Interview with John Takman
Q: Can you explain [how] you came to Chicago in 1929? I understand that Sweden was in hard times and America was where millions of Swedes had been going.
Takman: You know to stay in Sweden at that time meant no future at all. All my relatives had been hard-working people and rather miserable from an economic point of view, and when I went to the United States it was with the aim of trying to work my way to university.... Those opportunities didn't exist in Sweden, and I didn't have any illusions about work in the United States. I [would be] satisfied if I could get factory work..., and for some reason I thought [of] Chicago....
I found...what I expected to find -- unemployment, evictions. You could see it in the street. Starving people, you could see them too -- fantastic queues outside every enterprise with a workforce....
I didn't expect the big depression. I think practically all the economists at that time wrote that the future would be bright and capitalist society would go forward all the time, so the Depression from 1929 was really unexpected by nearly all economists.
Q: Tell me about the day you became an adult in law -- your eighteenth birthday.
Takman: My birthday on [the] 22nd September 1930. My eighteenth birthday. I was in a gravel pit in Washington -- sleeping there -- surrounded by unemployed people. We were like sardines, and then I had been hungry for four days and I made an entry into my note book. "Hello birthday, I am getting hungrier every day."
Q: Can you describe to me a snapshot of the Depression in Chicago?
Takman: I saw the misery all around me. Thousands, tens of thousands of people evicted from their apartments -- whole families. And old people sitting in rocking chairs and chairs on the sidewalk, nowhere to go, no food.... They could starve to death because there was no social security, there was no unemployment insurance, there was nothing.
I couldn't stand it. I really suffered from it as I have done all my life. And then the hopelessness. Of course, President Hoover talked over and over again.... He said, "Prosperity is just around the corner," and it is terrible to say, but so many people believed in it. I didn't believe in it, but so many people in desperate situations believed that there was some kind of better times around the corner.
Q: You wanted to build your life in America and get educated in America, and it didn't turn out that way.
Takman: I began to think of going back to Sweden early in 1931 because I found out there was absolutely no opportunity in the United States to study for me, and the opportunities were better in Sweden because my father...had all types of jobs at that time.... And I thought if I go back now..., I can get a job. I can study and have an intellectual career. So that is the reason I left the United States, not because I was worried about me personally..., but [because] I wanted to do something more than to survive.
Q: There is an irony because you wanted to do more than survive and you left America because you wanted to do more than survive.
Takman: That is right. I left Sweden because I couldn't survive as a person without any perspective. I left the United States and came back to Sweden because I wanted to survive with my dreams of the future and I was willing to do anything.
Q: You are in America. You decide you want to go home, but you didn't have any money.
Takman: That was the trouble. The biggest problem when I began to think of going back to Sweden was money for a ticket. But then I got a letter from a Swedish friend in Chicago telling me that one could go back to Sweden free of charge at the expense of Uncle Sam. I wrote immediately to find out how and he wrote me and...sent me a short item from a Swedish/American newspaper quoting the Labor Minister Doke who said that they had found a law that had been forgotten for many years that immigrants who were in the United States for less than three years, and [if] they lived at the expense of a charity organization, [they] could go back to their home countries at the expense of the Labor department.
Q: How did you feel when you stood on the pier at Manhattan and thought about the last two years and the prospects of the future?
Takman: I was very much satisfied with my stay in the United States. To me as a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old, it was a tremendous adventure.
Q: And on the journey back?
Takman: Well, first of all I wanted to rest and get food, and of course I longed for my family at the same time, but I had one more stretch of hunger before we came home. We were awakened at 4 in the morning aboard our ship, [and] told to go on deck and stay there till a quarter before eight, when we were going to get our luggage and...get off the ship. We sat there without breakfast and became more and more hungry. Then when we came back to the cabins -- it was like a completely different ship. They never cleaned the cabins when we were aboard, now [they] cleaned the cabins in order to be ready for rich people who were going to go on a cruise in the evening or the next morning. We were furious....
When I put some things in my suitcase, there was a can of shoe polish at the top.... I put my finger in the polish...and wrote on the very clean wall, white wall, "Thanks for good service" in big huge letters and this idea caught [on] like an explosion from all the corridors and everybody did the same thing. And my three cabin mates even painted on the ceiling, "Thanks for good service."
The crew had intended to have a day off in Hamburg, now they had to do it all over again. I came home completely unexpected because I hadn't written for the last two months [because] everything was so uncertain. And they were sitting there, having their dinner, and my youngest sister was six then -- she was the first one to notice me. She rushed out and embraced me.
Hemingway has written about this experience in Moveable Feast when he left [his] job as a journalist and became a full time writer in Paris and he went hungry. He says...he went to the museums and all the paintings were brighter and so on when he was hungry.... If you are a teenager and you go hungry, you don't give a damn about the sun. All your thoughts are about food, and that is the tragedy of...that era in the thirties -- that so many millions go hungry and there should be food for everybody with productive forces now developing like that.
Q:How do you summarize Sweden's response to the Depression in the 1930's?
Takman: Some of the leading Social Democrats...had a vision of putting people to work and [getting] rid of this starvation and misery, [and to] solving the housing question. And you know as a Communist, I joined the Young Communist League in 1934....
Q: What was it in the 1930's that so appealed to so many people who came from all over the world to study, to look at, and to marvel at the way Sweden was coping with its Depression?
Takman: You had, I think, the best organized working class in the world -- the capitalist world. At that time most people were organized in trade unions. The trade union movements played a very big role, and there you had a rather big influence -- a Communist influence in the trade union movement.... There were ideas about the development of the health system, the educational system..., solving the housing problem, getting a social security system worth the name, getting the educational system for everybody, and so on. The whole range of social problems could be solved among those social democrat ideas and among the very good communists that were working at that time. There was nothing to stop a good society from growing up with the productive forces we had, with the productive resources of the country.
Of course the right-wing politicians were always scared with the big taxes, but very many people have paid their taxes like me -- high taxes because of the safety net that is provided to the tax payer, but also for the people. I mean there has been a sense of solidarity, even among very many well-to-do people in Sweden.... In the United States, you have never had really organized movement for a better society....
I joined the Young Communist League in 1934 with the aim of being part of the transformation of the society, to a better society for all people. At that time we had social problems in Sweden -- a lot of missed opportunities for people in general. Housing was bad, and so many things were bad.
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