The writer of this article is a 20-year-old member of the National Maritime Union from Brooklyn, N.Y. He had never been to sea before last October. Then, because he had three friends in Pearl Harbor whom he wanted to visit, he got a job as a wiper in the engine room of a Standard Oil tanker outbound for Honolulu. From the very first hour he loved the sea and the sense of adventure it brought. When his first trip was over, he signed on for a second and a third. He joined the union because “it could do something tangible for me.” He arrived in the U.S. on Dec. 7 but immediately shipped out again on an Army transport. He returned to the U.S. and took a month’s vacation. Then he went to the union hiring hall in New York.
by LEON SCHNEIDER
I hung around the hall for a week before a fireman’s job on a freighter came up. I threw my card in and got it, without much competition. The Blank One was old and slow but I was impatient to get off the beach.
We cleared the harbor, our decks loaded with tanks and a half-a-dozen medium bombers. The rumor was that we were headed for Trinidad. We made out pretty well for twelve days. All the ships scattered and we were soon zigzagging through the Caribbean.
It was 7:15 at night, less than a day off shore, when the torpedo hit. I had just come out of the shower and, wearing only a towel, was talking to some shipmates in the messroom. The terrific explosion rocked every plank on the ship. A second later, there was another explosion as the second torpedo hit. All the lights went out and the doors to the messroom slammed shut.
I dashed for the door, the towel dropping away leaving me stark naked. The door was locked and we could hear water pounding along the alley outside. Already the messroom was knee-deep in water. The air smelled of ammonia, smoke and cordite from exploding t orpedoes. Luckily, I got out another door and ran on deck where they were lowering away the No. 1 and 3 lifeboats on the starboard side. The boats to port had been smashed. Still naked, I rushed below to get my life preserver and a pair of pants.
By now the ship was listing badly and slowly sinking. I swung out over hte side, climbed down a rope and into a lifeboat. Less than 30 seconds later the Blank One split in half and sank, nearly swamping our lifeboat.
The skipper, a fine old man who was due to be retired after this trip, could have saved himself but instead went down with his ship. The last we saw of him, just as we pulled away, he was standing on the deck with a life jacket over his shoulders. He said, “Is everything all right, boys?” We said, “Yes, come on, jump.” But he did not answer. Instead he turned slowly and walked away. A second later the ship split in two and we never saw him again.
That night in the lifeboat was cold. I don’t remember much else. Most men, having swallowed too much fuel oil and ammonia, were sick at their stomachs. I remember thinking that we were sure to be picked up and that now I would be a member of the Torpedo Club.
In the morning we saw the other lifeboat and one raft which had managed to stay afloat. We tied all three together and waited. Toward noon, we saw antoher lifeboat with a single dirty sail approaching us. Soon we saw that it was a boat from another one of our freighters, the Blank Two, which had likewise been torpedoed in the night.
About 2 o’clock a dirty gray freighter, the Blank Three, which we recognized as another ship of our original convoy, hove over the horizon. When she came alongside, we gratefully clambered aboard. Just about this time a Navy patrol ship came into view and stood by. Nobody will ever know how glad I was to see the Navy. About 4 we got underway once more with the Navy ship on our starboard quarter. At 6 our escort had to leave.
It was a bright tropical night with a moon and bright silver stars. I wouldn’t go below. Instead I tried to sleep on deck right next to a hatch and a life raft. I was ready for anything.
At 10 I waked suddenly, with somebody saying, “A ship has been torpedoed off our stern.” Over the horizon we could see flames, glowing brightly for a few minutes.
We did not have long to wait. “Wham. . . . Wham” went two torpedoes crashing into the Blank Three. A wave of water swept over the deck, nearly washing me over the side. After waiting two minutes for the ship to lose her way, I lowered the life raft near me. It was the only raft, in addition to two boats, which our ship was to get into the water. Among the three they had to accommodate 110 men. I jumped overboard and soon was hauled into one of these crowded boats.
Not everybody had left the Blank Three. The Navy gun crew stayed aboard and opened fire on the submarine as soon as it showed itself, gray and sleek and big, in the moonlit darkness. For three and a half hours the uneven battle went on, until at last the Blank Three caught on fire and sank.
Next morning at dawn a Navy ship came into view, picked us up and took us into port.
