Canoes, campfires, Yiddish, and communist roots
At Camp Kinderland, labor solidarity and Yiddish history are celebrated, and no matter what cabin you bunk in, you are part of the 99 percent.
TOLLAND, Mass – On a rickety wooden porch of the camp playhouse named for Paul Robeson, famed African-American singer and civil rights dissident, a cluster of 15- and 16-year-old girls sit cross-legged, hunched over poems and testimonials recounting the bombing of Hiroshima.
Along with the other counselors-in-training at Camp Kinderland, they are preparing for the camp’s annual Hiroshima Memorial Day ceremony. This year, they will mark 67 years since American warplanes dropped the world’s first nuclear bomb on the Japanese city in an act that brought the curtain down on World War II. The bomb killed some 140,000 people.
“I don’t know a lot of teenagers who commemorate Hiroshoma. If I didn’t come to camp here I wouldn’t be aware of certain issues,” says Vera, 16, from New York City.
Camp Kinderland is a small, rustic place at the end of a bumpy gravel road. Its collection of bunks and single-story wooden buildings named for a mix of Yiddish writers, pacifists and civil rights icons perched above a small lake in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains has recently found itself in the cross-hairs of right-wing bloggers and activists engaged in what camp staff call old-time Red-baiting.
The target is Erica Groshen, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Her appointment, to a typically low-profile government agency, is the type that usually goes unnoticed. But a recent report by Americans for Limited Government, a conservative group, cited her “questionable association with a Communist-founded camp” as a reason to doubt her qualifications for the job.
Blog and media chatter from the Left and the Right ensued. And, voila – the camp of 150 kids between the ages of 9 and 16, with staff that describes the place as a close-knit family, finds itself scratching its collective head over all the fuss.
What they are saying, says Judee Rosenbaum, who spent her first summer as a camper here in 1945 and is a veteran staffer, is “that President Obama should not win the next election (and they do this) by drudging up history from 90 years ago to tar this woman and him. It’s so clear to me that even the people digging it out know better but don’t care.”
“It’s a smear campaign,” says Rosenbaum, 75, during an interview over macaroni and cheese and salad at the camp’s dining hall. It's “Super Hero” day and some campers make trips to the salad bar in capes fashioned from towels. Plastered on the surrounding walls are floor- to-ceiling sized painted posters made by campers over the decades. There’s one commemorating the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, another recalling the suffragist movement with a large painted pink flag.
Elsewhere posters celebrate organizations like the National Association for Colored People and causes like rights for farm workers.
Founded in 1923 by Jewish activists from The Workman’s Circle, with its socialist and labor-oriented ideology and a belief in Jewish secular culture rooted in the Yiddish language, the camp’s ideological stance has softened over the years, although it remains committed to fostering a non-religious Jewish identity and progressive social activism.
“Camp wants to create a strong secular identity rooted in Jewish history and underscores Jewish commitment to social justice for all peoples,” says Mitchell Silver, who for many years served as Kinderland's cultural director.
“Anyone who sends their kids to camp today has nothing to do with the detailed political positions of people who led the camp in the 1930s but has everything to do with the hope for a better world for all people,” he adds.
Campers and staff were among the earliest white activists in the Civil Rights movement in the 1930s and 1940s.
Rosenbaum recalls a song she learned at camp in the 1940s: “I am a Jew. How do I know? The Negro hanged reminds me. I am a Jew.”
Other former “Kinderlanders” joined the first demonstrations calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons and later were active in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Rosenbaum remembers the FBI agents who pulled up their cars outside of the gates of the camp to jot down license plates of parents dropping off their kids during the McCarthy era hearings that sought to expose suspected Communist sympathizers. Among those called to testify before the infamous U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, an investigative committee, were Kinderland staffers.
In those early McCarthy years of the late 1940s and early 1950s the camp population plummeted from some 500 children to about 170.
“Parents were petrified,” Rosenbaum says.
Among those coming to the camp’s defense in the media has been Katie Halper, a former camper who is currently making a documentary about Kinderland.
Writing in The Nation, she argued, “The core values of Kinderland can be traced back to old roots. Principle One was Menschlichkeit—the Yiddish word for humaneness … Jews often participated in and often led intellectual and social movements for fairness and justice for all, which included a concern for life beyond one’s self and one’s group, and the commitment to end injustice and make a better life for all humankind."
For Chelsea, a 16-year-old from Queens with a wide smile and long brown ponytail, Camp Kinderland is an extended home. Her grandmother, mother and aunts all spent their summers here before her.
“It’s so different from other camps. I come here to learn. And I learn about what is going on in the world like human rights,” she says.
One of her fellow campers, Luke, from New Rochelle, New York, can trace his Kinderland lineage back even further and boasts he is “fourth generation.” His great-grandmother was a camper here and his grandparents met at camp.
“Because of camp I’m aware of a world outside my own tiny world,” he says.
For the past 54 summers the traditional camp “color wars” are battled out under the banner of the “Kinderland Peace Olympics” which pay tribute to people and social movements.
This year’s theme was “People Before Profits: Kinderland Stands with the 99%” and the children were divided into "Occupy" teams for healthcare, housing, jobs, and the environment.