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Subtitle Children of the Blacklist




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 York Times article. The major court filings are on the Current Events page.

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 gone away.

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 didn’t 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 they faced.

Sidney Harbatkin teaching at Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva after he resigned from the Board of Education.
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.
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 don’t 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 didn’t believe her. But he also didn’t 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 didn’t have much time, I almost never joined marches and demonstrations. I watched, and increasingly, I didn’t 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.

Sound familiar?

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


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