Fellow Travelers 3: Poetry and “Di Linke”

Being a poet, it was an unexpected treat for me to encounter so much poetry among the JPFO materials. A political speech closes with a poem. A eulogy includes lines of poetry. A fundraising effort has an associated call for poetry. A speaker’s guide for a holiday evening is made up chiefly of suggested readings, many of which are poems. In the I.W.O. organ, “The Spark” (Oct-Nov, 1932), Nachum Vaysman delivers his report on a teacher’s conference in the form of a ten-section-long poem. Of course, children’s school curricula include poetry, their compositions are often poems, and (often well-known) poets contribute to the children’s magazines.

Even in the thick of World War II, the JPFO published Kalman Marmor’s brief biography of poet Dovid Edelstadt. After the war, they published an English poem, Never to Forget, by Howard Fast, elegizing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, accompanied by illustrations by William Gropper.

Tank Poems

During WWII, one major focus of the JPFO was in aiding the Soviet Union in its war effort. They devoted considerable resources to fund-raising campaign “for Soviet tanks and airplanes.” The tanks were to be named after Jewish heroes. https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:21072643

This may seem strange, but even knowing what we do now, it’s important to realize: first, how many Jews were behind Soviet lines; and second, that the Red Army, pushing from the East, was in closer proximity to the death camps and better placed to liberate Jews than the Americans were. With Roosevelt and Stalin “on the same side”, the JPFO believed that they could now be openly pro-Soviet without being accused of disloyalty.

In any case, in the summer of 1942 the Morgn Frayhayt put out a public call to their readers to write and submit tank poems, in the hopes of inspiring people to donate to the campaign. Many readers responded. Some of these poems are awful. Other contributions came from established, published poets. It is interesting and impressive to me to see the rank-and-file and the literati joining together in the same campaign.


A great resource on the poets associated with the Yiddish left is the book Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets, edited by Amelia Glazer and David Weintraub (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Here is an excerpt from Dovid Katz’s foreword to that book [as reprinted in Jewish Currents], in which he describes why these poets are less known than he thinks they ought to be:

“In the mid-1950s, the Rekhte, in their own literary publications, particularly the Tsukunft, were applying unwritten rules that can be summarized with a simplicity so stark that it is almost embarrassing: Whoever left the Linke for the Rekhte after the Hebron riots of 1929 was completely kosher; whoever left after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 was sufficiently kosher; whoever waited until confirmation of the Moscow murders of 1952 was treyf, banished from the canon; and whoever stayed with the Linke after that was not ever to be mentioned.

“So it came to pass that the canon of American Yiddish literature in English translation that thrives to this day was a creation, in part, of 1950s American political conformity…”

Many of the poets who are included in that Proletpen anthology also make an appearance somewhere in Cornell’s I.W.O./JPFO collection, including: Malka Lee (Rappaport), Moyshe Nadir, Aaron Kurz, Shifre Vays [or Weiss], Yosl Cutler, and Meinke Katz. I’m sure there are a few others I missed. You can try putting their names in the search field to see what comes up, keeping in mind that some of these names have more than one possible transliteration.

Of course, the presence of someone’s poetry in a leftist songbook, magazine, or evening program is not necessarily an endorsement. Some literary works were beloved by groups of every ideology. Some poets might have allowed their work to be published anywhere, or may not even have known what uses their work was being put to. For example, a file in the JPFO archive held a loose sheet of paper with part of a Sutzkever poem, which was probably read at a holiday or cultural evening.

Rontsh – Among those of the Proletpen poets Y. A. Rontsh had particularly close and enduring ties to the JPFO. The copy of Rontsh’s 1947 book of selected poems, “Lider”, in Cornell’s Olin Library is inscribed to his friend Rubin Saltzman. Rontsh turns up in several places in the archive, not only for his poetry, but also his prose writing on various subjects, generally related to education and/or literature. He has articles in the two JPFO Almanacs (note- these are large downloads) and in several issues of the I.W.O.s “The Spark”. When he wants to move to California, Saltzman writes to the Ordn schools there looking for a post for him. He also makes an appearance as a courier, bringing Bella Chagall’s books from Marc Chagall to the Ordn’s office.

