Morris Wintchevsky Dies in New York at 76: “father” of Jewish Socialist Movement and Founder of Jewi

Morris Wintchevsky, the famous Yiddish poet, who was known as the “father” or “grandfather” of the Jewish Socialist movement, died here this morning.

The funeral, which will be private, will take place to-morrow (Sunday) morning.

The Jewish Communists in New York asked that the body should be handed over to them so that they should arrange the funeral, but the family refused to do this.

Morris Wintchevsky, whose real name was Ben-Zion Nowachowitch, was born nearly 76 years ago in Janove, in the district of Kovno, in Lithuania. His parents, who were strictly orthodox, moved to Kovno when he was seven years old, and there he received his education, studying Talmud, and also attending the Government school. When he was 14 he went to Vilna to study for the Rabbinate, but he abandoned this intention and instead entered an office. At the age of 17 his first article appeared in the Hebrew journal “Hamagid”, and in the following year he published a large number of Hebrew poems in the same periodical. When he was 19, he came across a copy of the proclamation issued by Aaron Liebermann, calling for the formation of a Jewish Socialist organisation. Together with a few of his friends, he formed an organisation to spread artisanship among poor Jewish children. This group conducted work in Kovno, Vilna and other towns. Two years later he was transferred by his firm to its office in Koenigsberg, which then belonged to Germany. He became a member there of a group of Russo-Jewish intellectuals, mostly students, who were Socialists. He started a Hebrew Socialist paper, in which he combated Jewish Nationalism. When the anti-Socialist decree was promulgated in Germany in 1878, and Socialist activity was prohibited, he was arrested on a charge of being concerned in a Socialist-Nihilist conspiracy, and was imprisoned for several months, afterwards being deported from Prussia. He went to Denmark, but he was rearrested in Copenhagen, and when he was released he came to London, where he joined the Working Men’s Association which had been founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and conducted Socialist propaganda among the Jewish workers. He organised the Jewish Socialist movement, and founded in 1885 the “Arbeiter Freind”, the London Yiddish Socialist paper, which later became an Anarchist Communist organ, and as such still exists, appearing at irregular intervals. He himself had leanings towards Anarchist Communism, and worked together with the Anarchist Communists in their anti-religious campaign. He also contributed to the New York Anarchist Communist Yiddish weekly, the “Freie Arbeiter Stimme”.

He went to America in 1894, and it was largely due to him that the Yiddish Socialist daily, the “Forwards”, now the largest Yiddish daily in the world, was founded. He also founded the Yiddish monthly “Zukunft”, which is published by the “Forwards”, and was for some time its editor.

Wintchevsky was best known however, as the poet of Jewish proletarian life. His songs of Labour were sung or recited wherever there was an organised Yiddish-speaking Jewish working-class movement, trade union or Socialist in New York, London, or in the Jewish centres of the Russian “Pale”. He was also the first man to introduce the feuilleton form in Yiddish journalism.

Wintchevsky was a voluminous writer, employing a great number of different pen-names. He wrote plays, stories, fables, ballads, lyrics, essays and articles. He also translated into Yiddish several of the classics, like Victor Fugo’s “Les Miserables”.

Most of his articles are scattered in various publications. An attempt was made in 1920 by the New York Jewish daily “Forwards” to collect them into a complete edition of his works, but only a few volumes have appeared.

In his last years, Wintchevsky’s attitude on Jewish questions underwent a considerable change. From an ardent advocate of assimilation, he became an adherent of Jewish nationalism and of a distinctive Jewish culture. He made his new position in this respect clear in 1911, when he published “My Nationalist Confession”.

He continued, however, to belong in Socialist thought to the extreme wing, and when the Jewish Socialist movement in America split, he joined the Communist wing, and became a contributor to its Yiddish daily, the “Freiheit”.

The Soviet Government invited him in 1924 in recognition of his services to the Jewish working-class cause, to visit Russia, and granted him a sum of 250 gold roubles as travelling expenses, and awarded him a life pension of 75 Tchervonetz (about £75) a month.

He undertook the journey, although he was already 68 years of age, and was received by the Soviet authorities on his arrival with military and other honours. He stayed in Russia about a year, touring the country, and delivering addresses in most of the Jewish centres. He returned to New York in the summer of 1925.

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