The author has long been based in Sweden. He first wrote his memoirs in Yiddish for an anarchist newspaper published in New York, which had been in existence since 1890. The Swedish translation was later done by Stanger. Mechel Stanger’s memoirs feature, in vivid colour, several famous figures: Rudolf Rocker, a leading anarchist theorist; Erich Mühsam, a German poet and anarchist who was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp; Emma Goldman, who last appeared in the bestseller Ragtime; Voline, whose book on the “unknown revolution” in Russia is reprinted around the world; Nestor Makhno, the legendary anarchist, and many others. (Frihetlig Socialistisk Tidskrift)
I was born on November 2, 1909, in Vishnitsa (Wijnitz), a small town in Bukovina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was only in 1918 that this area became part of Romania.
I was born into a turbulent and troubled world. My family was poor, with many children: the children of the family and the children my father taught. My father was a teacher—strict, pious and very harsh. My earliest memories are of slaps and blows: the ones I received and the ones my father gave to his pupils.
When I was thirteen, in November 1922, I ran away from home. I went to Chernivtsi (Cernowitz), a town where I knew no one. After a few hours of wandering the streets, tired, cold and hungry, I went into a bakery to keep warm. There, I was allowed to stay. That’s how I became a baker and that remained my job.
I worked from 4 in the afternoon until 6 in the morning at the bakery. Then I would go out on deliveries to customers with two heavy baskets of bread. At 11 o’clock I could finally collapse on a pile of empty flour sacks full of vermin (that was my bed) and fall asleep immediately, until I was awoken again for work. My days of rest were Saturdays and holidays. The pay was food and my “shelter” was the bakery. We had plenty of food, but sleeping was worse. I stole every moment of sleep whenever the opportunity arose. My clothes were old rags. I always worked almost naked in the bakery, with only one bag up front and one in the back, tied around my waist.
I worked like that for seven years (seems unbelievable today), until I was called up for military service. In those seven years, I ran away from the bakery several times, but I always came back. Hunger or cold, sometimes both, kept pulling me back. My employer always welcomed me with a half-smile. He didn’t take me back out of pity, but because he appreciated the work of this young “horse” who, despite struggling from time to time, always returned to the harness and the hard work.
After the Second World War, the Soviets conquered Chernivtsi and my hometown, Vishnitsa, as well as northern Bukovina. Throughout history, this area never belonged to Russia.
During my stay in Chernivtsi, I came into contact with Jewish anarchists for the first time. I almost immediately became interested in the anti-authoritarian “idea”. Frequent confrontations with my father had prepared me psychologically for it, making me sensitive to the “anti-government” discourse. My experiences at the bakery, where I was worked and exploited to the point of exhaustion, made me sensitive to anarcho-syndicalism.
I particularly remember an unexpected meeting with my schoolmate Schmerl Ringel (who now lives in Paris). We were walking down the street, as usual, with our two bread baskets. He told me he had something good to read, which made me curious. He gave me Errico Malatesta’s booklet, “Between Peasants”. These were my happy anarchist beginnings. The words of this Italian anarchist resonated powerfully and convincingly, and they managed to profoundly touch the heart of the young baker I was.
Next to Schmerl was another comrade, Benno Donnenfeld. He looked at my tattered clothes and at the baskets of bread that was weighing me down and said: “The time has come for you to become human too.” After reading Malatesta’s booklet, I became not only “human”, but a completely different person.
Benno came often to my bakery. He secretly brought me the latest issues of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Voice of the Free Workers). By the time they reached me, they had passed through several hands and were so tattered that they could hardly be read. But my intellectual appetite was very healthy, and the articles I read in the paper were feeding it. I couldn’t imagine then that half a century later, as a former baker, I would be writing my memoirs in Sweden for this magazine.
In time, Benno introduced me to the then secret and illegal Jewish anarchist circles. At first, it was hard for me to follow the discussions. Eventually, however, they opened up a whole new world to me. The intellectual leader of these groups in Chernivtsi was a man named Schnab. Many years later I read that this Schnab gave a lecture in Tel Aviv or Haifa on the subject “Why was anarchism not achieved?”.
