It’s a standard school assignment: Interview someone, then write about it. The idea is to develop interviewing skills, learn history from someone who lived it — and then connect what you learned with the world.
I can’t imagine anyone carrying out that assignment better than Jonah Newman. The 17-year-old son of Staples graduate Abby Margolis was asked — by his American Protest Literature teacher in California — to find people who had been politically active.
He did not have to look far. His grandparents — longtime Westporters Estelle and Manny Margolis — define the term.
Here’s part of what Jonah wrote:
As far back as I can remember, Emanuel and Estelle Margolis — my maternal grandparents — have been a part of my life. Every year my parents, my brothers and I join the rest of the Margolis clan at my grandparents’ home in Westport, Connecticut to celebrate Passover.
The house occupies a special place in my heart — like its own timeless world it remains the same every year, as comfortingly consistent as the presence of the two people who have lived there for five decades. Perhaps it is because I have known my grandparents for my whole life that until recently, I had rarely thought about their rich backgrounds as political activists. I discovered that my grandparents, who participated in many of the key social and political movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, are the very definition of living history.
Emanuel Margolis and Estelle Thompson (“Papa” and “Buba” respectively) were both born in New York City in 1926. Papa, whose father and stepfather were both rabbis, came from a conservative Jewish family. He was highly academic, and attended University of North Carolina, Harvard graduate school and Yale Law School.
When he was only 18 years old, Papa fought in Germany during World War II. He was wounded in the knee at the Battle of the Bulge. He returned to college after the war thanks the G.I. Bill, and it was at UNC that he began his career as a political activist.
Buba was also raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. Her family was hit hard by the Great Depression; her father often had trouble finding jobs and making ends meet. She was artistic, participating in arts, theater, and music programs at school.
She never went to college but was admitted to the graduate School of Architecture at Yale and graduated in 1955. Her drawing talent was strong, and as a young woman she made a living out of art and architecture. Her political activism began when she was an adolescent and continued throughout her life.
Papa’s experiences in Germany changed his perspective about the world and catalyzed his transformation into a political activist upon his return to the United States. Because of his religious Jewish background, he had never thought about becoming an activist; he had been assured God would make the world better.
“World War II dispelled myths about my life,” he says. “Previously, there had been no reason for me to be involved in political activity because I believed in the power of God to solve the problems of the world.” His view of life was shattered by the reality of war.
He remembers seeing a Reader’s Digest article that said “there are no atheists in foxholes,” and calling it nonsense. The war had “changed [him] from a religious believer to an atheist.”
With the dissolution of his belief in God came a “great yearning for activism and political activity.” “I now believed,” Papa says, “that the world needed changing, and we could change the world.”
Returning to UNC after the war, Papa found a much greater social awareness at the school. He began writing for the school newspaper about current issues, and joined several activist organizations on campus. At one point, Papa and other veterans used the organizational skills they developed in the military to protect a group of desegregationist bus riders from a mob armed with baseball bats and 2-by-4s.
Becoming an attorney after college in many ways inhibited his activism, since the profession demands exclusive and objective devotion to the law. However, Papa notes, “a lawyer can play a very important part in helping ensure the protection of rights.”
He continued fighting for his political beliefs, specifically human rights. He repeatedly argued in support of Constitutional principles, in particular the First Amendment. He even defended the Ku Klux Klan’s right to march publicly, contending that it was expression of free speech. After the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, Papa helped young people who had been arrested while protesting the war argue their cases in court, again invoking the First Amendment.
From his marriage to Buba in 1959 until the present day, Papa has persisted in his political activism. He is a regular columnist for the Connecticut Law Tribune, often writing about political or human rights issues. He has been a dedicated participant in anti-war protests, from Vietnam until Iraq and Afghanistan, with his wife and family.
He believes that the reason so many people support war is because they do not understand it. Having fought in a war himself, Papa firmly believes that “war is a monstrosity” that wreaks emotional damage on all involved, including those on the home front. About the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Papa asserts that “even the GI’s do not know their mission…they haven’t the foggiest idea about what they’re trying to accomplish…We’re spending trillions on wars that have no foreseeable ends.” Though he is 84 years old, Papa’s continued activism supports the principle that humans can indeed “change the world.”
Throughout her life, Buba has employed several diverse methods — including picketing, art and hands-on involvement — and has drawn from her innate empathy to protest war, discrimination and economic inequality.
Her career as an activist began much earlier than Papa’s. At 12 she picketed outside Alexander’s Department Store in the Bronx in an attempt to get people to boycott Japanese silk after the Japanese invaded Manchuria.
Over many years since then, the anti-war message has been consistently important. She says: “It overwhelms me with the thought of the devastating damage that has been done…What sense are we making out of the policy that keeps throwing young kids to their deaths?”
Buba’s sympathy may stem from her maternal instincts (she has 5 children and 10 grandchildren), and shows the simple human compassion that motivates her continued struggle against war. She was active in her criticism of the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and 70’s, and has protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since 2005, Buba has helped lead a weekly vigil on a Westport bridge to protest the war in Iraq. Her signs at these present-day rallies say what they have said for decades: “Support The Troops, Bring Them Home.”
One of Buba’s natural skills has proved to be a lifelong tool for her activism. “I’ve been very lucky all my life because I know how to draw,” she says. Lucky is an understatement; in the late 1940’s Buba worked as an assistant to legendary artist Ben Shahn. In 1946, Buba and Shahn worked on an enormous collection of political leaflets and posters to support Democratic candidates across the country. “We created a leaflet for every single candidate,” she recalls.
But there are risks to political activism. In 1947, when she taught union organizing to black and white students at the desegregated Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, angry vigilantes drove by, shouting and shooting at the building.
Even the government was an occasional threat. Buba says the FBI planted spies in the meetings of activist organizations at the school.
In 1970, Buba and a group of women protesting the Vietnam War by picketing in the middle of a busy street were almost run over by an angry truck driver. The women were arrested for obstructing traffic, but Papa used his legal skills to keep them out of prison.
Driven by her human empathy and making full use of her artistic talents, Buba continues to be a potent voice of protest. Although both she and Papa believe the world needs changing, they also believe that the world is inherently beautiful.
Papa and Buba fervently believe America and the world are fundamentally good. We just need to fight to keep them that way.