(This article is adapted from the introduction to Being Rapoport: Capitalist with a Conscience by Bernard Rapoport as told to Don Carleton. Introduction by Bill Moyers, University of Texas Press.)
I am the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to America in the second decade of the twentieth century. During my childhood, my father taught me Marxism and hard work. My mother taught me Judaism and compassion for humanity.
My father, David Rapoport, was born in Dvinsk, Latvia, which at that time was governed by czarist Russia. When he was a teenager, Papa became a dedicated Marxist and an activist in the Russian Social Revolutionary Party. After the czar’s military forces murdered several hundred peaceful demonstrators in the snow-covered streets of St. Petersburg on January 22, 1905 (the day known in Russian history as Bloody Sunday), Papa joined in the anticzarist uprising that rapidly spread across the country.
Months before the revolt ended, however, the police arrested Papa for distributing anti-czarist propaganda. The usual punishment for crimes against the czar was death, but because of Papa’s grandfather’s contributions to the country and his family’s well-known reputation as conservative subjects loyal to the czar, the government spared his life. He was saved from the hangman’s rope, but not from harsh punishment. The Russian High Court of Appeals sentenced him to two years and eight months hard labor and banished him to northeastern Siberia for life. He was only seventeen years old.
Papa endured several harsh winters in Siberia, barely surviving the epidemics that swept frequently through the region. After years of suffering, Papa decided that he had to escape or die. He walked away from his compound when the guards weren’t looking. Somehow, Papa beat the odds. He walked hundreds of miles across the Russian landscape, literally trudging much of that incredible distance through ice and snow. He also managed to sneak rides on passing freight trains. With the help of peasants and workers who fed and clothed him along the way, Papa eventually made it back to Dvinsk, where he hid for a brief time with his parents. There he learned that his older brother Raphael had fled Russia to avoid military service. He had immigrated to the United States and had settled in San Antonio, Texas.
Facing arrest and a forced return to Siberia or even execution, Papa decided to join his brother. With money from his parents to pay the way, Papa traveled to Paris and then to Belgium, where he linked up with a group of exiled Russian socialists who helped him book passage on a steamboat to America. Before he left Europe, Papa’s socialist “brothers” in Belgium gave him a letter of introduction to their comrades in the United States. I have that old document hanging in my office. When I show it to visitors I tell them that it is my father’s Ph.D. degree.
Papa departed from Europe in 1913 on a boat bound for the U.S. immigration processing facility at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. From New York, he traveled by train to San Antonio. He could not speak English, so he did not understand that he had to pay for his meals while on the train. Papa’s ship fare across the Atlantic had included all meals. He had not eaten well on the boat, so he was eager for some good food. He went to the train’s dining car and ordered everything on the menu. When the waiter brought him the check, he realized for the first time that the meals were not included in the price of the train ticket. The train fare had exhausted his remaining funds, so Papa washed dishes all the way from New York to San Antonio.
After Papa arrived in San Antonio, his brother, who had changed his first name to “Foley,” helped him get a pushcart so that he could peddle blankets door to door. Uncle Foley was a peddler and he just assumed that Papa would be one too, so that is how Papa supported himself for several years. He walked up and down dusty unpaved streets on the west side of town selling cheap blankets and clothes for 10 cents down and 10 cents a week to the poor Mexican-American families who resided there. He had to return every week to collect the 10-cent payment until the item was paid off. Because all of his customers were recent immigrants from Mexico, Papa knew Spanish before he learned English.
About three years after Papa settled in San Antonio, he met my mother, Riva Feldman. A native of Sevastopol, a major Russian port city on the Black Sea, Mama emigrated to the United States in 1908 with her parents, Chaim and Sarah, and two sisters, Frieda and Fania. She and her sisters had participated in the antigovernment protests during the 1905 revolution. They had escaped punishment, but as the months passed, Mama’s parents worried that the girls might be banished eventually to Siberia. They decided to emigrate. Mama’s brother, Morris, came to America first, settled in Fort Worth, Texas, and established a junk business that prospered and eventually became a major company called Commercial Metal. Morris sent for the rest of the family to come to Texas.
