70th Anniversary of The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Captured women of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is the most symbolic and well-known act of anti-fascist resistance ever to take place. The Ghetto fighters have entered the annals of Jewish martyrdom, but the lesson of their courage is universally inspiring and timeless. This is an article I originally wrote to mark the 60th anniversary.

The formation of the Ghetto
The Warsaw Ghetto was created in November 1940, a year after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Housed within its walls were the city’s Jews, who comprised nearly 30 per cent of Warsaw’s population. As Jews from smaller towns were rounded up by the “Einsatzgruppen” and forced into the Ghetto, its numbers swelled to nearly half a million people. Conditions inside the Ghetto were horrendous. After 18 months of incarceration some 63,000 Jews had died due to the hunger, disease, overcrowding and cold.

The Ghetto was internally controlled by the Judenrat – Jewish Council – which was set up by the Nazis to carry out their instructions. The Judenrat included people who tried to help Jews who were suffering from the harsh Ghetto conditions, but also had members who would attempt to save their own skin by any means, with little regard for their community. A Jewish police force, which was notoriously brutal, was used by the Judenrat to enforce Ghetto “law” internally. Antisemitic Polish “Blue” police guarded the Ghetto. There was also an independent police force that served to gather intelligence for the Gestapo, though this was later absorbed into the main force. The Judenrat came to be regarded with contempt by the populace, as the conditions in the Ghetto worsened, and was nicknamed the Judenverat (Jewish betrayal).

During November 1941 news reached the underground in Warsaw of mass killings of Jews following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in summer that year. Communal leaders also heard reports of an extermination camp at Chelmno, where Jews were being gassed to death. However, finding the information almost unbelievable and not wanting to destroy morale, they left the Ghetto inhabitants uninformed.

From Anti-Fascist Bloc to fighting organisation
An Anti-Fascist Bloc was created in the spring of 1942 as the existence of death camps and the slaughter of thousands of Jews at isolated locations was confirmed. Consisting of left-wing Zionists and communists, the organisation had no arms, but set up combat units and distributed propaganda. The Anti-Fascist Bloc issued appeals calling on the population to reject the collaboration and compromises of the Judenrat. However, most Jews continued to listen to the passive advice of the Judenrat. The efforts of the Anti-Fascist Bloc were initially either ignored or rejected.

Attitudes towards resistance changed dramatically in the summer of 1942, when, through the Judenrat, the Nazis decreed: “All Jewish persons living in Warsaw, regardless of age and sex, will be resettled in the East …”. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp that summer. In July 1942, at the initiative of the Zionist youth groups, a meeting was held which formed the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB – Jewish Combat Organisation). The ZOB’s political wing consisted of the various Zionist organisations and the communists. In October the Bund (Jewish Socialist Party), Poland’s largest Jewish organisation, joined as well. Only the extreme Jewish nationalists did not participate; instead they decided to fight separately as the Irgun Zvai Leumi (Jewish Military Union).

Within a few weeks the ZOB had drawn up by-laws, describing the purpose of the organisation as being the defence of the Ghetto against further deportations and collaborators.

The first action to be carried out by ZOB stamped its authority on the Ghetto when it executed Jacob Lejkin, chief of the despised Jewish police, on 29 October. A number of other assaults were also carried out on the most notorious of the Ghetto’s inhabitants, securing enthusiasm for the underground organisation.

During the winter of 1942/3 underground bunkers and secret hiding holes were constructed throughout the Ghetto, while ZOB attempted the difficult task of securing weapons. Some were obtained from the black market and from German and Italian deserters, but at a high price. A small quantity of arms was acquired from the Polish resistance (Home Army), which operated under the instructions of the Polish government in exile, based in London. Supply from the Home Army was limited because of a combination of antisemitism and fear that the weapons might be used in the future on the Soviet side in the event of a war between Poland and the Soviet Union. More arms were delivered once ZOB had proven itself as effective, but in total they only ever made up 10% of the ZOB arsenal.

Fighting back – defending the Ghetto
German troops surrounded the Ghetto on 18 January 1943 in an attempt to deport the last of Warsaw’s Jews. Even though they were taken by surprise, five ZOB units engaged the troops and killed or wounded some 50 Germans, seizing weapons in the mêlée. ZOB casualties were high, but after three days the deportations were halted.

The Ghetto became a honeycomb of underground passages and hiding places, with the ZOB in control. The ZOB levied taxes on those who still had money, maintained a “prison” for Gestapo agents and nontaxpayers and carried out raids on banks to secure money for arms. After the losses in January the ZOB was divided into 22 units of ten combatants, organised by political party. The Zionist youth made up 11 units, the Bund and the communists controlled a further four units each and other Zionist groups had three units. There was still an acute shortage of arms. Mordechai Anielewicz, the young left-wing Zionist and ZOB commander, wrote:

“If we could only get the weapons and ammunition we need, the battle for the Ghetto would cost the enemy an ocean of blood. But even so, we shall prove the power of our faith and the confidence in our strength.”

In February 1943 five Gestapo agents were shot, and the ZOB issued a warning to others that unless they quit, they too would share the same fate. In the same month the Germans tried to evacuate factory workers in the Ghetto, encouraging “voluntary resettlement”. ZOB propaganda was so successful in encouraging people not to turn out for “evacuation” that the Germans asked the Judenrat chairman to intervene. He replied: “I have no power in the Ghetto. Another authority rules here.”

