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.