An exclusive excerpt from Richard P. Poethig's autobiography of the same title, about his years growing up in Yorkville from 1925 to 1945. The complete book is available here.
My life was shaped in the stormy days of the Depression. I grew up in the Yorkville of the 1930s. We think of neighborhoods, and Yorkville was my neighborhood, as places of social nurture, where a sense of history and family values are passed on. My neighborhood was also the place where my political education began.
As a child of the Depression -— I was four when Wall Street crashed -— insecurity was in the air you breathed. A great uneasiness lay over the country. The sidewalks of New York showed the harsh face of economic insecurity. To this day I can still see in my mind’s eye the pictures which became symbolic of the early 1930s. The snow-covered belongings of a family evicted from their apartment piled on the sidewalk. It terrified me to see someone’s furniture, lamps and boxes in front of a tenement. At six years my mind moved quickly to: “Where will these people go? Who will take them in? How close is our family to this? What if my father lost his job? Where would we get money for the rent?
I soon discovered the consequences of eviction. One Sunday afternoon in the late Fall my father took me for a walk to Central Park. It was the height of the Depression. I was about seven years old. Conditions had gotten worse in the city with more evictions and more unemployed people flocking to the cities for work. Whether my father had taken me on this walk for a purpose or as a chance outing I will never know, but a message came through to me that day. We walked across 79th Street into Central Park. It was a brisk walk since the weather had gotten colder. We passed rock overhangs in the Park against which people had built makeshift shanties out of scraps of lumber, cardboard and odd-sized metal sheets. People stood forlornly outside their shacks around small fires trying to keep warm. The scene was deeply etched in my mind. It was the beginning of my political consciousness. (2)
As street kids the changing shape of Europe was not uppermost in our minds. We went to school and after school played our street games. We let our parents do the worrying. But there was no escaping it. We were conscious of who we were—children of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Russian, Austrian and German ancestors. The events which made the headlines in the Daily News or which were dramatically portrayed in Pathe News at the Saturday movies kept slipping into our consciousness.
On Saturdays, we would take off to the Monroe Theatre on 76th Street and First Avenue for our day at the movies. It was an all day affair for twenty-five cents. It was an expenditure our mothers were happy to make. They knew where we were and that was some comfort. Besides the double-features, there were cartoons, and one of the chapters in a fifteen-chapter serial thriller. Each chapter had a cliff-hanger ending which whetted our appetites for next Saturday’s miraculous deliverance of the hero or heroine. But in the midst of this movie mélange there was the Pathe News—the one bit of reality invading our Saturday movie excursion.
The news from Europe was greeted with a hushed silence—especially the footage on recent events in Germany. The pictures which grabbed one’s attention were those of massive political gatherings. These were usually scenes of a vast sea of people gathered in a huge stadium for some celebration and Hitler on a podium delivering a hysterical oration. Most of us were thinking as we watched his gyrations: “What’s this guy so excited about?” From the masses of people came the automatic outstretched right arm, and the shouts: “Sieg Heil Sieg Heil.” It was a powerful image—not easily forgotten—one which instinctively we knew was significant and suspected someday would affect us.
Our Saturday experience during the thirties was our one weekly engagement with moving visual pictures. Today’s continuous T.V. images overwhelm the eye, their multiplicity dilutes their true importance. In the 1930s we recognized, even as youngsters, there was something menacing in what we were seeing.
One of the foreboding signs was the anti-Semitism which began showing up in the neighborhood. In the 1930s most families had a radio. Father Coughlin’s broadcasts out of Detroit were adding fuel to the fire of anti- Semitism. I remember once briefly hearing his staccato voice over the radio. My mother turned to another station before I got any of his message.
Anti-Jewish feeling in Yorkville was never evident to me. I experienced no hostility to Jews among my friends. There were few Jewish young people on our block. Our gang gathered on 83rd Street near the corner of First Avenue. On occasions Morty Dworkowicz would play ball with us. His family owned the children’s dress shop which was part of our 1582 First Avenue building. Our family had moved to this tenement in 1935 from 1543 First Avenue. My mother bought many of my sister Erna’s clothes from the Dworkowicz shop. Morty went to a school out of the neighborhood. Only occasionally was he available to join our ball games. He liked to play ball and we welcomed him into our group. Morty’s mother would come looking for him. She was concerned about his health, since he was not a robust kid. She was always afraid he would get overheated. Morty would resist her, but she made him stop playing ball. This was annoying when it was in the middle of a game. Then we got annoyed at anyone who broke up a ball game.
