember the day that my brother came home on the trolley carrying a new scooter. Mother had it put in layaway at the store and then saved for months to pay for it. I remember this was the grandest thing I had ever seen in my life. That was really a high holiday in our house. That is the kind of thing Papa never did. —Idel McLanathan
Although there wasn't much that I could do as a child to help out the family in the financial sense, I did work part-time jobs to bring in a little extra money. I was ten or eleven years old when I got my first job selling Liberty magazines. Later on, the man who owned the grocery store up on the corner hired me to distribute advertising circulars. He gave me 25 cents a day to deliver them to the front door of the houses in the neighborhood.
One time I was delivering the circulars and I got bored with the job, so I decided that no one would know if I didn't deliver all of them that day. I threw a batch of them in the creek close to our house, returned to the store, and got my quarter from the owner. I don't recall how, but Papa found out about it. He was absolutely furious. He told me that I had cheated the store owner and that I had committed a terrible sin. What was the sin? I had agreed to do a job for someone and I had not done it as well as I knew how. That simply was unacceptable to my father. He made me take the quarter back. I was deeply humiliated and ashamed. It took some time before I could look him in the eye again without feeling bad about what I had done, but that was a good experience because it taught me a lesson that has stayed with me all of my life.
I honestly don't know how people kept body and soul together during the worst part of the Depression. Somehow, Papa managed to bring home two or three dollars a day, and in those days two or three dollars was a lot of money, so we were able to live. Although the food wasn't bountiful, we had enough to eat. We didn't live well, obviously, but although we were poor financially, we were rich culturally. My parents had a wonderful collection of records that we loved to play on an old Victrola that we had to wind by hand. There was a supply of recordings of great symphonies and operas. We had a deeply cultural home, and in some important ways that alleviated the problems resulting from our lack of material things.
They lived in a little bungalow of a house. It had a front bedroom and a little living room and dining room. Mr. Rapoport had turned the other bedroom into a study, and under the locked bookcase he had all of his books in Russian. In back, they had a porch where Barney slept. I spent a lot of time sleeping there, too. His sister, Idel, had a little cubicle also in the back of the house. There were no frills. They had linoleum floor coverings, no carpet, and no finery. —Fred Schmidt
The most important element in our cultural and intellectual lives was our reading. Throughout my life, Papa constantly admonished me always to protect my good name, always to maintain a sense of outrage at injustice, and never to be without a book in my hands. To him it was a crime not to read a book every day. My father had one of the brightest minds that I've ever been around. He had a tremendous library from which we read Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin. By the time I was fourteen, I had read all of the Russian masters. Then, of course, we had the writings of the communist theoreticians, including Bukharin and Sorel, as well as the works of other revolutionary writers. They all played a prominent role in our library because Papa remained a political radical for most of my early childhood years, and they were the philosophical base of his worldview.
Books really were the center of the Rapoport household. Books were shelved and even piled all over the place. Mr. Rapoport was a very literate man who read everything that he could get his hands on. —Fred Schmidt
Not all of our reading was serious. I have special memories of the fun I had reading A. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. We also were avid newspaper readers. There were three newspapers published daily in San Antonio when I was young, and we read them all. We also subscribed to three weekly Jewish newspapers: the right-wing Tag (for my grandmother), the socialist Jewish Daily Forward, and the leftist Freiheit. All three came to our house on a regular basis, so our family always knew what was going on in the Jewish community in the United States and throughout the world.
Mama and Papa also were well aware of the issues and problems in San Antonio, but they did not participate in local election campaigns because they didn't think their views would be taken seriously. One exception, however, was when Maury Maverick, Sr., ran for Congress from San Antonio in 1934. Maverick was a descendant of Samuel A. Maverick, the Texas pioneer whose habit of letting his unbranded calves wander loose gave the English language the word "maverick," a popular term for a person who refuses to follow the pack.