The Ghetto revolts
On the eve of Passover – the Jewish festival of liberation – the Ghetto uprising began. It was 6.00am on 19 April 1943 when 2,000 men, including Waffen SS, Wehrmacht, Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian fascists, supported by units of the Polish “Blue” police, advanced on the Ghetto, the area of which was now less than 1,000 by 3,000 metres. Under the orders of Heinrich Himmler, the fascist forces were to carry out the final liquidation of the Ghetto.

With the civilian population underground in prepared bunkers, the 22 ZOB combat units took their positions. Some were in the central Ghetto area and others in the factories. As the fighting proceeded they were joined by the Irgun and other unaffiliated units.

ZOB units attacked the fascists – who were led by SS Lt General Jurgen Stroop – with guns and homemade petrol bombs. Stroop had expected little resistance from those he had described previously as “this Jewish trash and subhumanity” who are “cowards by nature”. His report for the day was to tell a different story:

“Hardly had the operations begun then we ran into concentrated small arms and machine-gun fire from the Jews and bandits. Our tanks and two armoured cars were pelted with Molotov cocktails. Owing to the enemy counter-attack we had to withdraw … Our losses in the first attack: 12 men. By 5.00pm the troops withdrew having lost in fact some 200 dead and wounded.”

The next day, 20 April, Waffen SS reinforcements entered the Ghetto and were bombarded with grenades and explosives. In one incident alone an electric mine killed some 100 Germans. They responded with tanks and field artillery and began setting fire to Ghetto buildings. ZOB replied by burning down the warehouses of the agency in charge of expropriated Jewish property. Despite the fire and smoke, which began to envelop the Ghetto, morale was high. On one roof the Jewish blue and white banner flew alongside the red and white Polish flag. On another roof a banner stated, “We shall fight to the last”.

Flamethrowers were brought in on 22 April, to force out the tens of thousands of Jews still hidden underground. The Ghetto became engulfed in flames and thousands of Jews were burned alive. Stroop reported:

“They jumped from burning windows and balconies, abusing Germany and the Führer … over and over again, we observed that the Jews and bandits preferred to return to the flames rather than be caught by us.”

The Ghetto held out into May. Zivia Lubetkin, one of the few ZOB survivors of the epic battle, recalled. “We sat in the dark, scores of Jewish fighters, still carrying our weapons, surrounded by thousands of eager and expectant Jews. Was it not May Day? … How grave the responsibility we felt as the last desperate Hebrew warriors! We could not hold out against the Germans’ consuming fire for long without water or food or weapons.”

It was a battle that the Jews could never have won, no matter how heroic the resistance. The ZOB headquarters was surrounded on 8 May, after three weeks of combat. Over 100 fighters were inside. The Germans blocked the entrances and sent gas into the bunker. The fighters decided to kill themselves rather than be taken alive. ZOB Commander Anielewicz was among them. During the revolt he wrote:

“It is now clear to me that what took place exceeded all expectations … The last wish of my life has been fulfilled. Jewish self-defence has become a fact. Jewish resistance and revenge have become actualities. I am happy to have been one of the first Jewish fighters in the Ghetto.”

Two days after the end of the battle, 75 ZOB survivors crawled through Warsaw’s sewers. They escaped with the help of comrades in the resistance on the outside of the Ghetto. Of Warsaw’s 350,000 Jews, few were to survive the war. Of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews, only 50-70,000 were to remain alive.

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Remembering Stanley Forman

I read today in the Morning Star That Stanley Forman passed away. He really was a wonderful man. I have found an interview that I did with him in 1998 on the 100th anniversary of Paul Robeson’s birth which is reproduced below.

April 1998

One of Us

Paul Robeson had a great impact on activists in the anti-fascist and peace movements in Britain. Searchlight interviewed Stanley Forman, who told his own story of how Robeson influenced him and how he came to meet him and escort him back from East Germany in 1963.

Interview by Steve Silver

Surrounded by reels of cinema film, including one that he made himself about Paul Robeson, Forman is the general manager of Educational and Television Films (ETV), a company that was set up nearly 50 years ago to distribute film from the socialist countries in Britain.

The films on the shelves have titles that reflect a world that is largely gone and are now mainly sold to documentary makers as archive footage. As with his films, Forman is insistent that to know what Robeson meant in Britain it is necessary to understand the man in an historical and political context.

Like many Jews from London’s East End, Forman first became politicised by the Spanish Civil War. He was an activist in the Labour League of Youth and later the Young Communist League (YCL), then a large and vibrant organisation. “We had several hundred members in the East End of London and a lot of activities,” explains Forman.

“I like music, operfa, ballet, art, the theatre and read a lot. I was very quickly made the cultural secretary of the national YCL. We issued booklists of what we believed every intelligent YCL-er should read, from Shakespeare to modern time. We took parties of people to operas and ballets. I ran gramophone recitals, essentially of classical music. This was the immediate prewar period when it was a very substantial movement with experts in every field.”

Forman became a friend of Alan Bush, a communist composer who was a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Through him he became a member of a Workers Music Association choir called the WMA singers. Reflecting on the period with nostalgia, Forman says that he was involved with lots of organisations at the time, “I belonged to everything, I was a joiner”.

Forman claims that his real education took place at the Marx House Memorial Library in Clerkenwell Green inLondon. The library was set up in 1933 in response to the burning of books in Nazi Germany. He would attend lectures there on various topics from economics and politics to lectures by Professor Haldane on how the body works.

