By Ben Gold, translated by Annie Kaufman
When the Morgen Freiheit, New York’s daily Yiddish-language Communist newspaper, published Ben Gold’s first novel, Avreml Broide, in 1944, the legendary hero of the American working class had already succeeded in steering his union through two decades of militant organizing and strikes, earning the Furriers Union major material victories, even during the Great Depression, and building one of the most diverse, powerful, and militant unions in the country. Gold led these aggressive campaigns while also defending the union and himself against sustained attacks from the bosses, police, press (principally the Forward,) organized crime, and the conservative AFL-affiliated right wing of the Furriers Union.
This inspiring labor history is well documented and available to English-language readers in foundational labor history texts by Philip Foner and in Gold’s own memoirs. Although those books tell “a story of dramatic struggles and achievements” (the subtitle of Foner’s history of the union), they don’t provide the personal, relational narratives that Ben Gold understood as core motivations for political decisions, and which he explored in his novel Avreml Broide.
In lively language and sensitive storytelling, Avreml Broide traces the family origin, immigration, and radicalization of an everyman worker, showing readers the risks, dreams, and heartaches of Yiddish-speaking American Communists. The first half of the novel is set in Bessarabia (where Gold was born) and presents Avreml as the naive son of a loyal and brave reformed horse thief. The second half, in which Avreml comes to New York and grows into a leader of the Furriers Union, offers an emotional portrait of the pressures and promises of Communist union life. In the following selection from the New York section, probably set around 1930, Avreml encounters Morris, his former mentor who first encouraged him to join the union. The trial in chapter 5 portrays some of the dynamics of the public show trials the party produced in the US, often to denounce racism within unions. The chapter concludes with a foreshadow of Avreml’s next test of loyalty, when he has to end his relationship with his wife, a member of the Lovestonite faction of the American Communist Party.
As soon as the Furriers Union elected a left-wing administration, all the right-wing officials from all the other needle-trade unions laid in on them. Using their widely read daily Yiddish newspaper  as a mouthpiece, they launched a slew of attacks and libels against the furriers’ new leadership. The right wing and their newspaper presented themselves as socialists and friends of the workers, but Avreml could finally see they weren’t motivated at all by the workers’ needs. Their own egotistical interest was the only force that drove them. The way the right wing hurled their shameless attacks against the Union’s new leadership convinced Avreml even further that they were truly in league with the bosses, and the bosses, of course, were completely intent on breaking the Union.
When the Union called a general strike, all of Avreml’s suspicions were confirmed. He saw how the bosses, the gangsters, the police, and the right-wing so-called socialist leaders worked hand in hand to break the strike.
Avreml put his all into the strike. He became an influential member of the General Strike Committee, where a substantial group considered him their leader. Even those who didn’t still held him in high esteem. He was well loved among the masses of strikers and took on the Strike Committee’s most challenging tasks. He had no fear and didn’t need any rest. He was absorbed in the strike day and night.
Once, the chair of the Picketing Committee, who coordinated to keep watch over the shops and prevent any scabs from replacing strikers at work, entrusted him with an important mission. The committee had received a report that there was a home shop set up in a private home far outside of the fur district, and strikebreakers were working there. Avreml was sent to find out who the scabs were and to bring them to the Strike Committee.
Avreml watched the house for a few nights with a group, or de-le-gey-shen, of strikers, but the neighborhood was quiet and thinly populated. The delegation had provoked suspicion. No one left or entered the house, and it was clear that whoever was in the house had noticed them. Avreml withdrew their surveillance for the night on the understanding that one person from the delegation would return to the house at another time so as not to raise suspicion. As a lone striker, it would be easier to hide from the scabs, who were always on the lookout for strangers.
Avreml took the assignment himself. It was pouring rain that night. The street was dark and desolate, with no one walking about. The windows of both rows of private homes were unlit.
Avreml walked quietly onto the porch of the house. He slowly opened a window and entered. From the front room he tiptoed through the small corridor, where an electric light glowed faintly. The stairs were on the right of the hallway, nestled against the wall. The back stairwell led down to the cellar, where the lights were on. Holding his breath, he silently walked down the stairs. On the bottom step he stood completely still, as if paralyzed. There was an entire shop in the cellar. Sewing machines stood in the middle of the room and various kinds of furs lay strewn about the cement floor, but there were no operators there. A long table stood by the wall. A cutter was at the table, and he was cutting. The small windows, facing onto the backyard, were covered in dark, heavy fabric.
The cutter working at the table was Avreml’s old friend from the early days, the “Socialist” Morris. Worn out and sleepy, he was immersed in his work and hadn’t heard that someone had entered the cellar. Avreml gave a cough. Morris jerked. The knife fell out of his hand. He turned around quickly toward the cough. Avreml was already standing right next to him. Morris was pale with fright.
“Avreml? You?” He was barely able to get the words out. “What are you doing here?”
In a calm, dry tone, Avreml answered: “The Union sent me here. I demand you come with me to the Union office.”
