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.

One thought on “Fellow Travelers 2: Highlights of the Highlights

  1. Quite amazing. I ‘accessed’ the Ruth Rubin pamphlet, because of my interest in Yiddish songs. I have a book she wrote that is quite comprehensive.



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