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Storm in My Heart: Memories from the Widow of Johann Most (excerpt)

Posted on January 14th, 2015 in Uncategorized


Helene Minkin’s memoir, translated by Alisa Braun and edited/introduced by Tom Goyens, is at the printer. We’re excited about this one. This is the first time Minkin’s words, which provide a unique perspective on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anarchism in the US, have been available in English. She forces us to reassess many of our ideas about some of the movement’s major figures. You’ll have to get the book to see how (go here to pre-order), but in the meantime here’s a snippet from Tom Goyens’s Introduction. Enjoy!


 By the time Minkin arrived in New York in June 1888, this Yiddish- speaking movement had grown and there was talk of launching a publishing venture of their own. The Pioneers of Liberty made such an announcement in January 1889, and a month later the first issue of Varhayt (Truth) appeared—the first Yiddish anarchist periodical in the United States.[13] Jewish comrades could read articles by Kropotkin and of course Most, and educate themselves about the Paris Commune and American labor news. The venture ended after five months due to lack of funds, but was soon followed by another paper, the Fraye Arbeter Shtime, one of the longest-lasting anarchist papers in history as it turned out. An entire subculture emerged modeled on what the Germans had built. Jewish anarchists set up cooperatives, mutual aid organizations, and clubs, and they staged concerts and theater performances. They were especially conspicuous as a voice for atheism and anticlerical agitation, something that made Most feel right at home. In fact, it was one of Most’s most widely read pamphlets, The God Pestilence, translated into Yiddish in 1888, that inspired and energized much of this activism. Most shocking to traditional Jews was the annual Yom Kippur ball organized by anarchists, which made a mockery out of Judaism’s holiest day of the year.

Minkin, then, witnessed upon her arrival a mature, diverse, and vibrant—if dejected after Haymarket—anarchist movement, predominantly German with a growing Jewish contingent. A movement alive with weekly meetings, large commemorative gatherings, festive fundraisers, outings, and reading clubs. Pamphlets, books, and anarchist newspapers were readily available by subscription or at various beerhalls and restaurants. This movement was also male-dominated despite the fact that some German activists championed women’s rights. Women were by no means absent; every press account of large anarchist gatherings noted the impressive attendance by women. But most club members were men, and while reliable sources are rare, it seems that most German anarchist families retained traditional gender roles within the household. Occasionally, anarchist papers in their event announcements encouraged women to participate more fully.[14] But elsewhere in a paper like Freiheit, gendered language was not uncommon, and on one occasion, in March 1887, a woman complained about the insulting tone and promptly received an apology.[15]

When Most and Minkin began a relationship and started a family, the anarchists loyal to Most expressed their disapproval, as Minkin relates in her memoir. Implicit in this backlash was an assumption that family life for movement members impeded the cause of revolution, softened the (male) activist, and would likely result in trouble. It may also drain resources away from the movement’s activities, they feared. One dramatic incident—if perhaps not wholly representative—illustrates this dynamic. On January 28, 1902, comrade Hugo Mohr was found dead in his Paterson, NJ apartment; he had gassed himself out of fear of a second arrest after he had been released on bail that day. According to a court reporter for the New York Sun, no friend of anarchists, Mohr had been charged with “cruelty to his family.” He had been out of work for a year, “took the money that his wife and oldest daughter earned and bought Anarchist literature with it.” He also donated money to Most’s defense fund by sending it to Helene Most who was managing the paper. The reporter added that “he beat his wife and children until they were afraid of their lives. Last Tuesday night he caught his oldest daughter by the ear and nearly tore it off.”[16] Remarkably, Freiheit, in a brief notice chose to blame Mohr’s death on his wife: “Comrade Mohr has committed suicide by gas in Paterson. An evil woman drove him to his death. That’s how they are.”[17]

Emma Goldman, who arrived in New York in August 1889, was especially attuned to the politics of gender and sexuality. She had recently ended a brief and unhappy marriage, and was bent on maintaining her independence and rebelliousness. If the German movement, and Most especially, provided her a foot in the door, she nonetheless became disillusioned with their outdated ideas around gender. “I expressed contempt,” she wrote, “for the reactionary attitude of our German comrades on these matters.”[18] And again, in 1929, in a letter to Berkman, she charged that “[the Germans] remain stationary on all points except economics. Especially as regards women, they are really antediluvian.”[19]

Johann Most’s views on women and gender fit Goldman’s description perfectly. And she would know. It was in fact Goldman’s brief but intimate relationship with her mentor Most that confirmed for her the underlying conservatism of many male activists. What Most sought in the relationship was domestic comfort and security with an assumption that she would provide it. Goldman would not, and she told him as much. Moreover, she would from now on judge herself superior as a woman activist to her roommate Helene Minkin who accepted, to some extent, a domestic role with Most. As Goldman wrote in her memoir with a hint of disdain: “A home, children, the care and attention ordinary women can give, who have no other interest in life but the man they love and the children they bear him—that was what he needed and felt he had found in Helen.”[20] But in a 1904 letter to Berkman, her tone is much harsher. “Helena M. is a common ordinary Woman, has not developed in the least,” she wrote. “I am sorry to say, that all those of my sex we have known together [the Minkin sisters] have become ordinary Haustiere [pets] und Flatpflanzen [potted plants].”[21]


Contrary to Goldman’s comment, however, Helene Minkin did have other interests in life, and there were times she too resented housework. She was certainly more than a domestic sidekick of the famed Johann Most. She was a committed anarchist in her own right and believed deeply in the cause for freedom and workers’ rights. She did not share the uncompromising vision of a Berkman who modeled himself after the unswerving Russian revolutionaries. She did not have the talent for forceful public speaking like Most or Goldman. She did have a talent for writing, management, and editing. After she and Most moved in together, Minkin became active in the running of Freiheit, Most’s paper that made its way to readers since 1879. And so perhaps their relationship offered, for both, a workable balance between family and work. Especially during the late 1890s when the paper nearly died, Minkin was crucial in keeping it afloat while many of the (mostly male) comrades failed to step up. At one point, Most was ready to quit and burn all the books.[30] “Of the few who stood faithfully beside him [Most] during these tough months,” wrote biographer Rudolf Rocker, “his brave life partner Helene Most deserves special mention because time and again she helped him to keep up his work, and she took care of almost the entire expedition of the paper.”[31]



12 Quoted in Paul Avrich, “Jewish Anarchism in the United States,” Anarchist Portraits (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 178.
13 Ibid., 179.
14 Freiheit, October 25, 1884 and June 25, 1892.
15 Freiheit, March 2, 1889. The editors had used the slur “old hags” (alte Weiber).
16 “Anarchist End His Life. Mohr Taught His Children to Anathematize the Dead President,” New York Sun, January 29, 1902. See also “Killed Himself, Cheated Police,” New York Evening World, January 28, 1902.
17 Freiheit, February 1, 1902. Originally: “Genosse Mohr hat zu Paterson per Gas Selbstmord verübt. Ein böses Weib hat ihn in den Tod gejagt. So sinn’ se.”
18 Goldman, Living My Life, vol. 1, 151.
19 Goldman to Berkman, St. Tropez (France), February 20, 1929, in Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, Nowhere at Home: Letters from Exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, eds. Richard Drinnon and Anna Maria Drinnon (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 145.
20 Goldman, Living My Life, vol. 1, 77. Italics added.
30 Minkin, “An die Leser der ‘volume,” Freiheit, April 21, 1906.
31 Rudolf Rocker, Johann Most: Das Leben eines Rebellen (Berlin: “Der Syndikalist”, 1924; Glashütten im Taunus: Detlov Auvermann, 1973), 387.