A Few Links

Search the collection with the word “poetry” and you will get around 100 hits to browse through. Many of these are school journals or magazines for children— I will talk more specifically about these in my next blog post. But you will also find letters accompanying poems submitted to the Morning Freiheit or other Ordn publications, tank poems, public speeches that include a poem, issues of The Spark, letters back and forth planning a culture congress, holiday evening speaker’s guides, and more.

While going through this material there were one or two occasions when I just couldn’t resist translating a couple of lines, in order to try to give something of the feel of a poem, along with the content. Here’s the first stanza of a poem by Shifre Vays [Weiss]:

“My torn-out heart
Where did you go?
If to the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto
Give them my hands to clasp
And kiss their eyes
Take the lead from their skies
Promise them, this too will pass.”

Here is Kalman Marmor’s biography of Dovid Edelstadt:

A loose page with last 10 stanzas of Avrom Sutzkever’s poem “Teacher Mira”

Press proofs of an essay by Y. A. Rontsh. Several items in the archive have a penciled note on them “H & D”, for the awkwardly-spelled Heym (or ‘Heim’, or ‘Haim’) un Derziung (‘Dertsiyung’?). Formerly ‘Proletarishe Derziung’. This was the Ordn’s education journal, targeted to teachers and parents.
Rontsh’s article views American literary history and culture through the lens of Sears Roebuck catalogs. The article has no title, and the long strips make it slightly awkward to read. Follow the page numbers all they way down column 2, then 3 (even though it’s printed on the left), then 4.

On Poetry and Politics: The word “front”.

The word ‘front’ has often been used in two ways with regard to the Communists. Describing an activity as part of the “culture front” is a way of saying that they believed all their cultural activities were helping build the proletariat into an educated and enlightened force. Thus, in arguing for financial support for the schools, an official might address a meeting with the sentiment that nothing is more important than the next generation of revolutionaries. Because a major purpose of creating culture is to lift up and energize the class, much of the JPFOs poetry contains direct social or political content. There are few pure love poems, for example, or lyric nature poems as such.

The second way the word ‘front’ was used was to call the I.W.O. a “Communist front organization,” From the McCarthyite point of view, everything the Ordn did was merely cover for its singular and sinister purpose of taking over the United States. This was basically the rationale that the New York State’s Insurance Department and the Attorney General used to shut the organization down. They reasoned that the political activities posed a ‘risk’ to the insured, and then seized all the agency’s assets (proving themselves right).

The matter of the intersection of politics and poetry is, frankly, over my head. Instead of making a stab at it and embarrassing myself, I will share another few links which are related to that intersection. But I will also say, given how thoroughly poetry is marbled through every one of the Ordn’s activities, I am convinced that they believed in poetry as more than merely a front, or a means to an end. I’m convinced that in their vision for a world “after the revolution,” whether implicit or explicit, the proletariat would not lay down their weapons of cultural warfare forever. On the contrary: Everyone would now have ample time for the good life, which would give pride of place to music, poetry, and art.

A pamphlet for discussion, which takes a broad view both of the role of culture in the ongoing work of the order, and of the concept of ‘fraternalism’. By Abraham Maymudes.

A 1937 letter from H. Leivick [Leyvik] and Yosef Opatoshu to [Chaim] Henri Slovès of IKUF, regarding an international cultural conference, which they fear will end up not being representative of Yiddish culture as a whole, but only of the hard left. They ask Sloves to postpone. Leyvik would later cut ties with the Communists after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939.

