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Ab. Cahan Meets Friedrich Engels

Yankl Stillman
December 7, 2008

The Legendary Forverts Editor Encounters Karl Marx’s Famed Collaborator

by Yankl Stillman
In August, 1891, Abraham Cahan was elected by the Yiddish-speaking branches of the Socialist Workers Party as a delegate to the second International Socialist Congress, in Brussels. When the comrades in England found out that he was coming to Europe, they invited him to give a series of lectures in London. He arrived in Liverpool in July, having traveled in steerage. From there he took a train to London, where he was set up in the apartment of Abraham Gold, one of the most active members of the city’s social democratic group. Cahan met a number of well-known socialists and anarchists like Morris Winchevsky, Sergius Stepniak, and Peter Kropotkin — as well as Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Karl Marx’s third daughter, and her husband Edward Aveling. Years later, Cahan described his encounters in his five-volume memoir, Bleter fun mayn lebn (“Pages from My Life”), published by the Forward Association.
Cahan became best known for his work with the Yiddish Forverts, which he helped to found in 1897 and edited, with two brief hiatuses, until his death in 1951. (He chose the German word for “forward” instead of the Yiddish foroys, to echo the name of a kindred German newspaper.) Cahan built the Forverts into the largest newspaper in the Yiddish-speaking world, with some two hundred and fifty thousand left-leaning readers by the early 1920s. He thereby became a major influence in the Jewish cultural world.
Cahan was also a novelist, best known for Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), which was adapted as a film, Hester Street, in 1975, and The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). He wrote under the byline “Ab. Cahan” in both Yiddish and English.
—Yankl Stillman
From Ab. Cahan’s Memoirs
Photo of Ab Cahan
Meeting Eleanor Marx-Aveling
In London I became acquainted with the Avelings and saw them quite often.... She and I happened to speak at the same meetings several times. She was very lively and an interesting person. Once, standing with me among a group of our Jewish socialists, she put her arm around me and said, “We Jews have special obligations to work for the working class.” As the reader knows, her mother was Christian and even her father was raised as a Christian because his parents were baptized when he was still a small child. But she liked to refer to herself as a Jewish child
She and her husband made a living as writers and she had to work very hard. Since she knew several languages, she translated from German, French, Italian and sometimes even Norwegian. Her English translations of several of Ibsen’s works became the standard versions. The English translation of Flabuert’s famous realistic novel Madame Bovary is also hers. She once confided to me, with a sad mien, that she frequently writes original works that are signed by other people. There are people —people with a lot more money than talent — who want to make a name using other people’s literary efforts....
During one of my visits, Mrs. Aveling led me to a basket and showed me five little kittens to which her cat had given birth a few days earlier. The oldest, she informed me, was a gentleman, “and do you know what I named him?” she asked with a smile. “Abraham! I gave him your name.”
Three or four days later when I visited again, she informed me with a sad smile that Abraham had died.
When I became more closely acquainted with her husband, he did not please me. I also heard from other comrades that people in the movement also had little respect for him. But everyone loved and thought highly of her.
... Before Aveling joined the movement, he was a natural scientist. Once he gave a public lecture about flies. When he finished, a man with a broad gray beard came over and said to him, “Young man, you have a good career ahead of you as a natural scientist.” When Aveling asked him who he was, he answered, “Karl Marx.”
“My father found time to attend all kinds of scientific lectures,” Mrs. Aveling commented. “He found everything interesting and he followed the developments.” Some time after that lecture, Aveling met Eleanor in the library of the British Museum and began to pay attention to her. When he realized that she was Marx’s daughter, he told her how he had become acquainted with her father. Little by little, an intimate friendship developed between them. He was a married man, then, but was not living with his wife.
... Mrs. Aveling used to tell me about her father. For example, she described to me how he was popular among the boys in their neighborhood in London. “As soon as he sat down on a bench in the park near our house, the boys used to descend on him from all sides.... My father used to sit and talk to them. They would show him their little knives and other trinkets and he would talk to them about their interests as though he were a boy himself.”
Image of Engels
Meeting Engels
I was considering translating Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto into Yiddish and wanted to get a foreword for my translation from Engels. As soon as Mrs. Aveling heard this, she suggested that she would introduce me to him. Engels lived in his own house and, one evening, the three of us... rode over there.
In my notes at the time, I described him as “a fairly tall, quite healthy-looking, high-spirited man with a clever energetic and jaunty expression on his face...” I marvelled at his liveliness and agility. He would dash into another room for refreshments or a book or newspaper, and, standing or sitting, he spoke happily and often with a witticism. It was hard for me to believe that this man was over 70. The room in which we sat, and also the adjacent one, was full of books and newspapers in a variety of languages.... He received the socialist and trade-union newspapers of every country, read all of them and remembered everything he had read. He read to me in Russian and also a few lines in Yiddish from the Arbeiter Zeitung.