In 1930, at the age of 21, when I was drafted into the army, I was already a convinced anarchist. I felt terrible. Refusing military service would have meant prison. As an anarchist, I had no desire to be buried alive in a Romanian dungeon. In the end, I enlisted. But after a few months, I devised an escape plan that might have seemed foolish in its audacity.
Desertion from the Romanian army
I was given a few days leave to go to Chernivtsi. There, after talking to my comrades in the anarchist group, I decided not to return to barracks life. Military life itself was not so difficult for me. I was used to working like a horse and sleeping on rags and sacks. For the first time since I escaped my harsh father (and teacher), the Romanian army offered me three meals a day, a full set of clothes and a clean bed. I didn’t suffer from anti-Semitism either, although at that time there were pogroms in Romania, instigated by Cuza and his followers, Cuza being the leader of the anti-Semitic movement. But in no way could I excuse the futility and brutality of military service. For example, we had to wash our boots three times a day, even though they shone like mirrors. For the slightest deviation from military discipline we were hit on the head with the rifle barrel. We were slapped and punched by soldiers; most of the time we didn’t even know why. Our sub-officers claimed, with a sadistic “twinkle” in their eyes, that the beating was necessary for military discipline.
When I decided to get out of the military service I was, of course, aware that this meant I would have to leave the country. At that time, in the spring of 1931, the only country where I believed that I had a chance to stay, without risking being sent back to Romania as a deserter, was Germany. Besides, our anarchist group in Chernivtsi had links with German comrades in Berlin. In addition to Freie Arbeiter Stimme, we also received German anarchist magazines and propaganda literature.
We received the address of a German comrade, Fritz Kater, who lived at Warschauerstrasse 34. I still remember how my Romanian comrades made me repeat it, so that I would not forget it. Although the anarchist movement was not illegal in Germany at that time, I was not supposed to have any address on me. I dressed in military clothes, two pairs of shirts, trousers, jacket, socks and gloves. My plan was to travel by train from Bucharest to Berlin. But not as an ordinary passenger. I was going to lie down under the carriage. The double garment was supposed to protect me from the hard iron and help me get a better grip with my hands and feet. With my last lei I bought a ticket to Bucharest and said goodbye to my comrades, who wished me a safe journey.
On Thursday, April 7, I arrived at the train station in Bucharest. Although the sun was shining, I was cold. I was shivering inside, and one question was echoing in my mind: “Mechel, are you sure you haven’t lost your mind?”. But before I could think of an answer to that question, the train to Berlin reached the platform and began to fill up with passengers. It was nearing departure time. I broke a piece of bread from the two loaves I had taken with me on the journey. Eating the bread, I mingled with the passengers and, in a moment when I wasn’t noticed, I slipped under one of the carriages. I lay down and tried to make myself as comfortable as possible. Now that I was lying there, I felt more at ease. It was as if a stone had been lifted from my heart. I don’t know why, but I felt freer and safer. My fear from before was gone. No one could see where I was hiding. From my hiding place I saw hundreds of feet pass by, small, large, male, female, even officers’ feet, but they inspired no fear in me.
Just when I was thinking that it’s not so dangerous and that, at least, this could be a cheap way to travel too, I heard the departure signal and the train started moving.
For twenty-six hours I sat under the carriage! I kept my eyes closed most of the time. The best thing to do was to lie face down, but as the train moved at a huge speed, the draught threw up pebbles and dust. My two pairs of trousers soon tore, exposing my skin, while my knees were repeatedly scraped by the vibrations. My whole body was shaking to the point of nausea. With each gear change, the iron chains were lowered, hitting me at regular intervals. Only a Dante or a Jack London could have described my pain, the excitement, the deafening noise in my ears, the hunger I endured and the thirst that burned me. I was exhausted and dead tired and felt intense anxiety every time I had to pee or poo. Several times I thought to let go of my hands and feet, so that the train would run me over and stop the suffering. But then the fear of being found out overcame me. At some stations, railway workers were walking around with lights to check if everything was all right under the carriages. When I saw a light I would freeze with fear of being discovered before I reached Berlin. I would turn my back to the light of the lamp and pull my clothes tightly on. I managed to escape every time. Only once did the glow of the lamp linger on me longer than normal. I was sure then that I would soon feel a nudge from the iron bar that was hitting the axles and wheels. But the man continued on with what he was doing. I think he’d spotted me. He was still a kind-hearted man, who didn’t want to expose a stowaway. Then, at the end of the trip, when I looked in the mirror and saw how black with oil and grease my face was, I thought maybe the inspector hadn’t seen me with this “protective mask” stretched over my face.