Maury Maverick certainly lived up to his name. He was an outspoken liberal who thoroughly enjoyed his role as an agitator and dissident. In Congress, Maverick was the only Southerner to support the federal antilynching bill. He was one of the most progressive men ever to have served in the Texas delegation in Congress. In my opinion, Maverick was one of the great men in Texas, one of the most unappreciated public servants in Texas history.
Despite being a Democrat and not a Socialist, Maverick was Papa's kind of man. Not only did Papa support Maverick but he also worked hard for his election. Papa had influence in some of the Mexican neighborhoods. The people who lived there were his friends because they were the people he dealt with in his blanket and insurance business. I remember Papa walking up and down the streets on the west side of town handing out Maverick bumper stickers and pins, knocking on doors to talk to his Mexican-American friends about voting for Maverick. In those days it was common practice in San Antonio for politicians to buy the votes of these poor people. They would give Mexican voters a dollar bill with a slip of paper listing the name of the candidate for whom they were supposed to vote. Papa pleaded with his Mexican friends not to sell their votes.
Papa helped Maury Maverick in every one of his campaigns for Congress; he won in 1934 and 1936 but lost in 1938. Maury was the first professional politician that I ever met, and he was the first political leader to pay any attention to my mother and father. While he was still in Congress, Maury visited me in Austin, where I was going to college. As a courtesy to Mama and Papa, he came to the jewelry store where I worked to see how I was doing. Later that evening I met him for dinner at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel on Congress Avenue. Maury bought me the first charcoal-broiled steak dinner I ever had. I can still see that steak sizzling on the platter. I didn't think there was anything in this world that could taste that good. He was exceedingly kind to me and my family, and I never forgot it. His son, Maury Junior, later became a close friend and political comrade of mine.
I was lucky to have some gifted and caring teachers at almost every level of my schooling in the San Antonio public schools: Beacon Hill Grammar School, Mark Twain Junior High School, and Thomas Jefferson High School. I don't remember much about my elementary schoolteachers except that they were good. At Mark Twain Junior High, Mrs. Byers, my Latin teacher, and Helen Upshulte, my social studies teacher, were tremendous influences on me. Miss Upshulte was the first really pretty teacher I ever had, and since I was about thirteen or so, that made an impression on me. She and Mrs. Byers both gave me special attention, and they made me more of a social animal than I had ever been before. They realized that I was a little bit backward in the social amenities, and they helped draw me out of my shyness. Mrs. Byers chose me for the class play, which was my debut as well as my finale as an actor. Although acting wasn't my forte, the experience helped me to develop some social skills.
My socialization was slowed, however, by a traumatic incident that occurred when I was in the ninth grade. Like most kids in the 1920s and 1930s, I was crazy about major-league baseball. I followed the team standings and read the box scores of games in the sports pages every morning. The most memorable baseball season for me was in 1930, largely for a reason having nothing to do with the pennant races or the World Series.
In 1930 the St. Louis Cardinals won the National League championship by two games over the Chicago Cubs. Connie Mack's awesome Philadelphia Athletics easily won the American League title. That was a great season. The Cubs' Hack Wilson hit 56 home runs, and the New York Giants' Bill Terry won the batting championship with a .401 average. The World Series that October was the most anticipated event in my thirteen-year-old life. The Cardinals, featuring such baseball luminaries as infielder Frankie Frisch (the Fordham Flash) and pitcher Wild Bill Hallahan, were facing a tough Philadelphia team led by pitcher Lefty Grove, catcher Mickey Cochrane, and outfielder Al Simmons—each one destined for the Hall of Fame.
Happily for me, the series was broadcast over the radio in San Antonio. In those days the games were played during the daylight hours only, which meant that I had to get home as quickly as possible after school to catch the last few innings. I heard the end of the opening game on October 1, which Philadelphia won 5 to 2.
