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

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One response to “Jansen, Moskoff – and Herbert Romerstein

  1. eric mauer August 27, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Romerstein and Moskoff and Jansen were very bad guys who caused a lot of human suffering in a bad, dark time in our history. This post is fascinating reading.

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