Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Man Who Was Friday: 1) The Tailor's Apprentice

He was born on January 1882, in Wilkomir, a small town in the Pale of Settlement. His father and two elder brothers were carpenters, but young Osip Aaronovich Tarshis was apprenticed in a tailor's shop to learn ladies' dressmaking. At 14, he listened to the workers talking about socialists who had been deported back to their home town.

He wrote: 'From casual talk 1 learned that these socialists used to meet the local intellectuals and workers, teach the latter how to read and write, give them books to read, etc. Also they often talked in my shop about secret meetings that were held in the capitals of the different provinces - in Vilna, Kovno and Warsaw - and about arrests which were made there.'

More exciting, when his brothers came home at the end of the year, young Osip found out they were involved. By the end of 1897 Osip had a job in Kovno, where he lodged with his brothers. He sat in on the carpenters' illicit meetings, held in members' homes, and liable to be raided by the police at any time.

Soon Osip had a new job, besides his paid work in the tailoring shop. He was to carry political literature between Kovno and Vilna. This illegal traffic was to become his speciality. Meantime, trade unionism was growing. The garment workers went on strike for a reduction of hours - to a 12-hour day. But the employers had got young Osip's measure, and he was blacklisted in the Kovno area.

Leaving for Vilna, at the end of 1898, he entrusted the Rabochnaya Znaya (Workers Banner) printing press, which he had looked after, to a trusted comrade, a member of the Jewish Worker's Bund. A few years later when Osip returned to Kovno on a mission for Iskra (The Spark) the Bund asked his help in organising workers at a firm that shipped timber to Germany on the River Nieman.

The day he left for Vilna, Osip glimpsed the wider world of struggle. Weeping parents were at the station seeing off soldiers, sent to crush the Boxer Rebellion in China. Why should we fight the Chinese people, with whom we have no quarrel, Osip mused, when the same army is used to suppress us here?

Even the Czar's army had its uses, however. In Vilna, where Osip was recruited to the Iskra group, he discovered it had an Iskra Military Organisation, headed by an army doctor, which sent revolutionary literature through the army's own mail to contacts across the Czar's sprawling empire.

There were unions in several trades in Vilna, but none recruited workers regardless of nationality, according to Osip, nor did they have a central body. However the Bund brought workers together for May Day and other events, often held out in the woods. Osip and friends went to a celebration of Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. The girls stayed in a one-room cabin, while the lads slept out on the porch. Next morning they found someone had stolen their clothes and shoes. They had to signal frantically to passers-by, who scoured the neighbourhood for cast-offs, so they could get home.

It wasn't always funny. A friend from Osip's home town, not a party member, Solomon Rogut, caught carrying illegal literature, was beaten unconscious and left for dead. The Bund in Wilkomir produced a pamphlet about Rogut. But Osip felt responsible for having involved his friend.

Workers found rough and ready ways to deal with scabs and informers, and battle the authorities. They had set up unofficial 'labour exchanges' where they could drop in, drink tea, hear news of any work, and discuss affairs of state. Hearing that three women had been arrested for distributing leaflets, workers from Osip's 'exchange' stormed the police station. After cutting its telephone wires, they fought sabre-wielding police to reach the top floor and free the women held there. Many of these workers were injured or arrested later, but all were proud of what they had done.

Osip himself was taken off a Kovno train and questioned by police in March 1902. They knew about his links with the Iskra group. He was held in Vilna for a week, then sent to Kiev. There was student unrest there, and the jail filled up with students. Moved to the political wing, Osip was able to do some reading, and had tutors. He acknowledges that a compositor, Joseph Blumenfeld, with whom he later had differences, helped him. He also mentions Nicolai Bauman, a Bolshevik whose murder by Black Hundreds in Moscow aroused huge anger there in 1905.

Future Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov was with Osip in the Kiev prisoners' escape committee. They practised human pyramids to the height of the wall, and celebrated birthdays to get the guards accustomed to drinking with them. They smuggled in sleeping powders for the guards and, through Osip's contacts, they obtained false passports and papers for themselves. They assembled a grapple and ladder, and tied sheets into a rope.

Getting over the wall one August night, Osip went from town to town posing as a student. At Zhitomir he was sheltered in the Bund's secret committee room. For a time he returned to his old trade, taking digs with a fellow worker. But the authorities were after him, and someone from the prison saw him at the market. A friend had his papers. They met in the woods and, accompanied by two Bundist women, went to Kamenets Podolsk. From there, wading across rivers, they crossed into Austria at night. Then it was on to Berlin, where Osip began the next stage of his career.

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