My Hunt for Bernie’s Grandfather
A cautionary tale of socialism and research.
Reprinted from Spectator.org.
When Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debated in Brooklyn last week, they did so not far from Bernie’s childhood home and from some disturbing socialist-communist trails. Exploring those paths led me on a chase toward a character named Benjamin Glassberg — more than one Benjamin Glassberg, it turned out. Benjamin Glassberg of Brooklyn was the name of Bernie’s grandfather and also of a serious socialist-communist agitator. It became my task to ascertain if the two Benjamin Glassbergs were one and the same. The hunt absorbed far too much of my time. Do I not have other things to do? Yes, but the subject nonetheless remains of relevance to America’s apparent new favorite socialist.
At one point in the hunt, I was confident that the two Benjamin Glassbergs were the same, but I wasn’t 100% certain. Now, I’m largely confident that they were not. I want to here share what I found, especially for other researchers who start down this trail that Bernie Sanders has kept mysteriously and suspiciously blank, thus prompting my search to begin with. Without my reporting what I’ve found, I’m sure others would leap to my earlier thinking that the two Benjamin Glassbergs were the same man.
First, we must start this examination acknowledging that Bernie Sanders’ far-left past is a disturbing one, from his adventures in what Ron Radosh describes as a “Stalinist Kibbutz,” to his ardor for Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Daniel Ortega’s Nicaraguan Sandinistas, to his honeymoon in that erstwhile romantic paradise, the USSR.
Is it any wonder that People’s World, successor to the Daily Worker and mouthpiece of Communist Party USA, is so hopeful of what it repeatedly and triumphantly touts as “Bernie Sanders’ political revolution”? CPUSA was run for years by Gus Hall, and my colleague at The American Spectator, Dan Flynn, nicely describes Bernie as a “Gus Hall-like figure, in age and ideology.” (There’s actually a physical resemblance as well as an ideological one.)
I’ll leave the full wardrobe in Bernie’s socialist-Marxist closet out of the picture for now, but what I’d like to focus on here is the potential far-left background of his family — a subject that, to my knowledge, has not been explored. As Bernie continues to hold presidential bearing among Democrats, a stunning development that could only happen in an Obama-bequeathed fundamentally transformed America, we need to dig deeper into Bernie’s upbringing, as we do with every major political figure. Just ask any biographer, or any reporter doing a lengthy personal profile of a candidate, and they will tell you: start with the family. You go to the parents, the grandparents, the mentors, the youth. That’s always where you find clues as to what makes the person tick. I have done this repeatedly in full-length works on subjects ranging from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Among them, I covered hundreds if not thousands of pages of terrain on their family backgrounds and mentors. As for liberals who will angrily protest my Bernie inquiry, why are you digging into Donald Trump’s father’s background?
What compelled me to consider Bernie’s case was a simple inquiry from an emailer regarding the politics of Bernie’s mom and dad. The radical apple, after all, doesn’t fall far from the tree. Just ask Barack Obama, the product of a very far-left mom and dad and mentor — some to all of which were pro-communist, with the mentor (Frank Marshall Davis) an actual card-carrying member of the Communist Party (card no. 47544).
And so, I began with a simple search on Bernie’s parents’ names and identities, and quite curiously found nothing at all at Bernie’s official Senate website or his campaign website. He seems mum on his parents, especially his mother. Other than a “fast facts” file at CNN.com, a Democrat National Committee page, and a Wikipedia entry, there is virtually nothing out there on his mother. There is considerably more on his father, a Polish Jew whose relatives were victims of the Holocaust, though the father personally came to America long before World War II. Bernie and his campaign have talked about this, and you can find pictures of his family visiting the tombs of deceased relatives victimized by the evils of Hitler. It is a heartrending story that Bernie would want people to know about it, as it rightly elicits sympathy.
But as for Bernie’s mother’s side of the family, there’s nothing. A complete lack of information. I was puzzled by this initially, but as I dug, I started to think that I understood why. It looked like there might be a serious left-wing agitator sitting in the family tree.
For starters, we do know Bernie’s parents’ names. His father was Eli Sanders. His mother’s maiden name was Dorothy Glassberg. Again, the book on Eli’s background isn’t notably elusive, but Dorothy’s is an empty page.
From what I can piece together, including from occasional web sources (less reliable) and from old New York City/Brooklyn phone directories and census listings, Dorothy was born in 1912 (Wikipedia) or 1913 (according to the 1940 Census and NY Public Library) and died either in 1959 at age 46 or possibly 1960. It seems that she died during Bernie’s first year at Brooklyn College, which would be the academic year 1959-60.