Keen to study music and intending under Alan Bush’s guidance, to go to the Royal Academy of Music, Foreman’s plans were scuppered when war broke out. Instead he started his first job as an employee of the German-Jewish Aid Committee, an organisation set up to look after Jews fleeing from Germany and Austria who settled in Britain. He went on to train as a draftsman and then worked for the local Communist Party in Leeds, where he had been evacuated with his family. He was called up into the army in 1942, where he was eventually to became a sergeant-major after facing what he describes as a “tough war.”

After the war ended Forman got a job editing an army newspaper in Germany. Stationed near the Danish border in the north of Germany, he was responsible for the denazification of Kiel.

As the Cold War commenced and de-nazification ended, so did Forman’s army service. After his return to Britain he became general secretary of the British-Soviet Friendship Society. He then worked for a trade union for a short time before founding ETV in 1950.

He says it was during this period that “I became an admirer of Robeson from seeing him at political meetings. I was bowled over by his personality, voice and stature and the fact that he was on our side.

“I saw him on the concert stage, bought his records. His music was part of our life, part of our culture. It was very significant to many many thousands of left-wingers particularly, though, of course, not only socialists enjoy Paul Robeson. He was a great artist but was special because he was one of us. There was an affinity between Robeson and his audience that is very hard to describe. We all looked forward to hearing him, people took their children; I even took my parents to hear him once. Someone who didn’t live through that period would find it hard to understand but a lot of the mystery is explained by the climate of opinion then. Fascism and antisemitism were still strong.”

While on business in East Germanyin December 1963, Forman was approached by a friend, Renate Mielke, who dealt with international relations for the East German Peace Committee. She had been given the job of looking after Robeson, who was receiving medical treatment in East Germany after the years of hounding by McCarthyism had taken its toll on him mentally. Forman was asked to escort Robeson back from Schonefeld airport with Harry Francis, the London organiser of the Musicians Union and a good friend of Paul and his wife Eslanda.

Robeson’s treatment at the Buch clinic had finished and he was preparing to return to England before going back to theUnited States. He was apprehensive at having to run the gauntlet of journalists at the airport in London.

This was the first time that Forman had met Robeson personally. “He was quiet, but very friendly, I sat with Eslanda and Harry Francis sat behind me with Paul. He was very appreciative that people were looking out for him. “In fact there wasn’t much problem with the press at the airport but our next fear was that they might be waiting at his flat at Connaught Place in Marble Arch. However, he got back safely and a short while after that returned to the United States. I cherish the hours of discussion that I had with Eslanda on that trip particularly. She was an amazing person in her own right.”

Forman has always maintained an interest in Robeson, reading the various books that have come out about him over the years and listening to his music. He becomes animated as he talks about the recently released Robeson CDs and how the music has endured. Referring to the famous Moscow concert that has just been released for the first time, he says “that’s the sort of concert that I heard over and over again.”

Forman not only supplies films but has also made a number himself, including a Paul Robeson compilation that will be shown at the conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London this month. He is particularly proud of a film he made with Martin Smith called Compañero, about the Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. Jara was killed on11 September 1973 along with thousands of others by supporters of the fascist General Pinochet.

On the one hundredth anniversary of Robeson’s birth Forman says: “Paul Robeson did a marvellous job and it lives on. The fact that the excellence and quality of the guy shines through in his recordings and writings, in spite of the fact that he suffered for his beliefs, is the reason that people should be interested in Robeson today.”

 

 

 

 

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76th Anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street


Today marks the 76th Anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Below is an article that I had published last year in a Searchlight Educational Trust publication and in Jewish Socialist Magazine.

¡No Pasarán!

THE GHOSTS OF CABLE STREET
By Steve Silver

My maternal grandfather, Hymie Hertz, was born at 111 Cable Street, in June 1914. He lived in the flat above his father’s bakery; in total they were a family of nine. He was there for 24 years, moving out in 1938 when he married my grandmother, who he first met at a Young Communist League dance.

Naturally, I grew up with my “Poppa” telling me of that great day on 4 October 1936 when the fascists were routed in the East End. This wasn’t the sort of history that you learned in school: of a barricaded street, of people throwing things out of the windows onto the police and of marbles being rolled under horses’ hooves.

But most of his stories were about growing up in Cable Street. He lived near the Cable Picture Palace, a flea pit cinema that was nevertheless very popular, by the junction of Christian Street.

Opposite was a square where they used to play football. Except some of the times when they were playing football they were meant to be in cheder (Hebrew class). The rabbi would come out and drag the footballers into class and chastise them in Yiddish, unaware initially that while those whose surnames were Abrahams, Levy and Isaacs might need the lesson for their forthcoming bar mitzvahs, the Kelly’s and Donnelly’s probably didn’t.

It would be easy to feel sorry for the rabbi. He taught in a small room with an open fire. One day, when the rabbi’s back was turned one of his pupils threw a string of firecrackers into the fire. Unaware of where the sudden barrage of loud popping noises was coming from, he hopped around the room, cursing in Yiddish, while his ungrateful pupils giggled.

In 1982 my grandfather died, and my rich source of stories about Cable Street went with him.

CABLE STREET IN PRINT

I probably didn’t hear much about Cable Street for a few years. Then in 1986, while I was president of my college students’ union, a magazine came in the post that grabbed my attention. It was the October edition of the anti-fascist publication Searchlight, which had been sent by the National Union of Students to every affiliate in Britain.