The second game, however, was played on October 2, which happened to be Yom Kippur. Because of this important Jewish holy day, I was allowed to miss a day of school to attend synagogue observances. That also made it possible for me to get home earlier than usual and hear the game. After the services that afternoon, I rushed from the synagogue and jumped on the city bus that went by our house on West Woodlawn. When the bus stopped at my house, I was so eager to get to the radio that I dashed into the street without looking for oncoming cars. When I got about six feet from the curb in front of my house, a car hit me. The force of the car's impact tossed me into the air, and I landed on the street pavement bruised, bloody, and unconscious. The driver was an eighteen-year-old kid named Elliott Hovel. He tried to avoid me, but I ran out in front of him too suddenly. After striking me, Hovel's car swerved into our front yard and knocked down a tree. He must have been speeding, because the police arrested him on the charge of aggravated assault with an automobile. I don't know what happened to him after that.
Some of the neighbors ran out and picked me up off the street. I regained consciousness as they carried me into the bedroom of my house. I vividly remember the excruciating pain in my right leg and the profuse bleeding from my other leg. Mama was by my side crying her head off. I don't know how Mama lived through it. She was crying so much while we were in the ambulance on the way to the hospital that I told her jokes to make her feel better, even though I was in a lot of pain. At the hospital, the ambulance driver told a reporter about my attempts to cheer up Mama. The next day the headline on the news story in the San Antonio Light declared, "Boy Victim Jokes for Mother."
The ambulance took me to Central Clinic on St. Mary's Street. I received very poor medical treatment there because my family had no money. Dr. Paschal, the attending physician, was not an orthopedic specialist. Actually, I don't think he was much of a doctor for any purpose. I later learned that his main business was conducting examinations for insurance injury claims. This doctor mishandled my case rather badly. He wrapped adhesive tape around my legs, which did me no good. A few weeks later, when I tried to stand up for the first time by using my crutches, the bone in my leg shifted at the point where the break had occurred. The pain was incredible. That really set me back.
My brother's accident was a really critical event in our family. Although he was in great pain, his main concern was for Mama. He didn't want her to be so frightened. We had a doctor who really did not take care of him. The whole terrible thing seemed to go on forever. But I'll never forget that one of the first things he said after he woke up and realized what had happened was that his career was lost. He meant that he would be a year behind in school and that might somehow keep him out of college. He said nothing about how it would affect his playing with the other boys or anything like that. He was only thirteen. I mean, he always had this seriousness about him. I was terrified for him. —Idel McLanathan
Frustrated by Dr. Paschal's incompetence, Mama somehow persuaded an outstanding physician, Peter McCall Keating, to take my case. Dr. Keating treated my injury properly. He moved me to Santa Rosa Hospital, which was a better medical facility, and then he put metal tongs in my leg to keep the bone sections together and placed weights on my feet to hold my legs steady in bed. Within two days I could feel the improvement, although I remained bedridden.
Because of the mishandling of my broken leg initially, the recovery took several months. I was forced to stay in bed until December, and I was unable to return to school until April 1931. Mother had a wonderful tutor named Miss Easterling come to the house, and she helped me keep up with my classmates in school. I was always a pretty good student, so I really didn't have much trouble with my lessons, but it was difficult being in bed for more than two months. I remember waking up every morning at about 5:30 and just lying there waiting to read the newspaper. I missed my friends and the social contacts that a kid needs. It was so frustrating, because I could hear children laughing and playing outside while I was in bed. Fortunately, I had some good friends whom Mama invited over every Saturday and Sunday to have lunch and visit with me. We had a big dining-room table where I played board games and card games with them. It was frustrating for a teenage boy, of course, but thanks to Mother, I never felt lonely.
When I was ready to get back on my feet, Dr. Keating put a leather and metal brace on my leg to provide the necessary support to allow the bone to continue to heal properly. The brace was flexible enough to allow my leg to bend at the knee. It gave me mobility, made me feel much better, and allowed me to get back in school, where I quickly became known as Peg-leg Rapoport. That nickname sounds humorous now, but it was anything but funny to me at the time.
Dr. Keating did a magnificent job. Over the years, I have often wondered if Mama and Papa ever paid him. If they did, I don't know how. My leg injury was such an ordeal that sixty-five years later I can still mentally feel the pain from that broken bone. As a result of the accident, my right leg is an inch and a quarter shorter than the left.
