New York Times (NY)
Copyright (c) 2001 The New York Times. All rights reserved.
August 19, 2001
CITY LORE; The Little Red Summer Camp
Screenwriter and journalist Ivy Meeropol article describes returnvisit to Camp Kinderland, summer camp in Tolland, Mass, founded in 1923 by secular Jews active in left-wing politics and trade union movement; photos.
TUCKED away in the woods of southern Massachusetts, Camp Kinderland has all the trappings of a summer camp: bunks, a lake, a sports field. But the bunks have names like Joe Hill and Pablo Neruda, and the murals in the dining hall depict great moments in labor history.
Kinderland was founded in 1923 by secular Jews active in the New York City trade union movement, most of them Communists or socialists. As their numbers dwindled, Kinderland fell on hard times.
In 1977, when I was 8 and my brother was 7, my father, Michael Meeropol, traded folk singing for our first summer's camp fee. The buildings were dilapidated, the tone was strident and the camp was struggling to survive. Our small but scrappy group played kickball and sang civil rights songs. We didn't know that the 80's were just a sharp right around the corner as we shouted "Solidarity Forever" and waved a Cuban flag in the Peace Olympics.
Returning to camp, in Tolland, Mass., after 18 years, I was afraid to find Kinderland a dated relic, with only the reluctant children of disillusioned leftists to fill its bunks. But Kinderland is booming. There are new bunks and a new dining hall, and the Paul Robeson Playhouse has doubled in size as campers arrive in greater numbers each year. Two hundred attended this summer, and there was a waiting list.
By the third day of the season, many campers look as if they've been contentedly strolling these grounds their entire lives. Some of them have. One of many Manhattanites, Emma Bernstein, a 16-year-old Upper West Sider with blue hair who is in her eighth summer, says: "Camp Kinderland is like a utopia. All of the best people in the world are here." Another 16-year-old, Jesse Smith Campoamor, adds: "I live in Manhattan, and there's this facade outside of camp that everyone has to carry, this fake self because they're scared, they don't trust anybody. But when we come to camp we take that mask off and it's raw, it's real, the realest thing possible."
Jesse is the son of a camper and the grandson of a couple who met at the camp 50 years ago. Many Kinderland campers are legacies, but a growing number of people seem to be finding it on their own.
"I think a lot of parents send their kids to Kinderland now because they're appalled by the level of control that the media has on their kids," said Alice Shechter, the director since 1988.
Today's campers are more likely to come from the West Village than the Bronx (where Kinderland buses picked up campers at the "coops," the United Workers Houses). Hannah Quinn heard about the camp seven years ago when Ms. Shechter sang at her school, Public School 3 in the West Village.
"P.S. 3 has become an enormous feeder," Ms. Schecter said. "Over the years probably 100 kids have come from there." Another is the Little Red School House in the Village, where my uncle Robert went.
Kinderland, Yiddish for "children's world," represents a melding of Yiddish culture and left-wing politics. "From the very beginning, camp reflected the idea of bringing radical and ethnic politics together and in many regards changed what Jewishness is today," said Paul Mischler, who researched the camp's history for his 1999 book "Raising Reds."
Eric Mingus, the son of a black father, the bassist Charles Mingus, and a Jewish mother, spent many of his 37 summers in camp. He said with a laugh, "I used to think all Jews were activists."
In my camp years, once or twice a week we'd creep through the woods to a ramshackle hut for "Culture With Chaika." Chaika Klebansky was a Holocaust survivor who taught Yiddish songs, stories and language. Ever since her death in 1988, the camp has struggled to keep Yiddish alive. While campers still look forward to kassa (treats) from home each week, what's left of Kinderland's specifically Jewish identity resides mainly in its heroes.
I lived in Emma Lazarus that first summer. This summer I looked inside and found my bed in the very same corner. It had made our 7-year-old hearts proud to learn that it was Emma Lazarus's words, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. I spent another summer in Harriet Tubman. The screams of a rainy day game of ga-ga (our version of tag) in Robeson or a sloppy first kiss behind Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner breathed life into those names.
I noticed some recent graffiti at Lazarus, "The Earth Is Our Mother, We Have No Other." Here was a new development. Along with women's rights and gay rights, environmental issues have worked their way into the camp program. Kinderland's main concern has always been the rights of working people, but it has been a challenge to generate empathy in privileged children (a seven-week stay costs almost $4,000, though some campers receive scholarship help).
