I have been been reading lately about Jack Abrams. His basic life story is told by Nick Heath at Libcom, and he is a minor character in The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta Anarchist and Labor Organizer by Elaine Leeder. He was born in Russia in 1883, went to America in 1906, worked (like many key anarchist activists of the period) as a bookbinder, became a trade union militant and anarcho-syndicalist. With about a group which included his partner Mary Abrams and Mollie Steimer, he edited the underground newspaper Frayhayt (Freedom), from an apartment at 5 East 104th Street in East Harlem. The most dramatic and well-known part of his story came in 1918, as told here by Nick Heath:
He was the author of two leaflets calling for a general strike against the US intervention of spring –summer 1918 against the Russian Revolution. These called for a social revolution in the United States. The paper was folded up tightly and posted in mailboxes around New York and the leaflets each had a print run of 5,000. The federal and local authorities began to be on the lookout for the authors of this propaganda. He was arrested on the 24th August 1918 along with Jacob Schwartz. The two were beaten with fists and blackjacks on the way to the police station. There further beatings were dished out. The arrest of the Frayhayt group signaled the start of massive repression of the anarchist movement in the United States. The Abrams case as it became known was a was a landmark in the suppression of civil liberties in the USA. Schwartz died in October due to the severe beatings he had received, although the authorities put it down to Spanish influenza…
On October 25th 1918 Jack , together with Sam Lipman and Hyman Lachowsky, was sentenced to 20 years hard labor and fined $ 1000 on charges of “anti-American activities.”, whilst Mollie Steimer received fifteen years and a $500 fine… In mid-1919 was filed an appeal, and in the meantime Jack and the others were released.
Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas was one of the people active in the campaign that led to this release. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but was notable for the dissenting opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes (joined by Louis Brandeis):
we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threatened immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.
The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. “That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.
Anyway, the group tried to escape to Mexico but got waylaid and some went to Russia, where (ironically, considering the defence of the revolution had got them locked up) they witnessed the deepening repression of the Bolshevik state, and before long were deported from there too. Eventually, in 1926, Mary and Jack Abrams wound up in Mexico, in Cuernavaca, not far from Mexico City, where he joined a group of Spanish anarchist exiles, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom).
Creative Commons License. Photo from the Triangle Fire Open Archive. Contributed by David Bellel. Circa 1930s. Photo shows Mary Abrams, a shirtwaist fire survivor, with her husband Jack Abrams, Rose Pesotta, Senya Fleshin and Mollie Steimer. The picture was taken in Mexico in the late 1930s where the group lived in exile (except for Pesotta) as a result of the Palmer Raids of 1919. At that time Mary was part of the anarchist Frayhayt group. Mary passed away in 1978. Source: Jewish Women’s Archive.
Steimer’s route to Mexico was even more complex, also via Russia, where she was imprisoned by the GPU (forerunner of the KGB), to Berlin, from which she fled when Hitler came to power, to France, where she was again interned in Camp Gurs as a German. (She must have been there, May-June 1940, at the same time as Hannah Arendt. I wonder if they met?) Then to Vichy – according to Wikipedia “Steimer was aided principally by May Picqueray (1893-1983), the militant anarchist editor of Le Refractaire, who had previously assisted the couple by protesting their imprisonment in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1923.”
And finally to Mexico City, where her and Fleshin had a photo studio, SEMO. Here‘s two of their 1952 photo of the opera singer Maria Callas:
And here’s Fleshin at his trade:
They retired to Cuernavaca in 1963.
Ron Radosh, the red diaper baby turned anti-Communist, was a nephew of Jack Abrams, and in his memoir Commies he writes:
My first remembrance of the many visits we made to Mexico City is from 1945, when I was nine. As others were gathering in Times Square to celebrate the end of World War II, we saw the giant parade that wound through downtown Mexico City. Abrams took me to the major sites and to children’s films, willingly spending hours with me while my parents went off to experience Mexico’s revolutionary culture. In a later visit, either 1949 or 1950, Abrams, who had learned from my parents that I had already begun to circulate in the orbit of New York’s young Communist movement, did his best to warn me about the ethics and true nature of Stalin’s regime.
As we all walked through the streets of beautiful Cuernavaca (now a famous tourist resort), my parents spotted the painter David Alfaro Siqueras, one of the founders of the Mexican muralist school. The famed artist approached Abrams to say hello, and much to my shock, Abrams refused to shake his hand and exchange greetings. “I don’t talk to murderers,” he shouted at Siqueras, and turned and walked away. When he had calmed down, Abrams told me about Siqueras’s role in the attempted murder of Leon Trotsky at his estate in the Coyocan suburb of Mexico City, when the painter led a group of machine-gun-toting raiders in a failed effort to kill the exiled Bolshevik.
Abrams often socialized and became friends with other exiles, despite occasionally severe political differences. He was a regular guest at Trotsky’s walled-in compound, where the two played chess and argued about Bolshevism. After his death, Trotsky’s widow presented Abrams a set of Trotsky’s favorite Mexican-made dishware as a remembrance of their solidarity and friendship—a gift which Abrams later passed on to my parents. Often in later years, I would serve cake to my Stalinist friends on these plates, and after they admired the beauty of the design and craftsmanship, I would tell them whose dishes they were eating from, and watch them turn pale.
Abrams also befriended the great painter Diego Rivera, who spent his years moving from Bolshevism to Trotskyism and back to official Soviet Communism. Despite these twists and turns, and probably because at critical moments Rivera had opposed Stalin, Abrams maintained the relationship. Once, he took me to meet the artist and watch him paint the murals—some of the last he was to create—in the Del Prado Hotel in the main part of the city. In later years, the hotel would cover the murals with curtains because of embarrassment about their anti-Catholic and revolutionary themes. Rivera gave Abrams some of his paintings, one of which Abrams gave to my parents. My mother kept it in her New York City apartment.
Abrams gave the twelve year old Radosh a copy of Franz Borkenau‘s The Spanish Cockpit, presenting the anti-Stalinist view of the Spanish revolution and civil war.
Further reading: Abrams, Jack. J. Aybrams-bukh dos lebn un shafn fun an eygnartike perzenlikhkayt. [Jack Abrams Book, The Life And Works Of A Peculiar Personality] Mexico City: Centro Cultural Israelita de Mexico, 1956. 329pp [via YAB] If anyone has this, and wants to write a guest post based on it, please get in touch!