Children of the Blacklist: Ann Dermansky
Ann Ettenberg Dermansky, a freelance writer, taught for two a half years, long enough to
join the Teachers Union. Her mother, Rose Ettenberg, a TU member who taught for 25
years in Brooklyn, was a target of the New York City Board of Education's witch hunt.
Dermansky sees the Dreamers and Fighters website as a boon to scholars and a welcome
gathering place for those whose lives were affected by the blacklist.
“Keep your mouth shut,” my mother told me. Sometimes I still do. Old habits die hard. I
have worked for years as a writer. Give me an assignment and I’ll do it. But write about
myself? Ah, that’s another matter.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I knew that my family was different, nothing like my friends’
families or the relatives who lived nearby. My mother was a teacher, a Teachers Union
member; my aunts and my friends’ mothers did not work outside their homes. They had
landscapes on their walls; we had Orozco and Rivera prints. They listened to “Amos and
Andy” on the radio; we did not. I had a feeling that I was the only kid in the
neighborhood who walked to a particular candy store on Avenue U to buy the Daily
Worker, carrying it home folded over so the cover was inside, just as my mother told me.
I used to collect the mail that lay scattered on
the vestibule floor before my mother saw it. I
was on the lookout for an envelope with a
particular return address: 110 Livingston
Street, the headquarters of the New York City
Board of Education. My mother was waiting
for such a letter. She could be called in to
answer questions, she could be fired, her name
could be printed in the paper. “What should I
do?” my mother asked. “Fight or quit?”
Rose Ettenberg taught math.
“Fight,” I said.
My friend Elissa, with whom I went to P.S. 206 and Cunningham Junior High School,
remembers me as a free spirit, an admirably independent girl. But I do not remember
myself that way at all. I was full of questions, full of fear. I overheard snippets of
conversations that worried me. Something bad was going to happen in Peekskill. A
college professor friend had to quit his job. What would happen to the Rosenbergs? Look
what happened to Emmett Till.
I spent two summers at Camp Woodland, the very best summers of my childhood. There
are pictures of me on visiting day, smiling broadly in front of my bunk. I loved the folk
songs and the square dances. It did not occur to me that all my camp friends had families
like mine. All I knew was that Woodland was a place where I could fully be myself.
Rose Ettenberg taught math
(In 1997, I attended a Camp Woodland reunion hosted by SUNY New Paltz. There was a
panel discussing camps for “the children of Communist parents.” So you no longer have
to keep your mouth shut, I thought, amazed and excited to hear historians and writers
talking openly about what was kept unspoken throughout most of my life.)
The letter from s110 Livingston Street arrived in 1954, directing my mother to appear
before Saul Moskoff, the chief inquisitor of the New York City Board of Education. She
answered all his questions until he asked her to inform, which she refused to do. She was
called to Moskoff’s office again in 1955. Again she refused to name names.
I was too busy trying to stay afloat at high school to pay too much attention to my
mother’s problems. Neither she nor my father talked to me about those sessions with
Moskoff. What I remember is stories she told me years later: Someone she recognized in
the elevator at 110 Livingston St glared at her. “She must have thought I was an
informer,” my mother said. Anyone who had been summoned to Board headquarters who
was not subsequently fired was suspect, she told me. She thought she kept her job
because my father went alone to see Superintendent Jansen. My father had had a major
heart attack. If you fire my wife and her name hits the papers, you just might be the death
of me, he warned Jansen. She wanted to teach math in high school, but remained at a
junior high until she retired. It was dangerous to request a transfer, to deal with the Areyou-
now-or-were–you-ever questions that were part of the process.
I joined the Teachers Union in 1959. I was an English teacher at Sheepshead Bay High
School, only a few years older than my students. At my first TU meeting I was thrilled to
find out that some of my favorite high school teachers were TU members. I have a vague
memory of taking on Al Shanker, who came to my school to press the United Federation
of Teacher’s suit to become the teachers’ bargaining agent. Why not the TU, I asked, the
true champion of teachers and their students.
I must have read the June 2009 New York Times article about Dreamers and Fighters
three times. So it really is possible to get my mother’s file, I thought. I got in touch with
Lisa Harbatkin who put me in touch with David Ment at the Municipal Archives. Today
the file sits on my desk.
We tell ourselves the stories of our lives. Maybe we have the facts straight; often we
don’t. Time plays all kinds of tricks, blurring, distorting, and discarding memories. Here
at last were the facts and a picture of my parents that I had not seen before. I had not
known that twice my father accompanied my mother to110 Livingston St. I learned that
twice she took Moskoff on, telling him when he promised not “to hurt” anyone whose
name she might reveal that he had hurt her, citing organizations and even a Board of
Education member who thought informing was wrong. Moskoff was good at his job, but
not good enough to get my mother to do what he wanted. “Keep your mouth shut,” she
told me. “Don’t talk back.” But she did. I’m so proud she did.