Morris fell apart. He sat down on a chair, sunk his face in his hands, and cried openly. When he had calmed down a bit, he told Avreml his story of bankruptcy. His creditors had gotten him arrested on charges of embezzling merchandise from them. It had been a great struggle to manage to save himself from jail. He had “settled,” meaning he had worked out a deal in court with his creditors, and now he had to set aside weekly payments according to the judge’s order. If he didn’t pay up, he would get sent to prison.
“I’ve gotten myself tangled up in a net, and I can’t get myself loose,” he said with tears in his eyes. “Those creditors have me caught in a trap. They’ve got me under their thumb and they have no mercy. It’s only because of those exploiting fleecers that I’ve got to scab. Every dollar I earn I give right over to the creditors. My wife is sick. She’s broken down from all these troubles. She’s gone out to my brother’s farm.”
With trembling hands, Morris showed Avreml the receipts from his weekly payments to his creditors. He also showed him invoices from doctors’ treatments for his ill wife and letters that his wife had sent him from the farm.
“Avreml,” he begged, “stand by me in my hard times. I swear to you on my sick wife, I’ll get rid of this scab shop tomorrow and go off to my brother’s farm. I promise I’ll stay there with my wife until the strike is over.”
“Who else is scabbing here?” Avreml asked sternly.
Morris gave him the workers’ names, as well as the names of the businesses that were sending work and the address of the farm where he was going.
“Don’t ruin my reputation,” he begged. “It’s the only thing I have left. Remember, Avreml, how I helped you out when you were going through tough times, when you needed a friend’s help? I’m the one who brought you into the union. Now I’m asking you a favor. Help me out now when I really need it.”
Avreml couldn’t even look at Morris. He was overcome with disgust for him. And that feeling of disgust spread over to himself as well, because he could feel how his pity for Morris was overpowering his duty to the Union and to the strikers. He couldn’t withstand this broken man’s begging. Morris, who had been so proud in the old days, was sitting there beaten, a sacrifice to the great business wolves who devour weak animals in the capitalist jungle.
Against his will, and against his instinct as a trade unionist, Avreml took Morris on his word of honor that he would close up his scab shop and go off to his brother’s farm.
Two days later, he telephoned Morris to reassure himself he had kept his word. His heart stopped when Morris picked up the telephone.
“What are you doing at home?” yelled Avreml into the mouthpiece. “Why didn’t you leave town?”
Morris answered in an arrogant tone that he wasn’t leaving at all. He was staying in New York.
Avreml felt his head spin. He set out for Morris’s place burning with anger. When he got near the house, he noticed a policeman there. He could see the whole situation clearly now. That strikebreaker Morris had outmaneuvered him, played him for his sentiments—and he had won. He would rather make an arrangement with creditors than give up strike breaking. Money is more important to him than his own dignity. Avreml knew he himself should have understood that, and worked it all out, because if he couldn’t, well, what kind of union leader was he?
Full of regret and scorning himself, Avreml went to the Union and told the head strike leader the whole story.
An important meeting was being held in a room of the Party Building. The members of the regional office and some of the activists of the Furriers Union, Avreml among them, were there. The Chair was an experienced party veteran with a lot of experience in the trade union movement. He led the gathering calmly, proficiently, and tactfully. He didn’t encounter any difficulties, because the others were also calm, earnest, and focused.
Serious accusations, explained the Chair, had been brought to the party against Comrade Broide. The complainants were Furrier Union activists and were present. The accused Comrade Broide was also present. Comrade N. , a union activist, would take the floor. He would bring forth the facts to build the basis of the accusation.
“As you know, comrades,” began Comrade N., “the Union is engaged in an important and difficult strike. In opposition, we have the bosses, their hired muscle, the police, and the hostile press. De-tek-tivs (undercover agents) invade the meeting halls where strikers gather and arrest important strike leaders. Corrupt judges, who are working hand in hand with the bosses, send the strikers to prison and fine them huge amounts in order to exhaust the strike fund and break the strikers’ morale. Our most difficult struggle, however, is turning out to be the one against Socialist obstacles within and without. Their plan is to break the strike, as well as the Union, all in order to discredit the left union leaders. Their newspaper openly agitates for workers to scab. But the strikers have loyalty to the left leadership.
“The party comrades in the Union,” he continued, “are active day and night on the picket lines and in the various strike committees together with the strikers. With their work they inspire self respect and raise the prestige of the party among the strikers. Avreml, I mean Comrade Broide, is one of the most active comrades. You know his merits, and I don’t have to belabor them.
“A few days ago, Comrade Broide came to me, as the chair of the General Strike Committee, and confided that he had perpetrated a damaging act. I had sent him to investigate a shop. He found a scab there, but instead of bringing him to the Union, he let him go. If the strikers found out about this, they would lose their faith in us, and the strike would be greatly weakened. Therefore, I brought this charge against Comrade Broide,” concluded Comrade N. and sat down.
The chair gave the floor to other Union activists. All of them upheld the accusation and supported the complaint against Comrade Broide.
“Comrade Broide,” the Chair addressed Avreml, “do you comprehend the seriousness of the accusation against you?”
“Do you want to make an explanation? I assure you that the bureau will give you every opportunity to explain the situation.”
