Rediscovering Family History and Heritage via the Interwebs

I remember in the late ’90s when I first figured out that the internet could be used for research, I tried looking up both of my grandfathers to learn more about their civic and political lives. I’ve grown up with my maternal grandfather telling me for years about the work that he did in the civil rights movement, and hearing about my paternal grandfather’s political involvement secondhand. My dad’s father particularly intrigued me, as I never really knew him, but had heard a lot of interesting (and sometimes conflicting) snippets about his political involvement.

But when I looked them up, I came up with scant results. For my maternal grandfather, Irving Levine, this wasn’t really as big a deal, as I was able to go to him directly and hear it from the horse’s mouth. But for my dad’s father, John Santo Sr., the few things I was able to find just brought more questions.

The short story I’d always been told about him was that he was a powerful labor organizer in the US who ended up working for the Hungarian Communist government, and eventually defected from said government after seeing the levels of corruption that existed there. This was the short version, and I’d finally decided that I wanted to look into the long one.

I would search every year or so, and for a long time the only items of interest that came up were websites about L. Ron Hubbard’s FBI files being finally available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. (For those that don’t know, L. Ron Hubbard is known somewhat infamously for being the father of Scientology.)

The sites had lists of all the recent FBI files with of people with last names starting with H that were released under FOIA sometime in the late ’90s. Obviously, my grandfather’s name had been John Santo, but I’d heard from my family that he had a number of aliases, and it seemed that one of them was Desideriu Hammer, which was listed on these pages. Given the amount I knew about my grandfather, I wasn’t exactly surprised that the FBI had files on him.

So I took the information, and being the good citizen that I am, filed a FOIA request. Unfortunately, I got a letter back from Uncle Sam letting me know that if I wanted to get my grandfather’s FBI files I would need a copy of his death certificate, something that I wasn’t able to find.

Somewhat deterred, the issue moved its way into the back of my mind, and every once in a while I’d wonder about it. A couple of years passed. Life moved on. I traveled, lived abroad, starting working, etc. Then, a couple of months ago, I struck gold. Not just gold, I struck a gold spewing fountain. I did my usual panoply of google search phrases on my grandfather, and suddenly copious amounts of information about the man was at my fingertips.

What had changed in the ensuing years was that digitization of archives became commonplace. Many relevant documents including old books and newspaper articles had been put online. Most importantly, my grandfather’s testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs, which he gave when he defected and which I’d been hearing about for years, had been put online. My best friend Jason even managed to get me an original hard copy. (Pictured right.)

So, over the past couple of months, I’ve been constructing, piece by piece, the picture of my grandfather’s civic life as a union organizer, Communist party operative, and eventual political defector. Here’s a short list of neat things that I’ve found out:

  • John Santo Sr., along with Austin Hogan, Michael Quill and Douglas MacMahon founded the Transport Workers Union in 1934, at a diner in New York’s Columbus Circle. At a certain point, he was the International Organization Director of the union. At others, he was the Secretary-Treasurer. Attempts to organize and unionize transport workers had been beaten five times between 1905 and 1926. The group’s successful effort has lasted to this day.
  • He was a serious card carrying Communist, and, according to one source, if the US had ever had a Communist revolution, apparently he was supposed to be the one that would “dis-organize New York’s economic life” – via transport workers strikes. Granted, that source was a book called Men Without Faces: The Communist Conspiracy in the USA, so I’m not exactly sure how overblown the statement is, but it’s pretty amazing regardless.
  • At the same time, everything I’ve read about the man indicates to me someone who was dedicated first and foremost to benefiting the working class, fighting for rights and bettering society. I think that his eventual defection from the Communist government in Hungary indicates this. (More on that further on.)

  • He served in the US Army during World War II in the Aleutian Islands. This was likely a strategy to divert accusations of Communism.
    Defense Council Table at Santo Hearing

Defense Council Table at Santo Hearing.
Left to Right: Michael J. Quill, Joseph A. Faneli, John Santo and Harry Sacher
  • He faced deportation hearings in 1947, on charges of violation of immigration laws and subversion. The court proceedings were a very public battle that epitomized the early Cold War political landscape in the United States. In it, the TWU battled to prove its status as an organization that was at its core concerned with worker’s rights and discrimination as opposed to allegiance with Soviet Russia. For the United States Government, it was an opportunity to publicly highlight and describe the activities of the Communist party in America. It was very well documented in the New York Times, and was also written about in publications like Time Magazine.
  • His real name was actually Desideriu Hammer, not John Santo. John Santo was an alias, as was Jack or John Weiss. He stopped using his given name in favor of John Santo in 1931, 4 years after he arrived in the US. This has been a point of confusion in my family for a while, as at a certain point some of us (including me) were under the impression that he changed his name for safety reasons after defecting from the Hungarian Communist government.
  • His testimony before Congress, sardonically titled A Communist in a Worker’s Paradise, contains the most complete picture of his experience from 1949 to 1956 during which he worked as a high level official in the Hungarian Communist Government and saw with his own eyes the true nature of what Communism in practice consisted of in Hungary during those years.
  • Amongst other things, he describes his position at the head of the Ministry of Canning and Meat, from where he was able to see how the policies of the government forced its workers and the even the bureaucracies in which they were situated to turn on each other in what I think is best described as economic and political cannibalism.
  • In 1956, he defected from the Hungarian Communist Government. In the immediate term, it was a response to the brutality displayed by the Soviet Army during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. In a greater sense, the response to the revolution was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a man who for 7 years had been witnessing a paranoid and oppressive government that violated the basic human rights of its citizens.
  • Finally, it shows a prime example of how to defect in style. See here:

Mr. McNamara. Mr. Santo, you say that you are not now a member of the Communist Party and that you have not been a member since 1956. What caused your break with communism ?

Mr. Santo. Basically, my break with communism can’t be adduced to one factor alone, such as the Hungarian revolution of 1956, which gave me the opportunity to flee Hungary and communism. If it is desired to put the answer in a nutshell, it is the contradiction between the shining beauty of the theory of communism and what it is in practice as a bestial, corrupt, retrogressive way of life, as a system of government of false morality, perverted ethics, wasteful economy, and politics of horror and torture for the working people.

If I ever defect from anything, I want it to sound that good. That is to say, I guess, that the process of getting to know at least this public side of my grandfather has been both enlightening and inspiring, and has given me an increased respect for a man I never knew.

For more information on John Santo Sr., you can check out the bookmarks I’ve collected on him on my Delicious page.


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4 Responses to “Rediscovering Family History and Heritage via the Interwebs”


  1. 1 Bill kirrane June 20, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    Have you read the transcript of the 1948 TWU convention?


  1. 1 Taniel Yonah Sheintock, and planting my elbows firmly on the table « Empathetics: Integral Life Trackback on January 28, 2009 at 10:33 pm
  2. 2 Family History, Communist Show Trials, and How I Almost Didn’t Exist « Empathetics: Integral Life Trackback on September 9, 2009 at 10:32 am
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