There were many small shops owned by Jews along First Avenue. As a teenager two of my after-school jobs were with the corner pharmacy on 83rd Street and with a hardware store in our 1582 building, both of whose owners were Jewish. Our tenement was owned by a Jew, Lionel Taubert. Since we were superintendents of the building, our family had close relations with Mr. Taubert. Our family doctor was Jewish. I respected Dr. Dick and felt comfortable in my visits to his office.
Grandfather Poethig’s Socialist background and his association with Jews of similar persuasion laid a foundation for openness to Jewish people in our family. My grandfather, Richard was a cigarmaker. He had emigrated from Germany in 1881 to avoid Prussian military conscription and in his case, the anti-Socialist campaign of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. My aunt Helen told me that grandfather had written to his sister in Germany critical of the political events that had brought Hitler to power in Germany. When his sister replied, she expressed uneasiness with his opinions. She asked that he not make any further comments on politics in Germany. When Hitler’s National Socialist Party finally took over the Reichstag and the German government, grandfather’s classic comment was: “We now have a lunatic running an insane asylum.”
For some German immigrants, the early events in Germany under Hitler, particularly the growth in employment, brought a sense of relief. Many of them had come out of Germany after the First World War. The humiliation of Germany after her defeat, whether she was right or wrong in the First World War, left a residue of bitterness. For those who remained in Germany, the devastating inflation and the hard times were continually reported to relatives in the United States. Each family had their collection of inflation Deutschemarks. Even our family, which had been in New York City for two generations, had a handful of German inflation notes whose paper value was in the hundreds of millions of Deutschemarks. One note is for fifty million Deutschemarks. The money conjures up a picture I once saw in a history textbook of a man pushing a wheelbarrow of German inflation notes to buy a loaf of bread.
Having a German background in the United States in the 1930s, and especially during the First World War, was not easy. It was probably for this reason that those of German heritage assimilated more easily into American culture. Nathan Glazer and Patrick Moynihan make this point in “Beyond the Melting Pot,” their study of ethnic groups in New York City. Among all the immigrant groups coming to the United States, they write, the Germans have made the quickest and the easiest transition. By the third generation most connections with one’s European heritage have waned. Even living in a German neighborhood, where the German language was still heard in the shops or on the streets, my efforts at learning German in junior high school were poor. Perhaps it was the way it was taught. But I believe a reverse psychology was also at work: to do poorly in German was to prove that you were fully assimilated into the United States.
One of my regular meat deliveries was around the corner on 82nd Street to St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church, a Hungarian parish run by the Franciscan Order. On one occasion I got a lesson in geo-politics. The Franciscan Father in the kitchen sat me down on a stool and put a piece of hot apple pie in front of me. He had a map of Japan on the wall. He pointed out the small land mass and told me about islands under tremendous population pressure. “Now what do you think is going to happen when you have a small land mass and so many people?” Answering his own question: “Why they will want more room. They will expand. That’s why we have a war in China.”
I had a close up view of the Sino-Japanese war when Gussie Wagner came home from China with her friend Margaret Speer for their furlough in 1937–38. Augusta Wagner—the family called her Gussie—was my Aunt Helen Wagner’s sister-in-law. My Uncle Bill, Gussie’s brother, was a bartender at a neighborhood family bar and restaurant on 87th Street and York Avenue. Gussie had grown up in Yorkville. By dint of hard work and good connections, she had gone to Wellesley College on a scholarship. It is also possible she had some help from Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church where she was a member. She was a good friend of Henry Sloane Coffin, the pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.
After Wellesley, Gussie went on to serve with the YWCA Board. Then in 1925 she was sent by the Yenching College Committee of New York to serve as a secretary to the dean of Yenching College for Women in Peking, China. She came back from China in June 1929, via the Trans-Siberian Railroad and a ship from Hamburg, Germany, to study economics at Columbia University, where she received her Ph.D. in economics. She had become interested in the working conditions of Chinese laborers, particularly children, in the factories in the cities of China. Her thesis topic was on “Labor Legislation in China,” a book which was published in Peking in 1938. Gussie became a professor of economics at Yenching College for Women in Peking, a position she held until 1942 when she was imprisoned by the Japanese.
