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Jewish RadicalsA Documentary History$

Tony Michels

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780814757437

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814757437.001.0001

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A Revolutionary Returns (1929)

A Revolutionary Returns (1929)

(p.239) 47 A Revolutionary Returns (1929)
Jewish Radicals

Nokhum Khanin

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter details the travelogue of socialist revolutionary Nokhum Khanin, who had immigrated to the United States and, in the late 1920s, journeyed to the Soviet Union. Khanin reminisces on his time in the Bund as he seeks out his former comrades in Russia, finding to his surprise that the Bund is in decline and that everyone seems worse off than when he'd left them, despite the prominence of Communist officials in the government. Khanin himself was not a Communist, though he shared the same socialist ideals as many of his comrades, and was disappointed to see that Communism did not improve their lives as had been hoped.

Keywords:   Nokhum Khanin, Soviet Union, Communism, socialism, Bund, travelogue

A former member of the Bund in Russia, Nokhum Khanin (1885–1965) was an experienced revolutionary by the time he immigrated to the United States in 1912. He rose through the ranks of the Socialist Party’s Jewish Socialist Federation and, in 1921, became head of its successor organization, the Jewish Socialist Farband. In the late-1920s Khanin journeyed to the Soviet Union and sought out former comrades and friends, as described in the following travelogue.

I had a very close friend in New York years ago. When the split between the Left Wing and Right Wing in our movement happened, he became a Leftist.1 He never belonged to the Communist Party, but he was friendly toward it, attended its gatherings, gave money, in a word, helped in all respects. He worked as a dentist and earned very well. In 1922, he decided to take his wife and child back to Russia. Before leaving he came to say goodbye to me. I pleaded with him: “Motl, don’t go!” But he didn’t listen. He gave me only one answer: “I want to help build socialism in the country where socialism is being built, and I’m going there.”

I had almost completely forgotten about Motl. I did not even know where he was. When I was in the city N., I met one of my old party comrades. An hour before my departure, he asked me, “Have you seen Motl while you were here?” I soon found out where he was; I took a carriage and ran off to the office where Motl was an employee. Entering the office, I spotted Motl handing a client something. When Motl was done with the client, I approached him. When he noticed me, he became pale, he stared, tears welled up, and cried out: “Nokhum, what are you doing here? How did you get here?” Motl had become thinner over time and, it seemed, shorter too. The clothes he wore were very poor. Holding his hand in mine, I asked him: “Motl, how are you, how’s life?” And with the irony, gall, and bitterness that fate had dealt him, he answered: “Nokhum, I am building socialism.” I could not speak to Motl any further. Our hearts understood (p.240) one another. I had to run to the train. I shook his hand, said goodbye, and left.

Yosl was once the leader of the Bund in our city. He was the son of very wealthy parents. He had received an excellent education, and not only did he become the leader of the Bund in our city, but also became a prominent speaker and journalist. His father was a very strict orthodox Jew, and he was very unhappy that his Yosl had befriended poor tailors and cobblers. His mother, a simple Jewish woman, loved Yosl and idolized him. All of our meetings, secret meetings, used to take place in Yosl’s house.

I was a regular visitor to his place. His mother was always interested in me. She always used to listen to what I had to say about the working class […] and how Yosl was prepared to do everything he could for it, even sit in prison and go to Siberia. And she probably saw in me that Worker about which Yosl spoke so much.

Today, Yosl is a prominent Communist. When I came to the city where Yosl’s parents live, I decided to go to Yosl’s mother. His father was already dead. Yosl now lives in Moscow. When I entered the house, Yosl’s mother immediately recognized me. She stared at me; her eyes filled with amazement and she cried out:

“Look, it’s Nokhum! Where have you been all this time? In Russia there was such a tumult, such a scene, and you, Nokhum, for whom the whole tumult was made, you disappeared, you were nowhere to be seen the entire time.” I answered that I was in America and I’ve come from there now. Quietly and modestly she said: “So you’re a happy man. You haven’t had to go through what all of us have gone through.”

She asked me to sit and treated me to tea. She began inquiring about how I live, how people generally live in America. Afterward, she said to me in a very good-natured tone with a kind smile, full of grace and motherly love: “Nokhum, do you remember when you and Yosl used to declare a strike in the city, and all the businesses used to close? You used to tell me two days before the strike would happen, and how I should go buy everything, so I wouldn’t be lacking anything at home. You used to know everything back then. Tell me, Nokhum, seeing as you know everything, how long will this take?”

