A great love story

The Berkman-Goldman saga of two Jewish Russian-American anarchists is a great political story and a great romance

Berkman-Goldman521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The long shared careers of the Russianborn American anarchists Alexander “Sasha” Berkman and Emma Goldman make for a truly great story on many levels.
The pair were at or near the center of events in the tumultuous and often ugly period of late 19th and early 20th century American history. Their love and friendship, a mutual devotion that endured for nearly 50 years, is utterly inspiring.
Their idealism was at once as beautiful as it was doomed. Their repeated triumphs over hardship and suffering attested to their astonishing steadfastness of character and faith. Their talents as writers, as advocates for justice and as rabble-rousers (in a halfdozen languages) earned admiration even from their many enemies. Their recurrent optimism in the face of repeated rebuff, harassment, vilification and defeat is a cause for wonder.
The Berkman-Goldman saga, in short, is a great political story and a great romance.
It’s also a significant Jewish story, but only in the sense that the two reflected what many interpret as the Prophets’ social consciousness manifested in modern Jewish radicalism.
Although Berkman and Goldman both knew Yiddish and spent a lifetime among like-minded Jewish radicals, neither evidently gave even as much as a passing thought to Jewishness as such. They may have ingested Old Testament ethics along with their mothers’ milk, but quite possibly not; the two were radicalized by such events as the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 and the bloody labor strife of Chicago’s Haymarket riot of 1886, but not by the Torah. Their chosen burial sites were alongside those of the Haymarket anarchists, not on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem nor even in a Workman’s Circle cemetery. The present volume doesn’t even bother to mention Goldman’s disdain for Zionism and makes scant reference to her muted concern about Jews in Hitler’s Germany.
Still, there were always those to remind Sasha and Emma of their Jewishness. The New York Times no less once categorized anarchists as “desperate-talking, firebrandflinging, hatchet-faced, pimply, sallowcheeked, rat-eyed young men of the Russian- Jewish colony.” So whether they – or we – like it or not, Goldman and Berkman belong to Jewish history.
Goldman’s story of course is much better known than that of her partner. That’s because she was by far the more vocal, the more prolific and the more flamboyant of the two. Emma was a tireless lecturer, journalist, editor and author – and something of a selfpromoter.
She was also the more social; unlike the sickly and melancholic Berkman, the robust Red Emma loved dancing, drinking, going to parties and attending the theater (she suffered her fatal stroke in 1940 while playing bridge). Emma produced more books than did Berkman, and had more books written about her – the most recent being Vivian Gornick’s anemic biography, reviewed in these pages last April 9 – and by reaching age 70 she outlived Sasha by five years.
For all that, it is fitting to have the Avrichs’ dual biography, and perhaps even to have Sasha given top billing for a change. The book is the product of New York journalist Karen Avrich’s building on research conducted by her late father, Paul Avrich, who was a professor of Russian History and Anarchism at Queens College, City University of New York and who died in 2006.
“Sasha and Emma” is solid, straightforward history, comprehensive, readable and remarkable for its smooth integration of source materials and interviews. (The book has extensive notes and a good index but, alas, no bibliography.) The writing is devoid of anything like literary flourish, but what the prose lacks in sparkle the story makes up in drama.
And what drama! The constant clashes with authorities, the demonization in the press, the rejection by the very workers the pair strove to aid, the battles for lost cause after lost cause, the dizzying hopes and the bitter disappointments. For example, after two years of imprisonment for agitating against conscription, in 1919 the two were deported, along with 244 other radicals, to Russia.
Goldman was heartsick at leaving America, which she loved. (Berkman professed no loyalty whatsoever to any nation.) Both were nevertheless thrilled by the prospect of joining the Bolshevik Revolution. Emma and Sasha promptly met Lenin and enthusiastically toured the country. Within four months, however, both were convinced that the Soviet system was as evil as the Czarist regime it had overthrown. Within two years they fled – ending up, improbably, on the French Riviera in a villa provided by the philanthropist and art collector Peggy Guggenheim.
If “Sasha and Emma” is strong on the facts it is short on analysis. One gets the sense that, with her father unavailable for scholarly consultation, Karen Avrich was reluctant to offer opinion or commentary on her subjects.
There is no speculation, for example, of how Emma Goldman transformed herself apparently overnight from a sweatshop worker in Rochester, New York, to which her family had moved from Kovno, into a spellbinding public speaker and polemicist.
Nor do we get much on how Berkman, convicted of attempting to assassinate the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick in 1892, survived 14 years in a dungeon-like prison – including solitary confinement for as much as 16 months at a stretch and frequently being hog-tied in a straitjacket. (Berkman’s powerful and chilling “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist,” first published in 1912 and still in print, remains one of the finest works of its type of all time.) But what we do get is a well-documented picture of the remarkable friendship between the two principals. Sasha and Emma were lovers, but only briefly; their relationship soon enough developed into something beyond the physical. Each would find other lovers (Emma continued to do so, rather compulsively, well into her 60s), and the two would experience numerous periods of separation. Nevertheless, this quote from a letter to Emma in 1917 is typical of Sasha’s sentiments: “Our friendship and comradeship of a lifetime has been the most beautiful inspiring factor in my whole life. And after all, it is given to but few mortals to live as you and I have lived. Notwithstanding all our hardships and sorrows, all persecution and imprisonment – perhaps because of it all – we have lived the lives of our choice… So let me bid you farewell now, my dear, beloved friend and comrade. You have been my mate and my comrade in arms – my life’s mate in the biggest sense and your wonderful spirit and devotion have always been an inspiration to me, and I’m sure your life will prove an inspiration to others long after both you and I have gone to everlasting rest.”
For her part, Goldman showed no less devotion to Berkman. On the occasion of his 65th birthday, she wrote to him: “It is fitting that I tell you the secret of my life. It is that the one treasure that I have rescued from my long and bitter struggle is my friendship for you… True, I loved other men. But it is not an exaggeration to say that no one was ever so rooted in my being, so ingrained in ever fiber as you have been and are to this day. Men have come and gone in my long life. But you my dearest will remain for ever. I do not know why this should be so.
Our common struggle and all it has brought us in travail and disappointments hardly explains what I feel for you. Indeed, I know that the only loss that would matter would be to lose you or our friendship.”
Above all, a great love story. 