WEST ORANGE, NJ — Most activists dedicate their lives to a particular cause. But longtime West Orange resident Ruth Bardach never was like most activists.
Bardach — who died April 11, just a few weeks before her 97th birthday — never passed up an opportunity to fight for a cause in which she believed. Whether it was for the anti-war effort, the civil rights movement, health issues or any of the other dozens of ideals she supported, the late activist could always be found protesting in demonstrations or writing letters to politicians and newspapers.
As daughter Ann Louise Bardach recalled, Ruth Bardach’s mission in life was to stand against injustice wherever she found it.
“There was no underdog that my mother didn’t back,” Ann Louise Bardach told the West Orange Chronicle in an April 27 phone interview. “If you were the lost cause, then she was going to be there for you.”
That drive to right wrongs was forged while Ruth Bardach manufactured parts for the U.S. Army at the American Transformer Company in Newark during World War II. Having given up a comfortable bookkeeping job to support the troops, the future activist was appalled by the bleak conditions and unfair treatment women and minorities experienced at the factory. Women, for instance, started at 40 cents per hour compared to the men’s 50 cents.
So Ruth Bardach placed a call to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, and soon thereafter the factory was unionized, and she became a shop steward. In that role she advocated on behalf of her female, black, Jewish and Asian coworkers, taking unpopular stances for people who may have never before been supported in such a way. But she had no problem doing so, recognizing that the unequal treatment they felt was the result of deep-seated racism and sexism.
“We’re fighting fascism overseas and we’re not going to allow it here,” Ruth Bardach would often say, according to her daughter.
Even after leaving the factory, Ruth Bardach’s commitment to bringing about social change never wavered. From the 1950s onward she was a strong advocate for civil rights, protesting against blockbusting, redlining and corruption in Newark. She attended meetings with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson and Stokely Carmichael. She even intervened upon witnessing Newark police officers beating an unarmed black man, later ignoring threats against her to testify on his behalf in what was one of the first police brutality trials in the country.
Outside of civil rights, Ruth Bardach was a vocal opponent of adding fluoride to the water supply, and a supporter of other safety issues, including restrictions on lead paint and pesticides. A lover of all things Irish, she was also a staunch supporter of Northern Ireland’s push to gain independence from Britain. And while the Bardachs were not a family of means, she never hesitated to write checks for dozens of other causes about which she felt strongly.
Activism was certainly a major part of Ruth Bardach’s life in West Orange, where she, her husband and fellow activist Emil “Manny” Bardach, and their daughters moved in 1955. After living in a largely black section of Newark, Ann Louise Bardach said her mother always spoke out in favor of integrating what was then a mostly white West Orange. In fact, she remembered her mother was thrilled when a black family finally moved in next door — though the rest of the neighborhood was not as pleased.
Perhaps the biggest cause Ruth Bardach took up while living in West Orange, however, was her vehement stance against the Vietnam War.
“She just thought the Vietnam War was a bad idea from Day One,” Ann Louise Bardach said, pointing out that her mother knew a lot of people — including her high school sweetheart — who died serving in World War II. “And when they started drafting West Orange boys she was horrified.”
In response to the draft, Ruth Bardach started picketing at West Orange Town Hall on a frequent basis. She even tried to get a ballot initiative to prevent the federal government from continuing to draft boys from the township.
That initiative was unsuccessful, but Ruth Bardach’s activism and generosity did not go unrecognized. Ann Louise Bardach recalled that after her parents started an insurance company that wrote policies for Newark school teachers and other residents — a rarity at the time following the 1967 riots — she once heard a client call her mother “St. Ruth.” The remark struck her, as she had never thought of her mother in that way. In fact, growing up she said she would sometimes wish her mother would be more like the other parents from her school, if only to save her from embarrassment.
Case in point, Ann Louise Bardach recalled waking up one morning at 8 or 9 years old to a note from her mother informing her that she had gone to live with the Seneca Indians for the week after learning about Native American rights. She did not hear from her again until she attended an assembly at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, where the principal announced that Ruth Bardach would be giving a presentation on Native American culture. Sure enough, Ruth Bardach then appeared onstage wearing an Indian headdress with beads, and Ann Louise Bardach thought her life was over.