By “how long will this take” she meant the Bolshevik regime.

I started laughing and said, “What are you saying? I’ll tell you this about Yosl! Yosl is such a devoted Communist, he’ll never forgive you for such a question.” She said to me in the same calm tone, “And what do you think? (p.241) Yosl doesn’t want the same? Yosl won’t be happy when all this ends? Do you think it’s good for Yosl to lead such a hard life? He, too, lacks everything. So, how long do you think he’ll be able to endure?”

Mariashe lived in “Blote,”2 once the poorest part of the city. There lived the discarded, the poorest of poor people: drivers, haulers, and just common folk without work. No work was too difficult for them, but they never had any work. The Bund arose from “Blote.” We used to have our meetings there, in our illegal headquarters. We were sure the simple residents of “Blote” would never betray us. We had our headquarters at Mariashe’s place for a long time. Mariashe’s husband was a worker in a tobacco factory. They were just married. She knew that we were “unkosher” people, but that did not bother her. She used to look out for us as if she had eyes in the back of her head. When I used to leave the Bund’s headquarters, Mariashe would collect all the printed papers and hide them so they wouldn’t be discovered by anybody. Mariashe never enlisted in the movement, never even attended a meeting, but she related to us with a certain respect. Her heart told her that we were the defenders of “Blote,” that we sacrificed ourselves for its poor people. We would eventually make it so that Mariashe would have an easier and better life.

When I came to the city where Mariashe lived, I remembered her and went off to find out if she still lived there, if she was still alive. When I came to the house, I found out that Mariashe no longer lived in “Blote,” but on the main street in what was formerly one of the richest houses in the city. I went there.

I knocked on the door and Mariashe opened it. She recognized me. With the greatest joy she swung open the door and hugged me like a good, old comrade. Mariashe had become frightfully old. She had six children and they lived all in one room. The room, in what was once a fancy house that looked onto the main street, was very neglected. The windows were old, broken; entire pieces were torn out of the ceiling. The two beds, which stood by the sides of the room, were old, poor. In the middle of the house stood a table with a couple of broken chairs. On the walls hung pictures of the country’s prominent Communist leaders. The walls were partially pasted over with Communist slogans.

Mariashe asked me to sit, immediately warmed up tea, and we both sat at the table, talking about the past and the present. Mariashe spoke about things she had no conception of in the old days. She spoke about wars, about Lenin, even about Trotsky, with whom she did not agree. Mariashe still could (p.242) not read and write, just as before. But all of her children are Communists, and she constantly hears talk about national affairs, world affairs. Her house has become a school where she listens to everything the Communists have to say. When I asked her how she survives, whether she’s happy, if she’s content, Mariashe said this:

“We live very poorly, we lack bread, we lack clothing. We are eight people in the family. There isn’t anywhere to sleep properly. We sleep three people in a bed. Two children sleep on the floor. My husband, Berl, is old. He can’t get any work. Yet I’m happy because the rulers are doing everything they can so the workers can live better. And if we’re living poorly it is not their fault. When we used to live in ‘Blote’ nobody cared for us. Our children lied around in the street. We didn’t even have the opportunity to send them to Talmud Torah.3 Everybody looked at us residents of ‘Blote’ with contempt. We were hated. We used to feel ashamed to walk on the city’s main street because we were poor. We went around ragged. We’re also poor and ragged now, but we can go wherever we want. Nobody is ashamed of us. My children go to school; they’re learning. They’re being made into decent human beings, educated. And, therefore, all of my children are dedicated Communists. Those who used to live on the main streets now live in ‘Blote’ and they’re now hated, like we used to be hated. Now we’re the ones ashamed of ‘Blote.’

“I and my husband”—she continued—“have nothing at this point to expect from life. We’re old already. We will live another five, ten years. But our children will be happier than us. And I now live with joy from my children. I am not a party member,” she tells me, “but I am entirely with the Bolsheviks because they are our friends. They care for the poor; they want to make us into decent people. I know that many poor people are unhappy with the Bolsheviks because they live harder now than in the past. But they are not ‘soznatelne’ (not “conscious,” in Communist jargon), they don’t know that the government wants to make them happy.

“If I could go with my six children to my brother in New York, where they earn a good living, I’d surely do this. But you can’t get into America, and there is nowhere else to go. We must remain here and suffer. And if we have to be here, it’s better that we have a Bolshevik government.”