This wasn’t just any edition, the cover and the centre four pages were devoted to the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. There were interviews with veterans Mick Mindel, Jack Shaw, and Charlie and Joy Goodman. The magazine was heavily illustrated with photos and brought alive what happened that day. I was already involved in anti-racist activity, and here, the pages of the magazine brought the past and the present together.

I got in touch with Searchlight shortly afterwards, within months I was volunteering and totally immersed in anti-fascism. I have had a connection with Searchlight, in one way or another, ever since.

Unsurprisingly, I was delighted when Searchlight asked me if I wanted to put together a pamphlet to mark the 75th anniversary. The first thing I did was to thumb through my old October 1986 magazine for inspiration.

When I found out that there were five new books coming out relating to the Battle of Cable Street I knew that they had to be reviewed in that publication. None of them quite ready for print yet, they were all sent to me electronically.

Roger Mills emailed me his book, Everything Happens in Cable Street. I read a bit of it, found it enthralling and then sent him an email to thank him. There were all sorts of connections with the street that I had never known about. It was great stuff.

A GHOST OF CABLE STREET

I was going to shut the computer down but instead I carried on reading. There were some interviews that the Cable Street Group had carried out in the 1980s and I found myself reading one with Gertrude Jones, a woman who had lived above her parents’ bakery in Cable Street.

“That’s funny,” I thought, my grandfather lived above his father’s bakery. I was already aware of at least one other bakery in that western “Jewish” end of the street. David Rosenberg, the author of another of the books I was set to review, had told me that Battle veteran Aubrey Morris’s grandfather had a bakery at 86 Cable Street so I wasn’t that surprised to learn of yet another. “They must have been rivals,” he said at the time.

As I was reading, I came across the following words, “…my surname was Hertz.” It took a few minutes to process what I was reading. The name Gertrude Jones had meant nothing to me. Then I realised. I was reading an interview with my grandfather’s sister, my Auntie Gertie. I hadn’t recalled her married name.

I didn’t know that in 1988 she had responded to a letter written to the Jewish Chronicle by Jil Cove on behalf of The Cable Street Group which opened with the words: “Did you ever live in or near Cable Street?”

When I read one of the other forthcoming books, The Battle of Cable Street, which is actually an updated reprint, I came across another part of the same interview. Funnily enough I had reviewed an earlier version for Searchlight, in October 1996, but as it only referred to Mrs Jones, I had no idea I was reading an interview with a member of my own family at that time.

As I read her words again the stories that my grandfather told me came back to me as vividly as ever: “We had to board the shop with shutters and stay above it, ready to throw things down on them. The non-Jewish people surrounding us said ‘You’re hard working people and you don’t interfere with anybody. You’re nice families and we’re going to see that he doesn’t get through Cable Street.’ And they gave us things to throw at them – bricks, knives, lumps of wood, anything.”

The song, The Ghosts of Cable Street, by The Men they Couldn’t Hang, now had new meaning for me.

KEEPING THE MEMORY ALIVE

I have no doubt that the memory of The Battle Cable Street will live on. As I got enmeshed in the forthcoming anniversary I found myself somehow being pressganged into being one of the organisers of the march and rally this year. Several other grandchildren of Cable Street veterans wrote in to our committee’s email, who also felt a personal connection and were keen to keep the memory of the events alive.

One of them is the granddaughter of Charlie Goodman, who Searchlight interviewed in 1986. She was looking for a photo of his arrest that day which we have located for her.

It wasn’t only in connection with my own family that I found a surprise from the past. When I interviewed Dan Jones, at his house in Cable Street, he talked about his background and his father, Frederick Elwyn Jones, who had a distinguished career as a Labour politician. He had been Attorney General in Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s, and was later made a life peer. The most interesting thing from an anti-fascist perspective though was that he had been junior British Counsel during the prosecution of leading Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials.

Before I left, Jones showed me some of his artwork, much of it with an anti-fascist connection. He also showed me some work done by his mother, Pearl Binder, who was a fascinating woman in her right.

Some weeks later, when I was writing something on Mosley’s notorious Olympia meeting of 1934, I found an eyewitness account from none other than Pearl Binder. As Jones has been a lifelong anti-fascist I was sure he would have known about his mother being there. I emailed him to let him know what I had found and to check that the address tallied and it was one in the same person. His response was “Oh blimey, like so much of my Mum’s life and activities this is another interesting area that she didn’t talk about and no I had no idea that Mum was at Mosley’s Olympia fracas. Please send us the reference.”

Her account is a useful glimpse into what the anti-fascists at Cable Street helped prevent from ravaging Britain as it had the rest of Europe:

“I saw several Blackshirts using knuckledusters near me in attacking hecklers. I saw male Blackshirts attack women who interrupted, and a man brutally thrown out who had just stood up in his seat and not even spoken… In the corridors the police were beginning to arrive. There were several injured lying in the corridor; one, with a badly-broken head, was barely conscious.”

It will not be many years before there are no veterans of 4 October 1936 left. Today’s generation of anti-fascists has been entrusted to retell the story of the historic defence of the Jewish community of the East End of London. Long may it provide inspiration to anti-fascists everywhere – No Pasarán! They Shall Not Pass!

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Stalingrad 1942 : The hour of courage had struck the clock

Mark Perryman at Philosophy Football just sent me the text below advertising their new T- Shirts commemorating the epic Battle of Stalingrad.

We know what’s at stake and how great the foe’s power,
And what is now coming to pass.
The hour of courage has struck on the clock
And our courage will hold to the last.
The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter;
Though our houses will fall, we shall remain.

