By BERNIE BELLAN Maria Tarasova-Chomard is a young (24 year old) student, originally from Russia, now living in Paris, who will be presenting a talk on Western Canadian Jewish anarchists for the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada on Sunday, October 3rd.
In the September 1st article I noted that I would have more about my interview with Maria in our September 15 issue, including some detailed information about certain Jewish individuals who were leading anarchists in Winnipeg in the early part of the 20th century.
I should also note that Maria is the first student winner of the Switzer-Cooperstock prize, given for an original essay on a subject relating to Western Canadian Jewish history. The Switzer-Cooperstock prize is awarded biennially, with the new student prize awarded in alternate years.
Returning to my conversation with Maria, which occurred over Zoom on August 24 while Maria was in her Paris home, I asked her “whether there were any names of well-known Jewish anarchists from Western Canada that” she could “throw out for the benefit of readers”?
Maria responded: “Yes, there were the Prasow brothers – Zalman and Israel – they were the leaders of the movement actually. Then there was Feivel (Frank) Simkin.”
Saying the name “Feivel Simkin” certainly triggered a greater interest on my part, since the Simkin name is so well known within the Jewish community. While I don’t want to preempt anything Maria might have to say during her talk on October 3rd, I’m sure reading the name “Simkin”, followed by the word “anarchist” might come as a bit of a surprise to at least some readers.
Following my conversation with Maria, I sent an email to Stan Carbone, curator of the Jewish Heritage Centre, in which I noted that Maria had said that Feivel Simkin was a leading anarchist in Winnipeg – which came as a surprise to me. I had known that Feivel Simkin had been the publisher of the Israelite Press, but beyond that, I knew nothing about the man.
So, Stan sent me a transcript of an interview that Roz Usiskin had conducted with Feivel Simkin in 1977, in which he tells his life story – also how he defines “anarchism”. Here is what he said at one point in the interview: “They believed that you should educate yourself, and then you didn’t need government to look after you.”
I said to Maria that I’d always been a little unclear how to define “anarchist”. I said to her that I thought the anarchist movement had begun in the late 19th century, but she said it actually began earlier than that – “in the beginning of the 19th century”, but the “period of the flourishing of the movement was really toward the end of the century”.
I asked Maria to give me “a Cole’s Notes definition of ‘anarchism’”.
Maria answered: “The most important aspect is that it’s a movement that believes in a society based on community, based on unity, and denies constraint and privilege.”
I asked: “But doesn’t it reject most forms of government authority?”
Maria responded: “Yes, but that comes from a rejection of constraint and privilege. Every state, every government (according to anarchists) is based on constraint and privilege – and hierarchy.”
As our conversation continued, I asked Maria how easy is it to actually identify individuals in the early 20th century in Winnipeg as “anarchists”?
She said it is difficult to do because “there are very few records and since the movement was essentially clandestine, they were actually paying attention not to keep evidence as to who was an anarchist, but when I talk about the ‘anarchist’ movement’ in my work, I talk not only about those who were directly involved in the organizations and activities of the organizations, but also everyone who was interested in the ideas – who called themselves radicals or libertarians.
“We can distinguish two circles. There was the core – the actual activists, the organizers - and there were those who participated in events, were sort of around”, but who couldn’t necessarily be described as ‘anarchists’.”
I asked what documentation might have existed that would have led Maria to conclude that the Prasow brothers and Feivel Simkin were the leaders of the anarchist movement?
Maria said it was mostly through “correspondence” among those three figures, especially correspondence between the Prasows and the leading American anarchist at the time, Emma Goldman (who actually stayed with the Prasows in their house at one time when she visited Winnipeg, Maria noted).
I wondered though, whether that correspondence would have been conducted in English or Yiddish – since Yiddish would have been the mother tongue of those early 20th century anarchists.
Maria explained that English was the preferred language of the anarchists, especially since Emma Goldman had insisted that anarchists’ writing be in English, so that it would be understood by “the generation born in America”.
As a result of this emphasis on the next generation, “a lot of their effort went into education,” Maria said.
Given the anarchists’ objection to governmental authority, I wondered whether there was a convergence between anarchism and the kibbutz movement, for instance, which was also predicted on a rejection of authority?
Maria suggested though that there was a fundamental divide between anarchism and Zionism. For anarchists, “the nation should either not exist or should only exist until there are not any nations at all. The Zionist movement (in contrast) was about Jewish nationalism. For anarchists, building the nation or an ethnic movement was not important at all.”
But, just how many identifiable anarchists were there in Winnipeg in the early part of the 20th century, I wondered? “Would they have been in the hundreds?” I asked Maria.
“Oh no,” she answered. “I’ve been able to identify only five or six of them.” (And yet, in Roz Usiskin’s interview with Feivel Simkin, he referred to Emma Goldman filling a hall with 700 attendees when she spoke in Winnipeg, so surely that must have been more than a passing interest in anarchy among a great many Winnipeg Jews in the early 20th century.)
Still, as Maria pointed out, “they may have been people who were simply interested in going to a talk.”
Was anarchism more than a “fringe movement” then? I asked.
“Oh yes,” Maria responded. “They were noticeable in the ideological landscape of the time, especially before (the Winnipeg General) Strike, in 1919. They were bringing about real change in the sense that their influence, their contribution to real projects, to social education was pretty noticeable –and pretty impressive, for the time. It wasn’t just a marginal group, even though it was a lot less numerous than some of the other currents.”
During our entire conversation, the discussion was confined to Jewish anarchists. I wondered, however, whether Maria had come across any references to non-Jewish anarchists during that period in the early 20th century?
“It’s not something I have found a lot of mention about,” Maria answered. “I know there was quite a lot of cooperation in the United States between Jewish and Italian anarchists – and with Spanish anarchists toward the 1930s, and with German groups” as well, “but in Canada it’s truly hard to say (whether there was much involvement by non-Jews in the anarchist movement). “I have not been able to find any mention of that.”