Monday 13 November 2017


VLADIMIR MEDEM (July 30, 1879-January 9, 1923)
            He was born in Libave (Liepāja), Latvia, where his parents, longtime residents of Minsk (Byelorussia), were at the time living in the country.  His father, a prominent military doctor, had converted shortly after his son’s birth, and he was thus raised in the Russified environs of his parents’ home, often frequented by the wealthy Jewish intellectuals of Minsk as well as Russian officers and clerks.  Irrespective of the fact that his parents were still officially Jews during his childhood, his father converted to Protestantism several months before his own death, as did his wife, Medem’s mother; his brothers and sister were baptized and withdrew completely from Judaism—Vladimir Medem received an Orthodox Christian education, going every Sunday and Christian holidays to church, and Christianity made a strong impact on his religious sensibility as a boy.  Later, in the Minsk high school, under the influence of his Jewish friends, there began to develop within him a Jewish awareness; in addition, his great enthusiasm for the Bible attracted him to Judaism, and he even mastered a bit of Hebrew from neighboring children.  After completing high school, he entered Kiev University to continue his studies.  He was initially enrolled in the medical faculty, but medicine was, apparently, not satisfying, and one year later he switched to the law faculty.  In university he became acquainted with the doctrines of socialism, began studying political economy, and was drawn into the student revolutionary movement.  In February 1899 there were student protests at Russian senior high schools against the brutal treatment by St. Petersburg police who had in a beastly manner dispersed a peaceful student demonstration.  Kiev University was a center of student unrest, and the authorities used repression, closed down the university, and arrested several students.  Medem was among those arrested.  Later, as he spent several weeks in the Kiev jail, he was expelled from the university and dispatched from Kiev to his hometown of Minsk.  There Medem grew close to Jewish laborers and to the Jewish masses generally.  His friends—Yitskhok Teomim, Yasha Kaplan, and others—introduced him to the underground Jewish movement, to Jewish workers, and to the Bund.  In the spring of 1900 he formally became a member of the Bund, and this was also his first step on the road to the Jewish people.  Medem’s literary work also began at this time.  On assignment from the Bund, on May 1, 1900 he penned an appeal—pseudonymously as “Mark and M. Vinitski”—in Russian to the Christian workers and just after this two articles for the May Day issue of Der veker (The alarm), organ of the Brushmen’s Association: “Der ershter mai un der sotsyalizm” (May First and socialism) and “Der ershter mai un der politisher kamf” (May First and the political struggle).  These were the first articles of his in the Jewish socialist periodical press.  They were written in Russian—later they came by the hundreds in Yiddish, and they enriched both Bundist and general Jewish socialist journalism.  When the Minsk committee of the Bund in the autumn of 1900 began publishing the illegal newspaper Der minsker arbayter (The Minsk worker), Medem was a member of the editorial board.  In early 1901 he was arrested.  From the Minsk jail he was transferred to Moscow and incarcerated in the famous Taganka Prison.  In filling out a questionnaire in prison, for the first time Medem entered under the rubric “nationality”: “a Jew.”  Due to a chronic nervous disorder, he was released from prison on bail pending his trial.  Sentenced to five years exile in Siberia, Medem fled abroad, settled in Berne, Switzerland, entered university there, and soon became involved in the foreign activities of the Russian revolutionary movement.  In 1903 he was coopted onto the foreign committee of the Bund, moved to Geneva, and there (on a mission for the foreign committee) published in the Russian organ of the Bund, Vestnik Bunda (Bund herald), two major articles on the nationality question.  This work was later published in a special publication in Yiddish, entitled Di sotsyal-demokratye un di natsyonale frage (Social democracy and the national question), and in Yiddish it fundamentally formed the basis of the Bund’s nationality program with the principle: national-cultural autonomy.[1]  Medem was later a delegate to all the congresses of the Bund and was almost always a speaker on the nationality question.  