Given Bernie’s radical-left politics, and given that that’s a subject I research, once I knew his parents’ names I immediately looked into my hard copies of old government reports on left-wing political agitation in the United States from the 1920s through the 1960s. I did not find the names of Eli Sanders and Dorothy Glassberg, but I did find a very intriguing name that I soon learned was directly related to Dorothy. Specifically, Dorothy (also known as “Dora”) was the daughter of Benjamin Glassberg, who died in New York City on May 9, 1940. He was born in Poland (Russia-controlled territory) circa 1881. Benjamin thus would be Bernie’s grandfather, and he stood out as a compelling character of interest in Bernie’s ideological ancestry. Here is what I first found on the name Benjamin Glassberg of New York:
The name first became public in New York in 1919 when Benjamin Glassberg was suspended from his position as a high-school history teacher in a Brooklyn public school for teaching “alleged utterances of Bolshevist doctrines in the classroom.” The school in which Glassberg taught was the Commercial High School in the Borough of Brooklyn, very near the home where Bernie grew up and close to the location where Bernie debated Hillary last week.
The case went to court, with the newly created American Civil Liberties Union, which included pro-Soviet communists such as founder Roger Baldwin, who later became an anti-communist liberal, and William Z. Foster, who would become head of Communist Party USA. (Baldwin would write the 1928 book, Liberty Under the Soviets, and Foster scribbled the 1932 communist classic, Toward Soviet America.) The “progressive” left at the time (and still today) reflexively protested that Glassberg was being railroaded and there was nothing to this hideous “Red scare.” (Yes, folks, the liberals were wailing about “Red scares” long before there was a Joe McCarthy. To the left, every investigation of the communist threat is a loathsome “Red scare.”) But time would quickly prove that there was something to the charge.
I read every word of the long brief and argument made on behalf of Benjamin Glassberg by his attorney, Gilbert E. Roe. The brief is very difficult to get a hold of. I had to secure a copy via inter-library loan from one of only two libraries that I could find that had a copy. Throughout his argument on behalf of Glassberg, Roe and his client argued Glassberg’s innocence, as if he were merely conducting open inquiry in a classroom that encouraged the free flow of ideas. In so doing, they also went to lengths to defend Bolshevik Russia under Lenin and Trotsky as unfairly maligned, especially by the American press.
There were many interesting facets to the case, which I need not address here. Ultimately, Glassberg was suspended without pay. Subsequent references to him (apparently him) after he was discharged from the school, as seen in 1920s newspaper clippings from the archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and elsewhere (as I’ll note below), reveal that he indeed had been a supporter of the Bolsheviki. The courtroom claims that the disinterested teacher was merely conducting a neutral Socratic dialogue with his students was clearly shown to be nonsense by his public advocacy on behalf of Bolshevik Russia thereafter.
What soon followed Benjamin Glassberg’s firing for political agitation in a New York public school was a rich history by a Benjamin Glassberg (the same one, I assume) of high-level work with socialist, Marxist, and communist organizations in the 1920s and 1930s, including especially with the Workers’ Council of the United States, for which he did prominent work, including with hardcore rabble-rousers such as Alexander Trachtenberg and Harry Winitsky. Benjamin Glassberg was part of a stalwart subgroup, or so-called “Jewish Federation” of a socialist party that was pro-Soviet and pro-communist, and that splintered away from hardcore American Bolshevik founders such as John Reed, Louis Fraina, and Ben Gitlow. That work is well-documented today in the historical archives of MarxistHistory.org or Marxists.org, which are communist websites commendable for their solid historical documentation.
Quite remarkably, this Workers’ Council began as the Committee for the Third International. It actually wanted to formally affiliate with Lenin’s Soviet Communist International (i.e., Comintern). Its members, including Glassberg, swore allegiance to the Bolshevik Revolution and Comintern. Benjamin Glassberg edited the group’s publication, The Workers’ Council, the masthead of which billed itself as “An Organ for the Third International.” This was an important publication that eventually merged into what became no less than the Daily Worker, the Soviet-funded and directed mouthpiece for the American Communist Party. And again, to reiterate, Benjamin Glassberg was the editor. That is no small deal.
In one of his first editorials for the publication, Glassberg called for The Workers’ Council to “become the expression of revolutionary Socialism” — very similar language, ironically, to what is called for in today’s People’s World, which is the latest iteration in this long evolution from The Workers’ Council to the Daily Worker. Today, the call at People’s World is for Bernie Sanders to pick up the torch for the revolution.
Much more could and should be said of Benjamin Glassberg, but I will finish with this from the end of his life — namely in 1939, the year before the death of Bernie’s grandfather named Benjamin Glassberg. There are two references to “Benjamin Glassberg” in the major 1944 investigation by Congress of “Un-American Propaganda Activities” in the United States. Congress was controlled by Democrats at the time, as was the committee that produced the 2,100-page, three-volume report, a significant compilation known by researchers and insiders as “Appendix IX.”
The first of two items in the report featuring Glassberg’s name was his involvement with a communist front established for the purpose of agitation during the Spanish Civil War, which was a mass global crusade for leftists and communists in the 1930s, an intense political battleground that was pushed, prodded, manipulated, and organized and controlled by Stalin’s Comintern. (See, among others, the excellent works by Stephen Schwartz on this subject.) This particular group was called the Social Workers Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. Benjamin Glassberg was on the “national committee” that served as a board to the group.
