BOREKH-NAKHMEN VLADEK-TSHARNI (VLADECK, CHARNEY) (January 13, 1886-October 30, 1938)
He was born in Dukor (Dukora), Minsk district, Byelorussia. His father Zev-Volf Tsharni (Charney) ran a leather goods shop in town and was an ardent Lyubavitsh Hassid; he died young (1889) from tuberculosis, and his wife Brokhe (née Hurvits) survived him at age thirty-five with six children (one daughter and five sons; the three younger sons were: Shmuel, later Shmuel Niger; Borekh-Nakhmen, later B. Vladek; and the youngest son Donye, later the poet and family chronicler Daniel Charney). Their mother, a descendant of the Shelah Hakodesh [R. Yeshaya Hurvits], was an intelligent and learned woman, a woman who read the prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue and who spoke in “parables and allusions”: “her letters were literature,” recounted Vladek of her. She continued to maintain the leather goods shop and supported the family. She sent the children to study with the best teacher in town and later to Minsk on Totersher Street or in the small Totersher Synagogue there. Just like his older brother Shmuel, Borekh-Nakhmen “ate days” (roomed and boarded with different families on different days of the week) while studying Talmud with commentaries, later turning his attention to secular subject matter and preparing for a high school diploma as an external student. After the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, he joined the first advent of the Labor Zionist movement and administered the student group “Talmide akiva” (Students of R. Akiva), a circle of lovers of the Hebrew language. In January 1904 he was arrested for membership in the Labor Zionists and thrown into jial in Minsk. In the general cell for the political prisoners, he studied arithmetic, geography, and literature with the others. For him personally, jail served as an excellent school; he read a great deal there, became acquainted with the major figures in world literature, and already there became a favorite as an idealistic leader and extraordinary speaker. He was selected to be in charge of the politicals, and when governor of Minsk at the time, the liberal Aleksei Musin-Pushkin, paid a visit to the jail, Vladek made a speech with demands on behalf of the political arrestees. He was also in the leadership of a hunger strike that the politicals declared to gain tangible support to buttress their demands. In jail he—in part under the influence of the Bundists Samuil Bernshteyn and Kolya Teper who were then with him there—changed his political beliefs; he left the Labor Zionists and moved closer to the Bund; the 200-ruble bail for his release was furnished by the Bund. In September 1904, shortly after being freed from jail, he formally joined the Bund, and he was promptly introduced to the central assembly of Bundist workers’ vocations.
It so happened at that time that there was a general strike of “shop assistants” (prikazchikes), and taking advantage of the freer political atmosphere under Musin-Pushkin, people were called a mass meeting in a large school, at which Vladek gave his celebrated speech which began with the words, “Kamashi, kaloshi—khoroshii tovar” (Shoe, rubbers—good merchandise), the words with which shop clerks entice customers into their shops. After the historic events of January 9, 1905, the Bund in St. Petersburg attempted to lead a general strike in Minsk as well, and they sent Vladek to get the workers at a large factory to come join in. Not far from the tanneries in Lyakhovka, a division of Cossacks swept down on them violently with blackjacks and swords, and left him bloodied in the snow on the street (scars from the blows sustained remained on his face for his entire life). The nineteen-year-old revolutionary could no longer stay in Minsk—the police were now hunting for him—and the party sent him on illegal propaganda work into the “district,” meaning through the towns of Byelorussia and Lithuania. For the greater portion of 1905, the “second Lassalle” (as people were now calling him) cooled his heels in Vilna, as he became a legend in the city. At the time he also spent several months in the Number 14 cell in the jail at Lukishkes Square (Lukiškių aikštė) in Vilna. At the end of that year, he had to flee from Vilna, and through the Polish district committee of the Bund, he carried out revolutionary work in Warsaw, Lublin (where he was saved from arrest and even from death thanks to his extraordinary boldness and courage), Lodz (where he was tossed in jail and from which he was dispatched with a procession of convicts back to the Minsk jail), and then back to Vilna. He participated in the seventh congress of the Bund in Lemberg (August 1906). In this Polish period, he acquired—it is unknown precisely when and how—his Polish surname Vladek which he later, in the United States, adopted for his new family name. In those years he was also known by such party nicknames: B. Shvarts, Nakhmen Benedikt, and Moisey Vilner, among others. He also took part in the London conference of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (May 1907) and there supported Lenin’s Bolshevik faction.