There are many such mothers who live for the happiness of their children, but who themselves are unhappy. In Russia, they’re called “for-the-sake-of-their-children Bolsheviks.”

It used to gladden me when I would encounter people in old Russia who were happy even in their unhappiness; who cheered themselves up with (p.243) future happiness. Their happiness also used to warm me a little. When a small spark of joy would come my way, it used to feel so good. In today’s Russian life, though, you will find very few people who can gladden you and give you cheer.

I was once in prison with him in Warsaw. He belonged to the Polish Socialist Party, even though he was a Jew. The Bolshevik Revolution drove him to Siberia, where he was exiled. After returning to Russia, he became a member of the Communist Party. Now he is a Soviet official. He is regarded in his city as one of the most dedicated Communists.

I met him accidentally in that city. He invited me to his house. He’s now a father of six children, beginning with a fourteen-year-old daughter and ending with a child of four. He lives in three nice rooms in a house that used to belong to a rich Russian businessman. Inside, the rooms were quite well decorated, and it was pleasant to sit there.

From our chats he could easily surmise I am not a Communist. He was dressed quite ordinarily, poor according to our American standard of dress. But the clothes of his wife and children looked completely different. When I asked him where one could buy such pretty clothes, like his children’s, he explained he bought them in Germany. Several years ago, he served in the foreign commissariat. He was a courier. He used to travel from country to country to inform Russian ambassadors about things the government did not want to send via written messages.

Such officials can cross Russian borders quite freely and bring in what they want. In Europe, America, or Asia they are allowed to live very generously. They stay in the best hotels, wear the best clothes, and eat in the best restaurants. They must not report to the Communist parties in whichever country they are in so as not to attract the slightest suspicion. Naturally, when he used to travel home to his family, he would bring clothes from Europe, and they still wear the clothes he once brought from abroad.

Now, he has been transferred to another post and has to live in Russia. Since he was accustomed to a life of luxury in Europe, it was very difficult for him to live in Russia. He longs to return to a post as a “traveling courier.”

But there are a lot of Communists interested in the post of “traveling courier.” What people won’t do to attain such a post! When a person is given a Communist mission in Europe somewhere, he’s the happiest man. And my old Polish Socialist Party, now Communist, friend still hopes he will succeed in being promoted to his old position, which he lost due to party politics. He lives in a Communist country, built on Communism, (p.244) and yet longs for a trip to the capitalist countries so that he and his family can snack on a little something made by capitalist production in bourgeois countries.

I belonged to the Jewish Socialist Federation4 with Yankl. He came to America in the same year I did, but he could not adapt. He worked in various trades and mastered none of them. Being a child of rich parents, he hadn’t worked his entire life. And he did not want to work here. He went hungry in America and he studied along the way. When the Russian Revolution broke out, Yankl had just become a student in a New York college. He decided to leave college and travel to Russia. He traveled as far as Charbin, China, but could not go further. He returned to America and spent his years here until 1922. He was a member of the Socialist Party, but, in 1921, he left the party along with the Jewish Socialist Federation. A short time later, Yankl again departed for Russia, where he became an official in the foreign affairs commissariat.

I had long forgotten about Yankl. In the city where Yankl now lives I had troubles with my foreign passport, and I had to take care of the matter in a division of the foreign commissariat. Entering the office, I took my place in line, waiting until my turn came. In the office were a lot of old people, whose children were in America and were now bringing them over.

When my turn came, the official very politely greeted me and, before he answered my request, began questioning me about America. It didn’t bother him that there were people behind me who had been waiting impatiently for hours. I became uncomfortable with the fact that he was holding me up and holding up others because of that. When the official finally took care of my issue, he said it would take four, five days to clear up.

I could not stay in the city any longer. I had to leave. And here was this official saying to me that I must remain another five days. I began to ask, complain, look for excuses as to why I could not stay, why I needed to depart. The official told me that he could not do anything, and that I should go to the director’s office. I knocked on the director’s door and he immediately shouted, “Come in!”

When I opened the door, I saw Yankl sitting there. I let out a shout, “Yankl!” With his pleasant smile, he shot back, “Don’t shout, you scoundrel, close the door!” I closed the door, entered, and hugged him, and he began asking how was it that I came there, to the foreign ministry. I explained. He calmed me down and said he would solve the problem for me. And he soon began inquiring about what kind of impression Russia made on me.