LEON: A LIFE springs from a labor of love: Ivan Schneider, Leon’s son, in collaboration with Tamara Schneider, Leon’s wife, faithfully recorded the wealth of rollicking memoirs recounted by the 97-year-old Leon. It did not require cajoling: Leon’s story bursts forth eagerly, with riveting humor, raunchy resilience and originality in the face of circumstances which might have easily defeated others. In addition, there is a nuanced implicit undercurrent of decrying the consequences of ethnic and economic discrimination. For the reader, the book is a treat, with much to admire and to enjoy.
Lora Heims Tessman Author of The Analyst’s Analyst Within and Children of Parting Parents
Before starting work on LEON: A LIFE, I read everything on the syllabus and listened to all the lectures from “The American Novel Since 1945” from Open Yale Courses. Taught by Professor Amy Hungerford, it’s a wonderful class that includes works by Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Marilynne Robinson, and Edward P. Jones, and I had never read any of these listed authors before. To delve into these mainstays of the American bookshelf was a revelatory and stunning experience, and way past due.
Wait, wait, I can explain the lapse. At Harvard Extension School, I concentrated in Foreign Literature and Culture, reading works that had been translated into English from Chinese, Russian, Arabic, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, Hebrew, Polish and Czech. That reading list kept me away from the expanding English-language canon for a while.
I must note that the Foreign Literature and Culture concentration has since been retired, because really, who in this world needs to understand the thoughts and dreams of people across centuries by studying the literary achievements of the most prominent writers among a selection of the most enduring cultures of our age? Oh, I understand the likely reasons, probably a combination of low demand, limited supply, and small enrollments. Plus, in the face of pressure to promote science, technology, and business courses, I’d expect that there would have been an effort to fortify the remaining humanities tracks through consolidation.
It makes me sad that one can no longer travel the literary world through today’s Harvard Extension School, as I was rather hoping that the program would have been expanded and modernized for our times rather than cut entirely. Yet I’m grateful that the Master of Liberal Arts (ALM) program still exists, as it did for me, as a way for someone with a day job to complete a meaningful graduate degree at night. And for that I have to thank the Harvard Extension School’s former Dean, Michael Shinagel. His predecessor, Dr. Reginald H. Phelps, had had a longstanding goal of establishing a graduate degree program for the Extension School, and it was Dean Shinagel’s leadership and political skill that brought about the issuance of the school’s first ALM degrees in 1981.
Michael Shinagel not only looks like Leon Schneider, but their memoirs have certain parallels as well.
In the foreword to Holocaust Survivor to Harvard Dean: Memoirs of a Refugee’s Progress (2016), Shinagel writes: “Academics have spent their careers writing and lecturing, so it is perhaps easier for us to write our memoirs.” That academic standpoint also spurs my one complaint, that Shinagel starts some of his chapters as one would start a lecture by outlining the main points to be covered. For example, two paragraphs into the Oberlin chapter and we already find out that he got married in his junior year and made Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year. Three paragraphs in, and we know he earned a fellowship for graduate study at Harvard. Slow your roll, Dean.
From the title, we know the broad arc of the story, that the Holocaust survivor becomes a Harvard dean. Similarly, in LEON: A LIFE, we know from the start that the Brooklyn scrapper and ladies’ man turns into a movie extra and family man. These are not spoilers. The mystery in memoir is not how it ends, but rather what happens in the middle, an exploration of the critical moments that define character. Those moments should be unraveled with great care, using the craft of a storyteller and the timing of a comedian.
How, then, did a Holocaust refugee become a Harvard Dean?
In March 1938, the Shinagel family, including four-year-old Michael and an older brother, left Vienna for Czechoslovakia, and then to Brussels. There, his father was placed in a Vichy detention camp, and so the rest of the family followed to Marseilles, where the mother’s resourcefulness effected the father’s release. They got visas from the heroically insubordinate American vice consul Hiram Bingham IV, and the Shinagels arrived in New York City on June 13, 1941.
The young Michael becomes a New Yorker; that is, “the family rebel and troublemaker” who splits his time “between a gang of Irish Catholic toughs, who seemed to accept me as one of their own, and American and immigrant Jews, who provided a more stable and studious alternative lifestyle.” He follows baseball, plays sports with friends. He has his bar-mitzvah but doesn’t like it.
Like my brother, I had a bar mitzvah when I turned thirteen. But I did it out of a sense of duty, not one of belief or tradition. I recall the day of my bar mitzvah in temple. After I completed my recitation, the rabbi gave me a Bible to commemorate the occasion. When I returned to my seat in the congregation, I gave the Bible to my father, saying it meant more to him than it did to me. I did not like going to the temple, and I resented being forced by my father when I was young.
