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History On My Block

May 2024
1min read

Uncle Max Ran the Union?

For me he was always just Uncle Max, and she, Aunt Sophie. They lived two houses down from me in suburban Long Island. And though I spent many hours of my childhood in his company in the late forties and early fifties, I never knew who he really was.

To a seven-year-old boy, allowed to romp, read, and listen in his uncle’s study (he really wasn’t my uncle, just a close family friend), the photographs on the wall of him shaking hands with Harry Truman or presenting a hat to a young Nelson Rockefeller and the ornate, framed testimonials from something called unions meant very little. My main concern in life was whether the gods of baseball would ever allow the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series.

So I whiled away the time, let Aunt Sophie stuff me with cookies, played with Uncle Max’s Webcor wire recorder, and ran home to dinner. Eventually they moved back to their original hometown, Boston, and Uncle Max died.

As I grew up, I was able to fill in a few of the facts about his life: He had escaped in the midst of a pogrom from czarist Russia, come to Boston, gone to work in a hat factory, courted and won the boss’s daughter while helping organize the workers. Later he became the union’s president.

I would have gotten no further had I not decided to audit a course on twentieth-century America during my graduate studies in the late sixties. One day, as the lecturer began elaborating on the New Deal and the rise of the CIO, I found myself listening to a recounting of events involving John L. Lewis and his ally Max Zaritsky of the Hatter’s Union.

I stiffened in my seat. Who? Max Zaritsky? Uncle Max? My Uncle Max? I couldn’t believe it. Despite my love of history, I still had trouble freeing myself from the delusion that history was made only by people in books, not someone you could know in real life, someone who called you boychikel and let you scramble around his house in a vastly outsized fedora.

I went back to my room and consulted Schlesinger, Leuchtenberg, and other historians. It was all there: Lewis, Sidney Hillman, the unions, Wagner and the National Labor Relations Act, the strikes, the goon terrorism and the killings at Republic Steel, the caution of the A.F. of L. and the birth of a giant. And smack in the middle of it was Uncle Max.

I had lived a good part of my childhood with him and yet had known so little about him. Now, when I wanted to learn more, he was gone, leaving me only some lovely memories and a watch in the top drawer of my dresser with an inscription on the back: “Presented to Zaritsky from New Jersey Workers Loc. 24. 9-14-34.” I had brushed up against history repeatedly and never known it.

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