Ida Pilat Isca (1896-1980)

We met quite by accident during the campaign for Sacco and Vanzetti, at a meeting in the local of the Spanish New York comrades’ Cultural Centre. She had by then already been involved for several years in the campaign to free those two martyrs. She had been arrested twice in Boston with other comrades, demonstrating outside Governor Fuller’s home.

Chatting with her that particular evening I realised that the woman sitting beside me was endowed with a lively intellect and was exceptionally cultivated, whereas my own ideas were muddled and I found it hard to make myself understood in a language that was not my native tongue. We became friends and in time I discovered who she was and where she came from. A world very different from my own.

Ida Pilat was born in Odessa on the Black Sea on 28 April 1896. From a well-to-do Jewish family, her house was visited every morning by the German governess who taught that language to her and her sister, and in the afternoons the teacher who would teach her French and converse with her in the language would call. When playing with other neighbourhood children she would speak Russian. She had no recollection of ever having spoken less than three languages. I, on the other hand, a southern Italian, orphaned of my father at the age of ten and very impoverished, had had to leave school and seek work, murderous work, in a mill; I was continually at risk of being crushed by the machinery.

In 1905, following the pogroms unleashed by the tsarist government after Russia’s defeat at the hands of Japan – and after drunken mobs had twice destroyed his business – Ida’s father made up his mind to move to America along with the entire family and they settled in Brooklyn. There young Ida attended the public schools; then found work as a secretary and translator. A lifelong enthusiast for study, she attended night classes in Latin and Greek at Hunter College for two years, but she had to give these up because, being of fragile constitution and living far from the College, the effort was more than she could bear. Her doctor recommended that she take walks to build herself up and this turned her into a tireless walker.

In me she found a partner who loved the outdoor life and any time that we had a free day it was ‘knapsacks on’ and off into the parks and woods for the day. Eventually, once we had the means, we bought a cabin on a lake near the Mohegan Colony where Milly and Rudolf Rocker and many other comrades (nearly all of them dead now) lived.

It was two years after our first encounter, in April 1929, that we decided to enter into a free union, a union that survived for over half a century, for 51 years, up until she died. And those were years filled with joy, love, struggles and hopes.

It was schoolmate of hers who introduced her to the Socialist Party in which she was very active for several years, as well as in labour disputes. And it was comrade Rose Pesotta, another Russian and Jew, who opened her eyes to the libertarian movement during the Sacco-Vanzetti campaign.

As a student, she researched the ideas of the Socialist Party and then libertarian ideas but her preferred study was always philology and art history. She loved reading the classics in the original language. It was her knowledge of languages that set her apart and made her of service to the libertarian movement. Back in the days when they were publishing the weekly Cultura Proletaria in New York, Ida used to translate articles from English for the Spanish comrades. Later she did the same for the bulletin supporting the political victims in Spain. On behalf of Jewish comrades she translated articles for the Freie Arbeiter Stimme as well as letters in foreign languages that came into the Libertarian Book Club. She also translated many chapters of Sam Dolgoff’s anthology of Bakunin’s writings.

Her last work as a translator was to translate Max Nettlau’s Short History of Anarchy from the Spanish and Italian editions, the German original manuscript having been lost during the civil war in Spain.

But it would be incorrect to speak of translation as her only contribution to the libertarian movement. She was also active in the ‘Francisco Ferrer’ Modern School Association in Stelton and for several years was secretary of the New York support committee. She was among the earliest members of the Mutual Aid League set up by Harry Kelly to aid victims of labour disputes. She was among the founders of the Libertarian Book Club and after the death of its treasurer Joseph Arostan she took up his post until her sight failed her.

After the death and religious funeral for her father in 1955, she wrote down and signed a document declaring: ‘On my death I want no ritual, religious or otherwise.’ She died on 5 November 1980. At her very plain funeral comrade Abe Bluestein who had known her since her teenage years said a few words of farewell.

From: Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli No 15, Milan, April 2000. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.