family & its history
Hy Yanowitz (1915-1968)
February 9, 2008; updated March 4
I barely knew him but I was extremely fond of my uncle Hy (1915-1968), my father's elder brother, who became almost a life-long communist in his teens. He spoke out against injustice he detected of any kind and, like many of his generation, believed that some form of communism was the best path to justice for all people. I admired him and had many similar political views, but even in my early 20s when I met him in Paris I was put off by some of his justifications of party behavior. I stayed with him, Mathilde and Henry in 1965 for a few months and happened to be living in Paris when Hy died in the fall of 1968.
When World War II broke out in Europe a week after the Nazi-Soviet pact and the US Communist Party followed the Soviet line that the war was a bourgois, capitalist affair, and so a plague on all their houses, Hy vehemently opposed US entry into the war. On June 22, 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and the next morning a comrade was pounding on Hy's door in Manhattan, shouting to him that the local party had to join the new effort to get the US into the war to support the threatened socialist homeland. Hy told me that he could not make such a rapid U-turn, and I suspect this was the first kernel of his eventual disillusionment with the USSR, though not with some idealized version of communism that he seemed always to carry in his head. I think he was a Stalinist well into the '50s and probably '60s. In an undated letter to my father, probably written in the early sixties, he echoes familiar party-line rationales for staying with the party through thick or thin and (a) defends Stalin as genuinely wishing "to bring about a solid basic socialism in the Soviet Union," while (b) condemning his own weakness in, had he known Stalin's full plans, having likely been unable to support them.(1)
Once he decided that the US should enter the war, Hy tried to join the army to fight Hitler and anti-semitism but failed the physical because of flat feet. Eventually he wangled his way into the Red Cross and did spend the later part of the war in Europe in the ambulance corps. He told me that many US soldiers he encountered were on the wrong side (i.e., they were anti-semitic), and that while in the European theater he toted with him everywhere a large and heavy volume of poetry (presumably English and American).
After the war Hy was in Paris and met my Aunt Mathilde (Mahty for short), a smart, assertive and apparently stunning woman from Tunisia. (She still looks good in her 80s.) They had one son, Jai(2), while living in Paris. In 1948 the family moved to a chicken farm near us in South Jersey: Hy came to work for the presidential candidacy of the Progressive Party's Henry Wallace, FDR's third vice-president. His other son, Henry, was born in Somers Point, NJ, in 1949. There is a story that when Hy went with a black chicken-farming friend, Jimmy Wilson, to a local bar and the bar refused to serve Jimmy, Hy smashed a bar glass and stalked out. I think the glass was served to him empty; I also suspect the two of them deliberately went to this bar to challenge its segregation. (Where we all lived in South Jersey was putatively south of the Mason-Dixon line.)
In 1950 Hy and his family returned to Paris. They lived first at 22 rue des Amandier. In 1954 they found a small apartment in the 20th arrondissement, a working-class district in which Hy may have been the only resident American and the only person daily to order the international Herald Tribune (along with Le Monde and l'Humanite, the communist paper) from the local newdealer. They had to pay "under the table," as Hy put it, many hundreds (800?) of dollars to obtain their extremely cheap, run-down (though charming to my eyes) rental that was finally torn down long after Hy died; in 1989, the government rehoused Mathilde in a newly built apartment project in the rue St. Blaise, elsewhere in the 20th, where she lives today. Moving left to right in the apartment when you entered the front door, with rooms side by side: a bathroom (at first just toilet and sink), the parents' bedroom, a somewhat narrow and slightly elongated living room, a very narrow kitchen, and Jai's bedroom, which I shared with him. Henry had a small loft above and at the rear of the living room, though I don't know at what point that was built. Initially, the apartment had no bathing facility, and the family would, like many Parisians in the area (and perhaps elsewhere in the city?) traipse a block or two to public baths which still existed through the 1960s. At some point, probably in the 50s (and, thank goodness, before my 1965 stay there), they had a shower installed. I have an image of a full body-length shower, but perhaps it was the more traditional continental one I've often seen of a tub with a hand shower.
At some point after that, probably during the McCarthy years, the US would not issue him a passport because of his politics (or maybe refusal to sign an oath required for a passport). When Paul Robeson won a Supreme Court case to regain his passport (which the State Department had revoked in 1950), Hy (and others) was able to get one again. At least once, sometime in the 1960s, he returned to the US to visit family, accompanied by Henry, his younger son. In about 1963, his elder son, Jai, was jailed in Tunisia (for being French?), and Hy got the American embassy to arrange for Jai's release as an American citizen.(3) Both his sons have dual citizenship and probably retain and can travel on US passports (which I think they use only to visit the US) to this day.
