My time at ‘Commie Camp’

My parents insisted the camp in Upstate New York was acceptably socialist. But then there was that statue.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Young Pioneers, with their characteristic red neckerchiefs, stood in Riga, Latvia, in 1987. The Young Pioneers was a Communist youth group sponsored by the Soviet Union, similar to Boy and Girl Scouts. It disbanded in 1991.

As I was an only child, my parents were eager for me to learn how to share. We lived in a third-floor apartment in Brooklyn, so the decision to send me to a camp in upstate New York for two weeks seemed idyllic – to them. They chose a camp they thought would be perfect for me. I reluctantly agreed to leave my friends, my books, my life as a city mouse.

All the campers departed in a caravan of buses from midtown Manhattan. We arrived at camp a few hours later. As soon as we were settled, the counselors asked us to deposit our books, toys, games – even money – in the center of one bunk. Everything would be shared, they said. To me it felt as though I’d just received a death sentence. Sharing? With strangers?

I looked around as my campmates deposited their goodies, including dollar bills, onto the pile. We were told that we could go to the camp store once a week and use the communal money. I dropped my books, games, and money onto the pile, but I kept one item secret. I had a salami in my suitcase. I quickly pushed it under my bunk.

A few days later I realized that the salami might start to smell. I handed it over with the feeble excuse that I’d forgotten about it. Nobody questioned me. But with each day of sharing and of using communal money, I hated camp more and more. 

I decided to run away. At 9 years old, I had no idea where I would go. I tried to enlist a few fellow campers in my plan. One by one, my accomplices backed out. So I ran away alone. That night, I hid in the boys’ bathroom as searchers with flashlights scanned the grounds. It wasn’t long before I was discovered and brought back to my bunk. I wasn’t punished or yelled at. My counselor simply wanted to know why I was so unhappy. “Because you’re mean!” I told her. She smiled and suggested I get ready for bed. There would be swimming and rowing in the lake the following day, she said.

During my two weeks at camp we went to the country store often for licorice sticks, gumdrops, and candy bars. We used the communal money. Meanwhile, whenever we received letters from home, the envelopes usually included a few dollars to spend. My parents sent money, too. I didn’t try to hide it. What good would it do? I wouldn’t be able to spend it.

When I think about that summer now I remember hiding my salami and handing over my spending money. But I also have a happy memory: The actor and singer Paul Robeson visited the camp and sang for us. I can still picture him standing in a huge field surrounded by tall pines. His magnificent bass voice soared over the field, kindling in me a lifelong love of music.

Later, whenever I discussed the camp with my parents, they insisted that it had been a good experience for me. They also said it was a Socialist camp. I never questioned that until a camp reunion in Manhattan 15 years ago. My husband and I attended. I’d never been to a camp reunion before.

My husband, a stockbroker who had been a history major in college, was interested in looking at the old photographs that were on display. He lingered in front of one, then gestured for me to join him. He pointed and said, “This wasn’t a Socialist camp, like your father told you. It was a Communist camp.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

He moved closer to the photo and pointed. “Look at the statue of Lenin in the middle of the camp.” I laughed.

A few years later, that camp became famous. There was a lengthy article about it in The New York Times and an independent film was produced. The title was “Commie Camp.”

The movie had a limited run, mostly in New York, and I was living in New Mexico by then. A friend and I drove up from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to see the film. After the screening there was a discussion about the film and the camp. I raised my hand and said I had been a camper there. I didn’t mention my contraband salami. Instead, I told the audience about hearing Paul Robeson sing. Several audience members agreed that I had been fortunate to hear such a talent.

Attending “Commie Camp” was definitely an education. On nature walks I learned to identify trees and birds, and I became a stronger swimmer. But sharing? I’m not sure that took.

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