INTERVIEW WITH FRANCES EISENBERG
INTERVIEWER: This is an interview with Frances Eisenberg, Roll 110, tenth of February. Now Frances, can you just describe your job in the 1940s, what you were doing?
FRANCES EISENBERG: What was I doing in 1940s?
FE: I was teaching in the...
INT: So can you describe what you were doing, your job in the 1940s for me?
FE: In the 1930...
FE: Oh, 1940s. What was my job then? I was a teacher of English in the Los Angeles City Schools. For many years I had been a substitute teacher, which meant that we substitutes, no matter where we lived, had to come down to Eleventh and Broadway, the centre of Los Angeles and, early in the morning, and wait to be called, what we eventually termed the auction block, for a day's assignment in teaching. The point was that if you kept substitute teachers on a long time, you paid them less than you had to pay the regular, permanent teachers. And so I would report for duty and one day I was assigned to Connogle Park High School. I hardly even known where Connogle Park was, it was some thirty miles from the centre of Los Angeles. I didn't drive a car and so I had to take the Red Car that we had then before thea of freeways and automobiles and besides we couldn't afford, in the depth of the Depression, economic depression that America was in then, for our family to own two cars. My husband had to own a car for his business, so I took the Red Car line, electric car line to Connogle Park and then walked from the centre of the town, the last stop, up to the school, where I was greeted by the Principal and assigned to my English classes.
INT: OK. Can you tell me a little bit about why there was some hostility towards you at the school?
FE: This hostility towards me developed not because I was a teacher who wasn't functioning correctly, it was just the opposite. My students liked me, I had no difficulty at all in having my room full of students, but here was a teacher with the name Eisenberg. She was Jewish in a town that was very predominantly Christian, that had many, many churches, Catholic and Protestant, many divisions, and also the centre of a small group of fundamentalist Republicans, and they didn't like what I was teaching in the curriculum. Now, of course, they assumed that I had a choice over the curriculum. Of course, teachers do not. We were teaching our youngsters about the United Nations and, in fact, we even had, for some gifted youngsters, a small group to read the Charter Eleanor Roosevelt had initiated, the Charter for the United Nations, she's certainly been a very significant leader in that direction. We admired her and, of course, President Roosevelt enormously. This town considered President Roosevelt a Communist, because he was in favour of the United Nations, the five members of the Security Council, the head group, one of which was the Soviet Union. The owner of the Connogle Park Herald was a fundamentalist Republican. My students in my journalism class would take copy down to the Connogle Park Herald to be run off on their presses - it was the nearest accessible place for us to have the school paper printed. Well, when the youngsters brought the copy down and he saw these editorials in the paper, written by students, praising the United Nations and the hopes for peace after the devastating World War Two, he thought that we were Communists and he discussed this with the students.
INT: So at school you were accused of being Communistic?
FE: Yes, there's one family, the Nafsiggers, were sort of the head of a little group of these fundamentalist Republicans. It so happened that the Nafsiggers has a child, a young man, in my class, Len, and he was a good student. He was a senior, about to be graduated, and at mid-term, before mid-term, he came to me and said, 'I have a great idea for a column. I want to call it Digging the Dirt'. I said, 'What would it be like?' He says, 'Oh, stuff that I'll find out about various kids at the school'. And I said, 'In other words, gossip.' So I said, 'Well, ask the staff.' So he did present his request to the staff and they unanimously voted not to have Len Nafsigger write 'Digging the Dirt' about their friends and themselves. Now Len had tried to gain a student body office, he never succeeded, he was never a popular student, but he was rather a good student and he was earning A's in journalism, he wrote rather well and at that time, when the staff - and I concurred with the staff, because according to the manual that we followed, a national manual for high school journalism - it was frowned upon to have any gossip in a paper. And so he was denied this privilege of writing. And in his family there was a tradition of journalism, an uncle was a famous journalist, I didn't know that at the time, and so Len decided he would not write anything for the paper. When the time came, he was about to graduate and the semester was at an end, I had to evaluate his grade. And I decided that this kind of conduct of his certainly was influenced by his family, I couldn't hold the student, this young student, totally responsible. So I decided I'd give him a B, which was a good grade, it was a college grade. Much to my surprise, the result of that stunned me. Shall I tell you the story? His mother, on the last day of school- the building was rather deserted, all the doors and windows were open, it was a hot day - the mother came to school and I had my door open and my neighbours had their door open and the school janitor was cleaning the hallway and a friend of mine had a room next to me and, as I said, her door was open, mine was open, and we heard this click, click, click of heels coming down the hallway and they stopped at my door. And a woman's voice came to me and she said, 'Are you Mrs. Eisenberg?' I said, 'Yes, come in.' 'No, I don't want to come in. I have Len's report card here with the grade you placed on it. This, Mrs. Eisenberg, was terrible. I will get you for this, you dirty Jew.' I was so stunned that I had no reply to this. She turned around and went out of the building and the janitor came to me and my friend, who was next door. We couldn't believe what had just happened.
INT: What ultimately was the result of this?
FE: The ultimate result of this was that she determined that she was going to get rid of me as a member of that faculty. There was a legislator of California running for senator. She invited Senator-to-be, Jack Tenny to Connogle Park, gathered her fundamentalist Republican friends - he was running on the Republican ticket - and have a fund-raiser for him and take advantage of the fact that this was very much in the air at this time, attack on Communists. As you know, at Fort Missouri, Winston Churchill had made a very strong anti-Communist speech and the atmosphere in the country was changing from alliance during the War with the Soviet Union, to enmity. Well, here was, she thought, a nest of Communists, here's this teacher up there at the school influencing the young people. So her friends, as I said, gathered at her home, or a meeting hall in Connogle Park, and she said to the senator, 'There's a Communist teacher up there at the High School, you have got to help us get rid of her.' Consequently, when when Jack Tenny continued with his campaign, part of the campaign resolved itself into Communist hunting and his committee held a meeting in Connogle Park, I was summoned to come to this meeting and testify. I was not permitted to bring a lawyer.
INT: So there was a sense in which various members of the community which you were living in got together, manufacturing this thing against you?
FE: Yes and they, as I mentioned before, the owner, Mr. Robinson, of the Connogle Park Herald, the small newspaper of the community, he was willing to testify that the editorials in the paper were Communistic, they favoured the United Nations.
INT: And how much later did the summons from HUAC arrive?
FE: Quite a bit later. I would say as a result of this agitation which continuein one form of another, I was transferred from Connogle Park High School to another school in the district, FHigh School. It was at Fairfax that I was summoned again. I was summoned before different committees - the Burns Committee - they were all state committees, I was never summoned before a national committee. But in 1952, I believe, or it could have been later, three, I received a summons. Now how do you get a summons? A uniformed officer of a police force comes to your door and rings the door bell - this was after school and my children were at home and I happened to be home then - and serves this notice that I was to appear before this un-American, California Un-American Activities Committee. It was a shocking experience, just to see a policeman at a teacher's home and so I was summoned again and again and asked all kinds of questions.
INT: And what were they mainly sort of accusing you of? What were the charges...
FE: (Interrupts) They were charging me of subversion, that is teaching Communist doctrine to my students which in fact, was a deliberate lie, because we had a course of study which I brought with me to these committee hearings and they could pursue the course of study approved by the Board of Education and in it was the provision that we teach what the United Nations was, what its importance was and what its Charter contained, because our government had approved of it. And so, constantly...
INT: Right, so I'm just going to ask you again, if we can tell the story about the boy at Connogle Park and then...