(p.245) Before I gave him my impression I made a small preface. “Listen, Yankl,” I said, “I’ve been in Russia thirty days already. In the first few days I didn’t have any fear. I conducted myself very freely. I thought that if I were to be arrested, I’d be held ten, fifteen days, but I’d be released. Now I’m on my way home and I don’t want to be arrested. If you’re a good guy, and I can be straight with you, I’ll tell you everything.” He immediately assured me, “Don’t be a child, talk to me as freely as you can.”

I told him everything I saw: poverty, despair, unbearable housing, factories operating on deficits, peasants who neglect their fields, the failure of the Communist economy. He heard me out and said to me in Russian: “But you’re still a socialist and you want to see socialism realized in Russia! So, you should forget the bad things you saw and remember only the good.”

I answered Yankl that if at least 60 percent of what I saw was good, then I’d forget the other 40 percent. And even if I didn’t see anything good in the current moment, but had the slightest hope that Russia would crawl out from its desolation and want, and that the bitter present in Russia would lead to a better tomorrow, then perhaps today’s bad wouldn’t bother me. But the economic situation in Russia is not getting better; it is growing worse from day to day. That which is bad today becomes even worse tomorrow, so how can I forget the bad today?

To that I received no answer from Yankl.

To the city of D. I traveled to see an old friend, Beylke. I had been active in the Bund with her. Today, she is uninvolved in politics, but the most interesting people in town, both Communists and non-Communists, gather in her home. All of my old comrades meet at her place in the evenings; they sit until four in the morning and discuss Russia and America; they recollect the past, and so on.

One night, around twelve, as we sat steeped in conversation, there was a knock on the door. The son of my old comrade went to the door, opened it, and someone asked him if he could see me. I went toward the door; I took a look—it was Leybl! I ran over to him and hugged him like a good, old comrade. But Leybl stood cold and kept his eyes lowered, as if he had committed a crime.

After a short pause, Leybl said to me: “Beylke didn’t say anything to you about me?” I answered no. He asked me further: “Can I go with you into a different room? I have an important thing to speak with you about.”

We both went into a separate room.

But before I continue with this story, I must tell you who Leybl is.

(p.246) I met Leybl twenty-five years ago in a factory where the Bund had sent me to organize. When Leybl—the child of poor parents who never had a happy day in his life because he had to work hard from his earliest youth—heard a socialist speech for the first time at a Bundist gathering, he became an enthusiastic Bundist. Leybl saw his liberation in the Bund, his defender, the force that would stick up for him. The Bund gave substance to Leybl’s poor, discarded life. From that point on, Leybl was our staunchest man; he took part in all the Bund’s dangerous work. Everyone loved him for his simplicity, his sincerity, and his naïve, childlike innocence. When I left D., Leybl was the only person who wept at my departure as he bid me farewell.

Twenty-five years have passed since that time. I have met many Leybls in my life and they have disappeared from my horizon. I had long forgotten Leybl.

Now, as I walked into a separate room with Leybl, all the past events connected to our heroic work, and with Leybl’s idealism, became refreshed in my mind.

Leybl took off his cap and sat down. His hair was now speckled with gray, his face wrinkled. Leybl had become old. He seemed tired, his eyes dull. After a short while Leybl said to me:

“I thought Beylke had told you everything about me, but if not, I’m pleased. I will tell you.

“After the 1905 revolution, the Bund in our city went into decline. The largest number of activists and the masses, too, went off to America; a terrible right-wing reaction set in throughout the country, the number of arrests were very large, those who remained in the city began to avoid us, yet the Bund’s work continued in the city until 1910. When everything collapsed I was tired, disappointed, alone.

“I got married, children were born, my life took on new meaning. I became a devoted father to my children. I became so settled in my family life that when the second revolution came in 1917, it couldn’t stir me up or pull me in. I worked in the same factory. I didn’t even go to the meetings that were held legally.

“Later came the Bolsheviks, and I remained completely passive and indifferent. Many of the Bolsheviks who worked with me at the factory, those who knew I was once an active Bundist, used to chide me often for not becoming a member of the Communist Party. But I was indifferent to their reproaches.

“In 1926 I received a summons to report to the Cheka.5 The Cheka’s name used to cause a shudder among the people of our city. When I received the summons I trembled from head to toe, but I couldn’t be helped. I went at (p.247) the appointed hour. I entered the room where you have to wait, took a look around, and there, sitting and waiting, are Beylke and Libe, two former Bundists who received the same summons.