As I got older, I did not practice my Judaism because of my quarrels with my father and because I had my own issues with the Holocaust. I was determined to be a good person, but not in the traditional religious sense. When my father would ask me if I went to a temple, I would answer that my temple was in my heart.
Michael Shinagel, from “New York City Years (1941-1951)” in Holocaust Survivor to Harvard Dean.
Following the family’s ordeal escaping the Nazis, Michael’s father had suffered “a serious psychosomatic reaction that resulted in all of his body hair falling out, even his eyelashes”; and subsequent hormone treatments had made him impotent. And tellingly, it is his father with whom Michael associates Judaism, despite the matrilineal tradition, despite that his maternal grandfather had been a rabbi in Czechoslovakia. Just as his father had become impotent in the wake of total hair loss, so too, for Michael, had become the practice of Judaism in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Michael has fully transformed into an American, and he exercises his newfound freedom. He drops out of college, hitchhikes, gets busted, and joins the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He goes back to school, just where he wants to go. He marries who he wants to marry, against his parents’ wishes that he stay within the faith. He studies what he wants to study, despite being warned away from the anti-Semitism within the field of English literature. He starts a family as a graduate student despite derision from one of his professors and his peers, and he knocks out his Ph.D in record time.
The second half of the book tracks Michael’s ascent through a series of smart career moves (and some domestic changes) as he moves from Harvard to Cornell University, Union College, and back to Harvard, where he became the longest-serving dean in Harvard history. During the journey, he tells anecdotes about famous scholars (yes, it’s a thing); describes efforts to improve diversity in admissions, recruiting, and access; and shares just a little bit of inside baseball about tensions between colleges within Harvard. From the standpoint of an Extension School grad, we were lucky to have had on our side someone with Shinagel’s obvious charm, intelligence, and determination; in other words, we had a bona-fide Yankee setting home run records in Harvard Yard.
I had originally thought to compare and contrast in this space the memoirs of Shinagel and Schneider, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.
But I will start you off with this excerpt from LEON: A LIFE, “The Great Depression,” in which Leon’s father, impotent like Michael’s but only economically, bonds with his middle son over their shared transgressions.
My father was the cheapest. All the pressure from years of deprivation made him so that he couldn’t spend a nickel. The Depression ruined him. He spent five or six years with five children and his father-in-law with no money. We were literally on the verge of starvation. Nothing to eat unless I personally stole the money.
We never had two spoons that looked alike. We had glassware from the Standard Oil company and from yahrzeit candles. All our tableware came from a multimillionaire – Woolworth. We didn’t care.
My father was a skilled machine operator, but the factory closed. He was out of work. But if a lamp broke, he would rewire it.
He got on WPA, Works Progress Administration. I used to call it We Pay Always. It was a relief organization, but they didn’t hand you a check. You had to work for the 14 dollars a week.
They said — We’re going to give you a pick and shovel and we’re going to send you out to Floyd Bennett Field — which was a zillion miles from where we lived, for a 35-cents-an-hour job. He took a trolley car for five cents to the end of Coney Island. If you wanted to get to Floyd Bennett Field, you had to spend another five cents. No transfers in those days. He would walk the four miles to save the nickel, and then he’d walk the four miles back.
He’d leave the house at six in the morning, come home late, at eight o’clock at night, and he made 35 cents an hour, $2.80 per day, less ten cents trolley fare. Digging with a pick and shovel for eight hours a day.
On the weekends, he’d rent a horse and wagon for three dollars a day. We would get up in the middle of the night and go to the farmer’s market, and he’d buy over a thousand pounds of potatoes for a penny a pound.
We bought paper bags to put the potatoes and onions in, and we bought a sign — POTATOES 18 LBS. FOR A QUARTER.
The A&P was selling for 15 pounds for a quarter, why not buy from the peddler?
I’m 10 or 11 years old, and I would drive the horse and wagon, like I’m in an old-time western. He would yell — Potatoes, Potatoes and Onions! Eighteen pounds for a quarter!
Then he got a taxi and he fixed it up like a truck, so that he could sell the potatoes and onions from the back of the truck. He used to let me drive. I learned how to shift, and I would drive very slowly in low gear. But he wouldn’t let me cross the intersection. He’d walk on the sidewalk while I’m driving the truck.
We used to pick up some rocks with the potatoes and put them in with it too. Also, you’d have a heavy thumb on the scale. But people were smart, they had their own scales.