Finally, another song book for my friend Arnold, who faithfully reads all my blog posts, and who loves Yiddish music. A ‘lid’ in Yiddish can be a song or a poem. Only a long narrative poem, or dramatic verse is typically called a ‘poeme’. And, of course, many Yiddish songs were first poems. So a song book is not off the topic. This one is from 1932, titled Mit gezang tsum kamf or, roughly, To the Battle with Songs. As the title suggests, these are not love songs, and if something is titled ‘lullaby’, don’t buy it. The pages are numbered from the end, and on page 4, Kalman Marmor (yes, him again) discusses the role of song in the struggle.

Tank Campaign

Illustration by William Gropper, showing Soviet tanks emblazoned with the names of Jewish heroes, vanquishing Hitler. The Ordn often used and reused his drawings in multiple contexts.

Fellow Travelers 2: Highlights of the Highlights

Here again is the link for the “landing page” of the IWO/JPFO archive that Cornell has shared: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/collections/iwo-jpfo

My general introduction to this material is in my previous post [link here].

In this blog post, I hope to provoke an initial sense of curiosity and excitement about what is available in the Fellow Travelers collection. Obviously, trying to get a handle on 1700 items is overwhelming; so I’ll make it easy and we’ll mostly stick to the mere 600 or so Yiddish items. OK, actually, to 1% of them.

If you scroll to the very bottom of the landing page, there are links to sets of items by topic: “Black Jewish Relations”, “Education”, “Conferences Conventions Meetings”, and others. The title “Women’s Work” accurately reflects the marginalized position of the women’s clubs, or the women’s sections of the district committees, until finally the Emma Lazarus Division of the JPFO is formed. These sets are the results of searching the entire collection with a particular term. Each set may have many items, some of which will be more direct or more thorough in treating that particular subject matter than others.

Among those sets of items is one titled “Exhibit and Collection Highlights”. This is a great place to start. It will return 74 items that the curators felt are particularly likely to be interesting to the general public, are visually striking, or, in aggregate, give a good feel for the collection as a whole. You can go directly to that set by clicking here: [Exhibit and Collection Highlights]

But 74 things is still a lot, and so I thought I would give my own introduction, by picking and choosing just a few “Highlights of the Highlights.”

One: Rubin Saltzman’s letters from Warsaw: July, 1946.

In 1946, the JPFO’s Rubin Saltzman went to Warsaw, to offer monetary assistance, and to assess the needs of the postwar Jewish community, in Poland for ongoing aid. Poland was soon to fall completely under Soviet influence, but at that time, Soviet policy was still supportive of the victims of fascism. Saltzman’s contacts were at the Central Committee of Jews in Poland.
The aid mission, however, was immediately and dramatically affected by the news of a pogrom in Kielce. In these two letters back to the office in New York, Saltzman describes his arrival, the news of the pogrom, and the aftermath, including his attendance at the funeral for the victims. Unlike most other Yiddish material in the collection, these letters come with English translations, which are lineated to match the handwritten letters, should you want to read them side-by-side:

July 7th letter- Saltzman’s arrival in Warsaw

English translation

July 9th letter- Kielce pogrom aftermath

English translation

And a note of thanks to Jonathan Boyarin for his help with the translations.

Two: Clara Lemlich Shavelson’s handwriting and signature.

Clara Lemlich is a hero of the left. As a young woman, she was a leader in the garment workers’ strike of 1909, but she remained active in labor movements for the whole of her long life. The Wikipedia article on her gives a good overview. Recently, Chelsea Clinton published a children’s book “She Persisted”, which includes Lemlich’s story, but which also has been criticized for omitting her communism and her Jewishness from the account. Both were central to her identity and work.

This item is the handwritten draft of what would later be typed up and sent out as the bi-weekly letter of the Women’s City Committee of the I.W.O. The handwriting is careful and clear—presumably someone other than the author would type it. A slightly more fluid sample of her handwriting is on the back of page 3 in a note that signed, simply, “Clara”. There is also some intriguing-looking writing in what appears to be Yiddish shorthand.