Anna Akhmatova, 1942

September, 1942 the Nazi onslaught on Stalingrad commenced with a bloody vengeance. The sky turned brown from the dust of fragmented buildings, the ground vibrated because of the power of the explosions. The Fascist army’s advance continued but faced the most ferocious resistance imaginable. The horror of fighting the Soviet troops on their favoured terrain, the approaching Russian winter, fast became a reality for Hitler’s Generals. While German tanks entered the outskirts of Stalingrad the Soviets dug in preparing to fight for every district, every street, every house.

Almost six months later , 2 February 1943 and the defeat of the Nazi forces which had sought to encircle and destroy Stalingrad was complete. Out of each Red Army division sent to defend the city no more than a few hundred soldiers survived, 1.1 million casualties, of which 485,751 lost their lives.

For Hitler the defeat at Stalingrad was the beginning of the end. The story of the Red Army’s sacrifice had a powerful effect across the world, especially on resistance movements in occupied Europe. The Russians who had taken the brunt of the German onslaught since 1941 were now turning the tide and a year later would be joined by the Allied forces opening up the second front with the D-Day landings landings at Normandy.

Philosophy Football’s 1942-2012 Stalingrad range marks the battle’s 70th Anniversary. Inspired by Anna Akhmatova’s poem the designs are based on a medal, a fuselage, a propaganda poster, a book title from the time and the slogan with which the Russian people greeted their eventual victory. “Nobody is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten!”

Stalingrad Anniversary Shirts available from www.philosophyfootball.com

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The trial of Adolf Eichmann

Just came across video of the entire trial of Adolf Eichmann on YouTube put up by the Yad Vashem museum. It is an amazing resource and an insight into a key person involved in carrying out the Holocaust. The trial has English commentary throughout.

Session One of the trial is here

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Revolutionary Communist at Work: Biography of Bert Ramelson

I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on a biography of former Communist Party of Great Britain industrial organiser, Bert Ramelson, that is coming out soon.

Titled Revolutionary Communist at Work: a political biography of Bert Ramelson by Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley, the book looks like it will be as fascinating as the man himself.

The information below is from the 21st Century Manifesto website.

 

Revolutionary Communist at Work: a political biography of Bert Ramelson by Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley

Bert Ramelson (1910-1994) was a remarkable man who lived through remarkable times. Born into a Jewish ghetto in pre-1917 Ukraine, he went on to become Britain’s foremost communist during the turbulent years of industrial strife in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. He lived through the first years of the Bolshevik revolution and the ensuing Civil War – during which members of his family were murdered in the anti-Semitic pogroms of the period. After a short spell in Palestine working on a Kibbutz, he fought in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Canadian contingent of the International Brigade, and then as a tank commander with the British Army in the Second World War. Having been taken prisoner at Tobruk, Ramelson went on to lead a mass breakout from an Italian Prisoner of War Camp.

From 1937 onwards, Ramelson lived as a professional revolutionary. After the war he spent nearly twenty years as a full-time Communist Party worker in Yorkshire, but it was his appointment as the Party’s National Industrial Organiser in 1965 that brought him to national prominence. During this period he received the accolade of being named by prime minister Harold Wilson as the most dangerous man in Britain. As well as playing a leading role on the industrial scene, Ramelson was also centrally involved in the leadership of the Communist Party, where he played a key role in many a stormy debate – including taking the lead in confronting the Soviet authorities when he denounced their 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Read an extract from the book

‘Bert Ramelson is best known as the Communist Party’s industrial organiser during the days of the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments. With others on the left he helped to develop a mass movement based on organised workers which was strong enough to block anti-trade union legislation and protect workers’ rights. We badly need such a movement today, with an even broader canvas. Much can be learned about how to do this from studying Bert’s life.‘ Rodney Bickerstaffe, former TUC President

Roger Seifert is currently Professor of Industrial Relations at Wolverhampton Business School. Previously he worked for Incomes Data Services, before joining Keele University, where he was made Professor of Industrial Relations in 1993. He has written widely on public sector industrial relations, as well as on the NHS, schools and FE, local government, the civil service, and the emergency services.

Tom Sibley was a full-time worker for the CPGB in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For many years he was Head of the TASS and MSF Research Departments before taking up a position as General Secretary of The International Centre for Trade Union Rights. In 2008 he was awarded a PhD for his dissertation on the impact of anti-communism on the labour movement during the early years of the Cold War.

Paperback, 414pp, All rights L&W December 2011
ISBN: 9781907103414
Price: £25.00

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Yom Kippur, Ham Sandwiches, Bomb Hoaxes and Riots

I recently rediscovered an account by Bill Fishman of how the Jewish anarchists in the East End caused a riot during Yom Kippur over 100 years ago.

It took place outside the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, what is now the Brick Lane Mosque.

It comes from a wonderful book: East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, by Bill Fishman. My version is out of print but it was reprinted by Five Leaves recently and can be found here.

Young anti-religious militants were to blame for one annual fracas. It was occasioned by the Anarchist balls, deliberately held on Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish festivals, which even marginal Jews respect. J. L. Fine was a regular observer of the tragi-comedy of young politicals who, flaunting their contempt for tradition, marched in column to the Spitalfields Great Synagogue (Machzikei Ha Lath) in Brick Lane, smoking or brandishing ham sandwiches as gestures of defiance and rejection of their creed. The service over, angry worshippers, sometimes in full regalia, swept out and attacked the scoffers with any weapon they could seize, while the local people gazed dumbfounded at the antics of the crazy foreigners. Fine also recalls a later incident when the Assembly Hall, paid for by Lord Rothschild as a centre for worship at High Holidays for poor Jews sponsored by the Jewish Board of Guardians, was the subject of a bomb hoax. The police received a warning that Anarchists had planned to blow up Rothschild at the service. All incoming congregants were searched and the hall cleared. There was no bomb.

