Richard’s grandfather, Richard Poethig, emigrated from Saxony, Germany, during the anti-Socialist campaign of Otto von Bismarck. He sees organized religion as antagonistic to the cause of working people. For Richard’s mother, a religious upbringing was essential to life. Her tenement neighbor, Emily Masek, encourages Henny to enroll Richard in Good Will Sunday School, an East Side mission of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. At Good Will, Richard learns about more than the Bible. He discovers the wider world on field trips to the countryside and the lower East Side casbah, and through participation in a model League of Nations, where the invasion of Abyssinia by Italy is up for discussion. In loyalty to his street friend Tulio, Richard plays the part of Italy.
Born in 1925 in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan’s East Side, Richard grows up in a working class German-American family surrounded by immigrants from the now defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. Scenes of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler in Germany, and anti-Semitic sentiment become etched in his memory. Richard receives an early political education from his Socialist cigar maker grandfather who emigrated from 1880s Germany, by hearing over-the-counter conversations about European politics at the butcher shop where Richard worked on Saturdays, from the Franciscan priest at the Hungarian parish where Richard made meat deliveries, and through his aunt Augusta Wagner, who in 1937 returned to Yorkville while on furlough from occupied China, where she was a professor of economics at Yenching College for Women in Peking.