by Carol (Pasternak) Kaplan
Some years ago my husband and I stopped in Sunnyside on our way home from Long Island. I took him to 41-42 42nd St., between Skillman and 43rd Avenues. where I lived from ages 6 to 13. (I too didn't grow up in the Gardens, but that's part of the story.) We took the elevator to the 5th floor and there was apartment 5C. I had not remembered how grand the building appeared: marble floors, wide marble staircase. I lived with my parents in a one bedroom apartment occupying the bedroom while they slept in the spacious living room. We ate our meals in an eat-in kitchen, adjacent to the foyer and the front door. Martha and Sheila Brall lived a few apartments away.
Why didn't we live in the Gardens? I heard a variety of reasons from my parents, who might have bought a house when they were cheap, but I believe the real reason was that they could never see themselves as property owners. They were both immigrants from poor Jewish working class families. Both were communists, as were most of their friends. My mothers' older siblings were garment workers. A smart, capable woman, she left school after the 8th grade and worked for the rest of her life, mainly in office jobs. My father had been an organizer for the Communist Party and after I was born went to work in a machine shop in Long Island City, within walking distance of our apartment. I was a latch key kid, but my father came home by 4:30 every day.
Many happy memories attach to apartment 5C. From 41-42 42nd St. it was a short walk to PS 150, an oasis among public schools. True, the first principal, a stately Irish woman, opened each week's assembly - to which I wore my white middy blouse and red tie - by reciting the Lord's Prayer. But the Jewish parents successfully lobbied the school to excuse children on Jewish holidays, before the Board of Education made this standard throughout the city. Teachers like Mrs. Russek encouraged creativity and independent thinking, although the class took advantage of her leniency and misbehaved. I played jump-rope and potsy and rode my bike after school on 42nd St. While I lived in apartment 5C I took painting classes with Ruth Finke, Alan Finke's mother. I was probably her most talentless student. I also took piano lessons with Augusta Cherry. In 5th and 6th grades I became a tomboy. With friends Ann Cavanaugh and Florence Goldberg I played handball and stickball in the schoolyard after school. (The tomboy phase ended when I entered JHS 125 and joined the other girls in watching the boys play ball.)
But apartment 5C holds frightening memories as well. My parents were called to testify before the Grand Jury in the Rosenberg-Sobell case, because my father was Morton Sobell's uncle. Later that night they sat silently in the kitchen with my uncle Louis writing and then erasing on a small blackboard. It was forbidden to disclose any information about Grand Jury proceedings, and they were afraid that the apartment might be bugged. They had no doubt about the telephone. My father had gotten rid of his radical books and pamphlets by the time the FBI agents came to interview them at home. I was followed to and from school. Only later did my father tell me of their fear they would be arrested, since they provided a link between the defendants and the Communist Party. They had made arrangements for me, I learned.
When I turned 13 we moved to 46-19 Skillman Avenue, between 46th and 47th streets. It was a three floor walkup but it had 2 bedrooms. I spent my adolescence there and I rebelled in various ways. When I was 15 I got a job at Bloomingdales for the Christmas season by lying and saying I was 16. I worked all day Saturday for five or six weeks, excited to earn money and feeling very grown up. One day I was returning home on the subway when I ran into David Horowitz, whom I had known since nursery school. When I told him about my job he turned solemn and said, "You're going to get in trouble!" That always made me laugh, especially in view of his later trajectory to the alt-right.
On Skillman Avenue I struggled to establish my own identity. I admired the values and commitment of my parents and their friends, including many who lived in Sunnyside and had been persecuted for their beliefs. How to loosen the bonds with my loving but possessive father while preserving these values and that commitment? I had to find my own way, and it was the work of years. But that's another story.
Carol Pasternak attended PS 150, JHS 125, and the Bronx HS of Science. She graduated from Queens College. Through a friend at Queens she met Larry Kaplan, to whom she has been married for 58 years. They have two grown daughters. They still live in Englewood, NJ, where they raised their children. Carol received her MSW at Hunter and her PhD at NYU. She taught at Fordham University in the Graduate School of Social Service, and has worked as a clinical social worker for many years.