80 Fifth Avenue at 14th Street is a building with an incredibly rich civil rights and social justice history, about which we have done a great deal of research as part of our effort to preserve and landmark the unprotected area of Greenwich Village and the East Village south of Union Square. Apparently we’re not the only ones fascinated by the building’s multi-layered history and the incredible work done here. The International Workers Order (IWO) and Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO) were once headquartered here, and some kindred passionate followers of their work were recently able to digitize and share with the public some of their archives, which tells their incredible story even more vividly.
I recently had the opportunity to learn about and discuss Fellow Travelers: From Popular Front to Cold War — Selections from the ILR School Catherwood Library Archives of the Yiddish Immigrant Left at Cornell University. Our friend Elissa Sampson played an instrumental role in obtaining funding to get some of these archives digitized.
Elissa is an urban geographer and lecturer in Jewish Studies at Cornell University who documented the history of the IWO and its affiliated JPFO. Their headquarters were located for their entire existence at 80 Fifth Avenue, until the IWO was closed down in 1953 during the Cold War Red Scare. As Elissa Sampson put it, “…that building at Eighty Fifth Avenue meant everything to them. It meant that workers were important.”
Cornell owns the IWO’s and JPFO’s archives, originally confiscated by the government after its forced closure, and they are now found in its Catherwood Library at the Industrial Labor Relations School (ILR). The Library which is part of the Kheel Center takes great pride in showcasing their holdings on this important organization, since they shed light on immigrant, African-American, Jewish, Cold War, and feminist history, as well as Yiddish publishing. The IWO was founded in 1930 as an immigrant fraternal order that provided high-quality, low-cost health and burial insurance and other benefits for members.
The Catherwood Library offers online curated selection of documents that Elissa helped get digitized and assembled from its archives most of which were eventually donated to Cornell by New York State: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/collections/iwo-jpfo
While their politics were indeed pro-Soviet, during World War II the IWO and JPFO had been accepted as loyal American patriotic fraternal groups contributing to the War effort when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R were allies.
The state repression of dissidents during the Cold War meant that even fraternal organizations offering much-needed insurance benefits such as the IWO were targeted.
As Elissa Sampson pointed out, where the IWO and JPFO shined was in allyship and advocacy.
As an impressive interracial, nonprofit fraternal benefit society, a slogan it took to heart was “No Jim Crow in the IWO.” It offered security through insurance but went further than most: the IWO had a medical department with dentists and specialists that offered birth control. It lobbied for racial progress and anti-lynching bills, supported the Civil Rights Congress and its bail fund, and saw itself as a leader in the fight against race discrimination, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment and practices.
Unusual for its time, the IWO’s recreational facilities included an interracial camp: Wo Chi Ca, a “Workers Children Camp” that Paul Robeson’s son attended. Other well-known names that were part of these circles include Marc Chagall, Albert Einstein, Louise Thompson Patterson, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Vito Marcantonio, Rockwell Kent and Paul Novick.
Elissa Sampson’s research encompasses how migration to New York’s Lower East Side affects, and is affected by, the built environment: those intersections include labor, sacred sites, and housing as well as places of memory, such as 80 Fifth Avenue.
The IWO’s erstwhile headquarters on Fifth Avenue marked a turning point in the visibility of one of the most important narratives of immigrant labor and interracial activism in the United States. The IWO had almost 200,000 members at its height, and the JPFO 50,000. The larger fraternal organization, which included 14 other separate groups such as the Douglass-Lincoln Society and the Cervantes (Latinx) Society, was initially founded by the JPFO, its Yiddish speaking branch.
In the main those who rallied and worked with the IWO and the JPFO respectively were radicalized by mass migration to America, often from repressive Czarist Russia, the Lower East Side’s terrible living and working conditions, and the Great Depression.
Elissa discussed with me working with her husband to pursue resources to digitize some of this important archive:
“So now imagine I’m at Cornell…I see for the third time in two months an email from the administration saying there’s a library grant to digitize for digital humanities. … He asked What would you do if somebody gave you the money and it was sixty thousand dollars? So I said, oh, I’d go for the confiscated archive. And he said, what? And so I explained to him that New York State during the Red Scare had shut down the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order and its parent organization, the International Workers Order.” A well-crafted proposal secured a modest budget to carry out some of the work of digitizing.
The online archive is a bilingual project that conserves, digitizes, and curates only a portion of Cornell’s IWO archives.
As Cornell puts it: “The IWO was legally disbanded in 1953. This closure followed a famous and unprecedented court case, in connection with which the organization’s insurance funds and records were seized by New York State’s Insurance Department. The presence of some of those records in the Kheel Center at Cornell’s ILR School is a direct result of that seizure.
