Jacob Schwartz was a member of a small group of Russian Jewish immigrant anarchists in New York associated with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. From their lodgings in Harlem, they issued a Yiddish anarchist journal called Frayhayt (Freedom), supporting Russia’s revolution and opposing America’s intervention in the Russian Civil War.

In August 1918 they printed several thousand anti-war leaflets in English and Yiddish, calling on American workers to protest against their government. They pushed the leaflets into mailboxes around the city and threw them from upper-floor windows into the streets below.

The police soon rounded up Schwartz and several others, including a diminutive but formidable comrade named Mollie Steimer. Schwartz was severely beaten in police custody and died soon afterwards, with the official cause of death recorded as influenza. His funeral turned into a mass rally, and it was followed by a memorial meeting on 25 October attended by twelve hundred mourners. The speakers included John Reed and Alexander Berkman.

Schwartz’s comrades – Jacob Abrams, Hyman Lachowsky, Samuel Lipman, and Mollie Steimer – were found guilty under the Sedition Act and sentenced to prison terms of fifteen to twenty years. Shocked by the severity of the sentences, leading lawyers and intellectuals campaigned for an amnesty. In November 1921 the four were deported to Soviet Russia where they soon found they had exchanged America’s Red Scare for the Bolsheviks’ Red Terror.

I would dearly love to find one of the original leaflets that rained down onto the streets of New York that August day in 1918. However this card with its poignant farewell message from Schwartz’s prison cell is the next best thing. I have no way to be sure, but I suspect that it was sold at the memorial meeting for Schwartz in October 1918 to raise funds for the movement.

I bought the card on ebay for a few dollars and then discovered, as I read up on the trial, that the defence attorney was a lawyer named Harry Weinberger.  A few years later, Weinberger was prosecuted for obscenity for his involvement in a controversial New York production of the Yiddish play God of Vengeance by my great-grandfather Sholem Asch.  It is, as they say in Yiddish, a velt a kleyne – a small world.

For those curious to learn more, there is a full account of the episode in Richard Polenberg’s book Fighting faiths: the Abrams case, the Supreme Court, and free speech.

And the story of the remarkable Mollie Steimer is beautifully told by Paul Avrich in this chapter from his book Anarchist Portraits:

http://www.lucyparsonsproject.org/anarchism/avrich_steimer.html

David Mazower   

 

3 Comments

  1. A velt a klayne indeed. How long did ‘Frayhayt’ appear? And how durable was the Yiddish anarchist movement in NY?

    • ‘Frayhayt’ was a short-lived monthly which only appeared for a few issues in 1918. However the chief organ of the Yiddish-speaking anarchists in America, ‘Fraye Arbeter Shtime’ (The Free Voice of Labour) had a long life; it started publication in 1890 and only closed in 1977. (It still had subscribers in London in the 1950s and 60s). There’s a good film which tells its story and interviews some of the last journalists working on the paper. 

      My sense is that durability wasn’t part of the anarchist DNA. The Yiddish movement boasted some lifelong believers, but many more Yiddish-speaking anarchists switched allegiance to other movements, chiefly Labour Zionism or Communism, in the early decades of the twentieth century.  

  2. Jim O’Brien writes from Massachusetts:

    An amazing Web site!!

    My father was a medical intern on Ellis Island at the time and met both
    Goldman and Berkman.  He died in 1970, before I was smart enough to ask
    him about them.  I think he admired Berkman but not Goldman, based on
    personal appearance I suspect.
    Jim O’Brien
     

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