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To the Barricades
The Anarchist Life of Emma Goldman
By Alix Kates Shulman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Alix Shulman
All rights reserved.
Off to a Bad Start
Life is the biggest bargain; you get it for nothing.—Yiddish proverb
Emma Goldman's story begins just over a hundred years ago and many thousands of miles away in the country of Russia. In those days Russia seemed to be a storybook land, with its onion-shaped steeples on village churches and its deep, snowy forests of birch and pine. But in reality the life was harsh and the people were often cruel. There, in 1869, Emma Goldman was born with four curses. She was born Russian, Jewish, female, and unloved.
The very first thing Emma learned when she was old enough to talk and understand was that she had not been wanted. Her father never tired of telling her how disappointed he was that she had been born a girl. "You can't be my child," he would tease her. "You don't look like me or your mother; you don't act like us!" Darkhaired and dark-eyed, Abraham Goldman wondered where Emma had got her blue eyes and blonde hair, so unusual in a Jewish child. "They must have come," he said, "from the pig's market," where Jews were not permitted to go because their religion forbids them to eat pork. The pig lady had cheated him, he would tell Emma with a bitter laugh, by giving him a girl-child instead of a boy.
Abraham Goldman had reason to be bitter; there was no sweetness in his life. Even his beautiful young wife Taube, whom he had married a year before Emma was born, had no love for him. She had loved a man only once, the young man she had married when she was fifteen. But he had fallen ill and died. When her first husband died, leaving her two small daughters, Lena and Helena, Taube buried with him all the love she would ever feel for a man. When she was barely out of mourning, her family arranged for her to marry Abraham Goldman. Like any good daughter in those times, she married the man her family selected for her, even though she did not love him. Marriage was a practical matter. And a widow with two small children, even a young and beautiful widow like Taube, was lucky to get any husband at all. But the loveless Goldman match was bad from the start.
Taube's first husband had left a little money when he died which Taube brought as a dowry to her new marriage. Abraham promptly invested it in a business. Almost immediately the business failed. When Taube became pregnant, the family had nothing to live on, and Emma's birth on June 27, 1869, was more of a curse than a blessing.
For most people in those days life in Russia was painfully hard. A handful of rich nobles owned all the land. Their huge estates were tended by great masses of poor, illiterate peasants called serfs. Until 1861, when a law was passed setting them free, these serfs had been owned as slaves by the nobles. After 1861 they could no longer be bought and sold or legally flogged, but otherwise they were hardly better off than slaves. While the nobles led fancy lives in their fine city houses in the winters and on their great country estates in the summers, the peasants led a wretched existence. They huddled together the year round in their crude huts, living on the ancient diet of black bread and tea. Into the short summers they tried to cram the backbreaking work of an entire year.
The kings of Russia, the czars, had ruled as tyrants for many centuries. The czar's every whim became law. His laws were carried out by a huge, cumbersome network of corrupt local officials. These bureaucrats grew fat filling their pockets with bribes. Everyone, even the poorest peasant, had to pay.
Bad as life was for most Russians, it was even more miserable for the Russian Jews. In the province of Kovno, where Emma was born, and in the surrounding provinces, lived great numbers of Jews. These solemn, religious people, darker in hair and skin than the Russians around them, had clung together as a separate people for many generations. Long hated by Christians, even those Jews who were not religious had kept their own Yiddish language, their own style of dress, and their own ancient customs. As a group apart, they were despised by almost everyone in Russia. As long as there were few Jews in Russia, they managed to live unobtrusively. But when the land around Kovno with its large Jewish population was conquered for the czar about seventy years before Emma was born, the Jews became a special problem.
Seeing no easy way to get rid of the Jews, the czars issued special laws to keep them separate from other Russians. Jews could live only in certain provinces, then only in certain towns. For a while all rural villages were closed to them. In the towns and the cities they were often herded into special streets and sections called ghettos, which were sometimes walled off and locked at night.
Even in the few places where Jews could live, they were never left in peace. By law they could do only certain kinds of work, which kept them poor. Out of the meager livings they managed to earn, they had to pay special Jewish taxes to the czar and extra bribes to the officials. There were laws restricting whom they could hire, how they could dress, when and where they could travel, where they could build their synagogues, and even when they could marry. Life was so unsettled in the ghettos, and Jews were so hemmed in by rules, that it was all they could do just to survive.