The JPFO—~50,000 members at its height—was the largest of the many “national” or “language” sections of the IWO. The Kheel Center’s IWO Records (#5276) directly record the activities of the JPFO, in English as well as Yiddish. These documents provide a rare window into the politics and culture of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant Left during World War II.
During these years, as knowledge of Nazi policies and atrocities increased, aligning with policies that supported Stalin’s U.S.S.R. could be viewed as tantamount to fighting Hitler’s Germany. Although they kept their distance from Stalinist politics, as seen in these archives notable fellow travelers included Marc Chagall, Albert Einstein, Pete Seeger, Sholem Asch, Vito Marcantonio, Paul Robeson and many others.
The trajectory of the IWO / JPFO’s relatively hard-won acceptance into the mainstream—Jewish and otherwise—can be seen in this correspondence. It follows the arc of Hitler declaring war on Stalin, the larger Allied war effort, and the rapid fading of the East-West alliance with the start of the Cold War after WWII. Also reflected is Stalin’s repression of the JPFO’s erstwhile wartime ally, the Moscow-based Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
Elissa Sampson talked about some of the important relief work at the time:
“The Nazi genocide killed 90 percent of Polish Jews. Right after the War, a new Jewish refugee population appeared in Poland since some of the Polish Jews who survived the War in the former Soviet Union were then repatriated to Poland. This history is complicated not least since the Soviet Union had signed a non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 that allowed it to take parts of Eastern Poland.
The archives document how the JPFO responded to the refugee crisis in Poland by providing “relief and rehabilitation.” Those are the polite terms for sending money, clothing, food, medicine, books and supplies, as well as organizing schools, orphanages, housing, and sponsoring Yiddish typesetting presses, job and teacher training. They did this work primarily from 1945 to 1948: JPFO members funded it while also working non-stop on clothing and other drives. While it was ideologically oriented, it was mainly relief work. The JPFO had the ability to do that work on the ground because they were left-wing and had the contacts in Poland and elsewhere. I can’t begin to describe how sad and yet how inspiring this work was; this is also true of the work they did in France and Belgium for orphanages.“
The painter Marc Chagall was very involved in relief efforts, as Elissa Sampson noted:
“Marc Chagall worked with the JPFO to raise funds for an orphanage in Andrésy, France for kids whose parents had died in the War. It was a pressing issue since the parents of these children typically were immigrants who had been rounded up and killed. The people who had hidden their children often had been communists who had taken them into the countryside for safekeeping. So now what is to become of these children after the War? Belgium had the same problem. So Chagall was out there raising money for these orphanages, and for summer camps for these kids. One of the best photos I found was of a Polaroid picture of Chagall posing with the children at that orphanage on a visit that included New York City JPFO members including from its women’s Emma Lazarus Division.“
This collection addresses issues ranging from the transformations of Jewish identity in the middle of the twentieth century under the pressures of immigration, revolution, and World War II, to the history of splits and reconfigurations in United States radical politics during the first half of the twentieth century, the relation between class and ethnicity, and the participation of folk musicians and other artists in radical politics.
I asked Elissa Sampson how this project actually was accomplished — did she stand at a scanner?
“The process itself in terms of the way the digitization grant worked, is that the library itself did the scanning. I had to prioritize paper that was in danger of literally falling apart, because some paper has acid in it and old paper can also be fragile for other reasons. These are organizational archives so the paper is often lower grade office quality paper. It was typically typewritten, which was real luck given the difficulty of reading older Yiddish handwriting. Much of the archive contains the organizational copy of letters or memos that they sent out, what would have been equivalent to a carbon copy, or it’s the original piece of correspondence which they received. There’s also some books and journals. So the Library prioritized with me the items that we thought were important in telling a story in addition to those that were fragile. Sometimes it was a graphic or an admission card to a party in which there is a raffle, which was used to raise money for the War. Or a political position as seen in convention minutes... And of course we needed to balance things so that we could come in on budget.”
Everyone involved in this fascinating project fervently hopes that accessing these documents online will spur further interest and encourage researchers to come to Cornell’s Ithaca campus to use its paper and microfilm files to see the entire archive.
The collection known as IWO Case Files (#5940) focuses on the many legal issues ensuing from the Insurance Department of the State of New York’s re-interpretation of an insurance regulation in order to revoke the IWO’s charter as a fraternal organization, thereby shutting down the organization. The Insurance Department’s strategy was based on an unprecedented broad reading of insurance law that categorized the IWO as a “hazard” due to its political affiliations.