Looking pale, Avreml got up from his seat. He noticed how everyone’s eyes were pointed at him. He moistened his dry lips with his tongue. At first he lowered his eyes, as if he were looking for something on the floor. But then he straightened himself up and began to speak. He didn’t speak about himself as a lawyer would but as a plaintiff.
“Everything that Comrade N. said is correct,” he began. “I do comprehend the seriousness of the act I committed. That is why I went to Comrade N. and told him the whole truth. I am prepared to accept the appropriate punishment, but I don’t want the strike to be damaged by this. The strike . . .” Avreml’s voice choked up. “The strike is the most important thing. I am not important. I don’t want to defend myself or justify myself. I would only like for you to know everything about my act, including the personal aspects and the subjective motivations, that moved me to behave in this manner. To that end, please permit me to recount what happened in more detail.”
He told of his encounter with Morris on that night and also about the role Morris had played earlier in his life. His speech was long, and it might have seemed that many of the things he presented had nothing to do with the matter at hand. But the chair didn’t interrupt him, and the others listened to his speech with deep attention.
“And that, comrades, is the pure truth,” ended Avreml. “It is clear that I don’t have enough experience, that I am still gullible. This is my error, a grave error, of course. And you should sentence me strictly. I am certain, however, that as you do, you will take into account my record as a union activist and a party activist. I have always monitored myself to maintain a spotless party reputation. It is my fault that I allowed myself to be deceived by Morris. I admit that. But comrades, this is not an act of intentional betrayal. I would sooner sacrifice my life than betray the party. I’m done. You can be sure that whatever you decide, I will honor it in a spirit of loyalty to the party and to the labor movement.”
The deliberations began. The bureau members discussed the matter calmly, objectively, politically. In Avreml’s act, his comrades didn’t see only a personal act but also a symptom of the instability that derives from insufficient Marxist-Leninist knowledge. The case of Comrade Broide, they concluded, should serve as a warning to the party that it must become more rigorous in the political education of its members.
At the discussion’s conclusion, several motions were proposed, and the bureau unanimously decided:
- That the party recognizes the loyal and valuable work of Comrade Broide,
- That namely because Comrade Broide is such an important party activist, he must be made an example for others not to enter into any compromises with a scab without the knowledge of the Union leadership. Therefore, Comrade Broide deserves the sharpest censure and he is strongly warned against opportunistic deviants.
- That if Comrade Broide, or any other comrade, should in the future need to make any of his own decisions about his assigned responsibilities, he must bring the matter to the accountable committee unless it is absolutely impossible.
- That Comrade Broide must register for courses in the workers school  where he must take English, political economics, trade unionism, and other important subjects.
- That the party bureau sentences him as a Communist and as a party member. Therefore, the handling of Comrade Broide should be brought forth in a deliberation to the entire picketing committee, and the party comrades should use this incident as a lesson for others, to teach strikers about the proper methods of strike leadership.
The Chair read out the decisions and made a brief summary of the entire affair.
“Comrade Broide,” he addressed Avreml, “you have a very robust sense of loyalty. That is good. But when a comrade forgets his primary responsibility to his union and his party, even for one moment, due to his loyalty to a personal friend, it could eventually lead to a system of personal favors charged to the labor movement’s account. As a Communist you can have only one kind of loyalty—faithfulness to the labor movement, and that means not least to the party, because the interests of the labor movement are also the interests of the party. They are one and the same. You, Comrade Broide, put your loyalty to your former friend above your loyalty to your union and your party. I hope you understand your mistake, and I warn you, in a comradely spirit, about that sort of personal loyalty.
Years later, Avreml would be put to an even harder test between personal and party loyalty. At this moment, though, he felt strengthened by the party verdict. He was excited, if surprised, by the ruling that he had to enroll in the workers school and take up serious learning.
 See page 125 of Philip Foner’s The Fur and Leather Workers Union, where he explains the political shift of the Jewish Daily Forward and the impetus for founding the Morgen Freiheit in 1922, because “a Yiddish paper was needed which would expose the role of the Forward and its right-wing allies in the Union leadership.”
 Possibly a reference to Charles Nemeroff, secretary of the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union, the Communist-affiliated, industry-wide union that advanced the party’s “Dual Union” strategy until 1937, when it was replaced with the “Popular Front” emphasis.
 Possibly a reference to The Jewish Workers University, an adult education program run by the Jewish Section of the Communist Party. It offered classes in politics, economics, Yiddish literature, etc. See The Jew and Communism (New York: Trade Union Sponsoring Committee, 1959), 209–210. Thanks to Dylan Kaufman-Obstler for the citation.
Annie Sommer Kaufman is an active member of the Yiddishist community. She served as the coordinator of Yiddish Vokh for five years, was on the founding board of Yiddish Farm, and currently teaches Yiddish through the Arbeter Ring and YIVO in Chicago. She teaches Talmud at The Lace Midrash and runs the sewing program at RefugeeOne, Illinois’s largest refugee resettlement agency. The above chapters come from her work on Avreml Broide as a translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in 2020.