“Do you think I can’t read loshn koydesh?’ [“the holy tongue,” i.e., Hebrew —Y.S.] he asked.... “No wonder the capitalist press claims that I am also a Jew.”
I happened to have a copy of Bakunin’s history of the [socialist] international, which I had bought in a Jewish bookstore in London. Engels asked me to show it to him and he read the Russian title page. He said that he’d had this book, but it had disappeared.
On a nearby table lay a beautiful, richly-bound album, which Mrs. Aveling opened for me. It contained photographs of all the socialist members of the Reichstag — a present that the comrades in the Reichstag had given him on the occasion of his 70th birthday. In a corner stood a big, old, leather easy-chair. Suddenly, Mrs. Aveling pushed me onto the leather cushion. She laughed, and Engels smiled happily.
“That was my father’s chair, the chair in which he died,” she explained.
Image of Eleanor Marx-Aveling
At that time Engels was busy working on the third volume of Marx’s Das Kapital, which was an incomplete manuscript. This was a major undertaking. In addition, he corresponded with dozens of comrades in various countries.... When Eleanor asked how his work was going, he made an unhappy, almost despairing face.
Eleanor used the familiar du with Engels and spoke to him as though he were her father, and he to her as though she were his daughter. He bought some bottles of beer and we drank a toast to social democracy in the world. Then he poured me a second glass, but I declined. “You know, Comrade Engels, Jews are not drinkers.”
“Yes, that’s really a pity,” he answered with a smile. “If Jews drank more, they would be even better people.”
I spoke to him about an introduction to my translation of the Communist Manifesto. He promised to write it up and send it to me as soon as he had some time. He spoke about the Manifesto as if Karl Marx had written it with no input from him.
As a farewell gift, he took out six photographs of Karl Marx and gave them as presents for me and my closest comrades in America.
Two years later, in 1893, Cahan, now 33, was again elected as a delegate of the Socialist Party to the International Socialist Congress, to be held in Zurich, Switzerland. Once again, he arrived in Liverpool by ship and took the train to London before crossing the channel to Brussels. He went on to Paris, Berlin and Vienna, where he had a rendezvous with his parents, aunts, and several cousins, all of whom he hadn’t seen for twelve years.
He described his reunion with his mother as follows: “I rang the bell and heard sounds inside. The door opened all the way and I saw an old lady. At first glance she did not look familiar to me; but I realized right away that this was my mother. I threw myself towards her and she towards me.
“‘My son, I don’t recognize you!’ she wailed without tears. I forgot about my resolve to be calm. I was confused and nervous.”
Cahan spent eleven days with his family. Then his parents and aunts had to return to Russia. He left Vienna for the Zurich congress the same evening. In his memoir, he wrote the following:
The Congress lasted a week. A rumor began to spread on the last couple of days that they were expecting Friedrich Engels, who happened to be in Switzerland on summer vacation. The German comrades had tried to convince him to attend the Congress. At first he had firmly refused. He didn’t want the applause that they were planning for him. The German delegates, however, sent one emissary after another to him until he finally agreed to come on the last day after all the work had been completed.
That day, in the middle of the morning session, I was conversing quietly with someone in a corner of the hall when we heard a commotion, followed by stormy cries of “Hurrah.” I looked up and saw old gray Engels, with his tall figure, his white beard and military moustache, standing in the center of the platform. All the delegates stood up and most of them yelled and applauded. I say “most” because the French delegates were quiet. They had stood up reluctantly and looked on with cold, dissatisfied glances.
I applauded and yelled “Hurrah” with all my strength and all my heart.
When the cheering ceased, Engels gave a brief speech in German and promptly translated it into French and into English. “The movement that is represented by this congress is the natural outcome of economic and historic development,” he said. “People cannot create such a thing; but if there is one person who helped to bring it to life, it was he!” — and he pointed to the bust of Karl Marx.
Once again there was stormy applause. The French delegation was upset by all this. Why were they giving an ovation to Friedrich Engels, the German? [In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French had been defeated by Prussia, the forerunner of Germany, and lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine —Y.S.]. They were worried about the impression this would make in France, where it would be said that the congress and socialist movement were German.
The attitude of the French delegates made a bad impression on me. Such feelings at an international socialist congress!
The Zurich Congress ended with a banquet. Engels sat in the middle of one of the tables. Eleanor Marx-Aveling and her husband sat on one side of him and... August Bebel [1840-1913, a German Social-Democratic writer and leader —Y.S]. on the other. I went up to greet Engels, wishing to remind him about the introduction to my Yiddish translation of the Manifesto, which he had promised me two years ago.
He recognized me immediately and asked about the Jewish workers in America. Just as I was about to remind him about his promise, however, Bebel turned to him with a remark, and he got involved in a discussion with Bebel and other delegates. I did not want to disturb them or be a nuisance! I did not have another opportunity to speak to him. Thus I never received the introduction to the Manifesto from him. I finished the translation and it was printed without an introduction.

Yankl Stillman is a writer and Yiddish translator who conducts the column, “Our Secular Jewish Heritage,” in Jewish Currents.