Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 28 : European Holiday: War Shadows Deepen
(1896 - 1965) ~ Anarchist, Feminist Organizer and ILGWU Leader : ...an anarchist, feminist labor organizer and vise president within the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Born Rakhel Peisoty in Derazhnia, Ukraine in 1896 to a family of grain merchants, Pesotta was well educated during her childhood and, influenced by People's Will, would eventually adopt anarchist views. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "In the brief span of its life, the IWW produced men who became internationally known and whose names were torches of inspiration in many lands. Most of them paid a high price for their fame, some with their lives." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "Soon after the 1929 stock market crash 30,000 persons in that city were jobless. Some organized the Unemployed Citizens' League, which set the pace for similar self-help groups all over the United States. Harvesting fruit and vegetable crops on a sharing basis, it set up various co-operative enterprises, which, however, were opposed by business men, who feared these would cut into their profits." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "I had no ambition to hold executive authority. Valuing my own freedom, I wanted to avoid getting into harness, and to keep from becoming enmeshed in inner-circle politics. Too, I felt that I could serve the cause of my fellow-unionists just as effectively as a rank-and-file member. And it was my contention that the voice of a solitary woman on the General Executive Board would be a voice lost in the wilderness." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY was brief but full of excitement and diversion. On the SS Manhattan1 the passengers included a young Spanish couple homeward bound from a mission in Mexico. Ardent Loyalists, they were eager to return to their native Barcelona and join their compatriots in fighting the Fascist Franco. The voyage was restful, and when we stepped down at Le Havre, France, and boarded the tourist special for Paris I was ready to go places.
The first time I saw Paris the picture was not pretty. In Gare St. Lazare porters young and old took our luggage, hanging the various pieces on leather belts suspended from their shoulders. With these loads dangling in front and back of them, they could hardly walk to the waiting taxis. It would have been much better to put the baggage on small trucks, but I saw none in that depot.
We arrived early in December on a murky day, my Spanish companions checking in at a pension at Cite Bergere÷in an enclosed courtyard back of the famous Folies Bergere. At their suggestion I did likewise. An emaciated middle-aged woman grabbed my small steamer trunk and began dragging it upstairs, she being the only porter there.
Later we boarded a cab which looked to me like a Model T Ford and drove to the office of the Spanish Relief Society in Rue Saint Denis, where we learned that everybody was attending the Syndicalist Conference at Mutualite.
To that people's meeting house we proceeded at once, and it was pleasant to meet old friends, among them the veteran revolutionist Emma Goldman, whom I had last seen in Montreal when she was lecture-touring in 1934, and Mollie and Senia Fleshine, once of New York, who had achieved a reputation as portrait photographers under the name SEMO in Paris.
I had memorable talks with delegates from Norway, Sweden, Holland, Poland, Germany, Italy, Chili, and France, and particularly with four from the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, (CNT) the syndicalist federation, largest labor organization in Spain, with 2,000,000 members. The latter four had come sub rosa from Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona, risking their lives to attend this conference. Others from Nazi and Fascist countries were exiles.
Their heart-rending plea for support for their just cause is still ringing in my ears:
"If your democratic countries, France, England, and America do not supply us with the necessary equipment now, such as food, clothing, and ammunition, for which we are willing to pay in gold currency we will lose, but your democracy will not be any safer then. . . . The enemies of human rights are using our civil war as their stage to test their new weapons, new machine guns, new airplanes. . . . Our people . . . our children . . . our cities are serving them as targets now, but yours will follow in our wake.... We are determined to fight to the last.... Our people cry No Pasaran I They shall not pass! . . . We will die defending our rights to freedom and liberty now, choosing to die on our feet rather than live on our knees...."
And die they did.
Looking well in spite of her advancing years, Emma Goldman now made her home in London. She had known great hardship, and had led a fighting life, in behalf of the right of the masses to lead decent lives, but she still had an astonishing fund of energy. Some inner fire seemed to sustain her. The blue eyes were mellowed with age, but her face remained smooth, and she still had the fair complexion that had so impressed me two decades earlier.
Lately she had returned from Spain. And as an eye-witness, who had spent much time in both the Spanish cities and the rural districts, she gave us a compelling picture of those who were valiantly defending their republic, the industrial workers and peasants who had so few friends in France, England, and the Americas. She told also of the co-operative movement which had grown strong in many cities and towns, particularly in Catalonia, the care given to children, and the rise of women, who were coming into their own after centuries of Oriental subservience. When one remembered that all this was achieved while the Spanish people were fighting off a powerful and relentless enemy, one was awed.