Then, during Emma's childhood, something happened to threaten even their survival. A wave of pogroms broke out, terrorizing every Jewish heart in Russia. Originally pogrom meant "riot" in Russian. But after a while it came to mean a bloody attack on a community of Jews. In the middle of the day or night, without warning or reason, a band of armed, mounted raiders would ride down on a Jewish village to loot and murder. As soon as the horses were spotted in the distance, the cry would go through the streets and from house to house, "pogrom! pogrom!" and the defenseless Jews would hide until the raid was over. In tall boots and fur hats, waving swords high over their heads, the furious Cossacks would gallop into a ghetto, taking everything in sight. No Jew was safe, child or adult, woman or man. To a Russian raider, a Jew was not really a person—a Jew was simply a Jew, as a dog was a dog. No one ever knew how the pogroms were started. Some said they were ordered by the czar himself to take the minds of the Russian people off their misery.
Not long after Emma was born, the penniless Goldman family moved from Kovno Province to a tiny Russian village in the province of Kurland, near the Russian-German border. There, in the vast snow-covered region of noble estates worked by the peasants, Abraham Goldman managed to get a job as an innkeeper. Innkeeping was one of the few occupations open to Jews in the world outside the ghettos.
The little village of Popelan was hardly more than a stopping place on the lonely road between several larger provincial towns. The inn was its chief attraction. Surrounded by miles of unbroken farmland, Popelan was peopled by hardworking Russian peasants and run mainly by German-speaking officials. These officials, though Russian citizens, felt superior for their German ways. It would have been hard to say who hated the Jews more, peasants or officials.
The inn where Emma's life unfolded was a rough, cavernous barn. The official stop for the government stagecoaches, it was often crowded with travelers. The samovar on the great corner stove was always ready with quantities of hot tea. During the cold and terrible Russian winters, steam-breathing horses would pull sledges over the snowy fields up to the inn. Then the peasants with no place better to go, and the officials passing through the province on business, would spend the cold nights drinking Russian vodka before the fire, telling each other stories, and getting drunk. During the summer, when the meadows were green and the fields of grain grew high and golden, at the end of a long exhausting day the inn was the place where tired peasants came to relax. There they exchanged their gossip and learned the news of travelers from elsewhere in the province.
Often as not, as the evenings wore on and everyone grew drunk, someone would pass an insult or pick a quarrel. Then, before anyone could prevent it, the glasses and the fists would start to fly and the night would end in chaos. Some seasons hardly a night passed without a brawl. The children never knew what to expect. When Abraham tried to calm the guests, the peasants would ridicule him and the officials would hurl insults at him, because he was a Jew. It was all he could do just to run the inn and bear up under the constant abuse.
Like many another harassed man, Abraham took out his own suffering on everyone around him. With the peasants who worked at the inn, and even with his family, he was harsh and short-tempered. Sometimes when things went especially badly for him he would scream at his wife and beat his children. But his worst tantrums he seemed to save for Emma.
One day when Emma was playing marbles with her sisters, Lena and Helena, she learned that it was not only her father who resented her. Her sister Lena, it seemed, hated her for her own reasons. Emma had been winning at marbles that day, though she was only six, and much younger than Lena. Suddenly Lena accused her of cheating.
"Just like your father! He cheated us too!" Lena began screaming. "Your father robbed us of the money our father left. I hate you!"
Emma sat silent and bewildered.
"I hate you! You are not my sister!" Lena raged, and she gave Emma a violent kick.
Hurt beyond words, Emma dissolved in a torrent of tears. She ran hysterically to her other sister, Helena. She had not been cheating, she cried. Whatever her father had done was not her fault. Yet she never doubted what Lena said about the money, and she thought she must have somehow, without knowing it, done Lena some dreadful wrong. Helena took Emma in her arms to comfort her, as she always did. But Emma was inconsolable. "I wish I were grown," she sobbed. "Then I could pay back the money." Never again could she look at Lena without feeling a pang of guilt.
Winters passed, and two more children were born to the Goldmans—boys at last. With a family of seven now, and all the inn's servants and meals to supervise, Taube was always overworked and depressed. She had no time for Emma. Soon Emma's older sisters were spending all their days helping Taube with the endless chores. Her little brothers, Herman and Morris, were taken care of by a German "nursemaid" from just over the border. And Emma, too young to work and too old to need watching, was left on her own much of the time.
Stagecoaches came and departed, and much vodka was consumed at the inn. The quarreling Emma saw at the inn was easily matched by the cruelty she saw out in the world. Dogs were kicked, horses were whipped, children and wives were thrashed, and grown men beat each other. One day Emma was playing in the woods of Popelan when she heard someone shrieking in pain. She looked around to see where the cry was coming from. Suddenly through the trees she saw a peasant man, stripped to the waist, being flogged by a band of police. It was a hideous sight. The peasant's back was streaked with blood as the police sent the lash whistling through the air again and again. They were using the traditional Russian "knout"—a lash of many leather thongs twisted together with metal wires on the end of a long stick. It was the usual weapon for beating peasants.