In 1904, the annual affair provoked a full-scale riot in Spitalfields. The historian Rollin, then a Social Democrat, and Sam Dreen were both involved. In premises once used by Jacob Adler and his troupe, the Socialists had established a Volkskuche (People’s Restaurant), which supplied cheap meals and was, therefore, heavily patronised. Prices, such as bread, a penny a piece, soup threepence a plate, sixpence for soup with meat, were half those charged by local private restaurateurs, who naturally resented this `unfair’ competition. Rollin suggests that, under the guise of protecting religion, the latter had prepared an attack on the Volkskuche on Yom Kippur, led by hired thugs. The East London Observer reported what followed:

Thousands of Jews were walking along the streets, when they were met by a body of Socialist Jews, who had driven a van containing food along the streets. All the Orthodox Jews were fasting and they at once resented this unseemly display. The Socialists being driven into their club responded by throwing glass bottles out of the windows. Several cases of minor injury occurred and the disorder thus started to spread quickly. Within half an hour the whole area round Princelet Street was in a state of great agitation. Excited groups of Orthodox Jews were parading the streets threatening the Socialists with dire penalties for their insults and stones were thrown at the home of prominent Socialists.
.. . It is alleged that the Socialists pelted a Synagogue which stands adjacent to their club, and that they had arranged a concert for the day of fasting – invitations to which they had sent to the principal Rabbis!

Rollin presents a different tale:

I was making my way towards the Club with a young woman comrade in Princelet Street, where a threatening crowd had gathered. As we approached some men in front sprang at the girl like tigers, threw her to the ground and started beating her, whilst I was hurled against the wall and pinned there. The Club members, hearing our cries, rushed to our defence and brought us in. The girl was torn and bleeding and laid semi-conscious on the floor … We sent a messenger begging help from the Anarchists, who were holding their ball in a hall at Rhondda Grove, Bow.

This brought Sam Dreen on the scene. He and a score of young bloods jumped a tram to Gardiners Corner, and rushed up Brick Lane in time to relieve the beleaguered Socialists. They apparently beat off the invaders, as a large force of police arrived and quickly dispersed the crowd, arresting some men and boys in the process.

The magistrates attributed the cause of the disturbance to the so-called orthodox. Of the eight brought up for trial, two Socialists who declared that, being non-religious, they could not observe Yom Kippur, were summarily discharged; and the bench commented that it was deplorable `that a class of persons who for centuries had been distinguished as the victims of the fiercest persecutions should, when in the one free country of the world, turn upon those who disagreed with them on religious points, their own co-religionists, and stone and persecute them’.

East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, William J Fishman, p259-261, Duckworth, 1975

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Chilean fascism – an interview with Ernesto Leal

In the mid 1990s I worked on an anti-fascist pamphlet on trade unions that is now long out of print. One of the sections was on the fascist coup in Chile for which I interviewed Ernesto Leal, a Chilean exile then living in London.

Ernesto died in 2009 and there is very little about him on the internet. Although there is this obituary here.

At one point I spent a lot of time with Ernesto and other exiled Chileans in London who were all very active politically. Ernesto’s story was particularly inspirational.

The solidarity and internationalism of the British trade union movement, and the miners in particular, has real lessons for today.

Chile – An interview with Ernesto Leal

Ernesto Leal has witnessed fascists taking power first hand. He was a trade unionist in Chile in 1973 when a fascist military coup brought General Pinochet to power resulting in the persecution of thousands of trade unionists. Many disappeared never to see their families again. Imprisoned and tortured for his own activities, Ernesto told Steve Silver about his experiences.

Ernesto’s small stature belies his courage and as he talks, it is impossible not to be moved by his story. His father was a trade unionist, who during several periods of repression had been banned from working in various factories and exiled from his home town. It wasn’t until he was a teenager though, starting out working life in the navy in poor conditions, that Ernesto really understood what had motivated his father.

While he was in the navy, Ernesto attended evening classes where he was influenced by radical young people who were socialists and communists. His political development quickly led to activity and he became involved in preparing for a hunger strike in the navy for better working conditions. The secret service had infiltrated his group of activists and the strike was aborted. He was court-marshalled and expelled from the navy.

Ernesto’s first job after the navy was as a welder and his political activities developed when he joined the Young Communist League (YCL). In 1962, with another friend from Valdivia, the town of Ernesto’s birth, he organised a welders’ union for the first time in their region at a factory in Talcahuano. In 1964 the five hundred strong workforce occupied the factory because the American owner wouldn’t recognise the union; they were in occupation for three months before winning the dispute.

Ernesto became an official in the local TUC. He organised union activity across the region while at the same time serving on the central committee of the Young Communist League. In 1968 he transferred from the YCL and joined the Communist Party where he held various positions.

In 1970 Ernesto, along with the whole of the Chilean left, rejoiced when the socialist Allende government took power. He became a local organiser for the government’s food distribution programme and was involved with the government’s education programme which was set up to combat the high level of illiteracy among the population. Education courses were established and those who gained high grades were given the chance to enter university, making the programme very popular. Ernesto was in charge of organising in the port town of Tome; rather than trying to send factory workers to school they brought the school to the factory, organising classes during the breaks.