And it was no secret to the brave fighters that while food and ammunition were denied them by the democratic nations, Nazi and Fascist planes crossed France nightly loaded with men, food, and other equipment to aid Franco's forces.
Next day Emma arranged a private luncheon, at which the Spanish delegates made clearer to me the agony, the terror, in which their nation lived. Mariano Vasquez, general secretary of the CNT in Catalonia, central figure of the group, appeared anything but an American's conception of a powerful labor leader.
Of peasant stock, strong and healthy and seeming older that his 26 years, he was dressed in a pair of worn-out shoes, baggy pants that never knew the crease of an iron, his shirt open at the collar with a pull-over sweater÷a gift from American trade unionists.
Impassioned in his talk, he hammered home his point with a clenched fist.
"Go back to your Americanos and tell them I said this: if they don't send us ammunition÷the kind your profiteers sell to our enemies÷we will die, but your people will not live in peace . . . these Fascists will go after you later, but they will be much stronger and much more blood will be shed and many more people will die and cities will be destroyed.... Go back and tell them that a d more . . . that our children are dying in the streets from bombs thrown from airplanes.... Only when your children die from bombs thrown from enemy airplanes will your people know the kind of war we are now fighting.... It is your war as well as ours ... the attack on us now is only a prelude to a greater terror that is to come."
Yet all I could tell him to say to his people, was that our union, together with the rest of the progressive American labor movement, would continue to support them morally and financially; that our people would continue to enlist in their army as volunteers; but that our country was bound to adhere to a strict artificial neutrality in an era of appeasement which was beyond our control.
In the evening the SIA, the Syndicalist International Anti-Fascista, held a mass-meeting in the Republique, a large dim-lit hall in the working-class section of Paris, where I went with my friends. On the streets near by I saw numerous gendarmes, small in stature and dressed in their picturesque short blue capes, red-lined, standing in doorways waiting for something to happen. But although the gathering was emotional enough, there was no disorder, the climax being a solemn pledge by organized Parisian workers of solidarity with their fellow workers in Spain.
Standing under a spot-light on the platform the speakers told tragic and stirring stories about the Loyalists. In face of the civil war and the savage Fascist onslaughts, they had kept up their constructive work.
As the French workers all about me listened and nodded their approval, it was evident that they had tightened their lips as well as their belts. With the men seated in the middle of the hall and the women standing along the walls, I had a chance to watch their facial expressions. I saw outward docility there, but it was easy for me to believe that they were concealing an inward rebellion which might at any time flare into revolt in the Parisian tradition.
For a new reaction was sweeping over France in the wake of the ill-fated Popular Front Government, with Premier Camille Chautemps, servile and eager to please the reactionary forces that were fast driving the French people into oblivion.
All improvements so dearly won through the stay-in strikes during the short-lived Front Populaire under Premier Leon Blum were being wiped out; hours of work became longer, wages skimpier, vacations shorter.
Meanwhile the Fascists boasted that they would soon take over the government and establish a real dictatorship. Evidence of their preparations could be seen at every turn. Once Mollie Fleshine and I, out for an evening walk, stumbled into a Keep Off sign marked by a red light. Thinking it indicated a sewer repair job, Iwas about to pass on, when Mollie explained: "There was an explosion here last night, and the police found a subterranean passage which was a veritable arsenal. The Fascists were smuggling in firearms and ammunition. No arrests were made."
After the open rape of democracy in Spain, while France, England, and the United States, to their everlasting shame, hurriedly recognized the new Fascist regime which pledged its iron ore to Hitler, Franco's Moorish army was mopping up the remnants of the Loyalists. By tens of thousands the invaders shot them down in cold blood, not sparing old women and infants; hundreds of thousands of Spaniards were imprisoned for life, others sentenced to hard labor; children who remained orphaned were taken by the Fascists and their young minds were poisoned by inhuman doctrines, their bodies broken into the detested goose-step. And while many of the lower Catholic clergy in Spain aided the Loyalists, the hierarchy there openly sided with Franco and the infidel Moors.
Awareness of these brutal things pressed in upon the French people.
On the second day I found. the vicinity of the best known burlesque house in Paris a bit too raucous and moved to a small but comfortable boarding-hotel, the Trianon, opposite the Sorbonne in Boulevard Saint Michel, which reflected some of the atmosphere of that famous university. When the conference sessions adjourned, I set out TO explore the city in my own way.