Someone would say — Bring me up 18 pounds. I’d bring up 15 pounds.
They’d say — Hey, it’s 15 pounds —Sorry, I must be off. I’d have to run downstairs, make it 18 pounds, go back upstairs.
At the end of the day we made three or four dollars, and we used to eat a lot of leftover potatoes and onions. We lived on potatoes. I love potatoes today.
I liked being with my father. We’d stop off and we’d get pea soup at this place. It was the most wonderful dish I’d ever had in my life. I used to remember this particular pea soup was like nectar. I would lap that up. We didn’t have bacon in the house, but we’d go out and he let me have bacon and ham and all that shit.
LEON: A LIFE is really many lives packed into one freewheeling memoir: the irrepressible Leon Schneider as everything from a busboy and a construction worker to a merchant mariner and an actor—and always ready for another adventure. From running after nickels during the Depression to swimming away from U-Boats in World War II: it’s all here and all told in a rapid-fire patter that gives us the essence of the man.
David Galef Creative Writing Program Director, Montclair State University Author of My Date with Neanderthal Woman
Today is National Maritime Day, honoring the United States Merchant Marine.
Earlier this year, a bill was introduced to Congress: The WWII Merchant Mariners Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2019 (H.R. 550 & S. 133).
The Gold Medal Act would issue “a single gold medal of appropriate design to the United States Merchant Mariners of World War II, in recognition of their dedicated and vital service during World War II.”
That single gold medal would be given to the American Merchant Marine Museum at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.
The Secretary of the Treasury would also be empowered to strike and sell duplicates in bronze.
U.S. merchant mariners were the unsung heroes of World War II. Collectively, 250,000 merchant seamen served in this war delivering seven million servicemen to the war zone and tens of millions of tons of essential war equipment, ammunition, and other supplies. The U.S. Merchant Marine was the only integrated service in World War II, and a significant percentage of the mariners were African American.
No service suffered more losses and has received so little recognition. One out of every 26 merchant mariners was lost, the highest casualty rate of any service. 8,241 merchant mariners perished, and many others were captured as prisoners of war. 1,500 merchant ships were sunk, often essentially defenseless against enemy military vessels. World War II merchant mariners were promised benefits equivalent to the GI Bill by President Franklin Roosevelt; however, they waited 43 years (until 1988) and then only received limited benefits.
These merchant mariners traveled into war zones in the most challenging of situations, knowing the risk. Their bravery is indisputable and today only about 2,000 World War II merchant mariners remain. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory that literally changed the world, we hope you will join us in cosponsoring this legislation to ensure that these great American heroes receive the recognition that they deserve. We are proud to serve in an industry associated with these courageous men and women.
It’s a wonderful idea to give a gold medal to the American Merchant Marine Museum and to offer bronze duplicates for sale to merchant mariners and their families.
Given the sacrifices they endured, the World War II Merchant Mariners duly earned their veterans’ status. Those merchant mariners were denied the GI Bill of Rights following the war, or even recognition as veterans until 1988. Moreover, the various attempts over the years to compensate them for being denied the GI Bill (i.e. with a monetary payment or annuity) also failed in Congress.
Today, we’re down to a relative handful of retired seamen in their nineties or older, and the best we can come up with is a gold medal for a museum and a replica in the gift shop. That seems like an appropriate gesture for our times, so sure, let’s do it.
The Gold Medal Act would also send a message to today’s youth that:
You may honorably serve your country whether or not you wear a uniform.
You may loyally uphold the principles and values of the U.S. Constitution without necessarily swearing an oath to the armed forces.
You may be called upon as a civilian to risk your life to ensure freedom from tyranny.
Your courage and sacrifices made today will be recognized and remembered with honor and respect.
Perhaps not immediately, but eventually and in due course, history will bear witness to all the heroes of our United States of America.
This is a wonderful book and a fun read! Leon has such a distinct voice and it feels so authentic, while at the same time having this quality of larger-than-life storytelling that made me think of the German term Seemannsgarn, or seaman’s yarn, meaning that sailors spin stories that might be a bit exaggerated. And his wife, Tamara, sounds like a fierce pioneer in her own right. What a great job preserving these stories of such an adventurous life! There are some amazing lines that just made me stop to let them sink in, and some historical aspects that were so interesting to see through his eyes. And of course I laughed a lot!
Dr. Joela Jacobs, Assistant Professor of German Studies, University of Arizona