Monthly Archives: August 2013

Jansen, Moskoff – and Herbert Romerstein

Herbert Romerstein’s death this past May seems to have drawn little attention outside conservative publications, including American Spectator and Commentary.  But his contacts with the teacher investigations are just one example of how widely the Board of Education reached in its search for potential subversives in its classrooms.

It’s behind Commentary’s paywall, so I haven’t had a chance yet to read Joshua Muravchik’s tribute to Romerstein, headlined “The Man Who Knew Everything.” But when it came to communism and communists, he apparently pretty much did. And Romerstein was, indeed, quite a precocious anti-communist: he had joined the Communist Youth League, then the CP, in high school, and studied at the Jefferson School, but the Korean War disillusioned him with communism. By the time he was 20, in 1951, he was working at Kenby Associates, the “research and editorial”outfit run by ex-FBI agent Kenneth M. Bierly. Bierly, with 2 other ex-agents, was the founder of Counterattack. In False Witness, Harvey Matusow recalled a 1952 SISS adventure that included “a Brooklyn youth named Herbert Romerstein, who had been an undercover informer for Counterattack.”

Romerstein went on to testify before congressional committees and other bodies as an expert witness. He was an investigator for HUAC, worked for the US Information agency, wrote many books, and in general built  a career focused on investigating and rooting out communism.

In 1951, he was already in touch with superintendent Jansen and his aide John Fenety, and then with Moskoff when he arrived. His code name on the Board’s informant list was Italy. Writing to “Mr. Saul Moscov” on the letterhead of Bierly’s Kenby Associates (he’s listed as a staff member) on August 25, Romerstein enclosed “the throwaway titled Mass Youth Rally To Stop Police Terror Against Negro Youth.” Moskoff returned the item via an August 28 letter. Fenety didn’t think Romerstein had much information on teachers, but by 1952-53, when he was in the Army, Romerstein was spelling Moskoff’s name correctly, and writing youthfully quaint letters to him, and apparently receiving answers. Teachers’ names found their way into some of the missives.

And in 1954, Jansen okayed Moskoff’s request to retain Romerstein for 10 days at a day rate of $25 “in connection with the trial of the above named (Paul Seligman, a CRMD teacher) to present proof that the Young Communist League endorses the policies of the Communist Party. To obtain such proof would necessitate extensive inquiry and research into documentation.” Romerstein, Moskoff told Dr. Jansen, “has had considerable experience” in the subject, especially the YCL, and had testified before a congressional committee and helped prepare charges on the Labor Youth League, “which is actually the Young Communist League under a different name.” Romerstein provided his evidence, from May 17 to May 28, 1954, and got his $250.

On June 18, the day set for his departmental trial, reported the New York Times, Seligman resigned. The article didn’t say whether Moskoff was annoyed at not getting to present his evidence or pleased at getting rid of yet another politically annoying teacher.

On June 18, the day set for his departmental trial, reported the New York Times, Seligman resigned. The article didn’t say whether Moskoff was annoyed at not getting to present his evidence or pleased at getting rid of yet another politically annoying teacher.

Seligman explained his reasons for resigning, the Times reported, in a letter to Jansen. “It has become apparent in this age of McCarthy witch-hunting that no one who is smeared with the Red label can ever fully defend himself,” he said, noting the potential consequences for those who would testify for him: “If a person who was a member of the Young Communist League thirteen or fourteen years ago would take the stand and testify I was not a member, that person would run the risk of reprisal and loss of his job due to the frenzy of the witch hunt.”

Contacts with Romerstein apparently continued. In a July 16th, 1956 letter, Moskoff recommended Romerstein to Michael J. Murphy, then chairman of the Waterfront Commission (and later New York’s police commissioner).

Sources: Municipal Archives, NY Times and False Witness, Harvey Matusow


On the Road In the Good Old Days

Saul Moskoff traveled quite a bit during his 1951-1958 years investigating the TU and the teachers. His expense vouchers were every bit as detailed as the records he kept on the investigations, whether they were for his subway fares (30 cents) or for out of town trips to Albany, Washington, D.C., and other places. He would also put in for dinner on late nights. Looked at overall, they indicate the range of his contacts and what was happening in the investigations.

Just an example or two: Moskoff advanced the expenses for a February 8, 1955 trip he and his investigator John Dunne made to Albany in connection with the appeal of four teachers to the commissioner of education. Total costs for both were $29.34, including the train, taxi in Albany, and lunch and dinner.

Expenses were a bit higher when Moskoff and Dunne went to Washington on November 19-20, 1956, “at the request of Dr. Jansen in connection with official business of the Board of Education of the City of New York,” the expense voucher said. Fares, meals hotel, and taxi totaled $97.98. He noted that he was returning $2.22 from the $100 advance he’d gotten. I don’t (yet) know what the “official business” was, but a lot was going on in the city’s hunt for classroom communists. New York State’s education commissioner, James E. Allen, Jr. had handed down his decision against forced informing in August. Moskoff’s to-do list also included also included dealing with the appeals of  the 4 teachers and a principal who had been suspended for refusing to cooperate with his investigation by providing names. As for the reason for the D.C. trip, Moskoff made no secret of his frustrations with the impact of the Allen ruling. His own October 29th deposition in the appealed case of the 5 educators noted that his sources were drying up for a number of reasons, with the Allen ruling being one. Another was that “national security regulations and requirements have made such sources unavailable.”