Children of the Blacklist: Lisa Harbatkin
Lisa Harbatkin, freelance writer, is writing a book based on her family's experiences and on
her research in the Anti-Communist Series holdings at New York City's
Municipal Archives and in other archives. She got her parents' files from
the Municipal Archives by filling out the form just requiring her to prove
she was their daughter. But as she continued the research, her efforts to
gain full access to the holdings were stymied by the Municipal Archives'
requirements imposing prior restraint and other limits on researchers. She
eventually filed the lawsuit described in The New
article. The major court filings are on the Current
My parents, Margaret and Sidney Harbatkin, never wound up in the overheated
news coverage of the Board of Education's anti-Communist investigations. But
looking back, my memories of the 1950s are of a loving, protective family
coping with an almost constant fear and worry that even today has not quite
One fear, opening the mailbox, ended in late 1955 when my parents got their
invitations from Superintendent of Schools William Jansen. My father's came
first, and when he resigned, my mother's a month later. My parents didnt
talk about the letters in front of my younger brother and me. It was a long
time before I knew what they went through that year. There was more anxiety
when they talked with friends, and it seemed to me that they were going to
more Teachers Union meetings than usual. I later realized they must have
been meeting with TU advisors about what to do, how to handle the situation
Sidney Harbatkin teaching at Rabbi Jacob Joseph
Yeshiva after he resigned from the Board of Education.
My father was more active than my mother, and had a serious
heart condition. Resigning was the best thing for him. As it did with other
teachers forced out of the public schools, it led to a job at a private
school -- in his case teaching science and English at Rabbi Jacob Joseph
Yeshiva, then located on the Lower East Side. He enjoyed working with the
kids and discussing religion and education with the rabbis. The political
books never left our bookshelves, but more books on Judaism joined them.
If she wanted to keep her job, my mother had no choice but to go in for the
session with Saul Moskoff, who ran the anti-Communist investigations for
most of the decade.
The day I got their files was a pretty good one for walking the 2 or 3 miles
from the Archives to my place, but clutching the folders, I couldn't wait to
get home. I practically ran across Chambers Street to the Brooklyn Bridge
stop of the Lexington line, all but jumped on the local, and was home in
something like 15 minutes.
Finding Lost Family history
I spent much of that afternoon reading the files, two or three times. My
emotions slid back and forth between the old fears and laughing out loud at
some of my mother's answers to Moskoff. I was hearing her voice, how she
might have sounded as they parried back and forth. She must have been
scared, but she hung on to her sense of humor.
Margaret Harbatkin taught third grade for
most of her career, and then ESL.
She admitted past Communist Party membership, denied current membership, and
then had a really bad memory lapse. At one point when Moskoff pressed her to
acknowledge that her little CP group on the Lower East Side was a teachers
group, she said "...I would say I dont know whether they were all teachers
but they were all probably interested in education." My mother's poor memory
led to very short answers and plausible deniability when it came to people
she'd known, and whether she'd been at places and rallies associated with
the CP. Moskoff's summarizing memo made it clear that he didnt believe her.
But he also didnt have enough information to disprove anything she said. It
also appears that the Board tried not to dismiss both husband and wife,
although it did on at least a few occasions.
Impact of the Blacklist
Partly because of the fear hangover from the '50s, and partly because I
worked through high school and college and didnt have much time, I almost
never joined marches and demonstrations. I watched, and increasingly, I
didnt like a lot of what I saw, from a growing intolerance of others'
opinions to the development of what we now call political correctness.
Majoring in political science at City College reinforced what I was seeing.
I read the Constitution, the Federalist Papers (well, a
bunch of them), and Madison's notes on the Convention almost simultaneously
with Merle Fainsod's Smolensk Under Soviet Rule and Isaiah
Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty." By the time the emerging hard left
turned against Israel as the Vietnam War wound down and people I had agreed
with on so many things were looking for new victims to champion, I'd pretty
much arrived where I am today...sort of a very cranky moderate.
Funny thing is, the papers in the Municipal Archives pretty much show that
Moskoff, and some of the others carrying out what can only be called witch
hunts, were pretty conventional anti-Communist liberals. They used up a lot
of memos and letters trying to convince themselves they were following the
rules of democracy while saving the country from a dangerous enemy.
Thanks to my mother's name being on one of
Henry Foner's mailing lists, she got a flyer about a sample reel screening of Dreamers and Fighters. I met Sophie-Louise and Lori, and
got involved. It's thanks to that involvement that I started researching the
materials in the Anti-Communist Series.