That accident did two good things that have stayed with me all my life. When I finally recovered, Mama got me a tennis racket so that I could play a noncontact sport. I learned to play tennis, a sport I love and still play daily. I have gotten much enjoyment as well as exercise from my tennis playing, but I doubt that I would have learned the game otherwise. More important, however, the accident taught me at an early age just how precious and precarious life really is.
High School Days: Fred Schmidt and Pecan Shellers
The truly meaningful friendships that I had during my high school years were with two boys, Louis J. Manhoff Jr. and Fred Schmidt. I had known Junior Manhoff since elementary school. We were inseparable. We played together every day, and we just had an existential kind of love for one another. His personality at that age was pretty much like mine: quiet, shy, and serious. He was a brilliant physical scientist in high school, and he eventually became a very fine medical doctor in San Antonio.
Fred Schmidt came out of a childhood that was not as happy as mine, so I felt like he needed our family. Because the need was there, it created a special kind of closeness enhanced by mutual respect and compatibility.
I met Barney in Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio in 1933. I don't remember how we met. It just seems like we've always been together. But Barney befriended me. I didn't have any parents, and I was living alone in high school. Barney and I spent a lot of time together. I hung around his house a lot. He taught me to play chess and things like that. His mother was a saint. I'd go over to his house for a hot meal. Mrs. Rapoport was always putting an extra plate down when I was around the house. —Fred Schmidt
Fred Schmidt was one of Mama's boys. His mother had died and his older sister was taking care of him. —Idel McLanathan
Fred planned to be a Presbyterian minister after college. I went to church with him on Sunday mornings several times. He would take me up to his minister after the services and we would talk about religion. Fred worked hard to win me over to Christianity, and he actually had me on the brink of converting at one point. I kept a diary during my late teenage years. When I read it recently for the first time in decades, I found this entry from June 1936: "Fred inspires me to such clean thoughts. He tries awful hard to make me religious but I don't believe he ever will."
Papa had the Marxist view of religion as "the opiate of the masses," so he didn't look on my churchgoing with any satisfaction. Mama was much more of a spiritual person, however, and she wanted her children to be exposed to various religions. She was very broad-minded about things like that.
I was very much involved in the Presbyterian church in high school. I belonged to the young people's group that met every Sunday at our church. I tried to proselytize Barney. He chides me about that to this day, and he likes to remind me about how when we were on the debating team I would sometimes say, "Well, let's stop and hold hands and pray before we go into this debate." That's how fervid I was. —Fred Schmidt
I didn't realize until many years later, however, that the religious education was not all going in one direction. Fred learned as much from me about Judaism as I did about Christianity from him.
I celebrated all of the religious holidays with the Rapoports, and I learned a lot about their culture. I don't know that they went to temple. It was more of an observance of the High Holy Days and the cultural side of Judaism. And the food—you know, the matzo balls, the beet soup or borscht—I ate a lot of that. —Fred Schmidt
After Mama and Papa, Fred Schmidt probably was the most important single influence on my life. He was one of the few people that I knew in high school who thought deeply. Fred was the kind of guy who would challenge my mind with provocative or difficult ideas. In that way, he was a profound influence on me intellectually. I believe that my parents and I served as the same kind of catalyst for him. Fred was very liberally inclined in political terms, and he enjoyed hearing Papa's radical views.
Barney took me to the Socialist Party meetings in San Antonio—this was right in the depths of the Depression in 1933 and 1934—and introduced me to a lot of radical thoughts. That was pretty amazing actually, because Jefferson High School at that time had a lot of rich kids, not many minority students and not many poor kids, because it was the North Side of San Antonio. The poorer kids went to Breckenridge High School or to the trade school or Catholic high school. Jefferson was not the place where one would expect to find anyone with thoughts even resembling socialism, and here was this shy Jewish high school kid with all of these Socialist connections. —Fred Schmidt
One of our high school social studies teachers also served as a significant influence on my political and intellectual development. Her name was Olga Vogel. She was the person who introduced me to the modern American liberal thinkers, especially Thorstein Veblen, whose ideas have had a profound influence on my life (but more about that later). Miss Vogel, who taught me during my junior year, was one of the most dedicated and gifted teachers I have ever known. She often had Fred and me over to her house in the afternoons after school to discuss the social and political issues of the day.
