A short biography of Russian-Jewish anarchist and editor David Edelstadt.
“A great poet and one of the finest types of Anarchist that ever lived.”
- Emma Goldman
David Edelstadt was born on 9 May 1866 at Kaluga in Russia. He was deeply affected by the life of his father,enrolled by force in the Tsar’s army for 25 years. This type of practice carried out by the Russian army was often used against Jews. Whilst Russian was his mother tongue, Yiddish was his language of communication and propaganda. He used it from his emigration to the United States in 1882.
He participated in the first Jewish anarchist group in New York, The Pioneers of Liberty ( Pionire der Frayhayt). The framing of the Chicago Haymarket Anarchists had led to its formation. The first dozen workers who set up the group were joined by Edelstadt and other gifted writers and speakers – Saul Yanovsky, Roman Lewis, Hillel
Solotaroff, Moshe Katz, JA Maryson.
All in their 20s, this group “displayed, apart from unusual literary and oratorical skills, a vigour and dynamic energy that made a powerful impression on the immigrants of the Lower East Side, the predominantly Jewish quarter of New York in which the Pioneers of Liberty were located” (Paul Avrich).
Edelstadt and the others held meetings, sponsored rallies and raised funds to help the Haymarket Chicago anarchists being framed for murder. They organised a ball on the Lower East Side which raised $100 (quite a large sum then), which was sent to the families of the defendants. They began to spread anarchist propaganda among the Jewish immigrants, who were arriving in the States in increasing numbers. They set up a club on brought out literature in Yiddish, including a pamphlet on the Haymarket case.
The intense propaganda led to the establishment of anarchist circles in other towns – Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence. Edelstadt and others travelled to Philadelphia to deliver talks. The group kept in touch with the Jewish anarchists in London, and Edelstadt was one of those who contributed to the London Yiddish anarchist paper Arbeter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend).
In 1889, the Pioneers started a weekly Varhayt (Truth) He began to write poems in Yiddish and had his Orchard Street where they organized weekly lectures and discussions. They first ‘To Truth’ published in Varhayt. Varhaytonly lasted five months and Edelstadt then began writing for an interim anarchist weekly, Der Morgenshtern (The Morning Star). Two weeks after it ceased publication in 1890, a new weekly anarchist paper, which was to have a far longer life than either Varhaytor Der Morgenshtern, was to appear.
Edelstadt was to succeed two others as the chief editor of this new paper, Fraye Arbeter Shtime(Free Worker’s Voice). He set up various columns and features, which contributed to its popular success. He produced a series of tribute poems to the judicially murdered Chicago anarchists.
During this brief period of intense creativity, he wrote many poems. These texts were full of a social lyricism, exalting the workers’ struggle for dignity and emancipation. A buttonhole maker by trade, “a child of poverty, a dreamer of struggle” (a self-description), his poems were set to music and sung at the picnics and rallies of Jewish workers.
The bad conditions in both the sweatshops and the tenements meant that he contracted TB and was forced to quit his post in October 1891. He moved to Denver for a cure. Although he continued to send poems to the paper, the end was near. He died there on 17 October 1892 at the age of 26 (his brother and sister-in-law also died of this disease). In the next few years, Edelstadt cultural groups sprang up in Chicago, Boston and other cities.
An Edelstadt Singing Society was founded in New York. In Argentina many years later, Jewish anarchists named their cultural circle in Buenos Aires after him.
One of the first songs concerning the exploitation of women workers was based on an Edelstadt poem ‘Arbeiter Froyen’ (Women Workers). This song appeared in the Freie Arbeiter Stimmein 1891 and was popular in America and indeed in Europe. Litvak, a leader of the Bund (the social-democratic Jewish organisation in the Russian Empire) wrote that it was one of the most popular songs in Tsarist Russia. During the tanners’ strike at Krinek near Grodno in 1897, the strikers sang this song and ‘In Kampf’ (In Struggle).
This song on women was one of the most popular among those sung at Minsk in 1896-1897 and was sung again in New York between 1982-1987:
Women workers, women in suffering
Women who languish in the home and at the factory, why do you support such occupations,
Why don’t you help us to build a temple to liberty, to human happiness?
Help us and raise the world from its poverty and to realise all that we want.
Let’s struggle together like powerful lions,
For liberty, for liberty, for our ideal.
From Organise! 58 by the Anarchist Federation