Virginia Hirsch

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Virginia Hirsch was married to communist Fred Hirsch before she died in 2003 at the age of 77. The Hirsch's were parents to Liza Hirsch, who is married to Eliseo Medina. [1]

Background

Virginia Hirsch was born in Altoona, PA. She moved to New York City in 1942 and worked for the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born and for the American Slav Congress. Hirsch edited the national magazine "Slavic American" in the later 1940s. Virginia Hirsch "was active in politics, working on the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace." In 1949 while working for activist Paul Robeson, her car was pushed over a cliff in what is known as the "Peekskill Riot."

Of the experience, Hirsch wrote in part: "if not the beginning of my political understanding, the day and night [of the Peekskill Riot] that shaped my life."[2]

Hirsch married her husband Fred Hirsch in 1952 and they moved to California in 1957.

Activism

While in California, Hirsch "campaigned against 'right-to-work' laws in 1958 and against the deportation of Mexican immigrants." In San Jose she was a member of Office and Professional Employees International Union and worked as a grievance officer for Local 428 of the Retail Clerks Union. She was a founding member of the Friends of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1967, she and her family moved to Delano where she set up the first legal office for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers.

She also led the successful jury investigation team in the 1971 trial of Angela Davis. An article by David Bacon explained that the process of jury selection was ground-breaking:

"The verdict was the product of an international campaign that put a spotlight on Santa Clara County. It succeeded because a strong local committee mobilized support, headed by another African-American Communist, Kendra Alexander. To back up Davis’ legal team, the committee, including veteran radical Virginia Hirsch, researched every person named as a potential juror. Although researchers were careful not to have any direct contact with jurors, their work ensured the jury included people open and fair about the prosecution’s accusations. This kind of community research, giving the defense lawyer daily reports as the jury was being seated, has since become a powerful tool in other trials of political activists. It was the first time such intensive background research on the jury pool was employed by the defense in a criminal trial."[3]

Virginia Hirsch was a deputy public guardian with the county and a member of SEIU Local 415.

Funeral

According to family friend Kim Scipes,

"Among the many who attended were leaders of the Monterey Bay, South Bay and San Francisco Labor Councils, officers and members of Fred Hirsch's Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 393, members and officers of the United Farm Workers Union (including Dolores Huerta), members and officials SEIU (including Western Region Vice President Eliseo Medina, who is also the Hirschs' son-in-law), member and officials of numerous other labor organizations and important community and progressive organizations from throughout the region, and countless other family and friends whose lives were touched and enriched by their contact with Ginny."

During her funeral, her husband Fred Hirsch read the following:

CELEBRATION OF GINNY HIRSCH'S LIFE 2/23/03 Dear Friends, Sisters and Brothers, Companeras y Companeros, Ginny's Comrades all, We are, as I knew we would be, humbled by the depth, breadth and warmth of the love and respect for Ginny that's present in this room. Ginny's death touches us all for a single reason, her life touched us all. She was not only the darling of my heart, she was my heart - and my right hand, and the smart part of my brain. Ginny gave me a sense of direction and purpose. She was the very rudder of my life. And we hit some rocky shoals. Ours was not a quiet household. But when any fight was over and done, and there were many, we were one, facing the struggles of the times, up to Ginny's last days, back to back. No man has ever shared a life with a more intelligent, more down to earth, stronger, warmer, more resilient, more lovingly thoughtful lover and wife. Ginny was birthed by a midwife in her grandmother's attic in Altoona Pennsylvania in 1925, eight years before I was born. Her irreverence was shaped by an incident she witnessed from her front door on a Sunday morning when she was about six. Her grandfather was nailing up a broken fence when a minister came by and asked, "Whatcha you doin' there, John? Ain'tcha goin to church?" Her grandfather looked up and said, "Can'tcha see, I'm fixin the fence to keep out the preachers and the goddam Republicans."
Ginny never tired of telling the story. As a child Ginny and her parents lived through the Great Depression. They were housed and nourished through the kindness of her grandparents and government surplus cornmeal, margarine and grapefruit juice. The best dinners she remembered made her sing, "boiling meat, boiling meat, all we eat is boiling meat." When her father finally got a job it was with Heinz Foods. They not only had an income, but all the ketchup they could ever eat. It added new zest to the boiling meat. At sixteen Ginny simultaneously graduated Altoona High School and Altoona School of Commerce then left to build a life of her own as a secretary in New York City. Ginny worked for several companies and lived in a few rooming houses before she found a basement studio apartment in Queens. Her landlady, Sabina Haber, left copies of the Daily Worker near the garbage can and Ginny read them and discovered the novel notion that poverty and racism was an organic by-product of capitalism and that something called socialism could end exploitation and that the solution lay in organizing the victims - the workers, for action. She formed a life long friendship with Sabina and an undying conscious allegiance to the working class and its struggles. Ginny became involved in defending activist immigrants and naturalized citizens who were being rounded up, put through rigged INS hearings and deported. Just like today! She went to work for the American Slav Congress as the Cold War Red Scare gripped the nation and, before long, became editor of their national magazine, the Slavic American. She often dressed up in sharp office attire posing as an official and bringing mail and sustenance to her friends on Ellis Island who awaited deportation. From time to time, dressed to the nines, she dodged security by jumping fences to do it. "Hell," she said, "They can't deport me to Altoona."
Ginny and I may seen each other in 1949 at a Paul Robeson concert which came to be known as the Peekskill Riot. Her car was thrown over a cliff when Crosses were burned. She was covered with blood for having nursed a fellow organizer whose head was opened by a Klan rock. The next day, without opportunity to change clothes, Ginny held the line at a New York press conference, stalling it until Robeson arrived to take center stage. Ginny and I met on the BMT subway and got to know each other with two chance meetings on May Day marches. She lost one good job when she claimed sickness for her absence on May Day and then turned up in a Daily News photo with a red banner in the background. As we got to know each other better I'd visit in her apartment, always leaving something behind so as to have an excuse to return. It was a good omen when Ginny gave me a key so I could use her typewriter in her absence. As we got better acquainted, I'd get dinner ready when she came home from work. There were serious rivals for her affection. Oshuk Komar Dutt, an Indian communist who derailed British trains in Ghandhi's "non-violent" revolution, Tommy Green, fresh up from a Deep South chain gang, and author-playwrite Herb Tank. I was only 18 and warned by my father and a political fugitive hiding out in my family apartment, to keep away from this beautiful "Mata Hari," eight years my senior. Their prohibition demanded resistance as did my pounding pulse when she was near. Fearful that if I didn't do the right thing Ginny'd toss me out, I proposed that we marry. Incredibly she said "Yes" and filled me with unimaginable exhilaration and strength. She transformed me in a single moment from the 120 pound weakling getting sand kicked in his eyes, into a Charles Atlas hero. She made me feel that the whole world was in my grip. I was so very proud and so deeply in love. I rushed to make all the needed arrangements before Ginny might change her mind. I was too young for a civil ceremony so we were married by a peace movement minister in an African-American Church in Harlem. That rush of love in those beautiful days has been a part of me for fifty years - even through a most trying separation.
Ginny's family accepted me as the first Jew in their ranks and my family had no trouble taking in the first non-Jew among us. At our first family seder, Ginny sealed her acceptance by singing a classic Yiddish radio commercial with a perfect accent. She's regaled others with it through the years. Within weeks after our marriage Ginny's stepfather, Mickey Mikami died and Ginny handled the details. We kept his cremated remains for ten years until we could disperse them at sea here in Santa Cruz. Mickey's name was the first one pulled out of the lottery hat in the World War II draft. Because he was a Filipino the army routinely gave him kitchen service.

