Following the assassination of Notski, who’d been responsible for the torture and death of dozens of labor leaders, the Bund pulled off a second heroic act that resonated across the city: the freeing from jail of the Bundist activist Tepper, his wife and several other revolutionaries. All of this made a tremendous impression on my idealistic young mind. I wanted to get closer to these noble revolutionaries, who roamed the streets at night, shoving printed proclamations under window shutters, calling on the “Workers Everywhere to Unite!” The enticing pamphlets were signed by “The Jewish Workers’ Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia.”
I wanted to become better acquainted with these heroic fighters, to look at them, and understand their cause. I felt camaraderie with my sister and the other revolutionaries based on my own experience of having rebelled against the sadistic rabbis at my talmud toyre, but Sonya was completely secretive about her activities.
She would often disappear all evening long and she would never tell us where she was going or where she had been. Her attitude was strange and incomprehensible to me. The more that Sonya hid her secrets from me and from our entire household, the more I became interested in discovering where she was going––even though I was aware of how dangerous it must have been.
Once––when everyone was fast asleep––I noticed Sonya and Minne, who had spent the night with us, dress quietly and leave the house. As soon as they left I awoke Max and the two of us began to follow them.
We had to be very secretive in our surveillance, for the girls stopped at every corner, checking in each direction to make sure they were not being followed. We stealthily jumped over several fences, as they did, and finally arrived at an old barn at the edge of town. Sonya and Minne snuck up to an entrance on one side, where they rapped on the door using a special code––knock… pause… three quick taps.
My heart was beating like a drum as we watched from the shadows. A tall revolutionary, whose bearded face was covered in a red bandana, opened the door and admitted Sonya and Minne, who saluted him with a raised fist. He had a revolver, and checked outside before bolting the door shut.
Max and I exchanged a nervous glance. We’d come this far––we simply had to see what was inside that barn. My courageous brother led the way, and we slithered up to the door. Max took a deep breath and tried the secret code.
After a moment, the door creaked open and we were scrutinized by the armed guard who peered suspiciously at us over his bandana.
“How old are you?” he demanded.
“I’m eighteen,” lied Max without hesitation. “My brother is sixteen.” He had smoothly added three years to our ages, then boldly improvised: “We know how to build bombs.” My pulse raced in shock at what my brother had just said, but I tried to remain calm, as the guard looked me in the eyes. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally nodded and waved us through.
I cannot begin to describe my elation as we entered the barn, where hundreds of revolutionaries were gathered in solidarity. There was a large banner across the stage,printed in Yiddish and Russian: Long live the eight-hour workday! Down with the capitalist system! Long live Socialism! We spotted Sonya near the front, standing alongside the movement’s leaders, and our hearts were filled with pride for her, along with a sense of joy and hope for our collective future.
Everyone in the room was on their feet, standing tall with a clenched fist over their heart, singing with fervor the opening words of the rousing anthem to workers everywhere––known as The Internationale:
Stand up, all victims of oppression,
To the tyrants who fear your might!
Don’t cling so hard to your possessions,
For you have nothing if you have no rights!
Let racist ignorance be ended,
For respect makes the empires fall!
Freedom is merely privilege extended,
Unless enjoyed by one and all.
Max and I looked at one another, our eyes clouded by tears of rapture and pride, as the chanting continued, getting louder and more passionate with every stanza. We made a youthful pact that night––we would be revolutionaries for life, not stopping the fight until all workers everywhere were free.
Excerpted from Return From Siberia. (Sky Horse Publishing, 2020)
In the lead-up to the Bolshevik Revolution, one young revolutionary is condemned to exile in Siberia; a hundred years later, his ancestors discover his story and learn just how much history has repeated itself.