Tuesday evening, my grandfather George Elk died at 92. My grandfather was born in 1918 the Lower East side of New York -- the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants. When he started kindergarten, the teachers asked if he was born in Russia because he spoke only Yiddish as a kid. When he died, he barely spoke any Yiddish.
Though my grandfather eventually forgot most of his Yiddish, he retained the sense of solidarity that is so deeply ingrained in the Russian Jewish tradition. Like his ancestors before him, the hope and spirit of his persistent struggle against oppression remained constant. Together with my grandmother, my grandfather would plant these deep roots of solidarity in me.
In 1946, my grandparents met going door to door on a congressional campaign in the Bronx. They would live the rest of their lives happily together fighting for economic and social justice no matter the sacrifices they would have to make.
My grandfather, a veteran of World War II, was fired from the Veteran's Administration for refusing to sign a loyalty pledge denouncing members of the communist party to which he and millions of members of the labor movement had belonged. When my grandparents went to see the controversial African American singer Paul Robeson play a civil rights concert in Peekskill, New York in 1949, my grandfather and my then pregnant grandmother were attacked by a mob of right wing vigilantes and KKK members.
Despite the hardships encountered in the course of their struggle, my grandparents drew on deep roots of solidarity and the lessons that had been passed down to them through generations of struggle to overcome tough odds. Though they were Jews whose grandparents had been murdered in the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, they refused to go to Israel, their ancestral homeland, because Palestinians remain oppressed. My grandparents learned through generations of struggle that only by standing in solidarity with those that are oppressed, not just white people, that we could build the bonds of solidarity strong enough to overcome the mightiest forces of hate or money.
They taught me about the setbacks and triumphs that social movements often suffer, but how when they stuck together they won eventually. They taught me, about the suffering of the Great Depression and the excitement of the New Deal. They told me about volunteering for the army in World War Two (my grandmother served in the Women's Army Corp) because they wanted to fight fascism. Then returning home from the war only to see many friends black listed after the war for their involvement with Communists and the labor movement. And eventually overcoming red baiting in the 1960's to pass Civil Rights legislation.
I remember arriving at my grandparent's house deeply depressed shortly after Bush won in 2004. It felt the world had ended and that there was no hope. My grandparents took me aside and said "We have seen a lot of evil men rise in our lifetime and you know what we beat them all. We beat Hitler, we beat McCarthy, we beat Nixon, and we will beat these guys too".
And we did! Four years later, on my grandparent's 60th wedding anniversary, they voted for Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania Primary. (please see this great article on their excitement for voting for Obama from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette).
After Obama failed to take on corporate interests after Wall Street's blowout the way Roosevelt had during their youth, they expressed despair. Yet, they retained faith that enough individuals would stay true to one another, continue to fight, and eventually we'd overcome the forces of money.
The last time I saw my grandfather alive, we discussed his war years. I began to think about how he was just my age during the War so long ago. He probably couldn't imagine all the social change nor setbacks he would see in his lifetime. He never imagined he would be attacked by a right wing mob or that they would overcome the forces of hate in the Civil Rights Movement. In the darkest days, he could only draw on his hope that that the solidarity of those united for justice would eventually lead to victory.
Then, I began to think to myself and of all the years I had ahead of me. I thought of all the great triumphs and defeats I'd likely see in my lifetime and I wasn't worried anymore about how much some Wall Street lobbyists spend. The bonds of solidarity would always stand taller and stronger than forces of hate or money. And it made me hopeful, the roots of solidarity that people like my grandparents and so many other planted in following generations of Americans are so deep, that I'm confident we can overcome anything as Americans.
If there is one thing my grandfather taught me through his example as long as solidarity never dies, hope lives. And my grandfather George Elk lives as well.
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