“I was completely humiliated,” Ann Louise said with a laugh. “At the peak of the Eisenhower/McCarthy period, my mother is up there dressed as what we regard as between an Indian chief and Pocahontas.”
Despite this embarrassment, one could surmise that Ruth Bardach had an indelible influence on her daughter, considering Ann Louise Bardach’s later career as a prolific journalist for such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post and Vanity Fair. Indeed, Ann Louise Bardach acknowledged that she had learned a lot from her mother on topics such as the importance of unions to the middle class. But she said there was a key difference between them.
“She was pretty fearless, whereas I had to make believe I was fearless,” Ann Louise Bardach, who is best known for her coverage of Fidel Castro and Cuba, said. “I did a good show, but she had a fearlessness that I always envied.”
Ann Louise Bardach was not the only one impacted by her mother. Ruth Bardach’s nephew, Mitch Kahn, told the Chronicle his aunt has been a role model for all the years he has been involved with the labor movement and the fight for tenants’ rights. Kahn, who worked for more than four decades as part of the New Jersey Tenants Organization and served as a founding board member of New Jersey Citizen Action, said she taught him a lot about being politically engaged. He said she also showed him what it means to stand up for what one believes in, pointing out that his aunt and uncle both persisted in supporting their causes even after being blacklisted by Joseph McCarthy and investigated by the FBI.
Simply put, Kahn said his aunt was an inspiration.
“Ruth was perhaps one of the strongest advocates for social justice and human rights that I ever met,” Kahn said in an April 28 phone interview. “Hardly a day went by where she was not involved consciously in some kind of cause to promote the betterment of humankind.”
Kahn’s wife, Joanne Atlas, remembers being impressed the first time she met Ruth Bardach at a 1983 protest against a nuclear installation in Romulus, N.Y. Atlas said Ruth Bardach was one of the oldest people there, but had no problem getting arrested after she and several other demonstrators refused to leave the bridge at Waterloo. It was a stunning sight, she said, and one that spoke to the type of person she was throughout her life.
“I don’t know anybody else who had such consistency (as an activist) than Ruth Bardach,” Atlas told the Chronicle in an April 28 phone interview. “She was always a committed person to justice and peace. People like that are hard to find now.”
Yet as fierce an activist as she was, Kahn and Atlas said Ruth Bardach was also one of the most respectful people one could meet. In fact, Kahn said his aunt never had a harsh word for anyone, even her political opponents.
Christine Lott remembers Ruth Bardach in the same way after spending summers with the Bardachs and her own family at a New York bungalow colony growing up. Lott, whose parents were close friends of Ruth and Emil Bardach, said Ruth Bardach was one of the kindest and most joyful people, with a wonderful laugh to match. With her positive attitude on life, she said it is no wonder why Ruth Bardach was such a strong activist.
“In her mind, it was just the right thing to do,” Lott told the Chronicle in a May 1 phone interview. “She was soulful. And (activism) was something she felt that she wanted to do and could do.”
Lott said it was heartbreaking to hear of Ruth Bardach’s death, and she is not the only one who felt that way. Ann Louise Bardach said she has been overwhelmed by condolences on Facebook from people who read her mother’s obituary. Her life story has been so well received that Ann Louise Bardach said she would not be surprised if someone turns it into a miniseries one day, which is not such a far-fetched idea considering the Bardachs’ connection to the arts. Ann Louise Bardach has written a few produced screenplays, while her sister Regina is an accomplished dancer and her other sister Elinor has designed costumes for everything from “Fight Club” to “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.”
Then again, as Ann Louise Bardach pointed out, despite all of her bold stances Ruth Bardach was never one for attention.
“She never wanted personal credit,” Ann Louise Bardach said. “She was always just one more riveter on the factory line.”
Photos Courtesy of A.L. Bardach