The Azhdanov Tailors A Story
Jan Kalojan organized some eight thousand Yiddish-speaking tailors in Poland. Before that, they had belonged to the Bund, an old-fashioned organization. Kalojan had learned Yiddish to do so because many of the tailors were Jewish and were not friendly with the Poles. The Jewish workers were tailors, carpenters, and factory workers. Some were very religious and wore the gaberdine; but the factory workers, who for the most part had to cut their beards and hair, were regarded with some contempt by the truly religious ones and called “half-Jews.” It happened that Jan Kalojan himself, son of a rich mine owner and of a Viennese society girl, was really a half-Jew.
He told Otto Bauer, the Socialist leader, that he would organize the Jewish workers. Bauer said to him, “No, you will never do that: you have bitten off more than you can chew, you will lose your teeth in it.” Jan was a very young man then, short, strong, blue-eyed, redheaded, and he had not lost any teeth, but that was the expression used. Otto Bauer said, “If you get together four thousand workers I will come and speak to them”—for fewer than that he would not stir, for he was a great man. “How will you do it, Kalojan?” “In many ways. When I was organizing the printers, I wrote a story about printers and they printed it. I will now write a marionette play. I go about Europe juggling concepts and I will write a play in which concepts are dolls. There will be labor-value, surplus-value, the exploitation of labor; and there must be a little love. That is how they sell books. Then I must learn to smile—I blow up, I shout; that’s not right. A smile conquers everything and everyone. A sense of reality is perhaps not as good as a sweet smile such as my sister Mrs. Rock has. They would not let Jewish orphans into the orphanage and I became angry; but she said, Let me go and talk to them. She went, she talked to them, she smiled at them and they allowed some Jewish orphans into the home.”
Jan Kalojan organized eight thousand Jewish workers.
One day he went to speak at Azhdanov, a place near Cracow. This small town was run by religious leaders who owned a paint-works producing ochre paint, a factory making hessian sacks, some tailoring and tobacco workshops, and all the businesses in town. They ran the churches and were town councillors.
Kalojan had a new tailored suit, gloves, a flower in his buttonhole, and a heavy stick. He took a first-class ticket; so that when he got out at the Azhdanov station, the three or four workmen who had come to meet him were standing at the other end of the platform. The first thing he saw was a big, elderly woman with a figure like round pots of all sizes, put together with a wig, a shawl, and the black clothing of respectable old women. She was at least forty and she seemed aged to the young man. With astonishment and a little scorn, he saw her rush up to him and throw herself on her knees before him. She pulled at his trousers and coat and at her own shawl and began to sigh and call out, “Aie-aie-aie!” Tears ran down her face. “Oh, please don’t ruin me,” she cried out, “don’t take away my life, don’t ruin us and bring the killers, have mercy on us, think what you are doing—have pity! You must have a heart; you can’t be as bad as that; think what you are doing to us all, poor men, women, and children—don’t bring this scandal into our beautiful town. We are happy here—just go home and think it over! You’re a young man. Go back by the next train without taking another step and you will be glad later on! Think of the wickedness of bringing the black terror here, where everyone is so happy! Will you bring this disgrace on my daughter? Oh, go away before the worst happens—”
Kalojan put his stick under his arm and began to move sideways out of her grasp. He thought she might be mad; he thought she might be cunning; he did not know what it was. He was angry and thought to himself, “If they want to try to influence me, why don’t they send a beautiful young girl, not a fat old woman who ought to hide in shame.” But he hardly thought anything; he had no time for her. At that moment, the workmen who were waiting for him, came up to him and said, “This woman is the rabbi’s wife and they have told everyone that you are coming here to organize a pogrom.”
They went out of the station and warned him that it was going to be difficult. Kalojan had begun to organize the Jewish workers in Azhdanov. To begin with, that is some time before, he had gone to a little café where they sat and read newspapers. He spoke first to one, then to another, then to two or three; and the workers gradually fell away from the synagogue. This whole thing had been begun before his time, because of the work in the factories.
As they walked from the station, the workers, one of whom was named Henryk Portnoy, told him that there had been bills posted on the churches, the synagogue, and the walls of houses saying, “A certain Kalojan—” or “One Kalojan—is coming on such and such a day from Cracow to cause a pogrom,” and much more of this; and it continued, “All are warned to stay away from him,” and much more. Kalojan, who was at that time about twenty-three, a fearless and bold talker, took no notice of what he heard, but sent the workmen away to tell the others he had come; and to hurry them up to the meeting-place where they would all be together and in force. Portnoy and the others were unwilling at first. “The town is ready to burst into flames. The priests, the rabbi, and their friends have incited the people to violence and done things with their own hands.” The books from the workers’ library had been taken out, torn into little pieces, and burned; the workers’ center was damaged; any people who stood about and looked on were dispersed.
