Leo Hurwitz (1909 – 1991), a pioneer documentary filmmaker, was part of a small group who founded America’s documentary film. Notably, Leo and his colleagues invented the social documentary form. According to his son, Tom Hurwitz, Leo’s films “exemplified a new way of making films about the real world. And about ideas that help us to understand it. Leo and his group saw these films as an antidote to the films of Hollywood that gave the audience dreams of escape.” Leo’s films spoke to various human rights concerns. Problems he became aware of, early in his life, growing up in his socially conscious family. His family is my family too. Leo Hurwitz was my great-uncle. So, this piece details Leo Hurwitz’s family influences on his documentary style and interests.
Leo’s parents and my great-grandparents, Solomon and Chava (Eva) Hurwitz, were passionately engaged in the social-political climate of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their beliefs grew out of the intellectual backgrounds in their Lithuanian and Ukrainian childhoods. Of course, they brought these ideas with them through Ellis Island when they emigrated at the turn of the century. In turn, their humanitarian thinking had a deep effect on all eight of their children. This too began with Eva’s family upbringing.
Eva’s father, Abraham Benjamin Ben Chaim Behr Katcher, was one of the few intellectuals in Rassava, a tiny shtetl, south of Kiev, and west of the Dneiper River. He owned a small grocery and was the custodian of the town library of secular books. Abraham, a free thinker and an avid reader had long rejected the rigid and insular religious beliefs of most Jews in the town. In fact, he hosted Saturday evening conversations about revolutionary ideas in the home he shared with his wife Sarah and their children.
Solomon, a 28-year-old teacher from Vilnius, Lithuania came to Rassava to tutor the prosperous families there. He was also an intellectual and soon began long discussions with Abraham, who became his friend. When introduced to Abraham’s family, Solomon was a fitting match for the smart, serious, practical, and studious Eva. Eva was only 18, but she and Solomon fell in love.
After their marriage in Rassava, they soon moved to the large river town of Kremenchuk. There, the first four of their eight children, William (1890), Elizabeth (1893), Rosetta (1895), and Marie (1897) were born. The difficulties of adequate education in Russia made America a desirable goal. Solomon bought his ticket and left Russia for America in 1898, soon after Marie’s birth.
America In The Early 1900’s
A teacher and an intellectual, Solomon worked for two years at menial jobs before he sent for Eva and the children. According to Tom, Leo’s son: “he saved his wages (an intellectual unprepared for factory work). Earned as a pushcart peddler and factory worker in the garment industry in Philadelphia and then New York City.” Eva, with William, Elizabeth, Rosetta, and Marie, finally joined him in 1900.
The family settled on the lower east side, later moving to Brooklyn. Peter (1901), Sophia (1903), Eleanor (1906), and Leo (1909) were born in Williamsburg. My grandfather was William (Bill) the oldest of the eight. Leo was his youngest brother. Solomon did his best to support his growing family. According to Tom: “Blacklisted from the garment industry for organizing strikes, [he] began a life as a tiny business owner (cigarette stands and the like) and as a dining table intellectual.” In the United States, Solomon and Eva found much to deepen their belief that capitalism is not good for the working class.
The Working Class
At the dining table, every night, the difficulties of the working class were at the forefront of Solomon’s mind. The Hurwitz family came to New York City at a time of so-called robber barons. John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and their likes controlled business and most of the wealth. They also created monopolies in commodities such as oil and steel. The Hurwitz’s were immigrants, poor, and Socialist. They came to America at a time that class struggle was brewing under the surface of apparent opportunity.
Indeed, the labor of miners, farmworkers, meat packers, textile workers, and blacks was exploited. The human cost was great. Solomon was, of course, against the government’s ties to business. And, the political motivation to do little to support worker’s rights, fair pay, or decent working conditions. Child labor laws weren’t yet in effect. The division between the wealthy and the poor was extreme.
The unfairness towards workers motivated Solomon’s organized strikes. This same unfairness created socialist rebel forces and labor unions such as The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or the “Wobblies.” Solomon and Eva were active in the worker’s movement. Both attended lectures at Cooper Union and Solomon made his passionate beliefs clear to the children at dinner.