Miss Vogel was very liberal politically, and she encouraged us to look at the social and economic injustices in our own back yard. One of the worst cases of labor exploitation in the United States existed in pecan-shelling workshops in my old neighborhood on the West Side of San Antonio, where most of the city's poor Mexican Americans resided. I went with Miss Vogel to look at working conditions in the shops. The owners of the pecan companies brought pecans to shops where groups of poor Mexican families would assemble to crack and remove the shells so the insides could be used commercially. I saw whole families—mother and father, grandparents and children—sitting for long hours on hard benches in hot and filthy work sheds diligently shelling pecans for pennies a day. A large number of children had to work in these factories instead of going to school. Even with the entire family working, they couldn't make enough money to lift them out of the bottom rank of poverty.
Papa's lecturing about capitalist exploitation of labor was one thing, but this was the first time that I had seen it with my own eyes and recognized it as such. Miss Vogel persuaded me to write a term paper about the pecan shellers, and the assignment became the first time that I had ever seriously analyzed economic and social injustice based on personal observation.
In 1938 the pecan shellers finally went on strike and shut down 130 of the pecan shops, sending shock waves through San Antonio's conservative business establishment. The strike leader was a fiery young Mexican-American woman named Emma Tenayuca, who earned from admiring workers the title "La Pasionaria de Texas." Tenayuca was a hardworking and dedicated labor organizer. She also was a Communist whose involvement in the strike made headlines across the country. By the time of the strike, I was away at the University of Texas, but I paid close attention to the event.
I knew Emma, although not well. She had been a member of the student debate team at San Antonio's Breckenridge High when I was at Jefferson. Fred Schmidt and I were on Jefferson's debate team, and I remember that Emma had been a tough opponent in our debate contests against Breckenridge. Ironically, the debate issue that year was whether the electric light and power industry should be owned by the government. It was ironic because Emma had to take the negative side in the debate, and she and her partner really stuck it to us. I remember that we had a hard debate, but after all these years I can't remember who won. My guess is that Emma's team beat us, because I wasn't a good debater. I do remember, however, that Emma was as pretty as she was tough. Fred and I liked her.
I was delighted when Emma and the pecan shellers won a few concessions to end the strike in March 1938. The victory proved to be a hollow one, however. The labor problems persuaded the pecan owners to replace the workers with shelling machines. Of course, mechanization (later called "automation") would ultimately do grave damage to the entire labor movement. Emma continued her work as a labor organizer and Communist Party activist. She was married at one time to Homer Brooks, the head of the Communist Party in Texas. I lost track of Emma for many years, but I understand that she renounced communism and retired as a labor organizer. She died in San Antonio in 1999.
Although I was not the best of debaters, that was no fault of our coach, E. C. Barksdale, another wonderful teacher. Barksdale later became a history professor at Arlington State University (now the University of Texas at Arlington). He did more than just teach us to debate; he made us understand what the subject matter was all about. This man would spend hours and hours after school with Fred and me. He was so good that we somehow made it all the way to the semifinals in the state championship in Fort Worth, where we won a silver cup. Barksdale was one of those guys who would tear a little piece of his gut out and give it to you. I'm sure that anybody who had contact with him feels the same way I do. He just stands out in my mind.
I had some excellent teachers, such as Olga Vogel and E. C. Barksdale, but I didn't have a lot of fun in high school as far as my social life was concerned. I had a few dates, but I never was a man about town. For one thing, I never had any money to spend on girls. And I didn't know how to dance because that was considered to be a lot of foolishness around our house. I had fewer dates than most young people had during those times.