During the US war in Vietnam, Hy started a peace group called PACS (Paris-American Committee to Stopwar) which, when I was there, seemed to draw especially on Americans well to the left. For a long time he and Mathilde (though I suspect this was Hy's initiative) had their own version of a salon, with people welcome to drop by on Sunday afternoons. I particularly remember the political discussions/arguments/harangues, and especially one about the "correct" left-wing leadership of Algeria--Ben Bella (the incumbent radical) or Boumedienne (the more radical). Nothing on the left (and perhaps in all political stripes) stirs passion quite so much as doctrinaire hair-splitting among those whose political convictions almost agree. Conversation was often in English, although I could speak decent (certainly not fluent nor argot-rich) French when I was there, and I remember feeling both welcome by Hy's guests and treated a bit condescendingly as at least young and perhaps American. That I was a leftist was to them, however, I think, a welcome relief from more mainstream American tourists who passed through. [Henry: The "Sunday evening" at Hy's included political discussions but also cultural. During these hours, for example, visitors might take up the latest Antonioni film.".(4)]
When I knew him, he seemed generous and kind to everyone, but (I learned from others) like too many of us was less successful in his family life. He and Mahty never had much money (though the cheap apartment helped them get by, I gathered). [Henry: My father was a great feminist, not only intellectually but in his daily behavior (housekeeping, dishwashing). He always encouraged his wife to blossom in all ways.(5)] American tourists would often stop in, having been urged to do so by mutual friends, and Hy always seemed welcoming. (I have sometimes wondered how this openness sat with Mathilde. [Henry: My mother was never reluctant about visits from all these strangers.(6)]) Mahty had 9 or 10 siblings, many of whom gradually came to live in Paris, and Hy, I understood, often helped them out financially and socially. He was quite generous when I stayed there in 1965, and showed me all over the city. For Canadian television, in the late 1950s or early 60s, he helped write and/or produce a multi-part TV series, Mademoiselle de Paris, and he seemed to know every nook and cranny of the city, taking me into courtyards and alleys that I would never find on my own. Somewhere in my files I may still have the brochure he gave me about the series. (The web site I reference here lists only 7 episodes, but I think there were many more.)
During my stay in 1965, the family tried to set me up with a niece on Mahty's side. Annie and I did go out once, and we agreed on what the family was up to. We also agreed we would not yield to this pressure. Annie and I have remained friends over the years; I think of her as a cousin, and when Maxine and I were in Paris during our honeymoon in 2005, we stayed with her, and she treated us regally.
Like so many Yanowitzes Hy wanted to be an actor and had strong feelings about what constituted good and bad acting. He loved musicals. In Paris, he became a writer of English subtitles (including, I believe, for Shoot the Piano Player) and dubbing dialogue (while I was living in Paris, he directed the dubbing of a recent Soviet film--"T-34" as the dubbed version was called, but I cannot find an internet refrence, so perhaps it is known under a different name--set in WWII and had me do some of the voice-over). [Henry: My father played in a series of films (like Le fauve est lâché); you don't bring out this important side of his life.(7)]
Two communist party actions in 1968, I think, sapped much of Hy's will to live and took away any remaining loyalty to any communist party, though not to his ideals. The first was the French Party's betrayal of the French uprisings, spearheaded by students in Paris, in May-June. The second was the August Soviet invasion of Czechoslavakia to put down the Dubcek regime; Hy thought that regime was creating the ideal state for which he had waited all his life.
Those events did not help the serious heart problem Hy developed in the last year or so of his life. People would try to get him to eat better, and he would say that if he couldn't live and enjoy eating (especially in Paris restaurants), it wasn't worth living. Towards the end, as he lay in bed in the family's apartment, very weak, Mathilde kept urging people to talk softly so he would have as much calm as possible; she was terrified that getting upset would kill him. The apartment building and others formed a small courtyard, where one of those afternoons a fight broke out. Two North African men were shouting, and at least one had a knife. Mathilde became frantic at not being able to control the situation and phoned the police. The cop who answered asked, "Are they North African?" and she had to stammer, "No, no"; they wouldn't have come otherwise. My memory pictures Jai running into the courtyard and somehow breaking up the fight.