But Kalojan now went on toward the center of town near the synagogue where the Jewish workers’ center also was, because he did not mean the town councillors and the priests to keep this town, entirely a working-class town, in servitude. Holding his stick in his hand he went on, determined.
As he walked, he noticed two or three little children who ran around him: they were poor with their shirts out at the back; that is, very small and some had bare feet. They ran around him and pulled him. Then older children came, nine or ten who ran around him and followed him; but he took no notice and went on walking, though they tugged at his stick. He put it under his arm and buttoned up his coat. Then still older ones came and he took no notice of these either; and then youths and young men and men in their thirties fell in, from the doorways, or yards, or side-streets, and by then he knew it was an organized demonstration against him; but he kept marching on, thinking, This means nothing to me; I can manage this; and in fact, he felt no particular fear.
But the crowd grew and grew; they opened up before him so that he could keep on walking, but they squeezed him on both sides and pushed him at the back so that he could not move his arms and could scarcely breathe. Soon he felt them sticking needles into him, sacking needles which were used to sew up the hessian sacks in one of the factories; he felt cold and heard the cloth being torn; he heard shears snipping. They hurt him and tore at his new suit of good material. He kept marching, though now he knew it was serious and he wondered if they meant him to arrive there naked. He was carried onward and soon had to pass the synagogue, where now the crowd was very thick, an excited crowd, shouting and threatening; and now he could no longer move but was being crushed slowly in on all sides. He was a short man, though sturdy.
He now saw some of his friends, high up on a wall and some on a scaffolding. The Jewish workers were also carpenters and builders in this town. Suddenly two of them dived into the crowd of people headfirst with their arms spread, as if they were going for a swim, but they could not get to him. At the same moment, a Town Councillor came out with friends all round him, on the steps of the synagogue where he could be seen; and loudly, with his arms out, he cursed the intruder from Cracow, and shouted at the crowd of people who were mostly Jewish, telling them Kalojan had come to start a pogrom. Some people tried to start fighting, but the crowd was too thick.
Next, several policemen pushed their way in and arrested the man from Cracow for causing a disturbance. The police knew very little and the Town Councillor was a religious leader, a factory owner, and a very rich man. He was obeyed, even though Jan Kalojan protested, saying that he had a right to visit Azhdanov and a right to speak to his friends and that he himself knew people in Cracow more influential than this Town Councillor. He said he had bothered no one but had himself been attacked. He was taken to jail still protesting, and now he looked disreputable, with scratched face and torn clothes; but he insisted upon writing out telegrams to the Chief of Police in Cracow, to Victor Adler and Otto Bauer in Vienna, and to the lawyers who looked after his family estates. His father having died, he was now, though so young, chief of the Kalojan family council; and the family owned mines, warehouses, country and town property, and was even well-connected at the court in Vienna.
Kalojan was not sure of help, but he thought he might impress them. The police became anxious and agreed to let him go to the station if he would go by small back alleys. Jan said, “They will all think like you, they will think of back alleys; so you must take me by the main streets.”
Then they wanted to put him in a carriage; but he refused. He said, “I am going to walk, I want everyone to see how you treat a man who comes to organize the workers.” The police were anxious for their own skins, but he forced them to walk along with him to the station.
Near the station, the back streets and the main street converged and the organized crowd which, just as he had foreseen, was expecting him along the back lanes, saw him passing along at a distance and rushed forward yelling. But he got on to the platform, and though they had some time to wait for the train, the police protected him. Meantime, he could hear the threats and insults shouted outside, “The workers’ friend is an elegantchik, but doubtless his shirt has not been washed for weeks!” This was their idea of a deadly insult, suggested by their own lives. “Now that things are a little hot, he is taking a first-class ticket back home.” This was true, of course. Kalojan was not angry or bitter, he was reasonable; he knew how all this had been arranged and why these things were said. Besides, he was upset about his suit. A charming young girl sat in the ticket office. He asked her if she could do something about it. She borrowed a needle from one of the demonstrators outside the station, found some thread and sewed up the worst tears in his costume. “See what the tailors’ workers have done to my suit,” he said to her.
When Kalojan returned to Cracow, he found an excited crowd of workers at the station and in front of them was his sister, Mrs. Rock, very pale, almost white, looking terribly anxious. She rushed up to him and kissed him to make sure he was there, safe and sound, for he looked very strange; and in fact the news had got around that he had been killed. A great deal was already known about the demonstration.