“When we were called in, we were ordered to sign a declaration that we, former Bundists, recognized the Bund as a counterrevolutionary organization, whose activities were once harmful, whose goals were bourgeois-nationalist, and so on.

“All three of us refused to give our signatures. They tried to convince us, but it didn’t help. We refused. Then we were released.

“Two years later, I received a second summons. I went. And Beylke and Libe were there again. This time we were called in one by one; they threatened, but we remained stubborn. Beylke and Libe were released, but not me. The guy in charge from Cheka showed me a written order addressed to the factory where I worked, stating that I should be let go because I’m not loyal to the Soviet government. When I saw the order I was left frightened, despondent.

“You don’t know, Nokhum, what this means!” Leybl said to me. “To lose your job at a factory here means to be sentenced to hunger, to death. Out of mercy to my wife and children I signed the declaration. Beylke and Libe could remain steadfast because they were housewives, so they couldn’t be thrown out of the factory. My declaration was printed in all the Yiddish and Russian newspapers in our region. I was ashamed to show myself to Beylke and Libe, to my old comrades. I felt like a traitor to my beautiful, happy Bundist youth. When I found out that you’re here, I decided I must see you and tell you that I am not guilty, that I did not voluntarily commit the betrayal, that the Cheka forced me to spit in my own face.”

Leybl’s sad tone and his sad story cast a gloom, a fright, on me. I saw anew his past childlike innocence. Here was honest Leybl, so pained that he was forced against his will to sign a declaration which insulted him. I calmed Leybl and comforted him. Late at night, Leybl left me.

When I departed from the city the next night, Leybl came to the train station to say goodbye. When he held my hand in his, he asked, “Will better times ever come to us?” What could I say to him? How could I answer?

Amid the great tragedy of Russia there is so much comedy that it calls for a second Sholem Aleichem who could make readers laugh through their tears. In the city of B. I looked for one of my old comrades, whose address I didn’t know. I looked for him in the neighborhood where he lived three years ago, according to his last letter to me. I remembered the street but not the address, (p.248) and so I walked from house to house and asked about an old comrade named Levin. Levin himself I have never seen, but I knew his wife Basye. Finally, someone pointed out a house where a Levin lives. I knocked on the door, and a young man with lengthy hair and a black shirt opened the door in front of me. I asked him if his wife was named Basye. “No,” he answered. But, he said, he has a sister named Basye, and without asking he gave a shout, “Basye!” Basye came out. It was indeed Basye, but not the Basye. I explained to him that this is a mistake; this is, evidently, a different Levin. I explained further that I am from America, looking for an acquaintance named Levin, who doesn’t know me, but I know his wife, Basye. As soon as he heard I’m an American, he wouldn’t let me go. He asked me about relatives in America; he asked about the workers’ movement, about the social revolution; and I sensed during the conversation that the person speaking to me was a Communist. As we spoke, we walked into a room. The entire wall was covered with pictures of Communist leaders. Among the pictures, those of Lenin and Trotsky, which hung next to one another, stood out. Seeing Trotsky’s picture, I said to him in jest: “How did it occur to you to hang a picture of Trotsky? He’s unkosher.” He answered me, “You know, the struggle with Trotsky is an internal struggle; sooner or later, it will be worked out. So why should I remove his picture? When there’s reconciliation, I’ll only have to hang the picture again back where it was.” There was no jest in his tone. He sincerely believed that removing Trotsky’s picture would be a wasted effort because change was going to come. “It’ll get worked out,” as we say in America.


Source: Nokhum Khanin, Soviet Rusland: Vi ikh hob ir gezen (New York: Farlag Veker, 1929), pp. 211–226. Translated by Tony Michels.

(1.) The reference here is to the factional splits in the Jewish Socialist Federation, the Yiddish-speaking section of the Socialist Party between 1919 and 1921. The JSF split into two factions in September 1921. The “left-wing” faction eventually merged into the Communist Party; the “right-wing” faction remained loyal to the Socialist Party and named itself the Jewish Socialist Farband.

(2.) Yiddish for “mud.”

(3.) A communally funded Jewish school at the elementary level.

(4.) See note 1.

(5.) The Soviet secret police, established in 1917 but reorganized as the GPU in 1922. Khanin’s use of the name “Cheka” is therefore anachronistic.