Another of my mother’s relatives who immigrated from Russia was a rabbi in San Antonio named Gerstein. It was he who invited Mother to come to San Antonio for a visit. She met Papa during that trip, and they soon fell in love. They were married in 1916 when they were both in their middle twenties. I was born on July 17, 1917, a little more than one year after Mama and Papa married. They were living on Buena Vista Street on the West Side of San Antonio, which is the section of town where Papa peddled blankets. Mama and Papa named me after my paternal grandfather, Boris, which is “Bernard” in English. My sister, Idel, my only sibling, was born three years later.
I have few memories of Buena Vista Street because we moved to another neighborhood when I was about five years old. My father sold the house for a few hundred dollars profit, enough to allow him to make a down payment on a new house near his brother Foley’s–a major step up the social ladder for us. Not long after this happy move, however, my family’s upward financial mobility ended rather abruptly. My father was unable to make the monthly payments on the house, so the mortgage company had to foreclose and evict us. The sheriff posted a foreclosure sign on the front door of our house. Several burly men soon followed him and unceremoniously moved all of our furniture out on the street. After this traumatic eviction from our new home, we found a rent house, which is the place where the childhood of my surviving memories was spent. The house was a couple of hundred yards from some railroad tracks. As a kid, I had a lot of fun counting the hoboes who were riding the freight trains as they passed our home.
Papa was not religious in the spiritual sense, but he did have a secular religion and that was socialism. He retained his political radicalism after he moved to the United States, which greatly irritated my politically conservative Uncle Foley. But Papa did not need his brother’s approval when it came to politics. For ideological support, Papa could depend on his close friends from about a dozen Jewish Russian immigrant families in San Antonio. The members of this tiny group of Jewish intellectuals were very radical. None of them could speak English fluently–they spoke Yiddish primarily. The rest of the community never accepted them. In the 1920s many people in Texas were quite suspicious of “foreign elements” in the country. I can remember how people in San Antonio laughed at my father and his friends because of their thick accents. Those Jewish Russians sounded strange to native Texans, many of whom would make fun of them in a rude and disrespectful manner.
A heavy Russian accent, of course, was not the only reason my father and his friends remained isolated from the rest of the community. Papa and his comrades were proud of their socialist beliefs, and they were true believers in every sense of the word. Their eagerness to expound their socialist beliefs publicly won them few friends in San Antonio.
I have Papa’s membership certificate in the Socialist Party of America framed in my office. He joined the party in June 1914, just a few months after he arrived in San Antonio. That certificate was one of his most prized possessions. My father’s politics resulted from his intense and sincere idealism. That idealism permeated his worldview, and it totally defined my early thinking. This is difficult to believe in the context of today when personal agendas dominate public policy debates, but never was my father’s idealism related in any way to self-interest.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Papa and his friends firmly believed in the inevitability of a worldwide workers’ revolution. They were advocating the creation of a state based on a utopian type of communism, not communism as it evolved in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere. These were aesthetic people who were sincerely and profoundly concerned about the pervasive injustices resulting from an unregulated capitalist economy. For them, Karl Marx had the simplest answer to eradicating these very real injustices.
We had a number of fund-raisers at our house for socialist political causes. I remember watching in awe as people who were tottering on the sharp edge of poverty contributed their quarters to whatever cause Papa happened to be pushing at the time. Twenty-five cents was a lot of money to us. You could buy a good meal for that amount. On those weekends when Papa and his comrades were not raising money, they went to Milam Square across from Santa Rosa Hospital and made speeches on soap boxes. I carried my father’s soap box to many of those meetings.
One of the strongest memories of my childhood is of Papa standing on his box, speaking fervently (with a Russian accent!) about the coming socialist utopia, waving his fist at the small groups of curious people who would gather around him. Papa’s speeches often attracted the attention of Mexican laborers, men who had only recently crossed the Rio Grande in search of a better life. On those occasions Papa gave his speeches in Spanish, a language he knew much better than English. “Workers of the world unite,” he would declare in Spanish, “you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Recalling this many years later, I am amazed that Papa was not beaten up or arrested, because San Antonio was a very conservative place, with a heavy military presence because of Fort Sam Houston.