In the same two violent years, Vladek’s literary talents began to emerge. His first piece in Yiddish was “Der balebos un di revolutsyonere yugend (a brif fun provints)” (The head man and the revolutionary youth, a letter from the provinces), published in the Bundist daily Folkstsaytung (People’s newspaper) 20 (March 14, 1906) in Vilna—which he signed “Bontsye shvaygs eynikl” (Bontshe Shvayg’s grandchild). In issue no. 50 of the newspaper, his “Briv fun homel” (Letter from Homel [Gomel]) appeared and was signed Moisey Vilner. Later that same year, he published in the same paper “Briv fun poyln” (Letter from Poland) now using the name “Vladek” and at the end of 1906 (no. 22) an article which he signed “Bonye Brokhes.” Under these pseudonyms Vladek wrote the series “Funem togbukh [later, notitsn] fun a val-agitator” (From the diary [later, notes] of an agitator at the ramparts), polemical and theoretical articles in the newspaper, until it folded in August 1907, and in the subsequent Bundist serial Di hofenung (The hope) from September and thereafter. In October this newspaper also closed down, and in one of its last issues (no. 35), Vladek began his series “Blayfeder notitsn”—or “Blayshtift notitsn”—(Pencil notes) concerning literature and various cultural issues, including an article on Morris Rozenfeld. In the Bundist weekly Der morgnshtern (The Morningstar), which on November 16, 1907 superseded Di hofenung, now closed, was a continuation in the very first issue of Vladek’s literary notes—an article about Avrom Reyzen’s poetry. In 1908 he resumed writing his “Pencil notes” concerned with literary criticism, as well as other essays and articles, in such Bundist publications as Di naye tsayt (The new times), an anthology (volumes 1, 3, and 4), and Der tog ershaynt af shabes (The day, published on the Sabbath), a weekly (between September and December 1908). He also made in those his first attempt at poetry and stories in the collections published by “Di velt” (The world) publishers in Vilna in 1907: Friling (Spring), Herbst-bleter (Autumn sheets), Khanike blat (Hanukkah sheet), and Lekoved peysekh (In honor of Passover). He also published in H. D. Nomberg’s Literarishe flugblat (Literary leaflet) (Warsaw, 1908) and in Romantsaytung (Fiction newspaper) 23 (Warsaw, 1908).
Vladek came to the United States in late 1907 and took up writing immediately for the monthly Tsukunft (Future) in New York, where between 1909 and 1938 (the last year of his life) he published his best literary works, among them: the semi-fictional series “Kinder fun folk” (Children of the people); poems; descriptions of America and travel narratives; the play Moyshe rebeynu (Moses, our teacher); literary critical essays on both Jewish and Gentile writers; portraits of famous people; and political articles by the dozens. He also contributed to: the socialist weekly Der arbayter (The worker) in New York (1909); Idishe arbayter velt (World of Jewish labor) in Chicago (1908-1918); the anthology Troymer un virklekhkayt (Dreamer and reality) in New York (1909); the collection Literatur (Literature) in New York (1910); between March 1915 and November 1918 in Der idisher sotsyalist (The Jewish socialist) and between 1915 and 1918 in Di naye velt (The new world) (New York), he published his series “Brivlekh tsu a fraynd” (Letters to a friend) and continued the “Pencil notes” criticism, among other works; from time to time between 1911 and 1936, he published articles as well in Der fraynd (The friend), organ of the Workmen’s Circle (New York), and Minikes peysekh-blat (Minikes’s Passover sheet) (New York) in 1920, 1922, and 1930; he was an intensive contributor to Der veker (The alarm), organ of the Jewish socialist union (New York); a number of articles as well in Fraye arbeter shtime (Free voice of labor) in 1913 in New York; and he wrote hundreds of articles on all significant issues, both in the Jewish and in the general political and cultural community life for the Forverts (Forward) from 1910 until the end of his life (New York). With the close editorial cooperation of Kolya Teper and Leon Savidge, in 1917 Vladek published in book form a one-volume, highly valuable anthology entitled Fun der tifenish fun hartsn, a bukh fun laydn un kamf (From the depths of the heart, a book of suffering and struggle), drawings by S. Raskin (New York: Miler and Hillman), 546 pp., in which he published fragments of Russian, German, French, English, Old Yiddish, and Modern Yiddish literature, with short notes on the cited writers and famed personalities. On his fiftieth birthday in 1936, the Forward Association in New York published (under the editorship of Yefim Yeshurin and an editorial board consisting of A. Held, M. Denish, Y. Vaynberg, and D. Meyer) the