In 1937, at the same time as I was getting my lesson in geo-politics from the Franciscan Father, Gussie Wagner and Margaret Speer returned on furlough from China. Gussie and Margaret decided to invite the Poethig nephews to an elegant downtown Chinese restaurant. My cousin George Spohrer, cousin Richard, my uncle Albert’s son, and I were the three invited to share in the occasion. This was a special treat to have a Chinese dinner with Gussie. This was not to be chop suey or chow mein, but the real thing.
We were all about twelve at the time and had never been to a Chinese restaurant. The courses came fast and furious. We did the best we could considering that the courses appeared exotic to our pure American tastes. Finally the waiter came in with a large platter, on it a huge fish, covered with onions, Chinese vegetables, and a deep red sauce. The waiter set the fish down with its head looking me directly in the eye. Without a word, I gave my cousins a quick glance. Their eyes told the story. Gussie, an old Yorkville neighborhood girl, knew that the whole affair was overwhelming us, and let us off the hook.
I kept in touch with Gussie as I went on to college and when we met on holidays at my Aunt Helen’s. Gussie helped deepen my political insights into the Chinese situation. With the entry of the U.S. into the war, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gussie and Margaret Speer were interned in the Shantung Compound in Weihsien by the Japanese military. They were repatriated in 1943 on the second journey of the Swedish “red cross” ship, the Gripsholm. On her return to the U.S. Gussie was asked by the U.S. State Department to work in their Special War Problems Division. She was assigned to investigate and report on the conditions of the internment camps in the Southwest United States in which the U.S. government had interned Americans of Japanese ancestry.
The question of identity took on a different dimension when I moved to Ohio for college. On the streets of New York one’s identity was related to a person’s ethnic background. This point of identification changed when I arrived at the College of Wooster. Many students at the college came from small towns or rural communities, or were from the suburbs of Ohio cities. They identified themselves not by ethnicity but by class, or by their father’s occupation, or by family status in their community. To be identified as a New Yorker, and from the tenements of New York, marked you as a character, a character worth knowing, but a person without substantial roots. Against this background, I became more conscious of class as a major shaper of identity.
My immersion in the events of the late 1930s was a preparation for my long-term interest in history. That immersion was also laying the groundwork for my future political orientation. Daily life in a working class family in a working class neighborhood during the Depression had prepared me for the political discussions in which I would find myself during college days.
(1) Cited in Allen F. Davis, “Spearheads for Reform” (NY: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 239
(2) These images were to last a lifetime. Memories of the “Hoovervilles” of the Depression years were to be replaced in my experience by the squatter communities of Manila and other Southeast Asian cities, which I visited during my years in the Philippines. Their existences were political issues for me. Their massiveness—squatter areas were one quarter to one third of the population of a Southeast Asian city—could not be solved by an appeal to private charity. There needed to be a structural approach on the part of a conscientious government. I also believe the church needed to engage in these communities and stand with people in their struggle for humane living conditions.
(3) The story of Augusta Wagner’s years at Yenching University are part of the correspondence which Margaret Speer gathered together in a book “Letters From Yenching: 1925-1943.” The initial mimeographed copy was published at Haverford in February 1982. Before Margaret Speer died in 1996, she published her letters as a book. Not only does it show the struggles of women in their roles in education, but shares insight into the relationships between Chinese faculty and students and overseas mission personnel. The 1930s were times of great upheaval in China. The Japanese had occupied Manchuria and threatening to take over all of North China. Their presence and actions in Peking was a harbinger of what was to come. Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist Chinese were in no condition to take on the superior Japanese forces. The students at Yenching and at the other colleges in Peking continued to hold strikes and protest marches against the Japanese actions in China. A small group of Communist students began to take the lead in these actions. The inaction of the Nationalist Chinese brought more students into the Communist camp. It was during one of the student actions that Huang Hua, an active Communist student leader, was being sought by police. He asked Augusta for overnight asylum at the residence of the Dean. He slept on a cot in the living room. Within the next week he was apprehended by the police on campus. He went on to become the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic and the first representative of the PRC to the United Nations. It was on this occasion that he sent an invitation for Gussie Wagner to attend the opening of the People’s Republic of China United Nations mission.