The second of the two items flagged by the 1944 Congressional investigation was a May 13-14, 1939 meeting of the National Emergency Conference in Washington, D.C. at the Hotel Raleigh, organized by the National Citizens Political Action Committee, comprised of what Congress correctly identified as “numerous Communists and veteran fellow travelers” joined together in this “Communist-front” event. Some of the big fish joining Benjamin Glassberg at this event included Jerome Davis, Paul Douglas (a future Democrat senator), Irving Fisher (the Ivy League economist/eugenicist), Max Lerner, Robert Lynd, Carey McWilliams, William Pickens, the Rev. A. Clayton Powell, Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger (senior), Donald Ogden Stewart, and the Rev. Dr. Harry F. Ward, a prominent Methodist minister and notorious organizer of the Religious Left. Glassberg was part of this very prominent group of self-billed “progressives.”
This is all compelling information, and it raises key questions. Chief among them, obviously, is whether the Benjamin Glassberg that I’ve detailed here is Bernie’s grandfather by the same name. Bernie’s grandfather by that name died in 1940, and I found nothing else on the socialist-communist agitating Benjamin Glassberg after that. Nothing.
I had believed that the chances were high to excellent that the left-wing agitator was Bernie’s grandfather. This thus would have prompted additional questions, such as what did granddad teach Bernie’s mom about the Red flag and the revolution? Is Bernie his mother’s and grandfather’s ideological son?
Alas, the task grew messier. With the help of some indispensable colleagues with access to information not available by conventional channels, I learned that there were several (maybe as many as seven) Benjamin Glassbergs living in New York City at the time of the 1920 census. Bernie’s grandfather was one of them, and he is listed as working as a “cloak worker” or “presser” in the clothing/garment industry, and is registered as living at a different residential address from the Benjamin Glassberg who was listed as a teacher, and who apparently emigrated to America from Austria at age seven in the late 1890s. Alas, this latter Benjamin, the teacher, appears to be the socialist-communist activist fired from the Commercial High School and seems not to be Bernie’s grandfather.
How can I conclude that? I matched the likely name and address of the fired socialist teacher to that of the Benjamin Glassberg who lived at 1038 Union St. in Brooklyn, thus listed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of November 1, 1918. He is listed in the Eagle with other members of the Socialist Party. So, this would seem to be the socialist in question. His address does NOT match the address of Bernie’s grandfather, who lived on Morris Avenue and (again) was listed as a cloaks operator.
Simple as this conclusion is — which was primarily a matter of finding and reconciling the residential addresses of two Benjamin Glassbergs — it has been extremely difficult to track down with certainty. So much so that I remain open to other possibilities. Consider:
The two main Glassbergs I was dealing with contain contradictions and corrections in the Census documents, specifically regarding where they were born, their occupations, and even the spelling of their names. As one of my researchers, who is experienced in this area, told me: “Seems a bit odd to me, when most of the other entries are pretty clean in the input by the census taker!” Among the inconsistencies, the Benjamin Glassberg from Brooklyn, the one who was the fired school teacher, is listed in the 1910 Census as “Benjamin” and in the 1920 Census as “Benjiman.” In the 1930 Census, he is registered as living in Milwaukee (oddly), and his name is listed as “Benjamin Glasberg” (one “s”).
Conversely, the Benjamin Glassberg from the Bronx (not Bernie’s home borough), and who is listed as an “operator” in the “cloaks” industry, and whose stated daughter “Dora” is surely Bernie’s mom, has his name spelled “Benjaman” in the 1930 Census.
Most confusing, the Benjamin that I finally figured was Bernie’s grandfather is from the Bronx, not Brooklyn, whereas the socialist Benjamin was from Brooklyn. Bernie is from Brooklyn, not the Bronx.
If your head is spinning and you are frustrated by all of these details, well, you should be. But really, we need not pull our hair out. Resolving this would be as simple as a reporter asking Bernie Sanders who his maternal grandfather was — and what his profession was, and whether he was a pro-Bolshevik socialist editor-agitator-activist. Really, that is pretty simple, is it not?
I remain intrigued by Bernie’s odd complete lack of information divulged regarding his mother and mother’s side of the family, including his maternal grandfather. If his maternal grandfather was an innocent hardworking immigrant from Russia-dominated Poland, struggling as a machine operator in Brooklyn’s massive garment industry in the 1910s and 1920s, then why don’t we know that? That’s a sympathetic story perfect for a socialist to trumpet on the campaign trail. Why has it seemingly never been mentioned by Bernie? If that immigrant’s grandson has risen as far as competing for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination 100 years later, that is an impressive story, regardless of your views of Bernie’s politics. It is one I would expect Bernie to tell on the campaign trail. Why hasn’t he? Could a reporter near Bernie please ask him?