Barney and I didn't go to the dances. We didn't have a car. We didn't have any spending money. That left us out of the social and athletic activities of high school. —Fred Schmidt
I've always been too serious, and it's because of the circumstances in which I grew up. Papa had no sense of humor. There was virtually no levity with him; everything was extremely serious. I never read the funny pages in the newspaper because I knew that Papa disapproved. I did read the sports pages, but never when Papa was around. He felt that it was a big waste of time. Papa frequently warned me that there is no time tomorrow to get anything done, you have to get it done today—and he lived his life that way. Papa regularly left the house by four-thirty in the morning for work, and he wouldn't get home until eight or nine at night. Among my most enduring memories are the many telephone calls over the years that I received from Papa at 5 A.M. I would be jolted awake by the ringing of the telephone, and when I mumbled hello, Papa would demand to know what I was doing.
"Papa, I was sleeping," I would answer, knowing full well what was coming next.
"Son, do you want to be a bum all of your life? Get out of bed and start reading a book right now!"
It is a joke with my husband. I still get up most mornings around four o'clock, and he will ask, "Why are you getting up?" Then as a joke I will say, "Because I have not accomplished anything yet today," but it is not exactly a joke. I mean, it was very important to my father that I did something constructive, and this was just part of what a person does. —Idel McLanathan
Barney's father wasn't very communicative. He had a scowl on his face all of the time. He was tough. I can remember one time when Mr. Rapoport's car battery had gone dead. What you did with batteries in those days was put them at a filling station and recharge them. It would take two or three days, and it was 10 cents a day. Mr. Rapoport got in a huge argument with the filling station attendant when he picked up his battery, arguing about whether it was three days or four days. They had this big battle over 10 cents, and I think Mr. Rapoport won that argument. He was extremely forceful on things like that. —Fred Schmidt
Bottle Washer for the NYA
I graduated from high school in 1935 in the top 1 percent of my class and as a member of the National Honor Society. My election to the National Honor Society was my first meaningful recognition. I was always an especially good student, but I don't really deserve a lot of credit for that. My family background compelled me to be a good student. My parents had a deep commitment to education, and good grades were just all-important. Mama always told me I was the smartest boy in the world, so I had self-confidence in the classroom at an early age.
One thing about the old immigrants (or greenhorns, as people like my parents were called back then), they lived their lives through their children. Maybe they did it to a fault, but that was the way they lived. Their children's success was almost the only personal satisfaction they could enjoy. In conversations with her friends, all Mama would talk about was my sister and myself. We were her entire life. Idel and I loved her dearly. This passage in my diary from May 1936 (I was eighteen years old) tells all you need to know about my feelings for Mama: "Today is Mother's Day. OK God, you blessed me with an angel. I love her better than life itself."
Idel eventually became a professor of psychology at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where she taught until her retirement in 1984. In Mama's later years, whenever she was asked about her children, she would always say proudly, in a clear and strong voice, "My daughter, she's a professor." Then, in a muted tone, she would say, "My son, he has an insurance company," adding in her louder voice, "but he's a very learned boy!" I came out of an atmosphere that told me that education was the only thing that counted.
Because of my family's obsession with education, it was just as natural for me to go to college as it was to sit down and have breakfast in the morning. Almost from the day I was born, I knew I was going to college. That's all Mama and Papa talked about when they discussed my future. There was never any discussion of "if" I was going; it was always "when." The problem, however, was money—our lack of it. There was a will to go to college, but there was no obviously apparent way.
I don't remember the details now, but in those days a member of the National Honor Society automatically received a book and tuition scholarship to Drake University in Iowa. I couldn't accept it, however, because I didn't even have the money to travel up there, much less pay for my room and board. Truthfully, the Drake scholarship didn't appeal to me anyway, because I had a deep yearning to go to the University of Texas in Austin. My family's financial difficulties meant that I would have to work at a night job in Austin to pay my way through college. Unfortunately, jobs—even part-time positions—were scarce. I failed to find work in Austin. I had better luck in San Antonio, where I discovered that the National Youth Administration (NYA), one of Roosevelt's New Deal agencies, would pay me 25 cents an hour to wash chemistry bottles if I enrolled in San Antonio Junior College. Postponing my dream of going to the University of Texas at least for one year, I accepted the NYA job and registered for classes at San Antonio Junior College.
