A CITY DIVIDED
by Helen Lippman
Sixty years ago, in the spring and summer of 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings in Newark. Harold Lippman, a Newark physician, former Army captain—and my father’s younger brother—was one of more than 30 men and women hauled in for questioning.
Like my uncle’s three children, I was a Red Diaper Baby. My parents belonged to the Communist Party throughout my childhood and, in 1955, I committed a treasonous act of my own. I was seven.
During a sleepover at my best friend’s house, I defied my parents, passing on my rudimentary understanding of what they had taught but forbidden my sister and me to tell: that the countries everyone thought were bad were really good because people there shared everything equally. We had no idea why that was deemed by some to be a bad thing. All we knew was that to talk about it could bring us ruin. My indiscretion so terrified me that I never said a word about my family’s Communist beliefs for the next 20 years.
I didn’t know about my uncle’s brush with HUAC until someone read from a transcript of the hearing at his 87th birthday party, in 2002. For the record, McCarthyism and the Red Scare had long since lost their grip on the country. But I was still shocked by the boldness of Harold’s testimony nearly half a century ago.
Told by a HUAC investigator that “we were reliably informed you were the chairman of the doctors’ cell of the Communist Party in Newark,” he calmly replied, “I didn’t say that,” and then reprimanded his interrogator for posing more than one question at a time. “Are you withdrawing all other questions?” he inquired when asked whether he was a member of the Communist Party.
After multiple reassurances that this was indeed the case, Harold took another tack: “Then I must decline to answer on the grounds that the very existence of this committee is a violation of the fundamental doctrine of separation of powers upon which our democracy is based…”
He went on to assert that HUAC was violating Article III of the Constitution, as well as the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth amendments. When he began ticking off the provisions of the First Amendment, the committee chair interjected testily, “Just say the First Amendment. We know what it contains. We are lawyers and you are a doctor.”
That quieted Harold not at all. He continued his litany of reasons not to respond, including a “fundamental American right” to be left alone. When it became evident that further dialogue would only yield more of the same, the interrogators dismissed him and called the next witness.
My uncle’s picture appeared on the front page of The Newark Star-Ledger soon after, along with photos of three Newark teachers who had also testified. All three pleaded the Fifth and lost their jobs.
Not so for Harold, as there was no one to fire him. He was a self-employed general practitioner with a constantly crowded office on Newark’s Elizabeth Avenue, committed to caring for city residents even when they couldn’t afford to pay. Like most Americans subpoenaed by HUAC, Harold was accompanied by and allowed to confer with an attorney. But the lawyers were forbidden to address the committee and could be cited for contempt of Congress for failure to abide by the House rules. Witnesses who refused to answer questions put before them or to “name names” faced contempt charges—and possible imprisonment, as well.
However, the infamous blacklist was a far more common and insidious consequence.
Hollywood’s blacklist achieved notoriety in 1947, when 10 prominent screenwriters and directors were banned from working in the entertainment industry. Within a few years, the names of dozens of actors, writers and musicians were added to the list. The Red Scare continued throughout the 1950s and, although a precise number of those affected is impossible to come by, an estimated 10,000 Americans lost their jobs—and their livelihoods.
After the teachers were fired, Newark’s 7,000 city employees were ordered to sign loyalty oaths and fill out questionnaires about present and past affiliations. No sooner had the forms been handed out than the city council did an abrupt about-face. The requirement was tabled, according to The New York Times, because the council member who had initiated it objected to asking staffers about their participation in any of the organizations on the U.S. Attorney General’s “subversives” list.
Newark academics were targeted, too, as were tenants. The state Supreme Court upheld a decision by Newark College of Engineering to fire a faculty member who refused to sign a loyalty oath. Rutgers University announced automatic dismissal of any faculty member belonging to the Communist Party and forced out three professors. The Newark Housing Authority threatened to evict two tenants who refused to swear they did not belong to subversive groups.
Paul Robeson was one of the few high-profile New Jerseyans who stood up to HUAC. As a result, he was followed by the FBI and his football exploits for Rutgers were deleted for many decades.
Harold Lippman, meanwhile, practiced medicine in Newark for decades. Shortly after the birth of his grandchildren, he wrote them a letter describing his experiences in World War II, when he landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy one day after D-Day and served as a medic. He was awarded a Bronze Star, a Presidential Unit Citation and a Combat Medical Badge, among other commendations. When he died in 2005 at 89, Dr. Lippman received a military burial at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Washington—a fitting farewell for an American who loved his country and worked tirelessly to make it better.
I Married A Communist Newark’s
postwar brush with McCarthyite politics is old news to fans of Philip Roth. In 1998, he published I Married A Communist, one of three books narrated by the character Nathan Zuckerman set in the city during 1950s. The book tells the story of Ira Ringold, a radio star and avowed communist.