Biography of Polish anarchist Yiddelle Greenberg, whose activity was crucial in the formation of the Polish anarchist movement.
A salute to a comrade,
Yiddelle Greenberg was born in 1909 in the small Polish town of Socolov-Podliaski of very poor working parents. After a little schooling in Hebrew and Polish he was apprenticed at the age of eleven to learn tailoring. The other workers at the establishment lost no time in giving him pamphlets explaining why children like himself were robbed of their childhood. They had ideas of how this might be changed. He was a mere boy when he joined the union, or his “professional club” as it was called in Poland. Together with adult workers he took part in strikes. By the time he finished his apprenticeship he developed a taste for study. He read history, philosophy, economics, literature — anything he could lay his hands on. Like most advanced workers of this period he was greatly influenced by the Russian Revolution. He believed that in Russia the peasants and workers really controlled their own affairs and it was only a matter of a short time before this paradise would be established in other countries as well. But soon the events which followed brought disillusionment. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky had the allegiance of the Jewish Polish workers, especially those who were in the Communist Party.
When Trotsky was banished, the party was shaken up. The discipline fell apart, the leadership was demoralized. The accusations, the expulsions, all contributed to the disgust of such sincere communist youth as Yiddelle Greenberg. Although remaining nominally in the party, he felt he no longer belonged there. Instinctively, he turned to action on the economic front. His influence among the workers grew. Yiddelle had always shown independence of mind. When the communists were trying to take over he unions from the Bundists (socialists), he refused to follow the party line. He considered it criminal to introduce partisan politics into an economic organization whose strength lay in solidarity. He knew from bitter personal experience that it took a united Jewish union to fight the rabid anti-Semitism and the Boss at he same time.
In a short time Yiddelle was blacklisted by the employers and at the age of 18 was forced, in 1927, to go to Warsaw for the winter season in garment trade. When he came home for the Spring Holidays, he brought with him a new ideology — Anarcho-Syndicalism. He had been a leader of a party cell, and knowing a number of other disillusioned members, it was not hard to get them to study libertarian literature. He organized in that little town two groups, one of 9 members, the other of 12. Feeling the lack of libertarian material in both the Polish and Yiddish languages he began, when he returned to Warsaw, the study of languages in order to translate from the original. He became a good speaker and commanded the respect in his union not only of his friends, but also of his opponents. Being enriched by learning from many fields of knowledge, his speeches always attracted a large, serious, audience.
Until 1931, Yiddelle, spent his holidays in his home town, for he had to recuperate from the season in a Warsaw factory and from his tremendous activity in the movement. But during his stay he lectured to the groups, he subscribed to papers to be sent from Warsaw to them so that the members could keep in touch with current events. He got the literary members to correspond with the editors of anarchist journals which were published illegally there. He trained speakers. Since most of the members had been recruits from the party and were accustomed to have ready made answers, attitudes, and a prescribed course of action it was no mean task to get them to think for themselves. When they spoke at union meetings they could only suggest the anarcho-syndicalist ideas. It was illegal to mention the name Anarchism in public. It was puzzling to the members of the politically dominated unions. How could speakers be neither “Left” nor “Right” and be able to advance practical ideas and advise always in the interest of the workers?
In 1931 Yiddelle left his home town never to return for the awaking libertarian movement in Warsaw took all his energy. From 1925 there had been no anarchists in Poland except in the eastern provinces like Bialystok. The Russian Revolution had drawn all the anarchists to Russia. There they suffered the same tragic fate as their comrades of Moscow, or of Charkov, or of Kiev. The Polish anarchists were “liquidated.” The Polish anarchist movement was force to begin anew. Their opponents had used the name anarchist on which to pin every antisocial act, deliberately choosing to forget the heroic part they played in the revolutionary movement.
The Sacco-Vanzetti case gave the Polish anarchist movement a boost. Although political groups tried to make capital out of their martyrdom, interested workers began to study the ideas of these two heroic men. The reaction was terrible in Poland. The propagandist lived under great danger and difficulty, using many different names and addresses. Yiddelle used the name Brucker. The events in Spain and the work of the anarcho-syndicalists inspired their Polish comrades to even greater efforts. It was the time also of the Moscow Trials. Old Bolsheviks confessed anything Stalin desired. The whole Polish Bolshevik leadership was recalled to Russia and 84 were shot in cold blood. This caused further doubts in the sincere workers in the party. Many became interested in anarcho-syndicalist ideas. Yiddelle worked without limit. In those fearful times he stood in front of factory gates passing out leaflets. He had mastered the Polish literary language and he stayed up nights writing articles for “Class Struggle” and for “Anarchist Voice,” two Polish journals.
In 1931, 150 anarchists were arrested for holding a meeting commemorating the tenth year of Peter Kropotkin’s death. The most active members received long terms in the worst prisons. At one such trial Yiddelle succeeded in convincing the court that only he and he alone was to blame. The others were roped in, not understanding the nature of the meeting of which only he was aware. For three years he languished in the most dreaded prison in the Poznan district, tortured not only by the guards but also by the communist prisoners who succeeded in becoming trusties. He almost died in a hunger strike against the rotten food served.
He was released suffering of heart trouble and a lung infection. It was not his physical breakdown but the inroads of the reaction into the labor movement which pained him the most. It was the time of the Nazi brown shirts. There was never a dearth of anti-semitism in Poland and now the poor lot of the Jews was even more grim. When World War Two broke out, Yiddelle was in that section of Poland which came under the control of Russia according to the Stalin-Hitler pact. His fate was the same as that of thousands of Jews who succeeded in narrowly escaping the brown death only to fall into the bloody Russian claws. The exalted life of Yiddelle Greenberg ended in a prison camp in Siberia. His prison comrades chopped a hole in the frozen ground and the windblown ice and snow covered the emaciated body and erased the grave.
Yiddelle Greenberg, child of the Polish ghetto, you who could in the face of such abject misery embrace a glorious dream not only for yourself but for all of mankind! The world has obliterated every symbol and desecrated every hope by which you lived your short life. Let this fragmentary record of your deeds, my humble tribute, be your epitaph.
By H.I Kaufman for “Freie Arbeiter Stimme” (October 6, 1956)