A short biography of Jack Abrams, active in the USA, Russia and Mexico and famous for the Abrams case which led an assault on US anarchism
He was an excellent organiser, learning languages readily, and spoke beautiful Russian, English and Spanish. He was a fine man, knowledgeable and kind. When he formed an opinion you couldn’t budge him, but when something had to be done, he did it!”. Ida Radosh in Avrich, P. Anarchist Voices.
“He was a dying man who could hardly move yet he was guarded by an FBI agent twenty-four hours a day”. Clara Larsen
Jack Abrams emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1906 and began to 1905 participate in the Jewish anarchist-communist and anarcho-syndicalist movement there. In 1917 he was Secretary of the Bookbinders Union in New York, and organized a group of Jewish anarchists (originating from Russia), around the paper Der Shturem- The Storm. He was active in working to prevent the extradition of Alexander Berkman to San Francisco, where the authorities sought to implicate him in the Mooney-Billings prosecution there. His wife Mary was a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 which had killed many garment workers, and which she escaped by jumping out of a window.
In January-May 1918 he edited the underground newspaper Frayhayt Freedom), with about a dozen others which included Mary and Mollie Steimer. 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. Judge Clayton who presided over the case proved to be as bigoted and biased as Gary had with the Chicago Anarchists and Thayer was to be with Sacco and Vanzetti.
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. Immediately began a massive movement for amnesty for Alexander and his comrades, including the likes of the writer Upton Sinclair, the socialist leader Norman Thomas, and Margaret Sanger. In mid-1919 was filed an appeal, and in the meantime Jack and the others were released.
In December 1919, together with Lipman and Lachowski Jack tried to flee to Mexico, but they were all arrested attempting to embark in New Orleans They then spent two years in Atlanta prison before campaigners reached a deal whereby all four would be released on condition of their deportation to Russia. They were put on the SS Estonia on 24th November 1921, together with many other anarchists of east European origin. Their comrade Marcus Graham wrote that: “In Russia their activity is yet more needed. For there a government rules masquerading under the name of the ‘proletariat’ and doing everything imaginable to enslave the proletariat”.
Jack arrived on December 15th 1921 in Moscow. Already Berkman and Goldman had departed to the West, the Makhnovists had been suppressed and the Kronstadt revolt had been put down. Nevertheless he was able to work in the publishing and printing houses of the Anarchosyndicalist Propaganda Union, Golos Truda- Voice of Labour. At the same time he set up the first mechanized steam laundry in Soviet Russia in the basement of the Soviet foreign ministry.
On November 16th, 1926 he left Russia and arrived in Mexico later in the year. where he lived until the end of his life. He joined a group of Spanish anarchist exiles, Tierra y Libertad- Land and Freedom.
He lived in Cuernavaca, and despite his political differences became a friend of Trotsky whom he played chess with, whilst arguing about Bolshevism. After Trotsky’s death, his widow Natalia presented Jack with a set of Trotsky’s favourite Mexican-made dishware. The Abrams maintained their friendship with Mollie Steimer and Senya Fleshin who had moved to Mexico City.
Jack contracted throat cancer (he was a chain smoker). Anarchists and socialists in the garment unions in the States began to campaign for him to be allowed to return for treatment. Not long before his death he was allowed to re-enter the United States for an operation in New York. The FBI still regarded this old frail man as a danger to the State and put an agent on twenty four hour guard duty over him the moment he landed from a plane in Dallas! The doctors told him that it was too late to do anything although he returned for an unsuccessful operation the following year. He returned to Mexico where he died a few days later. His cousin Ronald Radosh was to later write “The U.S. government, uncomfortable with the thought of the dangerous anarchist, perhaps anxious that he would use the occasion to drop another leaflet from another rooftop, had detailed two armed agents to watch the steps of a man who could barely move.”