He was also one of the representatives of the Bund at the second conference of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP, July-August 1903, Brussels-London), which completed the Bund’s secession from the general Russian party.  His oratorical talent had developed in the movement to a very high level, and he had become one of the most well-known speakers in the Bund and in the RSDLP.  On the trip home from London to Berne, Medem attended the sixth Zionist congress in Basel and wrote a pamphlet about it (published by the foreign committee of the Bund), as well as an article on Zionism for the illegal Arbayter shtime (Voice of labor).  Together with Mark Liber, he compiled a report on the fifth congress of the Bund in Zurich (June 1905).  In the summer of 1904 he participated as a Bundist delegate in the International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam.  In October 1905 he was a delegate (and frequently chairman) at the sixth congress of the Bund in Zurich, and as always gave a report of the nationality question.  In November he returned to Russia, lived mainly in Vilna, and served on the editorial board of Bundist publications in Russian, Nashe Slovo (Our word) and Nasha Tribuna (Our tribune) in Vilna-Kovno (1906 and 1907); and in them he published a series of articles on the question of reestablishing the link to the RSDLP (Medem belonged to the pro-faction, the so-called “Vaykhe” or “soft ones”).  He was also on the editorial board of the legal Bunidst daily Di folks-tsaytung (The people’s newspaper) and Di hofnung (The hope) which was published in Vilna (1906-1907), and he was also the editor of the Bundist weekly Der morgenshtern (The morning star) in Vilna (1907).  When the 1905 Revolution was suppressed and the reaction in Russia began to rage anew, Medem had once again to go abroad.  In 1907 he was one of the representatives of the Bund at the meeting with the RSDLP in London, where the re-establishment of contact with the Bund materialized.  From abroad Medem sent his writings to the Bund’s compilations, which were published (1908-1910) from time to time in Vilna.  Among other items, he published there: “Di yidishe kehile” (The Jewish community), Tsaytfragen (Issues of the time) 2; and “Natsyonalizm oder naytralizm” (Nationalism or neutralism), Tsaytfragen 3-4.  In 1910 he served as the representative of the Bund at the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen.  In those years he also wrote for a number of non-party Russian and Russian Jewish periodicals, such as: Evreiskii Mir (Jewish world) in 1909 and 1910; Evreiskoie obozrenie (Jewish survey) in 1910; and Vestnik evropy (European herald) in 1912; and in the Russian anthology Teoreticheskie i prakticheskie voprosy evreiskoi zhizni (Theoretical and practical questions of Jewish life) (St. Petersburg, 1911).  He was also a correspondent for the progressive Russian daily newspaper Den׳ (Day) in St. Petersburg.  In addition, he contributed to the German periodical Neue Zeit (New times), edited by Karl Kautsky, and he published polemical articles in Fraynd (Friend) in St. Petersburg.  In 1912 when the Bund decided to bring out a legal weekly newspaper in Russia, Di lebensfragen (The life issues), Medem became a leading figure on the board of editors based in Vienna.  The newspaper was published in Warsaw.  With its second issue the police shut it down, confiscated the issue, and arrested the members of the administration.  The Bund thereafter made a second attempt at a legal periodical, and this was the weekly Di tsayt (The times) in St. Petersburg (issue 1 appeared in print on December 20, 1912).  The newspaper had two editorial boards: one in Vienna (Medem, A. Litvak, R. Abramovitsh, and others) and a second one in St. Petersburg (H. Erlikh and B. Mikhalevitsh, among others).  To be closer to Di tsayt and to be able to better edit it, Medem decided to move back to Russia.  In late June 1913, he arrived in Kovno where his brother lived, but several days later he was arrested, transferred to Warsaw, and there imprisoned in the famed Tenth Pavilion of the Warsaw Citadel.  Disregarding his chronic illness, the prosecutor refused to release him on bail.  Medem spent the next twenty-five months in a variety of prisons, and at his trial on May 3, 1915 he was sentenced to four years of penal labor and the loss of all civil rights.  Meanwhile, the German offensive had begun, and the Russians had no time to evacuate the prison in which Medem was being confined at the time.  He was released on August 4, 1915, when Poland was under German occupation.