Everyone in Popelan knew that peasants were sometimes flogged. Even Emma, who was only seven, had heard about it. But knowing about it was one thing; watching it was quite another. It was the worst thing Emma had ever seen. She ran home to the inn and threw herself sobbing onto her bed. The sound of the knout and the poor man's screams blended into a grotesque music that filled her head and haunted her for many nights. She would never forget it.
But there were happy times in Popelan too. Among the peasants who worked around the inn Emma had one special friend. He was the stableboy, Petrushka. In winter, when the meadows turned into plains of ice and snow, Petrushka would hitch a horse to a sleigh at evening and take the children for long, slippery sleighrides. Tucked under blankets, their sleigh bells jingling, they would fly across the fields of silver snow, listening for the Russian wolves howling in the distance and watching the stars overhead. That was what winter was for! Afterward at home, they would gather around the fire to stay warm. Then, if she had time, Taube would give the children tea and pancakes and jam, and set a glass of vodka before Petrushka. Sometimes Petrushka would let Emma warm her insides with a sip.
In the summer Petrushka took the cows and sheep to pasture. Every day Emma would follow him. In the meadows, where blue cornflowers grew among the long green grasses, Petrushka played his shepherd's flute for her, piping his sweet tunes straight into her heart. They would chase each other across the fields. He would throw Emma playfully into the air and catch her, over and over. Sometimes he would let her ride home from the fields on his broad shoulders. Soon Petrushka became the center of Emma's life. Her happiest days were spent playing with him in the meadows and her happiest nights dreaming of him in her bed. Sometimes she even stole fruits and sweets from her mother's kitchen to give to him.
Then one day her father had an argument with Petrushka. Without warning, in one of his fits of temper, Abraham sent the boy away.
Emma was sick over losing him. For weeks and months she dreamed and thought of nothing but Petrushka. How cruel it was, she thought, that peasants could be sent away, or beaten with the knout, at the mere whim of someone who happened to be of a higher rank. Gentle Petrushka could easily be beaten like the peasant in the woods, simply because he was born a peasant. Just as a Jew could be stoned by children in the streets simply for being a Jew. Nothing could be done about it. Everyone knew it happened all the time.
Once Emma and Helena watched an officer in the inn lash a young soldier across the face till his cheek bled. The boy had been polishing the officer's boots, and must have said something the officer didn't like. Helena was so enraged that she leaped at the officer and began hitting him with her fists. The whole Goldman family was in danger of going to prison because of it. Luckily for all of them, a colonel who happened to like Abraham Goldman managed to get the charges against the family removed. But the picture in Emma's mind of the soldier's bloody face was not removed. There it lingered with the picture of the bleeding peasant, and the banished Petrushka, and Abraham's tantrums, and Lena's kick. It lingered with all the other images of wanton cruelty that were daily piling up before her eyes. The gentle look of Popelan was a lie. The peaceful sky over the green summer meadows and the white winter woods concealed a brutal life.
"Out of the misery and murk of their lives, the Russian people had learned to make sorrow a diversion, to play with it like a child's toy," wrote the great Russian novelist Maxim Gorky. "Through their tedious weekdays they made a carnival of grief. A fire is entertainment, and on a vacant face, a bruise becomes an adornment." Everywhere, just under the surface of Russian life, were such violence and caprice and cruelty that Emma would never forget them.
Eventually she stopped dreaming of Petrushka. She knew he would never return.CHAPTER 2
There is no school which teaches the meaning of despotism so well as the everyday experience of children.—Sarah Preston-Longley
Abraham Goldman considered himself a good father. He worked like a horse to keep his family fed. He laid down strict rules to teach his children right from wrong. He punished them promptly when they were disobedient and disciplined them soundly when they misbehaved. If there were too many quarrels in the house, or if the children sometimes got too wild, or if Taube cried too often, it was not his fault, he felt. He couldn't always be attending to family matters. He was a busy man. He did sometimes lose his temper, he had to admit, but that was only because everyone always provoked him.
When Emma turned eight, Abraham felt it was his duty to send her off to school. She had lived among illiterate peasants long enough. His children deserved better. As German schools were supposed to be better than Russian ones, he arranged for Emma to go to school in the German city of Koenigsberg, where Taube's mother and sisters lived. Emma would stay with them.
Everything was arranged, and Abraham and Emma set out for the German border, where Emma's grandmother was to meet them. On the way, Abraham began, as usual, to lecture Emma. He would be paying forty rubles a month for her tuition and board, he said gravely. That was a big expense for the family; she had better make it worthwhile. Emma nodded and listened.
"Be a good girl, study hard, obey your teachers and your grandmother," he admonished her. "If you are good, there is nothing I won't do for you.
Excerpted from To the Barricades by Alix Kates Shulman. Copyright © 1971 Alix Shulman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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