While the Allende government brought in sweeping social reforms, the extreme-right, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was organising to overthrow democracy. A major part of their plan was the organisation of a strike by the right-wing controlled truck drivers’ union. The strike made travel across the narrow country very difficult and combined with other destabilising measures the democratically elected government faced severe problems.

On the 11th September 1973 Ernesto set out for work as usual, getting a lift in a friend’s car. They found that the military had set up roadblocks. This was obviously a military coup, though they weren’t sure exactly who had taken power. Soldiers at the roadblocks told them to go back home but Ernesto continued on foot alone towards his factory so he could meet up with people and decide what to do. A passing lorry driver picked him up and together they carried on further.

They stopped when they saw that a train which had been carrying workers along the coast was surrounded by machine guns with the workers on the floor being searched. Continuing on foot again, Ernesto passed a factory where he saw more workers on the floor with the military searching the premises.

The military were stopping anyone from getting to the factories for work. Ernesto himself was searched but they didn’t recognise him and were only looking for weapons. He had many incriminating documents in his briefcase that he knew he would now have to destroy. These included names of all the teachers and students in the factory; it became exceptionally dangerous during this period to be associated with the government’s education programme.

About five miles from his factory, Ernesto passed a young woman in the doorway of her house. He enquired, “What is happening?” and she replied, “It is a right-wing military coup. The military have taken power and Allende is dead. They are detaining all the trade union leaders and important people from the Allende government.”

For the first time Ernesto knew exactly what had happened that day. Before he could run into anyone else, he burned the documents which he was carrying.

Ernesto saw people being sent back from his factory. One of the women approached him and advised, “Don’t go to the factory because the army is looking for you and has already arrested three people. If you need a safehouse, go to one of these addresses.” The woman had been been instructed to find Ernesto and warn him.

Ernesto wasn’t sure where to go now. The military were organising the transport of people back to their home towns in convoys. He accepted a ride to Concepcion, the nearest large town, as he thought he might find some other activists to discuss what action to take. On arrival he became really frightened when he discovered that the local Communist Party headquarters had been searched and destroyed, the TUC building was sealed up and that the military had surrounded it and shot people. The local mayor, whom Ernesto knew, had also been arrested (he was later tortured and killed). Unable to make contact with anyone, Ernesto made his way home. On his journey he saw buses full of trade unionists whom he recognised being taken off by the army.

The fact that Ernesto had worked in Tome, some miles from his home in Talcahuano, had saved him for the time being. He went home and found his children there because school had been cancelled. His wife Sonia, a teacher and activist in her own right, was at a meeting. The 11th of September was traditionally ‘Teachers’ Day’ in Chile. On that day, many left-wing teachers were taken to prison while others were beaten or even killed in front of their pupils.

Ernesto carried on making a living by doing casual work in a factory and attempted to keep a low-profile. A couple of weeks after the military coup the army entered his factory and the workers were lined up. The factory owner pointed out trade unionists who were beaten and taken away. In the immediate aftermath of the coup many people Ernesto knew were imprisoned or killed by the military; he had a couple of lucky escapes himself, but in the early days escaped detention.

Ernesto and Sonia became involved with organising support for the o prisoners and their families, which was done through Catholic organisations. His own luck couldn’t last though. Early one November o morning Ernesto heard noises in the street and knew it was the tramping of military feet. People were not allowed out at night as they were forced to live under a curfew. As he heard the soldiers being instructed, he knew they were coming for him. They knocked at his door and held him against the wall while they searched the house. The commandant then asked Sonia to sign the papers that said they had searched the flat. She said she wanted to read it first which incensed the soldier. He pointed his gun at her, the atmosphere was very tense. She read it first, saying, “I am a teacher. I educated my children not to sign anything until they’ve read it, so I won’t either.”

Ernesto was taken to a van waiting outside and blindfolded before being put in the back. Sonia saw from the window that some people in the van were already dead.

After two or three hours of being driven around to disorientate them, the prisoners arrived at their destination. During the journey they were told if anyone moved or talked they would be killed. When they got out of the van they were told to walk in a direction which meant walking directly into a wall. Theywere then made to stand for a day, blindfolded, without food or water before being taken into a shack and instructed to lie down. “Any movement or sound and you will be killed,” they were told. It was 10 days before Sonia knew that Ernesto was still alive.

While waiting to be interrogated, Ernesto could hear people shouting and crying. Then came his turn. Still blindfolded, he was taken to a room and sat down. His blindfold was removed and he was allowed only to look straight ahead at a grille from which he could hear a voice. Ernesto’s past history of political activism was recounted to him by his captors. It became apparent that they only knew about his activities in Talcahuano. They were aware he had been active since but weren’t sure where. He was then asked questions about his comrades and about the organisers in his local area.

They claimed they had another prisoner who was telling them about Ernesto’s activities. He still refused to talk and was severely beaten, his fingers smashed with a hammer until he lost consciousness. When he came round they started to question him again. He was also given electric shocks in attempts to extract information. On three occasions they pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger in a mock execution. They were surprised he remained calm. Ernesto told them: “If you want to kill me, kill me now.”

In the end, they brought in the other prisoner who was even more badly beaten than Ernesto. The prisoner claimed to recognise Ernesto, but even though Ernesto did remember him from some years before, he stuck to his story, pretending that he did not know him. After that their captors were furious that they had lost so much time with the interrogations and gained nothing. They took Ernesto out and pushed him down a staircase. In the meantime he heard the other man let out blood curdling screams as they tortured him.