Besides having a famous person’s handwriting, the letter shows the concerns of the women’s committee at the time, and shows Lemlich (now under her married name, Shavelson) doing the nitty-gritty work of organizing.


Three: A comment on the dangers of assimilation in 1929:

The JPFO collection includes numerous school yearbooks and student newspapers. These can be quite revealing. The children’s written work shows their level of Yiddish proficiency, and their choices of subject matter indicate how open or doctrinaire a given school was. Concert programs and advertisements provide additional clues as to what the life of a given school community was like.

The so-called “Umpartayish” (or, “nonpartisan”) schools were anything but. These were the schools that did not adhere to the official socialist ideology of the Arbeter Ring, because they were farther to the left. Soon they would splinter off to form the Ordn Shuln.

This particular school yearbook and spring concert program also interests me for a different reason. The school administration, in its introduction, writes:

We remind ourselves and think about the nature of the children when they all arrived at the Jewish Workers School– what was it? Not understanding or speaking a word of Yiddish. Their heroes? Jack Dempsey or Charlie Chaplin…

This comment provides a reminder of how long ago the assimilation process began. From shortly after the U.S. slammed the immigration doors shut in 1924, the children in the Yiddish secular schools would all be American-born, and apparently many were already from English-speaking homes, even in 1929. I have often thought about why so few Jewish parents chose to raise their children in Yiddish in the two decades following World War II. But by the late forties, many families were already a second generation removed from Yiddish as a mama-loshn.


Four: Letter from Marc Chagall to Rubin Saltzman

Chagall writes to Rubin Saltzman saying he is sending copies of “Belatchke’s” [his nickname for Bella Chagall] book, hoping Saltzman can get them to his friends in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow. With Bella’s second yortsayt approaching, Chagall asks if Saltzman is still ready to publish her second book, provisionally titled, “Life and Love”.
In fact, the Ordn (JPFO) did later publish Bella Chagall’s second book, under the title “Di ershte bagegenish”, or “First Encounter”, accompanied by Marc Chagall’s illustrations.


Five: A Ruth Rubin booklet on Jewish folk songs.

Rubin published a lot, so this is probably not new, but I am quite fond of it just the same.

Here’s an English version, also from the I.W.O./JPFO documents.

You can also find a large collection of Ruth Rubin recordings, recently made available online at Yivo’s webpage.

And, having just come from Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird’s album release concert, I can tell you that leftist Jewish music is still alive.

Six: A Speaker’s Guide for an evening commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

I could go on and on, but the point of this list is to be quick and manageable. Someone else’s top half-dozen would certainly be different than mine. It might include materials on the trial that led to the JPFOs dissolution, or have more about their political platform. Perhaps this would include their take on the battle for national health insurance in the 1940s. Other documents show the marginalization of the JPFO by mainstream Jewish groups as the cold war got underway, or how they would frame their qualified support for the new State of Israel. Keep exploring the website and you will find all manner of fascinating things.

Following my own interests, my next two blog posts are going to be about poetry and education, rather than ‘foregrounding’ politics and history. But politics and history infuse everything in the collection, and I will also address them later. Meanwhile, speaking of culture, I can’t resist adding one last highlight, this time in English.

[in English]. A January, 1946 letter from Rubin Saltzman to Robert Moses. Saltzman writes regarding a plan to erect a statue of Sholem Aleichem in time for his 30th yortsayt, which would be coming up in May. Moses’ reply urges Saltzman not to announce anything, but to proceed through the proper channels. In fact, the statue was never built.


Warsaw Ghetto William Gropper

Cover for a 1947 Speaker’s Guide for an evening commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Artwork is by William Gropper.

