A FAMILY OF ACTIVISTS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I am a passionate progressive. But I am not an activist. I don’t get out and protest in the streets. Twice in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I did volunteer work for the Presidential Campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and then Ed Muskie, both liberal. That’s the extent of my hands on involvement.

My grandmother, on the other hand, was a serious political activist. She was a socialist in tsarist Russia in the early 1900’s. Being a socialist at the time could be dangerous, so the socialists had to meet secretly to plan and organize. One meeting my grandmother told me about was in rowboats on a lake in the middle of the night. That’s John Le Carre territory!

My grandmother, Sarah, as a young woman in Russia

At one point, the government allowed a large socialist rally near where my grandmother lived, in Minsk. My grandmother talked her sister and mother into going with her. They didn’t tell her father, who was a staunch tsarist. The rally did not go well. A large crowd gathered and was listening to speeches, when the Russian police, — Cossacks — plowed into the crowd on horseback. They shot or clubbed anyone they could reach. The whole thing had been a set up by the government.

My grandmother was literally saved by a dead body falling on her and shielding her from the police. She managed to get her mother and sister home safely. But her father was furious that Grandma had put his beloved wife and favorite daughter (her sister) in danger. This father daughter fight precipitated my grandmother’s move to America in 1908.

In America, Grandma maintained her enthusiasm for left-wing politics and causes and she expected me to follow in her footsteps. I had the opportunity during college. I went to Barnard College from 1967-1971. Barnard is part of Columbia University, the epicenter of the campus protest movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The Movement was born at Columbia with the formation of the radical SDS (Students For A Democratic Society). The campus was ‘occupied’ regularly by the radicals and they got a lot of press. It quickly grew into a national protest movement.

Grandma and me around the time I went to college

I didn’t believe in the goals of the movement. I felt that the SDS-ers were negative and destructive. They wanted to tear down ‘the system’ but had no plans for what they wanted to put in its place. My grandmother was furious with me because I wasn’t on the barricades fighting for the revolution. She said that if the young didn’t protest and rebel, then who would fight to change things and make them better?

Grandma had been more successful radicalizing her daughter than me. My mom became very active in the left-wing labor movement in the 1930’s and 1940’s. She helped make unions the powerful force they were in America for decades. She worked with actress and teacher Stella Adler and stripper/celebrity Gypsy Rose Lee to organize fund-raisers for the incipient labor unions. She also marched in the streets for the cause with these ladies and others. One day, she was almost attacked by angry counter protesters. But the police stepped in to protect her.

My mom as a young woman

Mom’s first husband was also politically very active. He was actually a member of the Communist Party in America. He was also a doctor. One of the things he did was give physical exams to young Americans who wanted to go to Spain to fight the fascist Franco and keep them from getting a foothold in Europe. He certified that men who were healthy enough to join the Spanish Freedom Fighters. I think what he did was illegal. I know he risked losing his medical license, if not his freedom. He was brave as well as committed.

So I was a political disappointment to my grandmother. But she adored me anyway. I was active in a few Jewish organizations over the years and always gave to charities and liberal organizations. I was always a socially conscious person, partly due to her influence. Grandma would actually have been proud of me as I got older. I was 26 when she died. She wished that I had manned\ a few barricades while I was young, as she had.

The way things are going with Trump in this country today, I may yet end up on the barricades!

10 thoughts on “A FAMILY OF ACTIVISTS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

    • Thank you, Marilyn. I like to think that by writing, particularly political or controversial pieces, I’m on a form of barricade. I’m fighting for reason and thoughtful analysis and truth and sanity. Glad to know that others agree with me.

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    • I’m too close to my own stories to really be able to tell if they are ‘interesting’ in the abstract, or just interesting to the family. It’s nice to hear other people say that the stories have inherent value and are entertaining to read. Thank you for the compliments!

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  1. Ellin, this might be sub-titled “Pay It Forward” Generations.

    Your Grandmother and Mother certainly paid it forward. I think my Maternal Grand Mother (whom I hardly knew) and my Mother paid it forward in their own ways.

    I believe You, Tommy, Marilyn and I are the beneficiaries of those who came before us.

    I’ve been credited with being a role model. No undue modesty here. Anything I’ve done is the result of ethics instilled by at least two generations of people who had to scrap for everything little thing.

    Marilyn may have it right about our writing perhaps helping some young people today. One can only hope.

    Well done, Ellin!!!

    (I used to visit Barnard in the 50’s. My Maternal Grandfather worked there.)

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    • My family certainly instilled a good social conscience in me and good values. Though I’m not an activist, I think I passed those values down to my children, who are caring, thoughtful people, also with social consciences. So I’ve done something to make future generations better by sending my children out into the world.

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    • In some ways I wish I was more like my grandmother. She was a much more forceful personality than I am. Fearless. Unafraid of what people thought. I have too much of her bluntness and brutal honesty. I try to say things nicely, but I don’t like to sugarcoat or dissemble too much. (Except for saying that those pants don’t make your butt look fat when they do).

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        • She actually had very little tact. She would say things that people think but keep to themselves. Like telling someone that their husband was an idiot. She’d defend herself by saying that everyone knew he was an idiot so what was the problem saying it out loud? True story.

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