As Elissa Sampson discussed this seizure and the overall project:
“And it was largely considered egregious, even back in the Red Scare, to use a NYS insurance regulation that had never previously been used politically in order to close down a well-run insurance benefit society. The IWO offered actuarially well funded health insurance, unemployment insurance, and burial insurance, meaning funeral insurance with a life insurance death benefit…
Since the grant was now due in a week, I spent that week just doing pulls from boxes in the Catherwood Library at the ILR School, to see what was there in Yiddish and English, because, of course, the IWO was founded organizationally in Yiddish as its earliest papers and publications show. Some of these early materials were also in English so that they could be filed with NYS’ insurance regulators or used for outreach. Most of the later materials were bi-lingual so the project ended up being bi-lingual.
I got to learn a lot about the history of radicalism by reading materials from a group that was more Soviet oriented than most. And since I already had studied Lower East Side anarchists and socialists it made a lot of sense to also look at immigrants who had been inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. But it’s already 1930 when they found the IWO and then the JPFO. It’s the start of the Great Depression and it’s prior to the New Deal: there was no social safety net. As a left-wing fraternal order, the IWO dealt with insurance because Depression-era immigrants desperately needed it and it was an expected part of what immigrant fraternal societies offered members. The IWO benefit package was very good, it was cheap, it included birth control coverage and it offered non-discriminatory rates to immigrants, to miners, and to Black Americans.”
As Cornell University put is: “Its financial probity as a fraternal benefits society was not in question, although that was the ostensible reason for the Insurance Department’s ultimately successful effort to seize the IWO’s assets and liquidate it. The legal proceedings raised the question as to whether the IWO was in fact a bona fide fraternal order, since its political activities were clearly interwoven into its framework as a fraternal mutual benefits society with affiliated lodges. The case also raised the question as to whether an insurance regulator was exceeding its authority in attempting to legally liquidate a successful insurance operation for non-financial reasons.
Over two decades ago, law professor Arthur J. Sabin focused his energies on those IWO Case Files (#5940) and worked extensively with the Kheel Center and elsewhere to ensure that a solid legal history of the IWO’s battle with New York State’s Insurance Department would be written. The results of his research are well summarized in his Red Scare in Court: New York versus the International Workers Order (1993), offering insights into the IWO’s administrative hearing.”
Other valuable contributions to the archival materials came from the Saltzman Schwartz family who donated books and files to Cornell University in 1984.
Elissa Sampson noted in our interview: “And I actually have from the Schwartz family film footage in English of ‘49 when they’re under legal threat, that includes footage of Vito Marcantonio, Rockwell Kent, the artist who was head of the IWO at that point, and Paul Robeson and Reuben Saltzman. And a postscript in Yiddish. It’s great film footage and it’s set at Eighty Fifth Avenue.” Would love to see that!
Since IWO / JPFO legal documents have not been previously digitized at the Kheel Center or elsewhere, currently there is no good way to digitally get at such holdings, whether they reside at the Kheel Center or elsewhere (primarily the Tamiment Archives at NYU, along with donated papers to be found at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research). Thus, digitizing files from that legal archive would be a separate, worthwhile project!
What if someone took that on? Elissa Sampson came to the conclusion of our interview and shared:
“I would love that.
This is even more important given the pandemic and the inherent difficulty of providing on site access. Typically libraries with labor archives such as Tamiment (NYU) or Catherwood (Cornell) would have scholars come onsite. But how do you best reach researchers, educators, or schoolchildren in a pandemic? We’re now in an age of digitization in which the possibilities are really open ended since the technology is changing fast; however budgets are not able to fully encompass that shift. Right now, over 1,700 documents that pertain to the IWO and JPFO have been digitized that offer us a powerful window for viewing a world of immigrant activists. While it’s not the whole collection certainly it’s a useful start.
So my strong sense is that by bringing attention to these newly digitized archives we can invite people to use them as a resource that we can learn from today. There’s tons of stuff to learn about this immigrant past. It’s not all nice and clean history, history’s messy and I’d be the first to say that I don’t agree with all of IWO’s politics. But their politics nonetheless are fascinating most especially since given the times they lived in, their choices are constrained and difficult.
They get radicalized by poverty. As we know, the Lower East Side had miserable living and working conditions and life in Czarist Russia’s Pale of Settlement was poverty-stricken and oppressive. The combination of these experiences radicalized these immigrants into a type of political allyship in America that might not have happened otherwise and one that has direct bearing on our day. An example that we can learn from concerns the treatment of the immigrant poor and of Black workers and why they needed to create a fraternal order with a mutual insurance organization that didn’t make a profit on health benefits.
These immigrants in advocating for their rights and those of others did so in activities that were centered around working and organizing in Union Square. That’s where their headquarters, rallies, and presses were located along with those of other allied groups. Knowing about these antecedents and learning how people organized to come together across differences is more important than ever in a new age of public protests in which freedom of speech and expression need protection.“
Hopefully that inspires you to check out this newly-digitized International Workers Order (IWO) archives here. It is easily searchable by key word and is chockful of fascinating items.
All images are from the archive here.