Peace-time tourists in Paris generally rode in a lift to the top of the 984-foot Eiffel Tower, which offered a marvelous view of the city; visited the Pantheon, where most of France's famous men and women of the past repose in special vaults; saw the paintings and sculptures in the Louver; were awed by the dim silence of Noter Dame Cathedral; made trips to Versailles, the Latin Quarter, the Luxembourg, and an endless list of historical landmarks pointed out by guides from the American Express, the tourists' best friend abroad.
But there were others who made pilgrimages to France and who were not interested in the conventional "sights." They came to visit the poppy-covered battlefields of the first World War÷Chatea-Thierry, Belleau Wood, Rheims, Verdun, Argonne, Soissons, and the rest÷and to lay flowers on certain graves in vast fields of white wooden crosses.
Mollie Fleshine had time to go wandering; and so I got to see places off the beaten track, without benefit of the stereotyped spiels of the professional guides. I had no time for the glittering show spots, but did visit the site of the Bastille, the ill-famed prison stormed by the people of the city, in the Great French Revolution of 1789, which set up the first Republic.2 July 14, the day on which the miserable captives in the Bastille were turned loose by the revolting populace had ever since been celebrated like our Fourth of July. I saw the wall where more than 30,000 men, women, and children were shot in March, 1871, after the Paris Commune was crushed. And I made daily trips into the poorer sections of the city, interested always in seeing how the plain people lived.
Crossing the bridges over the narrow San Martin Canal, we would watch the heavy barges, loaded with sand, bricks, gravel, and wood, moving partly underground to the industrial areas of Paris. Men and women who owned these barges made their homes on board. They would push them from lock to lock, straining every muscle as they strode along the canal banks and mopping sweat from their brows with dirty rags. It was reminiscent of the Volga Boatmen of Russia's bygone days, or Seattle's Tug Boat Annie in the movie starring Wallace Beery and the late Marie Dressler; but no tourist would expect to witness such a scene m the heart of this city, renowned for its gaiety.
Doubtless there were lovely women in the salons and show-rooms displaying luxurious gowns, stunning hats, and exquisite jewelry, but the women I met, with minor exceptions, were overburdened and overworked, their faces lined with worry. Only in Paris did I see women doing their morning shopping dressed in soiled bathrobes and dilapidated house shoes; with faces unwashed, hair disheveled, they did not appear chic. Considering that running water, let alone hot water, was still a luxury in many old houses where the wage earners of Paris lived, I wondered how they managed to keep clean at all.
Visiting the labor union offices, I learned that they had a different conception of trade unionism from ours. Talking with an official of the typographical union, I asked him how many members it had. He didn't know. "Can you give me an approximate idea?" I persisted.
"We in France," he replied, somewhat annoyed, "are not like you Americans, always interested in numbers. We are more interested in ideas."
I suggested that they'd better scrutinize the ideas of their members, or those ideas would become mere empty phrases. He looked at me bewildered.
"Far be it from me to lecture you," I ventured. "You will have to excuse my ignorance, but I have not yet seen any great enthusiasm among the working people here, and I am afraid it bodes no good."
Doubtless he thought that I, coming from another country, knew nothing about the forces that were undermining the foundations of the French labor movement.
Together with the Fleshines and a young American who had served for months as an English radio commentator for the Loyalists in Barcelona, we made a trip into the interior of France over the Christmas week-end, visiting some of the famous chateaus in Orleans, Blois, Amboise, and Tour, birthplace of Balzac. En route I had an opportunity to observe how the simple French farmers lived ÷some making homes in caves÷in the mountains and hills; but they looked much healthier and better fed than the city workers of the capital.
On a flying trip to Geneva, I saw the snow-covered Alps, and they did not live up to the claims I had heard made for them. I still believe that our Pacific Northwest is the most beautiful region in the world. The American tourist would do well to see his own country, its plains, mountains, and lakes, its broad expanse across a great continent, to appreciate its scenic beauty and vast spaces and heights.
But Geneva held my interest with its cleanliness and quaintness. It is the world's watchmaking center. Wherever one goes one sees faces of watches, small and large, some with moving pendulums, and many with all sorts of curious gadgets. Some which are priced at thousands of dollars, have taken years of craftsmanship to create. The watchmakers's trade there is handed down from father to son.