Leo remembered those dinners well: “At meals, most every supper, the family ate together. It was a discussion and debating hall. Socialism. Religion. What he [Father] talked about. Could have been ideas, feelings. Why there were wars. Why there shouldn’t be. A relationship between society (capitalism) and wars. His ideas were always invested with feeling.” (Quoted from Pete’s daughter, Ellen Hawley’s 1985 interview) From his armchair at the head of the table, Leo’s father led lively discussions about many subjects. Including politics, literature, philosophy, and later even psychoanalysis when Freud’s thinking came to America. Solomon had strong and steadfast ideas. But everyone was encouraged to state his or her own. Eva came in and out, expressed her thoughts, and went back into the kitchen for cooking and serving the meal.
Before becoming a devoted Socialist, Solomon was a philosophical anarchist. As Tom tells the story: “the first heroes of the Hurwitz family were the anarchists, like Prince Peter Kropotkin, in Russia, Emma Goldman and Johann Most. Most was editor of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Workers’ Voice). Solomon was on its editorial board [when he first arrived in New York] and also wrote for the newspaper.”
Shaped By Solomon’s Ideas
Who Leo became was certainly shaped by Solomon’s ideas. But it wasn’t so easy to challenge Solomon’s views. In spite of encouraging his children to have their own thoughts. As a young man, Leo did dispute some of his father’s beliefs, as any son must do. And, later, Leo turned from Socialism to Communism when Socialism didn’t seem revolutionary enough. Yes, there were real societal threats. Inequality, organizing, unions, and the problems of capitalism. These threats were an ongoing part of family discussions.
Always, Solomon read revolutionary literature to the children, including Kropotkin and Sofia Pirofskaya. Leo said: “Books that influenced Father were Spenser (late 19th century English Darwinian sociologist, philosopher, and Victorian), Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorky (early), Sholom Aleichem, Marx, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Dreiser, and Frank Norris.” (Hawley, 1985) Their ideas and concerns were part of everyday life, discussed each night at dinner.
In Tom’s words: “The family dinner table seems to have been, at least in the eyes of the kids, a kind of neighborhood cross between park bench, barbershop, synagogue, and Socrates’ table in The Symposium. People came every night to discuss and debate; with Solomon presiding and asking pointed questions to direct the discussion. The older daughters, especially Liza [Elizabeth), were sent out into the new land. Instructed to find culture and education and brilliant friends, whom they brought back to dinner.”
Solomon’s evening gatherings welcomed other revolutionary Socialist intellectuals. These included figures in the literary and art world. Russian philosopher Chaim Zhitlowsky, a friend of Solomon’s, artist Ben Shahn, Gorham Munson, and Faubion Bowers. The concern of all was to create socialism reform through nonviolence. The smaller Hurwitz children, including Leo, hid under the table and giggled. But they all soaked in the political and thinking atmosphere.
In Leo’s memory: “Mother was loving in a not-overbearing way. Touched one’s hair. A feeling of love flowed through that. There was no great display of emotion, but a sense of support. Of the importance of my being. How these things get communicated, I don’t know.” (Hawley, 1985) Feeling and emotion weren’t openly shared in the Hurwitz family. I’m sure this had to do with the focus on ideas. It’s how Solomon and Eva grew up too. Of course, Leo fought Solomon’s intellectual dogma, but Eva’s sensible nature and emotional remoteness had their own effect.
Born in 1857, Eva was the oldest and most bookish one of the surviving six (of thirteen) Katcher children. These survived a high rate of infant mortality at the time. According to Eva’s youngest brother, Moishe (Morris Katcher in his book Reminiscences), she was something of a legend. Smart and spoken about with great respect. He describes her as having: “wisdom, understanding of people and their situations, helpfulness, and practicality.
During Leo’s childhood, Eva was always busy, taking care of her eight children and working as a midwife. She was much more grounded than Solomon, who was immersed in the world of ideas. A talented seamstress, Eva made all of her daughters’ clothes. She could easily recreate any outfit the girls saw on display in a store window. You could find Eva often occupied with cutting and sewing. Yet, some of the children, including Leo, gathered around and watched, as she worked.