book, B. vladek in lebn un shafn (The life and work of B. Vladek) (437 pp.), with an introduction by the editors, a biography of Vladek by Y. Kesin, a bibliography of Vladek’s writings compiled by Yefim Yeshurin, and a great number of Vladek’s works—primarily those published in America. The collection of his work is divided into: “Poems” (all manner of poetry and prose poems); “Children of the people” (stories from life); “Drama” (the short biblical drama, Moyshe rebeynu, a historical play in five acts); “From a notebook: (feature pieces, travel narratives, and “Letters to a friend”); “Natural wonders of America” (mainly, descriptions of California); and “Short essays” and “Literary notes” (Critical pieces on Perets, Dinezon, Sholem-Aleykhem, Morris Rozenfeld, Yehoash, Bialik, Liessin, Shneur, Leivick, Bergelson, and Libin, among others). None of his newspaper articles on politics appeared in the collection. Vladek also edited Teater-blat (Theater newspaper) in 1910; wrote the pamphlet Hundert finf un tsvantsig bilyon (125 billion) (New York: Jewish propaganda office), 48 pp.; translated [from English] Reporter un sotsyalist (Reporter and socialist) by Alexander Jonas (New York: Forverts, 1912), 47 pp. In his later years, Vladek also contributed to the socialist press in English, publishing articles and reviews in: Nation, Herald Tribune, Locomotive Engineers Journal, and others.
In 1911 Vladek married Clara Richman, a nurse at the Henry Street Settlement on the East Side. Soon thereafter they moved to Philadelphia, where he became in December 1912 manager of the local Forverts office. They lived there until 1916. He attended courses at the Teachers College at the University of Pennsylvania, gained a thorough mastery of English, American history, and literature, and worked actively in the Jewish socialist federation, for the Workmen’s Circle, and for the Socialist Party. In 1915 he became an American citizen, and in 1916 moved to New York where he became city editor of Forverts and managed the second electoral campaign of Meyer London for Congress that same year. In 1918 he became the general business manager of the Forverts and held this position until the end of his life. He forged such a successful political career, of course, in and through the Socialist Party. In 1917 he was for the first time elected on the Socialist ticket to the New York Board of Aldermen (city council) from Williamsburg district in Brooklyn. In 1918, 1920, and 1921 he was reelected to this post. During WWI he contributed to the People’s Relief Committee, and he would later represent Jewish labor on the Joint Distribution Committee. In the early 1920, he stood at the forefront of fighters against Communism in the Jewish labor movement, and after the rift in the Socialist Party (1921) he was very active in the Jewish socialist union. In 1924 he made a trip to Europe and stayed a lengthy time in Poland as a guest of the organized Jewish labor movement; in 1929 he stood at the head of a committee that led the “tools campaign” on behalf of needy Jewish craftsmen in Europe; he later stood at the lead of the American “ORT” (Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades), and chaired thereafter the Jewish labor committee of YIVO. In the 1930s, Vladek evinced a great interest in ideas of municipal and societal housing construction, and in that field actually acquired considerable acclaim in New York and more widely in America. He was one of the directors of the cooperative houses of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in the United States, and in 1934 he was named by Mayor LaGuardia to be a member of the New York Housing Authority, and from there a great initiative was forthcoming and greater energy which he demonstrated in the field of public housing construction. Vladek believed strongly in the need for a labor party in America, and he worked hard for the establishment of such a party; in 1937 he was elected by the Labor Party to the city council—all the radical and socialist bodies united in the election campaign in New York. In 1936 he made long trip through Europe, Soviet Russia, and Israel. At the time he was having trouble with his eyes and was threatened with going blind. In the final two years of his life, his energy flowed over everywhere; he was tied to every democratic Jewish organization that was engaged in relief work, and this ultimately destroyed his strength. He had a heart attack while working at the Forverts office on Friday, October 28, 1938, and on Sunday, October 30 he died. Hundreds of thousands of mourners came to his funeral, November 2, 1938. The Yiddish press throughout the world and the English press in the United States dedicated lengthy articles and detailed descriptions of his life.
