MIKHL (MIKHAIL) ZAMETKIN (1859/1960-March 7, 1935)
He was born in Odessa. His father was a hatter and had a small shop where he sold hats that he made himself. Ignoring his poverty, he sent his son to study in the Odessa Commercial School. Mikhl early on joined the revolutionary movement and in 1877-1878 was one of the twenty-eight members of the first Odessa “kruzshok” (circle) which established an illegal school to teach Jewish youngsters Russian and socialism. In 1880 he was already being watched by the police, and two years later, for political reasons, he made his way to the United States where he arrived on August 20, 1882 at the head of the Odessa group of “Am Olam” (Eternal people) [groups aimed at establishing agricultural colonies in the United States]; en route they were joined by the second section of the Vilna “Am Olam” group with Avrom Kaspe at the head. He worked for years in New York, stitching shirts for $4-$5 each week, and he was one of the main organizers (with Morris Hilkovitsh [Hilkvit], Louis Miller, and other socialist pioneers who were also working in the trade at that time) of the union of shirtmakers (one of the very first Jewish trade unions in America). Right after arriving in New York, he took a prominent position among the pioneers in the Jewish socialist movement in America, and his name was linked with virtually all efforts and experiments (political, trade union, culturally enlightened, and literary) of that movement over the course of the 1880s and 1890s. Already in 1882 he joined the “Propaganda Association” (which the student F. Mirovitsh had only just founded and for which Abraham Cahan was the principal speaker); and that year he was a cofounder of the “Self-Study Association” which, just like the “Propaganda Association,” only existed for a short time, later of the “Russian Workers’ Association,” the “Russian Labor Lyceum,” and the “Russian Progressive Association.” He was one of the most beloved and influential propagandists (in Russian) of the “Jewish Workers’ Association” (founded in April 1885, just after the collapse of its predecessor, the “Russian Jewish Workers’ Association”), which lasted until the latter half of 1887 and played a significant political role at that time. Among the Jewish socialists and the “Am Olam” people, Zametkin was known as a social democrat, but his views were, like other socialists of that time, rather more hazy, and in 1886 he was part of the “Committee of Eleven” that the socialist “Jewish Workers’ Association” appointed to lead agitation for the candidacy of Henry George (author of Progress and Poverty, a reformer, but not a socialist) for the position of mayor of New York City; Zametkin later described this in his article, “Undzer ershter kompromis” (Our first compromise), Tsayt-gayst (Spirit of the times) in New York (August 31, 1906). Also for a short time he belonged to the anarchist group “Pyonire der frayhayt” (Pioneers of freedom), founded in 1886. Bit by bit, however, his ideological views became clearer and more defined. That same year he was one of those who influenced the “Jewish Workers’ Association” in its decision to join the Socialist Labor Party (S.L.P.) in America, and at the end of 1887—just after the “Jewish Workers’ Association” abolished itself—he joined the group of Jewish socialists who organized within the S.L.P. a “Jewish Branch” of the party (Branch #8). Furthermore, in 1888 he was one of those who separated from the branch and founded “Branch #17” for the Russian-speaking Jewish socialists in the S.L.P.; Zametkin spoke and wrote throughout in Russian, only switching to Yiddish in 1892. Following the initiative of Branches #8 and #17, in October 1889, the United Hebrew Trades was founded, and he was one of the most beloved and successful propagandists in founding new unions among Jewish laborers, in New York as well as in other cities (Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston). In December 1889 at the joint conference of Jewish anarchists and social democrats, with the goal of publishing together an impartial workers’ newspaper in New York (at the historic convention which gave the final push to the founding of two solid workers’ newspaper), Zametkin was a delegate from the Chicago “Continued Education Association” where he participated with the anarchists. When the social democrats deserted the conference on the basis of a decision to publish their own newspaper, he left with the social democrats, and nine weeks later (March 1890) there appeared the social democratic weekly Di arbayter tsaytung (The workers’ newspaper); Zametkin became one of its main leaders and remained as such until 1902 when the newspaper ceased publication. He was initially associated with the radical wing of the newspaper and for many years wrote on serious economic and socio-political issues—all illuminated from a Marxist standpoint. He also wrote semi-fictional stories and allegories which always carried a socialist propagandistic character—one of them, entitled “Un dan?” (And, then?), was published in Tsukunft (Future) in New York in 1894. He published current events articles as well in the daily Dos abend-blat (The evening newspaper) which the Jewish social democrats, together with the United Hebrew Trades, published from 1894 until 1902, and in Zuntog abend-blat (Sunday evening newspaper) which was published in 1896. Zametkin also spoke and wrote on literature. He was almost the best Yiddish speakers on literature—mainly on Russian literature—in the early 1890s, but the literary topics as well served only as a canvas to express social democratic propaganda.