On Friday morning, April 8, 1931, after a day that had lasted seemingly an eternity, I crawled out from under the wagon, exhausted. I felt half dead. With my eyes squinted I could read “Schlesischer Bahnhof”. I knew I had arrived in Berlin! Staggering, almost drunk, I crawled into a corner behind a large box and tried to fall asleep. But soon I felt the kick of a boot. When I got up, I saw a cleaning woman with a broom in her hand, looking at me in fright. She ran to call the police and quickly returned with an officer. Without a word, they took me to the train station building.
As tattered, dirty and bloody as my clothes were, it quickly became quite clear that I was wearing a Romanian uniform and that I was a soldier. I told the policemen that I had deserted from the Romanian army and that I had spent twenty-six hours under a train carriage. They shook their heads, but they washed my wounds and treated them with iodine. It burned like fire. They gave me a coffee and a sandwich and took me to the nearest police station. That was the end of my insane and daring escape from the Romanian army, under the carriage of a train from Bucharest to Berlin.
My arrival in Berlin makes an impression
At the police station I was questioned, and reports were made. More than anything, the people at the station dwelled on the journey and were amazed that I had endured such a trip for twenty-six hours. Then, I was taken to prison.
That same afternoon, after a few hours’ sleep, I appeared before a judge. The official charge was that I had crossed the German border without a passport or visa. The penalty for this was a 5-14 days prison term or expulsion from the country. All this was of little concern to me. The most important thing was not to be sent back to Romania. There, I would have been brought before a military court and convicted of desertion. The judge in Berlin gave me the shortest sentence: five days in prison. He justified the light sentence by saying that he took into account the fact that I had risked my life to come to Berlin. Interestingly, the prosecutor recommended that the judge acquit me completely, considering that this dangerous trip was in and of itself sufficient punishment.
The next morning, the jailer came and handed me half a dozen Berlin newspapers, with sensational headlines about my arrival in Berlin on the front page. I immediately became a hero in the eyes of my fellow prisoners and the guards. Some newspapers got the whole story backwards, and others greatly exaggerated it. Only one journalist came to talk to me in prison. His article was the most accurate, in every way, and was written sympathetically. Among the Berlin newspapers that reported the story was Der Angriff (The Attack), edited by Joseph Goebbels. Not unexpectedly, the headline of the article in this newspaper was “A new guest in Berlin”. What frightened me most was the comment, which appeared in several newspapers, that I would be sent back to Romania and handed over to the army. It turned out, however, that my fear that the whole trip would have been in vain was not justified.
The next day, some compatriots who were living in Berlin came to see me. They had read about my defection in the newspaper. Among them were Mechel Roll from Vishnitsa and someone called Rappaport. There was also a man called Abusch, whose wife was from Vishnitsa. They all brought me clothes, cigarettes and chocolate. Their visit meant a lot to me, but the most important thing was that I had a place to go after I had served my prison sentence.
The day I was allowed to leave the prison, Mechel Roll was waiting for me at the exit. He took me to his house. There, I met three of my father’s pupils from Vishnitsa: Bopze Pishtiner, Anschel Bartel and Schulim Schulwolf. They hugged me. They had all read about my terrible journey in the newspapers, and had come to rejoice with their “hero” and be proud of him.
After a few days of rest and socializing with my compatriots, I got into contact with Fritz Kater, an anarcho-syndicalist writer and editor of Der Syndikalist (The Syndicalist), the organ of the German anarcho-syndicalist union. The trade union was affiliated to FAUD (Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands). Fritz Kater—who was the father-in-law of Diego Abad de Santillán, the famous Spanish anarchist and Rudolf Rocker’s Spanish translator—referred me to Augustin Souchy.
