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January 24, 2010

The variety of our lives: a Commie, a Nazi, and a Warsaw ghetto survivor, right here in Walnut Creek


Over the past couple weeks, I’ve come across current and former residents who have great stories to tell about the wide variety of people who live or once lived in Walnut Creek, even during my lifetime. When I was growing up here, I had the impression (false it turns out) that everyone was white and middle class, and that the most important things about living in suburbia were to come from an outwardly happy family, to be mentally and emotionally well-grounded, and to be popular in school, attractive, and fashionably dressed (what passed for fashion in the '80s). Of course, getting good grades and getting into a good college were also important.

Turns out that many people in Walnut Creek, including yours truly, feel or felt like they didn’t fit into this happy, shiny, conventional picture of suburban success. I'm finding out, to my delight, that we’ve had rebels amongst us, and people who have lived, survived, and thrived through pretty dramatic, difficult, and non-conventional lives.

So, here is a story from Rossmoor friend, Gilbert Doubet—himself a bit of a rabble-rouser, I understand—about some non-conformists in his senior community. (Oh, and the German he describes meeting may not have been a card-carrying member of the Nazi party; he was just a low-level soldier in the World War II Germany army, and, from what I recall of German history, I’m not sure if serving in Hitler’s military automatically made you a Nazi.)

Take it away, Gilbert:

The Value of Nonconformity

The recent passing of two seemingly unrelated residents provides unintended irony as well as parallels in the virtue of nonconformity. It should also remind us of a rare Rossmoor opportunity.


Tice Creek Drive's Les Rodney was sports editor of The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party. Beginning in the 1930s, he championed racial integration of professional baseball. Widespread recognition came to Les only late in life. In 2004, for instance, he featured prominently in a PBS-TV documentary about 1938’s Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match. (SM note: The top photo, from Life magazine photographer Paul Dorsey, shows editors of the Daily Worker in a conference in 1938. This photo shows Max Schmelling and Joe Louis meeting up before their famous fight.)


Like Les Rodney, Zdzislaw “Ziggy” Jarkiewicz was an unprepossessing Rossmoorian. For years, he lived quietly on Rockledge Lane.

A soldier in Poland’s World War II resistance movement, Ziggy was a survivor of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, A tall but unobtrusive man, few here would have guessed of his repeated death-defying wartime exploits.

Ziggy’s recent funeral at the Catholic church outside our gates was packed, not so much with residents as with Polish-Americans. Some were in military uniforms. Some were aging Polish Army veterans festooned in medals and walking with canes.

The memorial lasted over two hours as men and women approached the podium to describe heroic bravery. Many of Ziggy’s eulogizers spoke Polish. As there was no interpreter, most Rossmoorians in attendance could only gaze at the colorful assemblage of historic Polish flags and impressive display of medals on exhibit beside the funeral urn.

In a split image of bygone times almost relegated to history books, these two residents were each minor legends in his own way.

Les Rodney and Ziggy Jarkiewicz exemplify the notable variety of unassuming Rossmoorians living in our midst. They’re reminders of a unique advantage afforded us. Ask an older neighbor about his or her background. Often, the response will be surprising.

Parenthetically, those responses can occasionally be perplexing as well.

Years ago, one man, actually very likeable, with whom I swam nightly at Hillside pool, turned out to be a low-level Nazi soldier. From comments he'd made, I knew his approximate age, that he was from Germany and as a youth had been drafted there. During one of our pool conversations, I inquired about some aspect of his early background. The remarkably well-preserved European exhibited a wizened, world-weary look as though he'd been anticipating the question. His cryptic response: "It's too long a story to go into."

Of course, there are always a few Rossmoor gasbags who won't shut up about their (usually less than stellar) former lives.

More often however, the real treasures are reticent and self-effacing. Take time to scratch the surface, especially of the eldest among us. Many have remarkable accomplishments they’d willingly share.

It usually takes no more than an open-ended question and a show of genuine interest as their story unfolds, With Rossmoor's median age of 78, the sad truth is that many older Rossmoorians rarely encounter folks curious about their lives.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great tale.
By the way, it's naive to think that living in a suburb is synonymous with conventional -- ever has been or ever will be. There's really no such thing as "conventional" in the details of lives, regardless of where one lives. What's the "convention?" Says who? This is more of a social or political term used for profiling and maybe marketing; it says little about the truth. There are a zillion "crazies" in suburbias around the globe, many of us know this; and always have been; though not all can write a column as nicely as you.

AKA Soccer Mom said...

As I told Gilbert, I love hearing about Les and his work with The Daily Worker. I have this personal fascination with that time in history, pre-World War I to the 1930s, when people who were idealists and progressive flirted with communism, socialism, or anarchy. It was "cool." That flirtation bit them in the butt in the 1950s, during the red scare. Also, their adoration with Stalin turned out to be more than naive. It was dangerous. But just that there was a time when people really believed that with could have utopian and paradise on earth. A worker's paradise. Hmm.

rahrfk said...

The Leftist contingent, while small, is not as dead as you make it out to be :) While we profess no admiration for Stalin, we don't settle for the same old corporatist politics and economic setup that America and the West is feeding us.

Anonymous said...

