Posts Tagged 'history'

Labor Day note: Studs Terkel on America’s Short Memory

Ok, it’s technically past midnight, but I thought I might post a lovely anecdote (of a larger interview) from the great oral historian of the Great Depression, Studs Terkel, as this Labor Day comes to a close. 

“Oh, one quick thing. Before we close, we are suffering what I call a national Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why Bush and Ashcroft [have] no memory of yesterday, as though there were no Depression, as though the free marketeers (I call them marketeer to rhyme with buccaneer) … The free marketeers, during the Great Crash of 1929, fell on their knees and begged the government, “Please help us out.” And so the New Deal helped them out with regulations. And [now] their grandchildren, whose granddaddies begged the government, say, “Too much big government,” when it comes to health, education, and welfare, and not Pentagon. So there’s this loss of memory. The young have been deprived of this. Many young kids are anti-union. 

So here I am — and this is the anecdote — I’m waiting [for a bus]. I talk a lot, as you can gather, and sometimes down the street I go, talking to myself. I find the audience very appreciative. And so they know me at the block. They know I wrote some books. But they also know me as the old gaffer talks to everybody.

So I’m waiting for the bus. But this couple, I cannot reach. There’s a couple, I have to call them yuppies, because they are. Most young people are not. Most young are lost in the world, and wondering what … but these two are. He’s in Brooks Brothers, and he’s got the fresh-minted *Wall Street Journal *under his arm. And she’s a looker. She’s got Bloomingdale, Neiman-Marcus clothes, the latest issue of *Vanity Fair. *But I can’t … they won’t recognize me. My ego was hurt, you know. Everybody knows me! We start talking. The bus this day is late in coming. So I said, “I’m going to make conversation with them.” So I say, “Labor Day’s coming up.” That is the worst thing I could possibly have said. He looks at me. He gave me that look that Noel Coward would give to a speck of dirt on a cuff, and he turns away.

Now I’m really hurt, you know, my ego is hurt. The bus is late in coming. So when I say something, I know it’s going to get them mad. The imp of the perverse has me. And so I’m saying, “Labor Day, we used to march down State Street, UAW-CIO. ‘Which side are you on?’ ‘Solidarity Forever.'” He turns to me and he says, “We despise unions.” And I say [to myself], “Oh, I’ve got a pigeon here — no bus!” Suddenly, I fix him with my glittering eye like the ancient mariner, and I say, “How many hours a day do you work?” And he says, “Eight.” He’s caught! “Eight.”

“How come you don’t work eighteen hours a day? Your great grandparents [did]. You know why? Because in Chicago, back in 1886, four guys got hanged fighting for the eight-hour day — it was the Haymarket affair — for you.” And I’ve got him pinned against the mailbox. He can’t get away, you know. The bus [hasn’t come], and he’s all trembling and she’s scared. She drops the *Vanity Fair. *I pick it up; I’m very gallant. I give her the *Vanity Fair. *No bus. Now I’ve got them pinned. “How many hours of week do you work?” He says, “Forty.” “How come you don’t work eighty hours, ninety hours? Because your grandparents [did], and because men and women got their heads busted fighting for you for the forty-hour week, back in the thirties.”

By this time the bus comes; they rush on. I never saw them again. But I’ll bet you … See, they live in the condominium that faces the bus stop. And I’ll bet you up on the 25th floor, she’s looking out every day, and he says, “Is that old nut still down there?” 

Now, I can’t blame them, because how do they know? Who told them? What do they know about unions? So that’s what I mean about a national Alzheimer’s disease. It’s that aspect.”

Advertisements

Family History, Communist Show Trials, and How I Almost Didn’t Exist

As some of you know, I’ve been in the process of researching the life of my grandfather, John Santo, whom I’ve written about before on the blog.  As I engage in this process I’m getting a unique opportunity to experience history in an a new and somewhat more personal lens, and recently had the opportunity to reflect on how personally impactful events that happened years ago can be when taken in the small context of a small family’s history.

In short, my grandfather was an Hungarian American Communist who was one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union, became a high level official in the Hungarian Communist Government, and eventually defected from said government for a host of reasons not least of which was total disillusionment with Communism as it manifested in its brutal and paranoid form in cold war Hungary.

As I conducted initial research about his life, one of the key books that I found was called In Transit, a great read that documents the history of the TWU.  It’s by a labor historian, Josh Freeman, who teaches here in New York at the City University of New York Graduate Center.  I figured that since he was so close, literally blocks from my office, I’d try to contact him and see if we could meet to chat and possibly fill in some blanks I had in the story of my grandfather’s life.  Luckily, Josh is a really wonderful man and sat down with me for a long conversation where he was able to give me some historical context within which I could better understand what I’m coming to realize is an even more fascinating and complex political and personal history than I imagined. Continue reading ‘Family History, Communist Show Trials, and How I Almost Didn’t Exist’

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.
Continue reading ‘Rediscovering Family History and Heritage via the Interwebs’


Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.

Subscribe

Archives