Soon after that Hy was removed to a hospital, and as the story went, he died in the middle of the night while trying to ring for a nurse; supposedly he was found dead partway out of bed as if he had started to crawl for help.(8)
(1) I suspect it goes with the leftist territory to flay oneself for not being pure enough to support and perform acts that repulse one--such guilt was certainly encouraged when I was a young activist, and it has never entirely left me (as in, "What right do I have to enjoy myself while injustice and poverty rage all around me?"). One probably imbibes such thinking early on, starting with parental chastisment for malfeasances such as not eating one's vegetables when people are starving in [your image here of a particularly impoverished location--in my childhood it was China, as I recall, but it could as easily have been India or generic Africa or sharecroppers]. My father was fond of a saying I still find salutary and solacing when I feel sorry for myself: "I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet." (I am blurring two related but not identical weaknesses--guilt at not living up to one's image of one's own ideals, not being politically pure enough (a version of what Tom Wolfe described in "Mau-mauing the Flak-Catchers"), versus guilt over imagined narcissism, not deserving to be happy.) I once had a gentle Marxist friend who proposed that because executing anyone in furtherance of the revolution was so terrible but also in some cases so necessary, the revolutionary comrade least eager to do so should be chosen--not as punishment, but to purify the act and minimize enabling violent tendencies in more ruthless comrades.
(2) Jai tells the following story about the origin of his name(s): "The 'story' of my birth name (please sit comfortably in an armchair...) : When I was born in the American Hospital of Neuilly-sur-Seine (excusez du peu!--"see how privileged I am!") my mother and father decided to call me Robert (after the son of a friend who was killed during the war), Jai (after Joseph, my grandfather's name, and Abraham and Irving--Millie's twin--the names of our fathers' brothers who died in the thirties--Irving November 14, 1935, Abie June 9, l936). Freud would say it was already quite a heavy burden to carry, but the story is not finished.... At the last moment, as my father was at a political meeting (!), my mother asked her brother André (nicknamed 'Bébé') to go and register me at the town hall and to add a Tunisian name in third position as a 'souvenir' [memory] of her country. My uncle was a little 'étourdi (scatterbrained) and declared: Youssef, Robert, Jai! As soon as my mother realized the error she tried to change it, but once registered, it was impossible. So she had to take a lawyer to try to delete 'Youssef.' and as the process lasted too long and cost quite a lot she became on bad terms with the lawyer and decided on her own to cross out 'Youssef' everywhere on the papers. So for many years my first names where Robert (for non-family) and Jai (for relatives). When I was around 22 years old I had to go before an Army Board (I was invalided out at last) where suddently a officer shouted very loudly to call me: Youssef Yanowitz! So I really learned about the whole history then (I knew very vaguely before)! But I also discovered that in 1948 a court had changed 'Youssef' had been changed to 'Joseph' but the lawyer never told my mother because of their being on bad terms. So, as says Molière, 'et voila pourquoi votre fille est muette...' ('so there you have it: that should explain everything'), and why your cousin has a problem of stability of personality."
(3) I originally remembered this about Algeria. Jai sent me the following correction and commentary: "It was not in Algeria but in Tunisia I was 'saved' by my American passport during 'les évènements de Bizerte.' On that occasion I understood what "roll out the red carpet" means. I was really stuck in Tunisia with my French passport and suddenly with my American one all doors were open."
(4) "Les 'dimanche soir' chez Hy donnaient à des discussions politiques mais aussi culturelles. Les visiteurs pouvaient évoquer pendant des heures le dernier film d'Antonioni."
(5) "Mon père était un grand féministe, pas seulement dans les idées mais dans les actes quotidiens (ménage, vaisselle). Il poussait aussi sa femme à s'épanouir sur tous les plans."
(6) "Ma mère n'était pas réticente à la venue de tous ces étrangers."
(7) "Mon père à joué dans une série de films (comme "Le fauve est lâché"); tu n'évoques pas cet aspect important de sa vie. Mon frère possède la liste complète de ses rôles au cinéma."
(8) Jai comments that he remembers me angry at Hy's funeral because I was late. My first wife, Sherrl and I, owned a Saab, and for some reason, apparently I couldn't follow the hearse, which rushed to the cemetery and left behind the cars trying to follow it. That sounds vaguely familiar, but I was at the grave before the ceremony was over, because I have a vivid memory of watching the starkly plain wood coffin being lowered into the ground. I also remember a large gathering afterwards at Rue des Haies of family and friends.
After telling that story about my anger over being late to the funeral, Jai asks, "But why do I remember you in angry situations?" In an earlier e-mail, he had recalled an event of which I have some memory--that while staying at Hy's in 1965, I was awakened at 7 or 8 am by noise from work (building renovation) nearby (next door?), and I railed in angry at the injustice of it. I remember that Hy had no sympathy for my anger and assured me that this was an appropriate time for such activity. I would answer Jai that he probably remembers my being angry because I was too easily angry and feeling that the world was out to get me--a topic I will be covering on this web site.
Jai also remembers a bit more of my 1965 visit: " I remember how you changed between the first time you came  and the second time : the first time you were quite serious, you didn't like pop music, etc., etc. The second time you played your guitar while singing Bob Dylan songs (from after his folk period) and told me how you appreciated some kind of cakes with 'special things' in them." I have no memory of those cakes...