Could someone please name one socialist or communist society that was successful? By successful I mean one where the people did not starve and where the masses did not have to be kept in line with the political dogma by being imprisoned, tortured, and killed?

Anonymous said...

re: anon 8:52

Ask any anthropologist and they will be able to give you a long list of hunter/gatherer societies which were basically socialist or communist.

Also, just thought it worth pointing out that the United States has plenty of hungry people and a really large number of the population imprisoned.

Anonymous said...

"By successful I mean one where the people did not starve ...?"

Last week the director of the Contra Costa/Solano Food bank announced that they had feed over 105,000 people last month.

Anonymous said...

Would you consider current Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland as a successful society?
They are often described as Socialist.

Anonymous said...

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland are capitalist countries with strong socialist leanings, which means a very high cost of living (and oddly some very high suicide rates...what's up with that?).

I am asking for an example of a modern (not hunter-gatherer) successful fully socialist/communist society. One where the state controls the means of production, engages in central planning, wealth is shared, etc...

Capitalism isn't perfect but I believe it's the best of the choices. There will always be some who fall behind (the sick, the poor, the less-abled) who should receive welfare and assistance. No one is arguing with that.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:52 How about Kibbutzim or Monastaries and Convents?

Anonymous said...

re: 8:31
just because something doesnt exist isnt a reason to not strive for it.

i dont think you can point to a modern society where different ethnic groups live side by side and racism doesnt exist. that doesnt mean that we should not strive for the elimination of racism.

that's not to say that you can't have other reasons for prefering capitalism to socialism, but just because socialism has not been successful in the past doesnt mean it should be written off.

Anonymous said...

Uh, I don't think most people want to live in a Kibbutzim or a Monastary and Convent.

Personally, I prefer capitalist Walnut Creek. I like to work hard and make money. I also like to invest money in the stock market and earn more money.

Anonymous said...

The question was: Could someone please name one socialist or communist society that was successful?

Anonymous said...

It would be fascinating to read or listen to oral histories by members of the Rossmoor community. What stories they must have! Is there already some activity or ongoing program in the works where they share their stories with a larger audience? I could see that being a win-win for everyone on both sides of the exchange.

On another note, about the Rossmoor member who used to be a Communist: I think it's well worth remembering that, in its day, the Communist Party was one of the few groups in the U.S. that was taking a strong stand against racism (whether because the Party truly believed that or because it was a good "hook" to bring in would-be members who had the admirable desire to help end racism). Of course, as years went on, members fell away from the Party due to its failings, contradictions and lockstep adherence to some questionable or appalling policies in the USSR, especially in light of Stalin's actions.

It's also worth remembering how leftists contributed in past decades to campaigns against child labor, for better health care, housing conditions, treatment of women, fair judicial systems, etc.

One of the most interesting leftist individuals in U.S. history is Bayard Rustin, for his contributions to the leftist, anti-racist and anti-war causes. He is also notable for being gay and dealing with the social stigma, especially for his generation. I've seen some good PBS coverage of him but really need to read a biography of him. Very interesting individual.

Anonymous said...

Yes, how could anyone possibly favorably compare life in the U.S. to life in China, the USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, or North Korea? Those are all virtual workers paradises, right?

Who wouldn't love re-education camps, secret police, thought crimes, starvation, emigration restriction (to keep the laborers in country, you know), censorship (can't let the workers see the internet), and a command economy that reduces or eliminates personal freedom and choice?

How much better to be told by the central planning committee what factory to report to for work than to go through all this falderal of sitting for the SAT, applying to colleges, and choosing a career?

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:19 I don't think that is the point. Of course everybody posting here would prefer the US over the countries you listed here. But just because somebody prefers the US system over some repressed other system doesn't mean that the US system could not be improved.

... and maybe sitting for the SAT choosing a college and having a career might not necessarily represent the reality of everybody in this country? After all there are such things as poverty, homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care etc. in the US as well.

Anonymous said...

The United States, for all its faults, has the best system going.

Anonymous said...

And still, no one has named one socialist or communist society that was successful.

AKA Soccer Mom said...

LOVE this discussion and debate about communism, socialism, capitalism. What a fun, smart, historically informed group! I'm so honored to have you all posting here.

Anonymous said...

After all these years and the way the 20th century ultimately unfolded, how anyone could celebrate Les Rodney and the Americans Communists is beyond me. Diversity of opinion is great, but these people were both naïve, delusional, and dangerous, celebrating a regime that caused more death and destruction than anyone in history, including the Nazis.

MC said...

re: 3:04 PM

a lot of history's civil rights heroes were socialists and communists, or at least sympathizers. for example, bayard rustin who was a mentor to martin luther king jr. was a communist and later a socialist.

how could someone not celebrate lester rodney and others who fought against segregation?

and lester left the communist party years ago. i imagine he was still a communist, just no longer a stalinist.

Greg said...

I recently visited some old WC-based friends with my Danville-bred wife (we live in Berkeley). She said after we left, "I had no idea WC was so WEIRD."

It is a town with it's pockets of weirdness.

PS -- I became the first fan of C.I.S. on Facebook a couple days ago. So, YAY.

AKA Soccer Mom said...

Greg,
I've found more weird people in WC. It's absolutely wonderful! And thanks for reading...

Ida said...

This will not work as a matter of fact, that is what I believe.