"For a while getting the issue of labor into the program, which is our primary commitment, was a chore," said Judee Rosenbaum, a senior staff member who has been involved in the camp since 1945. "We even made kids pick stones out of the road to see how hard it was to work."
Two years ago, an opportunity to test labor sympathies arose. During the United Parcel Service drivers' strike, a truck showed up carrying coveted packages from home. Ms. Shechter, along with a few campers, demanded to know what the driver thought he was doing. As Mitchell Silver, Kinderland's cultural director, tells it: "The poor shmegegge had probably never even heard the word 'scab' and said he was making a delivery. He was told we would not accept it during a strike. That night, when they learned there were no packages, not a single camper disapproved."
Today's camper seems more political than ever. "My family are all liberal thinkers, but they're not very active, so I grew up with the same values inherently in me, but once I got here, they exploded," said Sarah Kaplan Levinson, a sweet-faced 16-year-old. "There were things that you could do more than just believe in. You could do stuff about it." Sarah is part of the United Council of Resistance, a Kinderland group that meets during the year at the camp office on Court Street in Downtown Brooklyn to plan political action.
TAKING Kinderland's ideals into the world at large was never something we thought of doing. For me, the place was a sanctuary. The rare, delicate beliefs we held were reserved for camp.
If we already had a sense that almost anywhere outside was enemy territory, it was only reinforced by some of the Kinderland cultural program. Many of our heroes had suffered or died for their beliefs. The persecution of Jews, African-Americans, unionists and Communists was often laid out in graphic detail. In their enthusiasm to impart this knowledge, the Kinderland staff designed some hair-raising activities. To bring home the horrors of the Holocaust, counselors locked children in their bunks, led them into communal showers or had them hide in an attic and read excerpts from "The Diary of Anne Frank."
One summer, some counselors wanted to set fire to the lake for Hiroshima Day, Aug. 6, and decided not to only after a long debate.
"I hated camp," said Elizabeth Miller, my bunkmate in Emma Lazarus, who remembers these events. "It made me feel terrified, but if I expressed it, I was made to feel I was a bad person for thinking of myself." Though Elizabeth was only 7, she remembers every chilling word of the Hiroshima Day song: "I come and stand by every door, though no one can hear my silent tread. I knock and yet remain unseen for I am dead, I am dead."
On Aug. 6 we rose at dawn and, wearing black armbands, walked silently to the flagless flagpole. Mist swirled around our ankles like smoke; the sky was a color I thought of as nuclear. The song is about a 7-year-old Japanese boy who had been killed by the atomic bomb. After the ceremony, we floated origami cranes on the lake, where they mingled with the fog. It felt important to be remembering those who were killed, and it was close to a religious experience with that intoxicating combination of hope and doom.
Kinderland is a warmer place now. "The atmosphere has changed enormously for the better since you were here," Ms. Rosenbaum said. "It's much more concerned about children and how they feel." Hiroshima and Holocaust Remembrance Day are still commemorated, but the presentation is now as important as the message.
After lights out, I was invited by some counselors to a bonfire in the woods. Among these 18-year-old Kinderland veterans, the conversation turned to concerns that the youngest campers were playing too much Game Boy. "It's antisocial," one high school senior said with a frown. "They sit on their beds and stare at those screens."
These young critics seemed an example of Kinderland's success. They may not lead a revolution or even a union. But they could overthrow Game Boy.
Photos: At Camp Kinderland, there is swimming in the lake, top. A mural, right, celebrates farm workers. The infirmary, above, is named for the reformer Lillian Wald. (Photographs by Alan E. Solomon for The New York Times)
Chart: "ROSTER: Kinderlanders of Note"
Jules Dassin, director Staff, 1938-39; blacklisted in Hollywood; nominated for Oscars for direction and screenplay of "Never on Sunday," starring his wife-to-be, Melina Mercouri.
Sidney Lumet, director Camper, 1930's; played in drum-bugle corps, "clashing those cymbals with such fervor that I pinched a piece of my belly. Like blood for the revolution."
Leon Friedman, civil rights lawyer Camper, 1941-45; remembers dancing in "Children of Stalingrad." "We would dance around, so happy under Stalin, picking flowers, admiring him. But the evil Nazis came and I fell down dead.
August 26, 2001, Sunday - An article last Sunday about Camp Kinderland, a Massachusetts summer camp with a tradition of left-wing politics, referred incorrectly to the mother of Eric Mingus, a former camper who is a son of the bassist Charles Mingus. His mother is not Jewish; she was reared as a Roman Catholic.
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