But this was not all. Kalojan was arrested in Cracow at the instance of the same Azhdanov people and held in jail for trying to make trouble against the Jews. He was brought to trial. He pleaded not guilty and related all the circumstances, so that it was clear what had happened; but the rulers of the small town of Azhdanov had got stupid people together and suborned witnesses, among them a servant girl, a religious fanatic who cried in court and testified that he had called out, “At them, hunt them, kill them, kill the Jews”; and others who testified that he had said, “Loot the Jewish rich men”; and others again who said they had heard him shout, “Burn the Jewish workers’ center!” The proof was that the workers’ center had been looted and the books had been burned. There were many such witnesses.
At last the judge, who was a man of Kalojan’s own society and knew him and Mrs. Rock quite well, had him taken to a private room. The judge came to him and said, “Look, sir, you plead one way and twenty-five witnesses have come from Azhdanov to testify to the contrary. It is not a question of justice here but of preponderant testimony. If you can take other measures, you had better do so.” Kalojan realized he would not get a judgment and that he had better follow this advice. The case was postponed for a day or so. Kalojan was allowed to go to local people, authorities, and friends. He found out that some of the witnesses had various concessions, a tobacco concession and so on; so Kalojan arranged through his friends for the witnesses to be threatened: “Your concession will be withdrawn if you do not take back your testimony and complaint.”
The thing was settled in this way; and Kalojan was told he could get damages for his ruined suit. He said, “I have other suits, but the workers in Azhdanov have not got other books.” The Councillors, priests, and witnesses were obliged to restitute the burned volumes. It was amusing to see them sending to Cracow for the socialist classics; and the workers watched at the station to see that the parcels of books came and were not somehow lost on the way.
Portnoy, one of the four at the station, went to the United States some time later and became a tailor in a town in upper New York State.
Some years after the beginning of the Nazi terror, he heard from another immigrant tailor that Kalojan himself had fled from the Nazis and was living in New York City.
It took Portnoy some time to find out where Kalojan was living, because in the long years between, Kalojan, now a man of sixty, had lived all over the world. At last he got his address, and at the end of a year, during which he saved, he went down to New York by train and came to a side street off upper Broadway where he found a big courtyard and an apartment house in it. On the fourth floor he found the number he had been given and rang. After a long time, the door was opened and there stood a strange old man with thick orange-colored hair and a face that was entirely cherry-red. His eyeballs were red too and in them pupils of such a startling blue that they seemed to rush out at the visitor and stand before him like two floating globes on two golden threads of light. There was a strong smell of gas in the place. “Come in,” said the strange old man, “the gas will go away soon; I opened all the windows when I heard the doorbell.”
He was dressed in a frayed cream-colored suit with a silk shirt of French style, in thin red, blue, and black stripes, and he had onyx cuff links.
Portnoy was embarrassed. He could not understand how the man could have such a complexion and he did not know who he was; but he soon found out that he was Jan Kalojan and had received Portnoy’s letter. This old man was nothing like the young man he had known, except that he looked Polish, and that young man too had had startling blue eyes and orange-colored hair.
“I did not recognize you,” said Portnoy. “How is your sister, Mrs. Rock?”
“It’s a curious thing that you came just now,” said Kalojan. “I fell asleep in the kitchen and I was just going to put a goose to roast, but I forgot and left the gas on in the oven and I had not even lighted it. You see, I live alone.”
They sat down by an open window, while Kalojan brought his visitor something to drink: “Are you American now? Do you like Scotch? Or sherry or Campari? And I have slivovitz.”
He bustled about, an experienced host.
“My sister, Mrs. Rock, died some years ago. She was picking up coals for orphan children. It was a bitter winter day and as you know, she had got the rich people to found an orphan asylum, but there was not much coal, so she used to go picking up coals along the railway, where they fell off the railway trucks. It wasn’t necessary for her to do that, she could have bought the coal; but through worrying about the orphans she had come to behave like an old pauper woman. That day she caught cold and in four days she died. Half an hour ago I was thinking about her and about all the others who have died. I just received news that my sister who married a Polish Jew in Lodz, my brother, and others in my family were sent off and murdered in the Nazi murder trains. My brother had a little daughter whom he loved and who died in childhood; he never recovered from it, but for the rest of his life, which is ended now, he was gloomy and apathetic. I am not like that; but I was thinking of them just half an hour ago, and that is how I forgot about the goose and left the gas jets on. I’m glad you came. I do not intend to die.”
“It has taken me more than a year to save up the train fare,” said Portnoy.
“You can call me a tailor, I suppose, but I do mending and cleaning mostly, in a workshop that looks right on the railroad. The cinders come in on the clothes; you understand, it’s an unsuitable location. But now I know you are here, I have something to live for and I promise you that every year I’ll come down to see you; and there is a friend of mine who knew you in Azhdanov who will come down, too, perhaps at Easter.”