            A new chapter began in Medem’s life, “the international period in my life,” according to his own assessment.  The Bundist movement continued to unfold its work under new conditions, and one of its first goals was to publish its own periodical.  They succeeded in receiving permission to bring out Lebensfragen—initially as a weekly and from late 1918 as a daily—and Medem became the editor of it.  Until 1910 he was still writing and speaking in Russian.  He gave his first Yiddish speech in 1910, at the eighth congress of the Bund.  At first he wrote Yiddish in Roman letters, later turning to the Jewish alphabet for the revived Lebensfragen.  Not long would pass before he became its guiding spirit in Yiddish speech and writing, and all in his own style.  He also took the lead in the secular Jewish school movement.  He participated actively in the widespread petition campaign to the German occupying authorities concerning schools in Yiddish (they amassed at the time in Warsaw over 30,000 signatures and about 30,000 in Lodz).  He was a member of the first committee for secular Jewish schools, the “Dinezon-Medem-Raykhman Committee.”  When the group “Unzere kinder” (Our children) was founded in 1919, Medem was active in its effort to build a network of Jewish schools and children’s homes.  The name of Vladimir Medem became legendary in the Yiddish world.  At the same time, however, in 1919-1920 he found himself in difficult straits.  The general mood at the time, in the Bund as well, was friendly to the revolution in Russia, even after the Bolshevik coup.  Some embraced the formula of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  Medem was always a sharp opponent of Russian Bolshevism.  In the collection Unzer shtime (Our voice) in Warsaw, issue 1-3 (1918), he published an essay entitled “Der goyrl fun der rusisher revolutsye” (The fate of the Russian Revolution), in which inter alia he noted: “A minority that would impose such forms of life on the country, for which the country is not yet ready, can only govern with brute physical might, with the help of repression and of terrorist means.  The anti-democratism of the Bolshevik government, in this way, was the necessary step to push forward the logic of life.”  Medem’s political stance stood in contradiction to the majority of the movement, and he thus decided to leave Poland.  In late 1920 he departed for the United States, where he was received by Jewish labor with great love and respect.  He became a contributor to Forverts (Forward) in New York, and his journalistic articles were widely read and discussed.  He also began at this time to publish his memoirs.  He wrote for Tsukunft (Future), for the socialist Naye velt (New world), for Der fraynd (The friend), organ of the Workmen’s Circle, and other publications as well.  He also worked on behalf of the secular Jewish school curriculum in Poland.  Soon, though, he began to suffer from his chronic nervous ailment, and on January 9, 1923 he died in New York.  He was buried near the graves of Sholem-Aleykhem and Philip Krants.  His gravestone was engraved with the words: “Vladimir Medem, the legend of the Jewish labor movement.”  His death aroused great sadness everywhere, especially among those who had stood together with him in work and struggle for the ideals to which he devoted his entire conscious life.  Jewish labor throughout the world, particularly in Poland, immortalized Medem’s name in dozens of institutions, organizations, and societies.  The Jewish school movement named the Jewish teachers’ seminary in Vilna in his name.  The name Medem also adorned the most beautiful institution of the secular Jewish school movement in Poland: the children’s sanatorium in Myedzeshin (Miedzeszyn).