Life was a practical thing for Eva and there wasn’t time to hug or kiss. She took care of the children’s physical needs and made sure each had a chance for education. Yet, they all felt her quiet warmth. Most importantly, she supported their individuality, never interfering. Eva let her children live their own lives, free to come and go as they wished. And to think their own thoughts.
Leo Hurwitz’s Family Influences & Values
Above all, Solomon was fervently against anything that subverted individual thinking and freedom. Eva agreed. This included the chains of a capitalist system, but also the hold religion had on people’s minds. Religion wasn’t a part of the Hurwitz children’s upbringing.
In fact, as Leo recalled: “When I had to fill out forms or was asked in school what was my religion – well my religion was always ‘None.’ There was a kind of daring in this. We knew we were doing something quite different from everyone else. You were Jewish, but your religion wasn’t Jewish. This was some little barrier you had to cross but once it was said, you were in the clear.” (Hawley, 1985)
Mostly, the children grew up with two of Karl Marx’s fundamental ideas. 1. “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains and a world to gain” and 2. “Religion is the opium of the people.”
Defined By Marx, Not Religion
No, the Hurwitz family wasn’t defined by religion or religious belief. That was one thing. Even though they were Jews in a Jewish neighborhood. And, even though Eva’s fairly religious parents lived close by or with them. But religious traditions were not followed. In addition to writing ‘None’ when the question of religion was asked, the children went to school on Jewish holidays, in spite of the askance looks of some of their neighbors. Usually, they thought nothing of it. At Christmas, even, on the children’s whim, stockings were hung for a joke. Satisfied with very little, they were happy with candy, small toys, an apple, and ‘funny things.’
In addition to strong anti-religious beliefs, Solomon passed on definitive beliefs about war and the military: “The songs I remember in the family (during WWI) were: “’I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.’ And, also a little poem the others learned at Socialist Sunday School, which I was too young for: ‘The soldier says, I do not think, I obey/If that is your soldier’s creed, I say/I’m more of a man than you/ because whether I swim or sink/I can say with pride/I do not obey/ I do not obey, I think.” (Hawley, 1985)
The 8 Siblings & Free Thinking
Yes, independence and freethinking were primary values. Of course, these sent a strong message in the upbringing of all eight Hurwitz children. From Mother and Father, Leo remembered: “There was very little talking about what I did do, either approval or disapproval. There was an extraordinary amount of separateness. I’d come home with a report card. There’d be no comments on the report card. My mother would look at it. My father would sign it. No comments, no praise. The unspoken sense that yes, that’s what we expect of you. But, non-interference.” (Hawley, 1985)
In the Hurwitz family, bringing up children was laissez-faire. Except for these silent expectations. Doing well in school. Integrity, and morality. For most of the Hurwitz eight, this kind of upbringing worked well to support their individuality.
Laissez-Faire & Individuality
So, all eight children went in their own directions. Leo into the documentary film world. Marie and Rose to Vienna in the mid-1920s to study child psychoanalysis with Anna Freud. Elizabeth and Sophia on different paths as dancers. Elizabeth taught Alexander Technique to the Metropolitan Opera. Sophia traveled to China with her husband, Cook. And, she was instrumental in bringing Tai Chi Chuan back to the United States. She also wrote several seminal books on the Tai Chi Chuan technique under her professional name, Sophia Delza.
As for the rest: Pete explored various aspects of the theater. Then, settled down with his wife Jane and their two children Jim and Ellen. He did union organizing for housing and worked in various business jobs. Pete had a gift for detail. Eleanor was an executive secretary and a talented sculptress. My grandfather, Bill, left the fold. He moved to Illinois with my grandmother, Sophie, and his two children; my mom Joan Charlotte and her brother Bob. Bill owned a small automotive part manufacturing business.
Leo and his siblings were free to do what each wanted to do. Yet, none of us, though, leaves childhood without some impactful childhood experiences and fantasies. Some of these, as far as I can see, influenced the emotional resonances in Leo’s film work.