Dispatch from "Commie Camp"

A group of teenagers—Israeli Jewish and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship—came to Camp Kinderland (of “Commie Camp” movie fame) this week to visit and meet their age peers. They did ice breakers, sports, swimming, and taught each other dances and songs in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Yiddish​.
I had the opportunity to give this mixed group of youths a brief introduction to the political and cultural philosophy of Camp Kinderland, which is centered on solidarity between Jews and other oppressed peoples. We know that Anti-Semitism functions by terrorizing us Jews and then incentivizing us into an isolated middleman/scapegoat position, oppressed from above and oppressing those below us. I wanted to tell this mixed group—which included grandchildren of Holocaust survivors; family members of those bombed by the American-funded Israeli military in Gaza last summer; and a number of White, middle class American Jews— about Kinderland’s model of intertwined liberation. Here is an expanded version of the talk I gave:
“I’ve been going to camp here for 20 years now, and I keep coming back because it is one of the most special places in America, one of the most special places in the world. So I want to let you know a little bit about what makes it so special to me. Kinderland was founded in 1923 by Yiddish-speaking supporters of the Communist Party. They were poor, working Jews, and they believed the only way they would get to live with good food on their table and a roof over their heads was to seek those things together with all poor, working people of the world. At that time, they had strong personal and cultural relationships with the Old Country, with Jews in Eastern Europe. That changed tragically during the Nazi Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered—and as we also remember here at Camp, 1 million Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents, disabled people, and others, as well as the millions of soldiers who died along the way. We celebrate the Jewish partisan resistance as well as Gentile organizations like the White Rose who struggled in solidarity with our people.
​A decade later, in 1954, in the midst of the Red Scare here in America, the New York State government tried to shut down Kinderland because we were considered dangerous, both as lefties and as Jews.​​ Camp staff members were subpoenaed to testify about their suspected subversive activities; the FBI posted cars outside our camp gates to take down people’s license numbers. Many camp families became very afraid of government repression—people were losing their jobs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had just been publicly executed by the U.S. government for their Communist activities—and the camp shrunk from over 500 campers to 158 campers, in just one year. Soon after, Americans learned about some truly evil things that Stalin, the leader of the Communist Soviet Union, had done, killing millions of people, and specifically targeting Jews, Yiddish-speaking ​artists,​ because he thought they were subversive to his rule. People at Camp broke away from their relationship with the Communist Party, because they understood that the Soviet government had betrayed its ideals, and we would not support any government that murdered people, including our own people.
​​In the 1960s, the New Left breathed new life into Camp culture. Kinderland community members were key contributors to White Jewish participation in the Civil Right movement. Two Kinderland members were on the drafting committee of the Port Huron statement, founding SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a major organization in youth leftwing movement. A number of Kinderland members went down South to participate in Freedom Summer and the sit-ins—just as thirty years prior, a number of Kinderlanders had volunteered (and many had given their lives) to fight in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, combatting fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
Today, Camp has continued to celebrate Yiddish culture, as well this legacy of fighting for freedom hand-in-hand—Jews with other peoples. (Internally, this approach is reflected in the increasing number of non-Jews in our Camp community.) Back when Camp was just starting, poor Jews and Italians were working together to win the right to a 40 hour work week and the weekend in this country, which some working people still enjoy today. You can see our approach also in the bunk names we have here. We remember Morris Rosenfeld, a poor Yiddish sweatshop poet; and Emmanuel Ringelblum, founded the underground Oyneg Shabes, chronicling and successfully archiving Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi Holocaust. We also honor Pablo Neruda, a poet who was exiled from his native Chile for his political dissent; Ella Baker, a leader in Black Civil Rights movement; and James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—a Black man and two White Ashkenazi Jews—who gave their lives fighting for the Civil Rights movement. Earlier this summer, our camp learned about and took part in current campaigns such as “End Racial Profiling” and “Fair Housing for All.”
Look, the world can be very a scary place for Jews. When we really think about the Holocaust, about Stalin’s actions, about our own U.S. government’s actions, the world looks very scary. Some Jews, in America, Israel, France, and everywhere else in the world, believe that we must be safe at any cost, that we must take our liberation into our own hands, alone, or allied with big governments like America, although we know they actually do really bad things across the whole world and here too at home. Other Jews believe that we can only be safe if we assimilate, if we melt into the world, if we lose who we are.
We here in Camp Kinderland believe in another way. We understand that the world is scary for Jews—and it is scary for Black people, and women, and Palestinians, and poor people across the world. We believe that no one can truly be safe while one people rules over another, while men hurt women, while White policemen kill Black people in the streets, while most people in the world work for pennies while a few billionaires pollute our skies.
We believe that none of us is free until we are all free.
We believe that the only way we can be all safe and all be ourselves, be ourselves in our many different cultures, is to fight for freedom together.
I will add—and I believe that we need the honesty and passion of our youth here at Camp to make this change—that we as a camp have work to do in acknowledging the ways those of us with lighter skin, or wealthy parents, or male bodies, have benefited from the harmful systems which we fight against—against which we conduct letter campaigns, and organize together in UNCOR, and demonstrate in the streets—because we don’t want the nice apartments that some of us have, or the safety some of us experience from police or walking alone in the streets, to come at the expense of oppressed peoples. A core part of our contribution to making the world safe and free for all people is to make our own community a safe and supportive place for the full participation and leadership of our community’s people of color, of those of us with less money, and of our female and queer community members.”

2 thoughts on “Dispatch from "Commie Camp"

  1. Nice piece on history of Camp K. Thanks.
    Mike Klonsky, Kinderland class of ’57
    SDS Nat’l Secretary 1968.

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