Ernesto was then moved to a stadium on a navy base, where he experienced a relatively more liberal regime. After a couple of months he was set free, lucky not to be sent to another camp. For some time Ernesto was afraid to go out and really felt the shock of his experiences. Eventually he got a job in a factory as a welder and became involved in the underground resistance, producing leaflets against the fascist government. In the early days of the coup some small scale physical resistance had taken place. This included the occasional bombing or killing of soldiers. Now, all political activity was banned under General Pinochet’s dictatorship. Ernesto and Sonia became active with a church organisation that was helping political activists, and their families, who had suffered from persecution.

One day a comrade of Ernesto warned him to leave the country as there was going to be another wave of repression and the net was closing. On a couple of previous occasions Ernesto had been interrogated on the streets by the military who were becoming increasingly aware of his activities. In February 1976 he left Chile, telling people that he was travelling north for a better job. In fact, he went south to Argentina, but had to leave Sonia and their four young children behind.

Sonia followed him to Argentina with the children in April but was lucky to get out. She had bought bus tickets for the 30th April but travelled one day earlier, persuading the driver that she had accidentally bought the tickets for the following day. For years she didn’t realise what a fortuitous escape she had had. Recently Sonia visited Chile – her friends told her that the day after she left, the military came looking for her.

During that same visit she went to the local Communist Party offices where someone came up to her and said, “You’re really alive.” The man had been interrogated during the coup and shown pictures of Ernesto and Sonia. He was told that they and their children had been killed. When he saw Sonia and her son, he wept with emotion.

Ernesto and his family were in Argentina only a short time when the country suffered its own military coup. Chilean refugees who were found, were rounded up by the Argentine military or handed over to the Chilean secret police. It was too dangerous to stay in Argentina so the family had to leave. Their first choice was Canada but they came to Britain.

All over the world a great solidarity movement developed for the Chilean people. Campaigners, including trade unionists and Labour MPs, ensured that the Labour government allowed Chilean refugees into Britain.

In April 1977 Ernesto’s family arrived at Heathrow in a group of about 20, all political refugees. Some came from Argentina and others directly from jail. The following month, Ernesto and his family left London for Edinburgh from where they were to be taken to their new home. They were greeted by an official from the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers and taken by minibus to Fife. Their new home was in Cowdenbeath in Fife. When they arrived in the town Ernesto was handed a key and told “This is the key to your home.”

“I opened the door and found that everything was there including furniture and beds. The miners’ union and neighbours had done it. We stayed there for a year and I learned English. I was keen to work again as a welder and wanted to be active in Chilean solidarity work. Everybody was so friendly to me. People in the street said to me `Don’t worry, you are safe here’.”

Ernesto studied English at Stevenson College in Edinburgh and then eventually moved from Fife. Sonia already knew English but was keen to improve it. In Britain, Ernesto retrained as a welder and found work in the Edinburgh shipyards and later in Aberdeen and elsewhere. Ernesto’s trade union activities did not cease when he left Chile. He joined the General Municipal and Boilermakers Union (GMB) and later the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and participated in four strikes. He laughs and says proudly, “I was always the first to vote for a strike. My branch was in Edinburgh and I was on my branch committee. I was also a representative on Edinburgh Trades Council.”

In Chile the government today still rules under the Pinochet constitution. Despite recent advances, Pinochet is still a life member of the Chilean senate. Trade unionists are struggling to change the constitution to make the country more democratic and now seek support from their counterparts in Britain and elsewhere.

Ernesto has this message for trade unionists today: “We underestimated the fascists in Chile. We learned the hard way that you need to keep an eye on them, not only the open fascists, but those who conceal themselves and work in a hidden way inside democratic organisations.”

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Video of Cable Street 75 March and Rally

Video of the Cable Street 75 march and rally shot by RMT.

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Battle of Cable Street 75 Anniversary

It was a long hot day yesterday, but one which was a great success.

The Cable Street 75 march had well over 1000 people on it. It was great to see so many different organisations with their banners and to see that the hard work of the Cable Street 75 Committee had paid off.

I was stewarding at the front and then when we paused at the junction of Leman Street and Cable Street for the police to close the road to traffic I snapped this photo of the front of the march.

The rally went really well, there was some great speeches and a great atmosphere. While David Rosenberg was speaking I went off to find 96-year-old Cable Street veteran Max Levitas, who was meant to be on the platform as he was the next speaker. I found him doing an on camera interview with the Stepney born actor Steven Berkoff.

While I waited for them to finish the shoot I took the pic below.

As soon as the rally was over we were off to Wilton’s Hall to visit the outdoor stalls and see the events organised by The Cable Street Group. Then a catch up with friends at the Brown Bear pub where the RMT had organised a book launch. And finally, after a food stop, back to Wilton’s for The Cable Street Group’s gig in the evening with Billy Bragg et al.

There is a report on the day from Nick Lowles at HOPE not Hate here.

Ross Bradshaw at Five Leaves also has his take on the day here.

There are loads of photos of the march and rally here.

Another report with lots of photos can be found here.

The Morning Star’s report can be found here.

Finally, a pic I took of Bob Crow of RMT speaking at the rally with Max Levitas and David Rosenberg seated, listening.

The Battle of Cable Street pamphlet that I put together for Searchlight Educational Trust is available here.

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