Why a Loving Father Slapped His Daughter’s Face
By David Hartley Mark
My mother, Ethel Katz (Mark), was born in 1919. It was an odd time—raccoon coats, jazz, aeroplanes, the singer Rudy Vallee, and “23 Skiddoo.” The soldiers, white, black, and brown, were coming home from “Over There,” and determined to overcome their “shell shock” by getting high on gin or whiskey (some on cocaine; not too much on marijuana, unless you were a young jazz trumpeter from New Orleans named Louis “Satchelmouth” Armstrong).
My mother lived in Gramercy Park, a quiet neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, with her parents, Henry and Celia, and her baby sister, Charlotte, whom everyone called Cheivy. Her own childhood nickname was Etty. One sad, evil aspect of the times was the “Red Raids”—then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was obsessed with the Communist takeover of Russia, which trumpeted that it was going to foment similar revolutions all over the world. Anarchist organizations from Italy and other European nations seemed to be threatening the democracies of Europe, and their shrill cries were being heard in America, too. Thousands, millions, of Jews, Italians, Poles, Greeks, and others had immigrated to America between 1880 and 1920, and the US Congress rushed to shut the “golden door,” hoping for more Scandinavians—a policy aided by racist beliefs similar to those of the later Nazis.
Anonymous bombers mailed lethal packages to Palmer’s own Washington, DC, home, as well as to certain senators. Alarmed, Palmer established the FBI, hiring an ambitious young lawyer, J. Edgar Hoover, to set it up, which he did with a will, often taking advantage of the grey areas of the law to do so. As the 1920s progressed, immigrants and their children remained nervous over the growing power of the federal government and its courts to interfere in their private lives, thoughts, and activities in what they had thought was an open and free democracy. After all, Emma Goldman had been deported to “Red Russia” in 1919, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1920.
It was a nervous, dangerous time.
In the midst of this all, Ethel, the little girl who was to become my mother, and Cheivy, who was to be my aunt, were growing up in the greatest city in the world. The Twenties roared along—fast cars, skyscrapers, subway trains, buses, and enormous department stores were never-ending sources of wonder and amusement. All of the City’s museums were free, back then. Their mother, Celia, and other relatives provided an atmosphere of love and nurturing. Father Henry was a self-made success as a Certified Public Accountant; he owned some parcels of real estate, as well. For the family, it was a wonderful time.
My mother, a city girl for all of her life, loved the sounds and sights of the metropolis. In particular, she favored fire engines and parades—they held her attention like nothing else—I never understood why. Brass bands and merry-go-rounds: she passed those loves on to me. And New York City was a neverending panoply of such amusements, despite the occasional tinge of danger. In those days, it was relatively safe: you just had to know where to walk, and where not to.
One particular day, in the late 1920s, she was on her way from school, going through the park that lies to this day at the juncture of the buildings and stores that make up Union Square, above 14th Street—I can see it in my mind’s eye as I write; it was always a favorite destination of mine, when I myself was a walker in the city, Alfred Kazin-like, during my school days. The Flatiron Building, that storied “skyscraper” whose height was so quickly surpassed by other, statelier buildings, but whose remarkable shape remains unique. Mays Department Store, now gone, where I had my weeklong bout with retail (and will write about elsewhere). S. Klein, on the Square, another old department store, also gone, now, alas….
There was a parade that day: May 1st. The International Day of the Workers: May Day. It was not a parade with uniformed musicians, trumpets or bass drums: just a few, shabbily-dressed workers, with cardboard placards or wooden signs, reading, perhaps:
WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE
YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS
FREE THE INTERNATIONAL PROLETARIAT
and so on. My mother had no understanding of what they meant, if she read them at all; she was always a voracious reader. But it was a beautiful day, with a breeze blowing, no doubt, and she walked a block or two with the people, ignoring the men in the slouch hats and long black coats who were taking many pictures of the marchers. Then, she went home.
That night, over dinner, father Henry smiled at his wife, Celia, and his two beautiful daughters, and thought about what a lucky man he was. He loved to ask his girls what they had done that day.
“Cheifela,” he said to his younger daughter, “how was your day?”
And Cheivy smiled her gorgeous smile, and told Daddy what her day had been like: school, friends, the weather, and what her teacher had said.
Next, it was Etty’s turn. “And you, Etty?”
So, my mother, no slight talker, she, proceeded to tell her Daddy about her day—school, the teacher, the other children. Everything was fine, until she got to the part about “the parade.”
Now, it was Henry’s turn to knit his brows, and look concerned. May Day, a little voice went off in his head.
“Parade? What parade?” He asked.
“Just a parade, Daddy,” said Etty. And she smiled. “It was very nice. I walked along, and watched the people with the signs, and some people watching waved at us, and I waved back. Some men were taking pictures, and I waved at them, too. And then, I came home.”
And Henry, her father, reached across the table, and slapped her face.
She began to cry. He rose from his seat, hooked his thumb in his vest—I always imagine him doing that, although I never met him; he died when I was two years old—and he gave her a lecture about “walking in parades for no good reason.” Which probably confused her, all the more. She was just a little girl, after all….
Now, why would such a loving father, do such a thing? Because Henry—that is, Herschel—Katz—was not born in this country. He had come here at the age of seven, from Austria-Hungary, which became one of the enemy countries against which Henry’s beloved America fought during World War I.
Because of the evil nature of the times, because of his “alien origins,” and because his little daughter marched in a Communist- and Anarchist-led parade, the FBI and the US Justice Department might consider him, Henry Katz, an enemy alien. They might suspect him of being an enemy spy. They might imprison him, deport him, or worse.
I wonder how many Muslims, or Hispanics, or other Americans have that same fear, these days. We are never so far from those evil days, from the sadness and suspicion of other Americans as we are now—and my readers know to whom I am referring.
This is not the America we want. This is not the America we desire for our children or grandchildren. It has happened before, and my grandfather slapped my mother because of it. A slap is nothing, but deportations and walls and concentration camps are something.
Something very dangerous.
And it’s happened before.