(Joseph) Stalin and My Father

By Hundert, E. J. | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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(Joseph) Stalin and My Father

Hundert, E. J., Queen's Quarterly

E. J. HUNDERT is professor of history at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches European intellectual history. His The Enlightenment's `Fable': Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society was published by Cambridge University Press in 1994.

In the autumn of 1951, shortly after the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the most dramatic baseball championship game on record, my parents bought a television set. Unencumbered by foreknowledge and possessing the historical sense of an 11-year-old, I was unaware that this event would place me just outside the last generation of Americans to enter puberty without the benefit of TV. For me, rather, television simply meant more baseball, which my parents strictly rationed in the belief that unregulated viewing would damage my eyesight; not much later, it came to mean Sunday night's Ed Sullivan Show, a variety program of the type wonderfully captured by Fellini in Fred and Ginger, and the Evening News, in front of which my mother, father, and I ritually gathered for 30 minutes each weekday night at 11 o'clock.

"WATCHING the News" invariably consisted in my parents' sceptical or horrified commentaries upon the unhearing newscaster's reports which, in the New York of the 1950s, always concluded with a cautionary tale about innocent people, typically a hardworking elderly couple about to shut their small shop for the night, who had just had their lives damaged or ended by some petty criminal act. Then, as the newscaster bid his audience "good night," my father would turn to me and say gravely, in his heavily accented English, "Edward, Josef Stalin would know what to do about this!"

One might think that this performance -- for this is what it was -- merely constituted one of many scenes in which my father, active in a persecuted Communist Party and wishing to educate his son politically, sought to transmit the knowledge contained in the volumes of Marx and Lenin lining his bookshelf. Not at all. My father was a member of no political party, consistently voted for the Democrats, revered Franklin D. Roosevelt, and could read only with difficulty the very few books he brought home. Later in life he even risked part of his small savings on the stock exchange, despite the fact that he found arithmetic painful and could only pretend to follow the changing quotations in his daily newspaper. How all of this could have been so reveals something, I think, about a culture and politics now too often ridiculed when not despised or merely forgotten.

Television entered our lives when my father was nearly 56, old enough, that is, to be my grandfather, although this only occurred to me as an adult. What was clear at the time was that he, unlike most of my friends' fathers, knew nothing about baseball, nothing of what went on in my school (save that it was important for me to do well), seemingly next to nothing about those parts of New York which fascinated me, and nothing whatsoever about the novels that then began to capture my imagination (but which he never thought to be a threat to my eyesight). America remained for him largely a foreign country, one, I slowly came to understand, which it was my task to "explain" and, in mock-debate, "defend" against his criticisms. His point of view -- his mental world -- remained firmly fixed in the various New York extensions of Eastern Europe, particularly Galicia, that Polish province of the Hapsburg Empire in which Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews like my father's family uneasily jostled in mutual suspicion.

MY father was born in Kolomaya, a large town at the foot of the Carpathians on the River Prut, south and west of Tarnopol and east of Czernowitz, the centre of the region. The first of seven children, he began to work at his father's trade of furrier before he was ten. What little education he received there came not from school, "where they beat the children, not like in America," but in evening classes given in Yiddish to workers' sons by what he called "socialist clubs.

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