Review of Forty Years in the Struggle: The Memoirs of A Jewish Anarchist, translated by Naomi Cohen, edited and annotated by Robert P. Helms

Forty Years in the Struggle: The Memoirs of A Jewish Anarchist, translated by Naomi Cohen, edited and annotated by Robert P. Helms. Duluth, Litwin Books, LLC, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9802004-3-0

            It is quite possible that the Yiddish speaking anarchist Chaim Leib Weinberg (1861-1939) encouraged at least as many people to engage with anarchists and their ideas as did some of the individuals who constitute the traditional anarchist pantheon of household names. At the very least he provided solace, inspiration, argument, and humor through a style of speaking that “drew us in and won our full confidence” (Yud Lamed Malamut). He spoke from his mind and his heart, never making the transition to writing, or appearing to counter Emma Goldman’s rather dismissive argument that “oral propaganda is at best a means of shaking people from their lethargy.”(introduction to “Anarchism and OtherEssays”). These newly translated and edited memoirs of Chaim Leib Weinberg were related to Marcus Graham during the summer of 1930, and first published in Yiddish in 1952 as Fertsik yor in kamf  far sotsyaler bafrayung. This is the first English translation.

            Robert Helms’ introduction ably puts the memoirs in context, pointing out gaps and interesting omissions as well as clarifying his own editorial procedures. The text itself is fascinating and is supported by a series of valuable appendices discussing Weinberg and his personality. Weinberg’s memoirs, the reader should be warned, are at times awkward, unclear, imprecise and chronologically askew. They are what they are—the oral memoirs of a life of anarchism and co-operation that hints and alludes to the complexities and difficulties of living that life. It is a tumbling memoir of anarchists who have been nearly lost to the historical record and glimpses of those who are well known. It is the remembrance of packed meetings and nearly empty meeting halls, of co-operative ventures that promise so much, and yet, cannot satisfy, of minor arguments and substantial betrayals. Sometimes old scores are gently settled—or are left unexplored. Weinberg’s personal life somehow evades us for much of his story, and although we are aware of his companion, Yetta,  and the appendices at the end attest to Weinberg’s popularity, we sense, I think, a loneliness that rests somewhere behind and between his words.

             Be that as it may, we are faced here with an important book. First, it helps us understand and confirm a little more about the Jewish anarchist movement in Philadelphia, the United States, and England. For that alone it is worthy of publication, and our support. It is important in another way, though. It brings to life, however flickeringly, those missing from the written page—the orators, the setters of chairs and tables at meetings, the awkward, the confused, the committed, and those just passing through. We see people trying to make history and, when we see that, we realize that there is still some work to be done in understanding what anarchism was, and why and how people crossed that “river of fire” to call themselves anarchists. We shall not find the answers just in books, newspapers, or pamphlets.

            A few final words. Robert Helms is one of the finest historians of American anarchism and this work reflects his rich and extensive knowledge. The annotations are full, clear, and ripe with source material. The index is thorough and helpful. The editing of this book has been a prodigious feat on his part. Not reading Yiddish in any real sense I think I can just appreciate the enormous effort and skill of the translator, Naomi Cohen. She has done a most impressive job dealing with this potentially difficult text. I would hope that this team has more projects up their combined sleeves!! At $28 the book is not cheap, but it is well produced and printed on acid free paper. Litwin Publications are to be congratulated in publishing it and I hope they will consider similar material in the future. If you can’t  afford to buy it, go to your local or school library, and get them to buy it!! Books like these need to be read and made easily available.