Ginny's life was filled with the people's movement and rich adventure. She learned her trade unionism from Solly Silverman of the Furniture Workers. He taught her how to break into the company offices for research and disruption of union busting. In one demonstration at an unemployment office in Brooklyn Solly taught her to use ketchup for media sympathy by covering oneself with the red stuff after a police onslaught. It bloody well looked real to the cameras! In 1953 I was called up for the draft and rated 1-A. A few weeks later Ginny was visited by the FBI. She knew her own personal FBI guy by name, Lem Brotherton. When she refused to name Communists at the American Slav Congress, he said he'd settle for any names even if she didn't know if they were Communists. She refused. He offered to keep me out of the army if she'd just give up some names. She refused again and disgraced him in front of others for his slimy offer. In short order Brotherton's wife, Pepper, told Ginny that poor Lem quit the FBI and was going home to Laredo, Texas to become a justice of the peace. He probably took my draft board file with him. I never heard from the army folks again, but Ginny did get greetings from Pepper each time she gave birth.
We then started raising kids, three girls in a little more than a year. I, as an apprentice plumber, was never steadily employed, so Ginny managed with the kids while continuing to work most of the time. Her job included keeping house and tending to the kids while still getting to meetings, picket lines and demonstrations. The Rosenbergs' execution was on the docket at the time as was the defense of other political prisoners. After work one night Ginny took sixty frozen diapers off the clothesline. "That's it - We're California bound!" She said it and we did it. with three kids in a two door Ford, Okie style, with everything we owned lashed on top of the car and the cargo trailer we pulled.
In Los Angeles Ginny campaigned against the Right to Work Law and typed and edited the booklet "Our Badge of Infamy: A Petition to the United Nations on the Treatment of the Mexican Immigrant." It raised one hell of a stir and was widely circulated by La Raza Unida Party years later. I was blackballed as a red in L.A. and hit more unemployment offices than job sites. When Ginny found a secure job in San Jose we moved up here. Her first action was to organize the people in her office into OPEIU Local 29.
She did the "Ginny Higgins" work that put Bill Stanton, an anti-racist activist, into the State Assembly. Then Ginny helped organize the Friends of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which sent her off to Mississippi delivering a Checker Cab filled with office machinery and supplies and faced off with some Klan folks before coming home. In 1963 or 4 she went out to buy a needed car and instead came home with a used offset press. Forrest Crumpley taught her how to use it. Ginny upgraded movement leaflets in San Jose and made the mimeo machine obsolete locally. She was known by her signature: "Labor Donated." When SNCC was organizing an interracial union in, I think, Laurel, Mississippi, Frank Cieciorka, who's here today, sent Ginny leaflet copy for overnight return. Ginny would stay up all night printing. Nine year old Liza Hirsch often fed her paper.
When Liza graduated law school her first client was a Black worker in Laurel who was discriminated against by that same company. Liza won the case and Ginny glowed with full circle pride. Ginny avoided the spotlight but always did the vital and unseen work backstage of unfolding social dramas, such as weekly picketing of Woolworth against Jim Crow policies, a civil rights march to San Francisco, building the grape boycott, fundraising for the farm workers, helping and harboring draft resisters, organizing for the demise of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, organizing the first San Jose demonstration against war in Vietnam. (The main speaker in that rally, Bill Mandel is here today, as is Luis Valdez who added drama to the action by leading a group to take over our Federal Building - then the Post Office.
Working with Sofia Mendoza and Joaquin Brito, Ginny did some of the basic work on school problems which led to formation of United People Arriba, the first East San Jose inter-ethnic action group. She provided the counseling and clerical work that put the Community Alert Patrol on the streets to document and publicize police brutality. Ginny worked for six months, gratis, to help three young radicals establish a law office. Then, too, 1967 and 68 in Delano with the United Farm Workers. Her work joined trade unionists and priests together for international solidarity against Pinochet with the Committee to Defend Democracy in Chile.
When asked by the National Lawyers Guild to head up the jury investigation for the Angela Davis trial, Ginny swung into action, Patty MacKay was one of her co-conspirators. She organized an information gathering network of hundreds and gave the lawyers the data necessary to cut a list of 2000 potential jurors down to 12 actual jurors and alternates. When the jury was seated Ginny was able to inform Angela's mother that there was no chance this open minded group would convict her daughter of a capital crime.
Ginny was an instinctive organizer. In just a few minutes Ginny could meet a person,learn about them, start a relationship and recruit them to the work at hand. She loved people and listened to them and they loved her in return. One saying out of SNCC stayed with Ginny as a mantra of faith for forty years: "The people is always right."
Ginny despised the fact that the old AFL leadership collaborated with the CIA to overthrow the democratic government in Guatemala. That betrayal meant death for thousands of workers. When asked to aid Guatemalan guerrillas, she took it as a working class opportunity to help right past wrongs. It meant a clandestine trip, crossing borders to deliver well over a ton of ammunition to the Guatemalans fighting for justice. Ginny wouldn't let me go with her. She thought it was too risky and said, "One of us has to be here for Sam."
Ginny was a spectacular person in every way. For years we had a late night ritual. Lying in bed I'd say "I wonder what'll ever become of us?" She'd respond, "I don't give a damn, it already has?" She'd chuckle and drift off to sleep. More than death, Ginny feared becoming dependent on others and losing choice in her life. She decided years ago that if things got bad she didn't want to linger in misery. When they did get irreversible she refused extraordinary treatment - accepting only medication to lessen pain. A few days later she died in my arms. In a larger sense, she chuckled and drifted off to sleep.
As in most of the last 50 years, I hope to continue to measure what I do by what I think Ginny would want. I am so lucky to have shared this life with her. She was a true daughter of the working class, a wonderful wife, comrade and lover, mother to courage and grandmother to children in whom she had undying hope and faith. Ginny knew that anything war can do, peace can do better and that action by organized labor is a key to keeping this globe intact for our grand kids. She supported U.S Labor Against the War 100%. If you care to honor her wishes with a donation to USLAW, the contribution box is over there. Amazingly, ten minutes after this presentation a man and two women took me by the arm. We went outside and they gave me a plaque to Ginny for her work bringing ammo to Guatemala - signed by the Commander in Chief of the guerrilla organization. I'd never met them and it was years since they knew Ginny. I read the plaque to the audience. --fred <fredsam@...>''[4]

The above was followed by a tribute by Bernice Johnson Reagon.[5]

References