My chief reason for going to Geneva, however, was to visit the League of Nations in its imposing palace and the International Labor Office. Born at the close of World War I as an offshoot of the League, the self-declared purpose of the ILO was to serve as "part of a revolutionary machinery for making possible a better and securer world "
It came into being at the demand of the workers of Allied nations, who maintained that an international agreement was essential to bring about world-wide improvement in labor conditions, and help eliminate injustices to workers everywhere. In its constitution the ILO defined its principles as follows: 1. Universal peace can be established only if it is based on social justice; 2. The failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labor is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve conditions in their own countries.
I met with several American students who had worked for the ILO and who felt that they had wasted their time keeping neat records and statistics there on questions of hours, accident prevention, and protection of women and children in industry compiled in large neat volumes, simply to be mailed upon request.
Unfortunately the ILO functioned merely in an advisory capacity, lacking any authority to enforce its recommendations, like the League of Nations itself. Representatives of some 50 countries, in each instance one speaking for the employing group, one for labor and two for the government, held periodic conferences, adopting rules which were well meaning but useless and trying vainly to regulate working conditions through moral suasion from Geneva.
Yet this organization, as I saw it, might serve effectively as the collective bargaining agency between countries if it were given teeth to enforce its program.
Having recorded all the notable spots with my movie camera, my constant companion on such trips, and having seen the League of Nations interior decorations and the exterior of the palace, in which no sessions were then being held, I was in a hurry to return to Paris.
For the newspapers reported that the Confederacion General du Travail had ordered a general strike there of subway employes, street cleaners, and all in the municipal public services, to obtain a pay increase to meet risen living costs. Remembering the effects of the French workers' 1936 stay-in strikes which won better standards for them, I was eager to see for myself this powerful demonstration by organized labor.
But the strike was over before I could arrive. It had lasted less than 24 hours. Premier Camille Chautemps, successor to Leon Blum, had broken it by threatening to mobilize all the strikers into the Army if they did not return to work. The beaten wage-earners walked to and from their jobs with dull expressions on their faces, moving like automatons. Something vital was lacking÷a soul, I thought. The human side of the movement was gone.
After a tour of cafes on New Year's Eve, I departed for London, keeping a promise to spend a few days as Emma Goldman's guest. She met me in Victoria Station, and together we rode to her flat. Located in a poor residential section, it was cold and dreary, as only a London unheated flat could be, but being ingenious, Emma had managed to give it an aspect of cheer with photographs and paintings from friends and admirers scattered across the world.
On her door was a modest card, bearing her legal name, E. G. Colton by which the neighbors knew her. We spent the evening talking about mutual friends, and then she showed me my room.
Try as I might, I found it impossible to fall asleep÷the bitter cold penetrated from below through the mattress and from above through all the covering I could find to put on top of me. By morning I emerged from a mountain of coats, blankets, and the heavy plush window drapes, with my woolen hiking stockings and clothes on, but still shivering with cold. The only article I did not use was the bedroom door÷but I felt as if it was on top of me, I was so tired and numbed. Washing in icy water was an ordeal. I did not take a bath, postponing that until I would be on the boat. Yet I did not in any way intimate to Emma my feeling of discomfort and remained her guest till my departure. But afterwards I helped to hasten her coming to Canada, where she could live in simple comfort.
I had known Emma Goldman from casual meetings with her, but this was my first chance to study her closely, as a woman, a rebel, and humanitarian.
She had lived her life in full; spending her youth and middle age in the United States, she was arrested many times, while championing the cause of the underdog. Because she earnestly believed in free speech, free press, freedom of belief, and freedom from want, she knew jail life at first hand. At the time of the A. Mitchell Palmer "red" raids, she had been deported to Soviet Russia, together with her life-long comrade Alexander Berkman and 247 other Russians.
There she and Berkman were commissioned to establish a Museum of the Russian Revolution. In her frequent trips across the country she had an opportunity to appraise the new regime and the resulting consequences to the Russian people. And still being persona grata in the higher councils of the Soviet Government she did not hesitate to speak her mind.
The result was a passport and free passage beyond the boundaries of Russia. Thence she had to shift for herself. She married an old comrade, a British miner÷and became an English subject.
I found Emma busy with Spanish refugee children, visiting authorities, conferring with heads of numerous organizations in their behalf, publishing a newspaper, and lecturing. At the time she was busy preparing an exhibition to demonstrate pictorially what the war had done to the Spanish people. Declaring that the English newspapers had misrepresented their struggle, she had a collection of photographs of co-operative factories,. and of co-operative farms with peasants working on them, that impressed her in Catalonia.
