Red sheep

Posted: Jan 12, 2006 9:05 AM
I suspect that every family has its share of skeletons in the closet, black sheep that are only mentioned in passing, in whispers, at Thanksgiving gatherings. In the old days, they might have been horse thieves, rustlers and card sharks. These days, they’re more likely to be defense attorneys, journalists or judges.

In my own case, most of the black sheep were red. That is to say, they were Communists. Most, if not all, were from my mother’s side of the family. Between my uncles, and first and second cousins, you could have put together a fairly good-sized cell.

The poorer relatives, many of whom worked in the garment business, cut and sewed for very low wages. Even as a kid, I was able to understand the appeal that Communism held for them. My relatives were Jewish and had been born in czarist Russia, a pig sty of a country notable for its Cossacks and its pogroms. It took the Russian Reds to rid the land of the much-despised Nicholas II. For them, the enemy of their enemies was considered a friend.

After coming to America, they found that it was the Communists who not only talked about the dignity of the working man, but who often got their heads busted by hired goons when they attempted to unionize the sweatshops. I, on the other hand, was born in the U.S. and was well-aware that Stalin was every bit as evil as Hitler and every bit as anti-Semitic as Nicholas and the rest of the Romanovs. Still, under the circumstances, I could understand why these folks might not see things my way.

But I had these other relatives, uncles who had made a killing on Chicago’s thriving black market during WW II. Once the war ended, they decided that, between Russia and the Windy City, they’d had enough lousy weather to last a lifetime. So, in 1946, they moved their families and their ill-gotten gains to Los Angeles, where they proceeded to buy up parking lots, bowling alleys and apartment houses.

That was bad enough. But having to hear them rhapsodize about Joseph Stalin -- Uncle Joe to his friends -- and the wonders he had wrought in the Soviet Union used to drive me crazy. Whenever I’d suggest they should consider moving back to the worker’s paradise they kept yakking about, they’d just nod sagely and say, “Comes the revolution, America will be another Soviet Union.”

Once, when I’d finally had my fill, I said to one of them, “Uncle Meyer, you’re not only a very wealthy capitalist, but you made your money as a war profiteer, and now you’re making even more as an absentee landlord. For good measure, you’re a Jew. Don’t you realize that, comes the revolution, the comrades will line you up against the wall and shoot you even before they get around to the Rockefellers?”

If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never forget the expression on his face. I have no idea if he was shocked more by my statement or by the fact that his young nephew could not only envision his uncle being executed, but grin about it.

Obviously I don’t know how my rich Red relatives carried on when I wasn’t around, but at least I never again had to listen to any of my uncles sing the praises of their uncle.