By GINO DE ANGELIS
July 21, 2019
Special to the Chronicle
STORRS — Paul R. Zilsel faced a tumultuous spring of 1953.
That March, he received a subpoena to appear in Washington, D.C., before the Velde Committee investigating suspected communists in American colleges.
He, along with three other University of Connecticut professors, were accused of being communist sympathizers or members of communist cells.
At a time when Cold War tensions raised widespread fear about communist subversion in the U.S., unfounded accusations ruined many careers.
But, the university could not ignore such suspicions.
Accusations against Zilsel, a professor of physics, along with government instructor Emanuel Margolis and Social Work School professors Harold Lewis and Robert Glass, led the university to form its own group, called the Committee of Five, to investigate.
The professors were suspended pending termination.
Zilsel was a Jewish Austrian immigrant whose family fled the Nazis in 1938, when Hitler annexed their home country.
The family first went to England, then to the United States in 1939.
In the U.S., Zilsel became an activist whose politics leaned decidedly left.
He joined the International Workers of the World, a mili-tant union known as the Wobblies, according to an obituary seen on a Canadian anarchist website called A‑infos. Zilsel attended college in Charleston, S.C., pursuing a similar career as his father, Edgar, who was a philosopher of science and also a Marxist. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1943, Zilsel pursued graduate studies at both the University of Wisconsin, where he studied mathematics; and Yale University, where he earned a doctoral degree in physics.
After completing his doctoral program, Zilsel accepted a teaching job at Colorado State University, but quickly moved to Storrs as an assistant professor.
While he seems to have initially settled easily into academic life in Storrs, once the campus, along with the rest of the country, became gripped by Red Scares, his life at UConn became more troubled.
In 1953, when Zilsel re-ceived a subpoena from the House Un-American Activi-ties Committee, he was open about his past, quickly speaking to administrators about the accusation.
Zilsel’s ultimate suspension caused a stir on campus.
Students supported Zilsel and a letter signed by the full staff of the Department of Physics, vouched for him both as an educator and a citizen.
Despite this support, the administration was under in-tense pressure from the governor and other state powerbrokers to take action against communist sympathizers on campus.
During his hearings with both the Council of Five and HUAC, Zilsel admitted he had been a member of American Youth for Democracy, and in 1946 had joined the Communist Party.
However, he insisted he was expelled in 1948 for “violent disagreements with party policy,” according to the university’s recommendation write-up about his case.
Zilsel was eventually exonerated by both committees.
He did not, however, stay in Storrs long after the incident, deciding any students he taught, especially graduate students, would be held up to unfair scrutiny because of their association with him.
He resigned on March 16, 1954, after taking an academic position Haifa, Israel.
Zilsel spent his final years in Canada, where he died in 2006. He was 83.
A memorial service was held for him in Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market, sponsored by the left-wing collective he started.
Editor’s note: The writer is a University of Connecticut journalism student.
Top photo: Letter written April 12, 1953, from UConn Professor Paul R. Zilsel, where he affirms that he is not a member of the Communist Party (Courtesy of UConn Archives)