Papa and his friends spent nearly all of their spare time arguing among themselves about the world political situation. These immigrant Jewish radicals were the best-informed people that I have ever known in my life. They formed a socialist bund, meeting every night (often at our house) to debate the hot issues of the day. These discussions were always heated and emotional with a lot of yelling, but never to the point of fisticuffs.
I remember a particularly vehement argument one night when I was about eight years old. I woke up the next morning and asked Papa, “Why do y’all scream and yell so loudly? Why do you argue so much?”
Papa answered me in Yiddish: “Bloz twischen ses still,” which translated to English means, “Only among thieves is everything quiet.” Ever since then I have understood that intellectual discussion fired with deep passion is good for the mind.
During my early childhood in the 1920s there were countless political events large and small that generated intense discussion in our home, but the one event that I can remember having the most distressing effect on my family was the Sacco and Vanzetti affair.
Papa followed the tribulations of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti so closely you would have thought he was the one on trial. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and anarchists who were tried and convicted of the murder of two men during a robbery in Massachusetts in 1920. Their trial made a mockery of the American judicial system, and the prosecution turned it into an anti-immigrant and anti-leftist Inquisition. Having little evidence to connect Sacco and Vanzetti to the crime, the prosecutor systematically exploited their alien status, their poor knowledge of English, their unpopular political views, and their opposition to U.S. participation in World War I.
Papa felt that the prosecution’s attack on Sacco and Vanzetti was an attack on himself, his radical friends, and any American who shared their immigrant, pacifist, and radical backgrounds. And he was right. One of the vivid memories of my childhood was the night of August 22, 1927, when Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair. It was just like members of my family had passed away.
The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in August was followed in November by Joseph Stalin’s expulsion of Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. To my father, Trotsky and Zinoviev had been heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution and the terrible civil war that followed, but now the Communist Party was saying that these heroic leaders actually were despicable counterrevolutionaries.
The expulsions of Trotsky and Zinoviev, which were followed by the purge of several other old Bolsheviks, stunned my father and precipitated intense and emotional debates within his little circle of Jewish radicals. I believe that my father’s disenchantment with Soviet Communism began with the purge of Trotsky. Unlike many radicals in the United States whose politics became more extreme after the Sacco and Vanzetti affair, Papa’s views moderated. He became an evolutionary socialist instead of a revolutionary.
Papa supported American Socialist Party candidate Norman M. Thomas for president in 1928. Thomas was a former Presbyterian minister who had succeeded Eugene V. Debs as the leader of the Socialist Party. My father was head of San Antonio’s tiny Socialist Party and worked hard for Thomas’s candidacy. The 1928 presidential campaign was the first political campaign that I can remember well. Of course, Democrat Al Smith and Republican Herbert Hoover were the major candidates and Thomas had no chance of winning, but that made no difference to Papa. He was accustomed to supporting losing political candidates as well as hopeless causes. When Thomas came to San Antonio during the campaign, he stayed at our house, a memorable event for my family. He and Papa discussed politics until late that night.
Norman Thomas was a civil libertarian (he helped found the American Civil Liberties Union) and pacifist who espoused a moderate, non-Marxist brand of socialism. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Papa was not yet ready to jettison his Marxist view of the world, but he was strongly attracted to many of the ideas that Thomas promoted. He again supported Thomas when he ran for the presidency in 1932. When Franklin Roosevelt launched all those wonderful New Deal programs that borrowed many of Norman Thomas’s basic ideas, I asked Papa if he was sorry for not voting for Roosevelt in 1932. I have always remembered his answer to my question: “Son, if people like me hadn’t voted and worked for Norman Thomas and put pressure on Mr. Roosevelt, he wouldn’t be doing the things he’s doing now.” As I have gotten older and suffered through so many seemingly lost causes, that statement of Papa’s has given me hope that it is not all in vain.