At the time of the rift in the S.L.P. in January 1897, he left with the opposition (Ab. Cahan, Louis Miller, Morris Wintshevsky, and others), and when it was decided to publish the Forverts (Forward) (first issue appearing April 22, 1897), he and Cahan traveled across the country to collect money for the newspaper. He later became Cahan’s right-hand man at the newspaper, and, when Cahan resigned several months later from his editorial post, Zametkin assumed this position and over the years 1900-1901 he shared the editor’s chair with Louis Miller. In those years, he wrote a great deal for the newspaper, and he remained a regular contributor for decades afterward. He was also editor of the weekly Der sotsyal-demokrat (The social democrat), which the “Kangaroos” (members of the second opposition who split off from the S.L.P. in 1899) began to publish in New York on October 7, 1900. In searching for a national expression for the Jewish socialist movement in America, which transpired among the ranks of the members—this time from the Socialist Party (S.P., led by Eugene Debs) over the course of the first decade of the twentieth century—Zametkin took up a sharply negative position which he expressed in his writing for Forverts, Tsayt-gayst (a weekly put out by the Forverts), Tsukunft, and elsewhere. When a debate began (following the founding of the “Jewish Agitation Bureau” in 1905) over the need for a national conference of Jewish socialists, which would create a purely Jewish socialist federation, he ridiculed (in a long article in Tsayt-gayst, January 25 and February 1, 1907) the “solitariness” which is no more than “an illness which can and must be cured,” because “only what is polluted must be kept in quarantine, only lepers are kept outside the camp,” while the healthy ones do not separate themselves from anyone. Zametkin’s socialism, in his speech and his writing, was cosmopolitan, although over the course of fifty years he spoke only to Jewish workers. He also did translations from Russian, English, and French which appeared in various publications. Among his books: A Russian Shylock, a play in four acts (New York, 1906), 135 pp.; a translation of Émile Zola’s La Bête humane (The human beast) as Di tsveyfisike khaye (The biped animal), together with his wife, the writer Adela Kiyen (New York: Forverts Publ., 1911), 554 pp.; translation of Allan L. Benson’s Sotsyalizmus un zayn rikhtige badaytung (Socialism and its proper meaning [original: Socialism Made Plain]) (New York: Forverts Publ., 1917), part 1, 133 pp., part 2, 128 pp.; N. Chernishevski’s novel, Vos tut men? (What is to be done? [original: Chto delat’]), together with Adela Kiyen (New York: Literarisher Publ., 1917), part 1, 255 pp., part 2, 288 pp.—the name of the translator is not indicated in the book, but Zalmen Reyzen deduced as much in his Leksikon (in the biographies for M. Zametkin and Adela Kiyen).
He was active as a speaker, lecturer, and writer until 1925, when a severe illness over a long period of time interrupted his activities. He was so weak the last ten years of his life that he could scarcely move. He was living in the Bialystoker Home for the Aged on East Broadway. Lonely and desolate (his wife predeceased him), he died on March 7, 1935. He remains were cremated—one day later. His daughter is the American Anglophone writer Laura Z. Hobson.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Y. Entin, “M. Zametkins ‘a rusishe shaylok’” (M. Zametkin’s “A Russian Shylock”), Tsukunft (New York) (August 1906); H. Burgin, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher arbayter-bavegung in amerike, rusland un England (The history of the Jewish labor movement in America, Russia, and England) (New York, 1915), see index; B. Vaynshteyn, Fertsik yor in der idisher arbeter bavegung, bletlekh erinerungen (Forty years in the Jewish labor movement, pages of experiences) (New York: Der Veker, 1924), pp. 51, 76, 81, 95, 115, 122-23, 133, 142, 187, 192, 201-3; Vaynshteyn, Di idishe yunyons in amerike, bleter geshikhte un erinerungen (The Jewish unions in America, pages from history and experience) (New York: United Hebrew Trades, 1929), see index; Y. Kapelyov, Amol in amerike (Once upon a time in America) (Warsaw, 1928), pp. 140, 143, 252; Ab. Cahan, Bleter fun mayn leyn (Pages from my life), vol. 2 (Vilna-Warsaw, 1928), p, 439; Moyshe Shtarkman, in Yivo-bleter (Vilna) 4.4-5 (1932), pp. 354-87; A. Zeldin, in Tog (New York) (June 11, 1932); Liliput, in Forverts (New York) (March 8, 1935) (also an editorial in the same issue); L. Finkelshteyn, in Der tog (March 11, 1935); Y. Milkh, Di antshteyung fun “forverts” (The rise of the Forverts) (New York, 1936), pp. 35-38; Dr. B. Hofman, Fuftsik yor kloukmakher-yunyon (Fifty years of the cloak makers’ union) (New York, 1936), . 84, 117, 122; Gr. Aronson, in Tsukunft (May-June 1942), pp. 278-79; Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (May-June 1942), p. 316; E. Shulman, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (History of Yiddish literature in America) (New York, 1943), pp. 64, 136; Geshikhte fun der yidisher arbeter-bavegung in di fareynikte shtatn (History of the Jewish labor movement in the United States), vol. 2 (New York, 1945), see index; H. Vigderson, in Forverts (August 17, 1952); Y. Sh. Herts, Di yidishe sotsyalistishe bavegung in amerike (The Jewish socialist movement in America) (New York, 1954), see index; L. Kobrin, Mayne fuftsik yor in amerike (My fifty years in America) (Buenos Aires, 1955), pp. 164-69.