It was the first time in the history of social upheavals that constructive work was carried on in a war-torn country while continuous life-and-death fighting went on close by. Emma shuttled between England and the Continent, making frequent visits to Spain, where the people adored her. She visited every factory and shop and village and town from Barcelona to Madrid. She saw workers making motor cars, busses, railroad coaches, textiles, and a great variety of other things. Although the Spanish Republic was producing war supplies, however, it could not possibly match the quantities that Italy and Germany were sending to Franco.
In odd contrast to my mental picture of Emma as a public figure, I was pleasantly surprised to discover, in that miserable flat, that she was an excellent cook and a thoughtful hostess. On the second day she had for dinner roast veal, baked potatoes, and home-made cherry tarts. Too, there was memorable coffee, brewed in a contraption that I can describe only as a "coffee distillery," this being a ritual in itself. That beverage had a delectable aroma and flavor.
After the meal, I offered to help her with the dishes, and began to scrape off the left-overs and bones.
She hastily stopped me. "No, no, don't throw these out. Put them in this small dish÷it's our soup stock for tomorrow."
No American would believe what she and others ate in Russia during the famine there, to sustain life. The memory of that period was still sharp in her mind.
"What's happening now is only a beginning," she said, as the talk reverted to Spain. "Any day war may spread across Europe, and it will be more terrible than anything the world has ever seen. There will be suffering here and on the Continent comparable only to the days of the Black Plague."
London's fogs and the continuous drizzle made me homesick. Gladly would I have traded this scene for sunny California or New England's white snow and cold. Nevertheless, I was able to cover a good deal of ground. I visited several factories, and the office of the Tailors and Garment Workers' Union; but to my regret I could not make a trip to Leeds, where Anne Loughlin made her headquarters.
London Bridge held my interest closely, and Trafalgar Square, and the British Museum. And there was grim fascination in visiting the Tower, where a never-ending stream of the curious viewed ancient instruments of torture, the Block and Ax, used by a long succession of executioners, and the spot where Anne Boleyn and many political prisoners were beheaded. Afterwards, too, I saw the site of the gallows at Tyburn, where everyday criminals were hanged. This was where pickpockets once were executed, I was told; but Tyburn, according to legend, was finally abandoned as an execution place because so many unhung pickpockets mixed with the crowds of spectators and plied their trade among them.
We went to other museums, and exhibitions, attended theater parties at the Piccadilly, and had beer in the Cafe Royal, close to the table where Oscar Wilde often sat.
But I had contact with working people as well. A group of Welsh coal miners came to spend an hour with Emma Goldman. Over coffee and spice cookies made by her they told me what they had done to help the Spanish people. Out of their meager "dole" which the government paid them, most of the mines in Wales having been shut tight since the end of World War I, and in spite of their own dire need for help, they were willing to establish a camp for refugee children of the Asturias miners.* A group of young people on their way to Spain as volunteers also came to Emma's flat. Among them was a young woman, a German physician, who had lived in the mining towns of France, England, and Spain, as a volunteer doctor.
Some of the Spanish group active in England urged me to go with them to Barcelona. I was keen to go, and cabled my home office asking if it could get me a six months' visa for Spain. Instead of an answer to that request I received a message advising me to return to the States÷that a job was waiting for which I was needed. All too obediently, it seems to me now, I responded to that summons. Boarding the Aquatania, I was met on the New York pier by my mother five days later. At home a group of friends÷Clara and Christ Larsen, Gertrude and Joe Piscatelli, Rae Brandstein, Fannie Breslaw, and Sonia and Simon Farber÷were eager to hear the latest news of Europe.
1. On September 8, 1942, the SS Manhattan, which had been transformed Into a naval transport, the Wakefield, was severely damaged by fire at sea. The charred hulk was salvaged and towed to an Atlantic Coast Port.
2. When our New York Italian dressmakers' local was organized in 1919 its founders named it Local 89 in memory of that revolution. A replica Or the key to the Bastille hangs in Its office.
3. Establishing her residence in Toronto a little later. Emma toured Canadian cities lecturing in behalf of the Spanish refugees and Loyalist prisoners held by Franco. She died in Toronto in May. 1040, after a brief illness Ironically enough, though she was barred from entering the Unitd States while alive. the federal authorities readily permitted her body to be buried in Chicago's Waldheim cemetary near the tomb of the Hay-market martyrs.
From : Anarchy Archives
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