Not Forgotten UConn: When communist hysteria came to UConn

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)