            Medem’s writings in book form include: in 1917 a collection of his writings appeared in print, Zikhroynes un artiklen, mitn bild un byografye fun oytor (Memoirs and articles, with a picture and biography of the author), biography by “D. K-l” (Dovid Kasel) (Warsaw: Yidish, 1917), 170 + 14 pp.—which included: 1. “Turme-zikhroynes” (Prison memoirs), written in the form of a letter to a friend; 2. “Natsyonalizm, asimilatsye un sotsyal-demokratye” (Nationalism, assimilation, and social democracy); 3. “Di alveltlekhe yidishe natsye” (The universal Jewish nation); 4. “Natsyonalizm un naytralizm” (Nationalism and neutralism); 5. “Tifer in lebn” (Deeper in life), programmatic points in school and cultural issues; 6. “Nokh a mol, mir un undzer natsyonalizm” (One more time, we and our nationalism); and 7. “Yidish” (Yiddish), the role of the Yiddish language.  A subsequent collection of his articles appeared in Warsaw in 1920, Fun mayn notits-bukh (From my notebook), 135 pp.  This volume was published a second time in 1929 as a bonus from Folks-tsaytung (People’s newspaper).  In New York he published a two-volume autobiographical work, Fun mayn lebn (From my life) (New York: Vladimir Medem Committee, 1923), vol. 1, 338 pp., vol. 2, 336 pp., with a foreword by Abraham Kahan.[2]  His Sotsialdemokratiia i natsionalʹnyi vopros (Social democracy and the nationality question) was included in the Russian-language collection Marksizm i natsionalʹnyi vopros (Marxism and the nationality question) (Kharkov, 1923).  Medem also made use of a few pseudonyms: Mark, M. Vinitski, G. Raf, V-ki, Ben Dovid, V. M., and in 1943, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, there was published in New York the anthology Vladimir medem, tsum tsvantsikstn yortsayt (Vladimir Medem, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death) (New York: American representatives of the Bund in Poland), 367 pp.  Aside from a preface by the publishers, this volume includes the following works about Medem’s life and work: Sofye Dubnov-Erlikh, “Dos lebn fun Vladimir medem” (The life of Vladimir Medem), pp. 25-123; John Mill, “Vladimir medem in oyslendishn komitet fun ‘bund’” (Vladimir Medem in the foreign committee of the Bund), pp. 124-29; V. Kosovski, “Vladimir medem un di natsyonale frage” (Vladimir Medem and the nationality question), pp. 130-40; V. Shulman, “Medem in poyln” (Medem in Poland), pp. 141-59; “Fun medems pen” (From Medem’s pen), a bibliographic listing of his writings, pp. 363-67; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, “V. medem un di yidish-veltlekhe shul” (V. Medem and the secular Jewish school).  There is also in this collection a series of twelve articles, “Fun medems literarisher yerushe” (From Medem’s literary bequest), as well as a number of pictures from Medem’s life.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, with a bibliography; B. Vladek, in Forverts (New York) (January 11, 1923); Al. Sintovski, in Tsukunft (New York) (February 1923); A. Kartashinski, in Tsukunft (March 1923); Gina Medem, in Tsukunft (March 1923); Medem, in Morgn-frayhayt (New York) (June 23, 1947); G. Medem, A lebnsveg (A life path) (New York, 1950); H. Kramarski, in Tsukunft (April 1923); B. Mikhalevitsh, Zikhroynes fun a yidishn sotsyalist (Memoirs of a Jewish socialist), vol. 3 (Warsaw, 1923); Mikhalevitsh, Geshtaltn un perzenlekhkeytn, gezamlte artiklen vegn denker un tuer fun der arbeter-bavegung (Figures and personalities, collected articles on thinkers and leaders of the labor movement) (Warsaw, 1938); Y. Kharlash, in Naye veg (Riga) (January 1926); B. Tsvien, in Tsukunft (February 1928); Vl. Kosovski, in Tsukunft (March 1928); M. Rafes, Kapitlen geshikhte fun bund (Chapters in the history of the Bund) (Kiev, 1929); A. Kirzhnits, in Visnshaftlekhe yorbikher (Scholarly annuals), vol. 1 (Moscow, 1929); F. Prudermakher, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (January 1931); V. Shulman, in Folkstsaytung (Warsaw) (January 9, 1931); Shulman, in Unzer tsayt (January-February 1948); Ruvn Brainin, in Tog (New York) (October 9, 1932); H. Gilishenski, in