Benny, If You Read This, Write
Copyright 2005 by Carol Greenberg
The year is 1939. I am 12 years old and our family has survived the Great Depression. I was just becoming aware of the serious situation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal program had come to our rescue instituting work, conservation, and education programs; WPA, CCC, NRA that provided employment, training and education. The apple sellers that had stood on the corners trying to earn a meager living disappeared. Men with machines and shovels began repairing the roads. More teachers were employed and subsidies were given to people who would go to college and earn degrees in law and medicine. We had had great hope for the future.
My family owned a small furniture store on the corner of 17th Street and 6th Avenue, (now known as the Avenue of the Americas). The elevated train tracks and steel girders were being torn down and the scrap sold to Japan. (They later used the scrap iron to make ammunition to shoot at us.)
I recall the morning my father and I waded through the packed snow to the store. School had been canceled that day due to the storm and I would be responsible for removing the snow from the sidewalk around our store. The store was my second home. Every day, after school, I would spend my time at the store with my family. I would do my homework, dust the furniture, and listen to my mother or father talk to a customer as they tried to make a sale. On that particular morning as we approached the store we found a sleeping figure in the doorway. My father shook the crouched figure and said, “C’mon fella. You can’t sleep here.” The face that looked up at us was young and sad. I don’t know why my father asked him, “What’s your name?”
“Benny.” He stood, shaking with the cold.
“Benny, do you want to shovel the snow off of our walk? I’ll pay you two bucks. If you don’t scram! If you do, take this buck and bring back three coffees.” My father held out a dollar. In 1940 coffee cost 25 cents.
We watched Benny go off down the street and of course had no way of knowing if he would return. He did return, shoveled the walk, swept the store, polished the furniture, unloaded the trucks and stayed for two years. Benny was a product of the Great Depression, a poet and a dreamer, and a member of the Lincoln Brigade, very much wanted by the F.B.I. My father realized the danger of Franco and Hitler a nd became a sympathizer with the young men who had gone off to fight Fascism in Spain and since the third floor of our store was empty my father allowed Benny to make it his room. Before long 12 other members of the Lincoln Brigade became our guests.
The Great Depression began in 1929 with the collapse of the stock market and continued for ten years. During that time America and the world experienced extreme poverty giving rise to socialism and fascism.
The young people who latched on to socialism became members of the Communist Party. These were young people dissatisfied with the state of American economics and wanted a new system. The Communist Party offered possibilities and dreams of glory. Obviously, the Communist Party was anxious for new members and the youth of the world seemed to be the answer.
I remember one May Day (celebration of May First, the birthday of the Russian Revolution) after the Sixth Avenue’s elevator train was dismantled a parade took place. Hundreds of people attended. The highlight of the parade was that of twenty people carrying a gigantic American flag that spanned the width of the avenue and was one city block long. Everyone threw money into the flag in support of the Communist Party.
Parties and rallies took place. Soapbox speakers were everywhere promoting the communist cause. Of course, by this time Fascism was brewing, as well. Hitler was on the rise in Germany. General Franco in Spain. Mussolini in Italy. A civil war had begun in Spain. Germany and Italy were eager to test their weapons and supplied General Franco with arms. France and Britain were fearful of starting a larger war and clung to neutrality and non- involvement. The United States were isolationists. The USSR was the mainstay. The Communist Party roused the young men of the world into rushing off to fight fascism in Spain where a war between Franco’s forces, the Nationalists and the elected government, the Loyalists were in force. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was formed in 1936, acquiring its name from the one and only Abe Lincoln, as being a great symbol and was fully organized by 1939.
In 1939 the great ship Normandy and The Aquitania sailed for France from New York. On board were untrained volunteers to fight in Spain. Eventually, there were 2,800 of these young people. Women, as well, who were nurses and ambulance drivers. The Communist Party often paid the price of the trip for their members. Volunteers from Brooklyn, The Bronx, America’s heartland, and Native-American reservations. A ragged lot carrying uniforms mostly acquired from the Army and Navy surplus stores. It was illegal to fight in a foreign war and they traveled as tourists from France to the base of the Pyrenees Mountains and then trekked to Catalonia in northern Spain where they were trained to fight.
Looking back, it seems to me, that everyone I knew was a socialist. I think that The New Deal Program was a tangent of socialism and the people accepted the unity. There were times that my friend Helga and I would attend dances and parties hosted by the Communist Party. My father, being very aware must have realized that someday members of the party would be persecuted, always told us not to sign our real names. .
With the New Deal Program creative organizations were formed and talented people found outlets for their work. Arthur Miller joined the Federal Theater Project in 1937. He and Ralph Neophus were off to join the Lincoln Brigade but at the last minute Miller decided not to go. Ralph Neophus was killed in Spain. Hemingway wrote his immortal novel, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, describing the war to its fullest. America’s despair was documented in John Steinbeck’s, “The Grapes Of Wrath”. Ralph Fassinella who fought in Spain and was one of the young men who found refuge at my father’s store went on to own an auto garage in the Bronx and become a successful New York artist.
Irving Gold became an Assemblyman in New York’s political system. As for Benny, one day two F.B.I. Agents appeared at our store looking for Benny. Fortunately, he had gone on an errand. My father sent me to look for him and warn him that the F.B.I had been at the store and that he should leave town. I found him, delivered the message and hugged him. He said he would write but we never heard from him again.
For all of their idealistic work to save the world the members of the brigade were hunted by the FBI and later by Joe McCarthy in his witch hunt. The Lincoln Brigade has been heavily documented by its members and on the Web there are more than 44,000 sites to explore listing the names and events of the Brigade.
Unfortunately, the war did not have a Hollywood ending. The good guys lost and we, in the end, had to have World War II and put down fascism.
I was twelve years old. Benny and the others filled my head with stories of heroism, the open road, talk of survival, and poetry. They cooked their food on a hot plate, and the artists painted murals on the walls. I heard their stories of heroism and the horrors of war. My heroes became those idealistic young men. I listened to how they would hop a freight train (going in any direction) and it made me ache with the desire to live their kind of life.
One day they were gone. I did meet a few as the years passed and heard their success stories and how they were grateful to my father for saving their lives.
I am a freelance writer for travel, cooking and senior magazines. My claim to fame is that of a poet.
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