This month, on the Tuesday evening of the 15th, my grandfather George Elk died at 92. My grandfather was born in 1918 on 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 had to make.
My grandfather, a veteran of World War II, was fired from the Veterans 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 on 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 the Palestinians remained oppressed. My grandparents learned through generations of struggle that only by standing in solidarity with all of those who are oppressed – not just white people – can we build the bonds of solidarity strong enough to overcome the mightiest forces of hate or money.
My grandparents taught me about the setbacks and triumphs that social movements often suffer. They explained to me how, by sticking together, they were eventually able to win. They recounted the suffering of the Great Depression and the excitement of the New Deal. They told me what it was like to volunteer for the Army in World War II (my grandmother served in the Women’s Army Corp) because they wanted to fight fascism, only to return home from the war to see friends blacklisted for their involvement with Communists and the labor movement. They shared stories about what it was like to overcome red baiting in the 1960s to pass civil rights legislation.
I remember arriving at my grandparents’ house deeply depressed shortly after Bush won in 2004. It felt like the world had ended, like 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.
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, 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 or the setbacks he would see in his lifetime. He never imagined he would be attacked by a right-wing mob or that he and his fellow activists would overcome the forces of hate in the civil rights movement. In the darkest days, he could only draw on his hope that the solidarity of those united for justice would eventually lead to victory.
After my grandfather died, I began to think to myself about 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 stopped worrying 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 to think of the roots of solidarity that people like my grandparents planted, and that so many others in following generations continued to tend. These roots are deep, and they are the reason I’m confident we can overcome anything as Americans.
If there is one thing my grandfather taught me through his example, it’s that as long as solidarity never dies, hope lives. And my grandfather George Elk lives as well.