Sources: The literature on Vladek is rich, but more than anything else, it is spread throughout journals, newspapers, and books. We have assembled here a small but important portion therein: “Biblyografye fun vladeks shriftn” (Bibliography of Vladek’s writings), compiled by Yefim Yeshurin, in B. vladek in lebn un shafn (The life and work of B. Vladek) (New York, 1936), pp. 426-37; Y. Kisin, “B. vladeks byografye” (Biography of B. Vladek), in B. vladek in lebn un shafn, pp. 13-52; B. vladek in der opshatsung fun zayne fraynd (B. Vladek in the judgment of his friends) (New York: Forward Association, 1936), 173 pp. in Yiddish, 50 pp. in English, with articles and poems from nearly fifty writers; Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 1; John Herling, in American Jewish Yearbook, vol. 41 (Philadelphia, 1939), pp. 79-93; Algernon Lee, in Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (New York, 1943), pp. 429-30; V. Medem, Fun mayn lebn (From my life), vol. 2 (New York, 1923), p. 203; B. Mikhalevitsh, Zikhroynes fun a yidishn sotsyalist (Memoirs of a Jewish socialist), vol. 3 (Warsaw, 1929), p. 137; D. Tsharni (Charney), Barg aroyf (Uphill) (Warsaw, 1934), see index; Charney, Vilne (Vilna) (Buenos Aires, 1951), pp. 53-54, 66-75, 78-81, 91; Charney, “Kh’bakum plutsling fun yener velt a bintl brif fun der mamen” (I’m suddenly getting a bundle of letters from my mother from the other world), Der tog (New York) (August 7, 1954); Charney, A litvak in poyln (A Lithuanian Jew in Poland) (New York, 1955), pp. 74, 93-111, 139-40; Vilne (Vilna), anthology edited by Y. Yeshurin (New York, 1935), see index; A. Liessin, “Borekh vladek” (Borekh Vladek), an obituary poem, Tsukunft (New York) (November 1938); Zalmen Reyzen and Y. Tshernikhov, in Vilner tog (Vilna) (November 2 and 4, 1938); Tsukunft (December 1938), dedicated to Vladek’s memory; N. B. Minkov, in Kultur un dertsiung (New York) (December 1938); Y. Borukhov (Y. Kharlash), in Foroys (Johannesburg) (November-December 1938); H. Avramovitsh, in Der veker (New York) (December 1, 1939); Moyshe Shtarkman, in Hadoar (New York) (4 Sivan [= May 23], 1947); Tsukunft (December 1948)—three articles on Vladek; Sh. Mendelson, in Shloyme mendelson, zayn lebn un shafn (The life and work of Shloyme Mendelson) (New York, 1949), pp. 402-5; G. Medem, A lebnsveg (A life) (New York, 1950), pp. 149-50; Y. Sh. Herts, 50 yor arbeter ring (Fifty years of the Workmen’s Circle) (New York, 1950), see index; Herts, Di yidishe sotsyalistishe bavegung in amerike (The Jewish socialist movement in America) (New York, 1954), see index; Herts, Di geshikhte fun bund in lodz (The history of the Bund in Lodz) (New York, 1958), see index; Y. N. Shteynberg, Mit eyn fus in amerike (With one foot in America) (Mexico City, 1951), pp. 19, 29, 64-70, 147-51; F. Kurski, Gezamlte shriftn (Collected writings) (New York, 1952), see index; A. Liessin, Zikhroynes un bilder (Memories and images) (New York, 1954), pp. 295-311; Y. Y. Sigal, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (March 26, 1954); B. Y. Byalostotski, Kholem un var (Dream and reality) (New York, 1956), pp. 418-27; D. Shedletski, in Der veker (November 1, 1958); R. Abramovitsh, in Forverts (New York) (November 11, 1958); Kh. Gotesfeld, in Forverts (January 27 and February 5, 1959); Y. Shlosberg, in Tog-morgn zhurnal (New York) (July 18, 1959).