Fellow Travelers Part 1, Introduction

A Yiddish translation of a speech by Albert Einstein in support of our Soviet ally in our fight against Hitler. Children’s Yiddish school compositions about Lenin, the Scottsboro Boys, or “My First Time in a Train.” Postwar fundraising efforts for Jewish orphanages in Poland. Materials from a speaking tour by the widow of Yiddishist Chaim Zhitlowsky. A poet’s doodling on a thank you note (see below).

In the next series of posts, I want to share a little treasure trove of the Jewish left, that I had the privilege of working on this past year.

“Fellow Travelers: From Popular Front to Cold War” is the title for a set of documents that have been digitized by Cornell University Library and made available on the internet. These documents belonged to the International Workers Order (I.W.O.) and, more specifically, to its Jewish-language section, the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO).

Through the collection, you can view or download the material, which has sat relatively unknown and underutilized in an archive in the library at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. A little over a third of the 1700+ documents are in Yiddish.

The best introduction to the collection is on the webpage itself, but that essay is a little long, so I will also provide a slightly shorter orientation here.

The I.W.O. was both a political organization and a fraternal organization for workers. Before there was a social safety net, the I.W.O. both agitated for better government support and also directly provided disability, retirement, and funeral insurance for workers. It specialized in Jewish and other national minority workers, as well as African Americans, whom the corporate insurance companies were often unwilling to cover.

Their orientation was Communist. Not just small-c ‘communist’– they toed the Soviet party line. They split off from the socialists of the Workmen’s Circle after a decade of ideological tension and struggle following the Russian Revolution, over whether socialists in the U.S. should follow the Soviet model and the Comintern.

The JPFO (the Jewish section of the I.W.O.) was also a cultural organization. They had a press that published not just Communist propaganda and educational materials, but also Yiddish literature, biography, poetry, etc. They sponsored musical evenings, and their lodges often hosted speakers and writers. They also ran one of the largest systems of secular Yiddish schools in the U.S.- the Ordn Shuln. They ran summer camps.

The documents gathered here document the routine work of the office of JPFO general secretary Rubin Saltzman; the Ordn’s political and insurance work; and the full range of the cultural activities I just described.

Before our entry into World War II, when Stalin still had a non-aggression pact with Hitler, the JPFO took the Communist line against U.S. militarism. This can be seen in the women’s section documents, in which they organized a contingent to march for peace in Washington D.C., even into the spring of 1941. As Elissa Sampson writes in her introduction to the material:

“These documents contain the seeds of a fascinating and detailed history of competing and complementary loyalties and priorities: to the Soviet Union and the international left-wing movement; to the United States; and to the Jewish people and the propagation of a secular Yiddish culture.”

During WWII, the JPFO joined the war effort unreservedly, and immediately after the war it was active in raising money for reconstruction and relief, particularly in Poland, but also in Belgium, France, Palestine, and elsewhere.

The I.W.O. was shut down by McCarthyism. Whatever legitimate distaste and anger one may feel towards supporters of Stalin and Stalinism, the way the organization was shut down was clearly an abuse of power.

In the next few blog posts, spread over several days, I am going to guide you through the collection, focusing primarily on the Yiddish materials. I had the pleasure of working on them under the guidance of Cornell’s meta-data librarian Jasmine Burns and of Elissa Sampson from Cornell Jewish Studies. Sampson is the primary moving force behind selecting, classifying and describing this collection, and making it public. My job was to assist with the first pass through the Yiddish materials and provide a quick description of who-what-where-when, so that she could then fill in the details. In doing so, I got an aerial view of the collection, and I can point you to some of the more interesting bits.

Before I do, go ahead and visit the web page, browse through the collection, and see for yourself what you might find. Or wait for me, and we’ll tour the material together.

[Link to the collection again].



An envelope by poet Meinke Katz, addressed to Rubin Saltzman and to Pesach (Paul) Novick at the Morgn Frayhayt. Katz doodled not only on the envelope, but also all over his brief but delightful thank-you letter, which you can see if you go to this page https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:19043824 and then click the button reading “download item”.