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.
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.”