Veker (New York) (February 1933); R. Abramovitsh, in Forverts (February 12, 1933); Abramovitsh, In tsvey revolutsyes (In two revolutions), vol. 1 (New York, 1944); F. Kurski, in Tsukunft (February 1933); H. Rogof, in Yorbukh fun dem semeteri-department, arbeter-ring (Annual of the Cemetery Department of the Workmen’s Circle) (New York, 1934); N. Gros, Vladimir medem, di legende fun der yidisher arbeter bavegung (Vladimir Medem, the legend of the Jewish labor movement) (New York, 1938); B. Tabatshinski, in Veker (January 29, 1938); E. Novogrudski, in Veker (February 1, 1940); the collection Arkadi (Arkady) (New York, 1942), see index; G. Aronson, in Tsukunft (May-June 1942); Aronson, Rusish-yidishe inteligentn (Russian-Jewish intellectuals) (Buenos Aires, 1962); John Mill, Pyonern un boyern (Pioneers and builders), vol. 1 (New York, 1946), vol. 2 (New York, 1949), see index; S. Kahan, Yidish-meksikanish (Jewish Mexican) (Mexico City, 1945); Z. Segalovitsh, Tlomatske 13, fun farbrentn nekhtn (13 Tłomackie St., of scorched yesterdays) (Buenos Aires, 1946), p. 156; A. Patkin, in Oyfboy (Melbourne) (February 1947); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, in Unzer tsayt (New York) (November-December 1947); Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), see index; Kazdan, Muntshn fun gayst un mut (Men of spirit and valor) (Buenos Aires, 1962); M. Vishnyak, in Tog (March 16, 1948); D. Eynhorn, in Veker (March 1, 1948; July 1, 1963); Eynhorn, in Forverts (July 28, 1957); Dr. A. Mukdoni, Oysland, mayne bagegenishn (Abroad, my encounters) (Buenos Aires, 1951), pp. 79ff; F. Kurski, Gezamlte shriftn (Collected writings) (New York, 1952), see index; P. Shvarts, in Unzer tsayt (January 1953); Y. Levin-Shatskes, in Veker (February 1, 1953); A. Lyesin, Zikhroynes un bilder (Memoirs and images) (New York, 1954), pp. 196ff; Y. Sh. Herts, Di yidishe sotsyalistishe bavegung in amerike (The Jewish socialist movement in America) (New York, 1954), see index; Herts, in Unzer tsayt (January 1963); B. Shefner, Novolipye 7, zikhroynes un eseyen (Nowolipie 7, memoirs and essays) (Buenos Aires, 1955), see index; Shefner, in Forverts (January 8, 1963; January 12, 1963); B. Kutsher, Geven amol varshe (As Warsaw once was) (Paris, 1955), see index; Avrom der Tate, Bleter fun mayn yugnt (Pages from my youth) (New York, 1959), see index; E. Almi, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (New York) (October 25, 1960); Y. Pat, in Veker (October 1, 1960); M. Veykhert, Varshe (Warsaw) (Tel Aviv, 1961), see index; Di geshikhte fun bund (The history of the Bund), vol. 2 (New York, 1962), see index; Arbeter ring boyer un tuer (Builders and leaders of the Workmen’s Circle) (New York, 1962); N. Khanin, in Fraynd (New York) (January-February 1963); Y. H. in Unzer tsayt 7-8 and 10 (1963); P. Vald, Geshtaltn fun yidishn velt-folk (Images of Jewish people of the world) (Buenos Aires, 1964).
Mortkhe-Velvl Bernshteyn

[1] The work was well known in journalistic—Russian and Yiddish—literature of that time and also years later, because Medem tried in it to explain the so-called “neutralism” of the Bund in connection with the future of the Jewish nationality—a stand that aroused a permanent polemic, both outside Bundist circles as well as within the party.  Medem himself later opposed “neutralism,” and virtually all of his activity on behalf of the Yiddish language, the Yiddish school, and Yiddish culture generally constituted a denial of this “neutralism.”  See V. Kosovski’s article in Vladimir medem-bukh (Volume for Vladimir Medem) (New York, 1943), pp. 130-41.
[2] Translator’s note. Hebrew translation by Pesaḥ Ben-Amram, as Zikhronot (Memoirs) (Tel Aviv, 1984), 367 pp.; French translation by Henri Minczeles and Aby Wieviorka, as Ma vie (My life) (Paris: H. Champion, 1999), 401 pp.; Spanish translation by Isidoro Niborski, as De ma vida (Of my life) (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Bund, 1986), 520 pp.; Russian translation by O Borisova, as Iz moei zhizni (Of my life) (Moscow: Novyi Khronograf, 2015), 558 pp. (JAF).

No comments:

Post a Comment