The Arbeter Ring

I first noticed the samovar. It had some kind of Russian inscription on it, one of the relics of the Old World, as were the former Stalinists and Trotskyists sitting around the long table. These former enemies now, out of necessity, friends.

My friend Jerry Taft lived across the street from the Arbeter Ring Hall, located at the corner of California and Arthur in a neighborhood everyone called West Rogers Park, although its official city designation was West Ridge. Jerry had a key that he needed to give Harry, his stepfather, who was attending a meeting at the hall. He asked me to come along to say hello to Harry and to check out the place.

Despite his very American name, Jerry, his mother, father and stepfather were all displaced persons. They were people from Europe who found themselves uprooted from their homes due to the devastaion of the Second World War. After spending some time in displaced persons camps in Europe, they found themselves transported to the New World—the United States, Canada and Latin America—to begin new lives. Many of them were Jews, but there were non-Jews as well from Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and other victimized lands.

Most of the Jews spoke Yiddish. They came to the States as strangers to the new culture. In Europe, there was a vibrant culture of Yiddishkeit embodied in literature, drama and music. Now ninety-percent of the participants of that culture was gone forever, murdered by the Nazis. Only a remnant survived.

The Arbeter Ring, Yiddish for Workmen’s Circle, was an organization established for those in this remnant who held leftist political leanings. It served as a gathering spot for aging men and women who once were young socialist dreamers in cities like Warsaw, Vilna and Odessa, before Hitler destroyed their world. Activities at the Ring included lectures, occasional concerts, but more often card games. Weekend excursions to South Haven during the summer were organized. 

The hall was located on the second floor of a building that had seen better days. Two long tables and folding chairs pretty much made up the furnishings. The place smelled of cigarette smoke and mothballs. Scattered alongside the samovar were Yiddish language papers, the Daily Forward, printed in New York, with a few copies of Chicago papers, the Sun-Times and Daily News. No Tribunes were allowed in the room, since everyone knew that Colonel McCormick was a fascist.

Glancing about, I could not help but discern the sadness in the eyes of Harry and his friends. They had seen so much loss in their lives. Yet there, at the Arbeter Ring, they found solace in each other, comrades forever, in a place in time that never truly would be their own.

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