My friend Fred Schmidt was more successful. He received a full scholarship to study for the ministry at Austin College, a small private denominational school in the north Texas town of Sherman. While he was away, we kept up a correspondence in which he would argue for a kind of Christian liberalism while I continued to proselytize for my rather confused version of noncommunist Marxism. I have often said that I won that intellectual battle, but that really isn't true. Through his own intellectual development, Fred dropped his Christian advocacy and became a Marxist. It caused him to leave Austin College after one year to enroll at the University of Texas. In some ways, Fred became more radical than I was.
To me, San Antonio Junior College was really a glorified high school. I resented having to spend a year there, but there was nothing I could do about it. My job as a bottle washer added to my unhappiness. It was tough because I had to wash some harsh and corrosive chemicals out of the glass tubes and bottles. None of us wore gloves while we worked, and the chemicals irritated our hands so severely that the skin often blistered and peeled off.
A Devout Communist
The year I spent at San Antonio Junior College was not a complete waste of time. I met a brilliant young Jewish political activist there by the name of Nathan Kleban, who challenged me to examine my political views in more depth than I ever had before. When I first met him in April 1936, Nathan had decided to become a member of the Communist Party of the USA. He and I spent many hours discussing the merits of communism and the evils of capitalism. Although I had long thought of myself as a noncommunist Marxist, my discussions with Nathan caused me to look more favorably on communism. Because of Nathan, who was more radical than any of my other friends in those days, I experienced a period of intense self-examination and some inner confusion about the nature of my worldview. My diary entries from that spring and summer reveal the intellectual turmoil I was experiencing:
[April 26] Met Nathan Kleban. He's an atheist and a communist. I don't know what I am. I wish I did. This mental frame of mine is terrible and I hate it.
[June 16] Nathan Kleban came over. We talked about Communism. I believe Communism has good ideals. I don't know of the practicality of it. I'm not going to say what I am until I have definitely made up my mind. Kleban [is] a brilliant boy; I would like to know him better. He's like [Fred] Schmidt except he's on the other side.
[July 4] Today is Independence day. Nathan Kleban came over. I surely like to talk to him. My sympathies are more than ever with the working man but in a more practical way.
[July 16] Nathan ate supper over here. I am beginning to get idealistically communistic. I would like to join the party. It is the only sensible plan, a plan which protects all the people. I believe it is far superior to any other system.
[July 20] I am becoming more and more interested in Communism. I have to consider if the fact that the communists advocate force and violence is enough to make me a socialist. That's a very serious question.
[July 24] I sure am interested in dialectic materialism. I believe I am a devout communist.
After I moved to Austin to go to the university in the fall of 1936, Nathan and I kept in touch. We got together whenever I made weekend visits back to San Antonio to see Mama and Papa. When I came home for the holidays in late December, Nathan told me that he had made a critical decision. He had taken a job as a labor organizer for the Communist Party, an action that had resulted in his breaking off relations with his parents. He was moving to Houston to organize dockworkers at the ports in Houston and Galveston. He urged me to do the same. I was stunned. I told Nathan that I was becoming "more and more communistic" and that I believed communism was "the only form of government that is desirable," but I could never break away from my family. I also wanted to stay in school.
Nathan moved to Houston, where he was known as Jeff Kleban. He became secretary of the Houston chapter of the Communist Party and served as its unofficial spokesman. In 1938 Nathan ran on the Communist Party ticket for attorney general of Texas. Emma Tenayuca was on that same Communist ticket as the candidate for Congress. I saw Nathan a couple of times after that, but we gradually lost touch with each other in the early 1940s, and I don't know what became of him. By then, however, I had lost my fervor for communism and for Marx, as had Fred Schmidt. As we became intellectually mature, we were better able to recognize the fallacies in Marxism. My intellectual growth, however, was the direct result of my exposure to some outstanding professors in the department of economics at the University of Texas.
As I have often stated, it was at the university that my life really began.