Souchy received me very warmly. The next day, he introduced me to I.N. Steinberg. I had heard of this man since I was in Chernivtsi and had read his works. I always wondered how a religious Jew could be a revolutionary. Because I couldn’t imagine my father, the very strict and rigorous Orthodox teacher, as an anarchist.
I.N. Steinberg invited me to his house. This gave me the opportunity to express my surprise. He answered me as follows: “A Jewish anarchist is more than just an anarchist, because the Jewish spirit works in him even when he is an anarchist.”
In his house, I also met his brother Aaron. The main topic was my trip from Romania. During the conversation I was the only one who smoked. I invited them too, but they turned me down. It was only later in the evening that I saw the two brothers smoking. Then I realized it was Saturday and they had waited until the evening, when smoking was allowed. I apologized for my insolence, but I remember to this day how impressed I was with their tolerance. I thought of my father, who would have surely beaten me for such a grave “sin”.
A few days later I went to Der Syndikalist’s editorial office. There, I met German comrades Helmut Rüdiger, Max Bittner and Reinhold Busch. All three praised me for my boldness and success in defecting from the Romanian army.
The warmest welcome I received was from another comrade, Gerhard Reinecke. He immediately invited me to stay with him, even though he himself was poor and unemployed, like many other comrades during the great economic crisis in Germany. His life partner was a seamstress and had a small income.
In the meantime, I had received permission from the police to stay in Berlin temporarily. However, I was not given permission to work. Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, I had to report to the police. They were always very kind and used to joke with me: “Ach, Herr Achsenreiter ist hier!” (“Mr. Axlerider is here!”).
Gerhard Reinecke often took me to the headquarters of the German Anarchist Federation, where the editorial office of Der Freie Arbeiter (The Free Worker) was also located. There, I met many wonderful comrades whose kindness I will never forget. The thought of their comradeship warms me to this day.
One day, Gerhard Reinecke asked me if I would like to go with him to a meeting with Rudolf Rocker. He was very fond of speaking Yiddish with Jewish comrades. Needless to say, I was happy to answer Reinecker’s question in the affirmative.
The first meeting with Rudolf and Millie was a special event for me. I spoke Yiddish all the time, and when, at one point, I switched to German, Rocker immediately asked me to continue in Yiddish. I couldn’t admire his beautiful Hebrew handwriting enough. He corresponded with comrades from all over the world. Through Reinecke I also became acquainted with Erich and Zenzl Mühsam and other German comrades and anarchists living in Berlin.
Soon, my first three months in Berlin came to an end. I no longer had a residence permit. As I had nowhere to go, the Berlin police gave me another three months. Those six months have remained forever in my memory. I lived in great poverty, but that was not because I had no work permit. There simply were no jobs. Most of my German comrades were also unemployed. Only once did I secretly manage to get a night’s work in a Jewish bakery on Grenadierstrasse. I got it because I was a specialist in challa weaving. Of course, the baker took advantage of the situation by paying me less.
But spiritually and intellectually, I lived in an anarchist, interesting and stimulating atmosphere. I was often the guest of German comrades, who always showed me solidarity and friendship. I was particularly touched when Rudolf Rocker offered me 50 pesetas, which he had just received from Latin America. He had no other money with him at the time and was just preparing for a trip to Holland. There, he was going to give a speech at the unveiling of a monument to Ferdinand Domela Niewenhuis, a leading Dutch anarchist, who was also his personal friend.
The Netherlands did not take part in the First World War. So, in those times of general economic crisis, the situation in the country was somewhat better than in defeated Germany. Rocker then promised me that he would discuss with the Dutch comrades the possibility of me going there and getting a job in my trade as a baker.
In 1931, Emma Goldman came to Berlin to give lectures. Her first lecture was entitled: “Is the destructive spirit a creative force, as well?” (German: “Ist der zerstörande Geist auch ein schaffender Geist?”). This title impressed my daughter when I told her about it, and she mentioned it in an essay about the ‛30s.
Forty-six years have passed since I heard this lecture. Emma Goldman’s speech enchanted me. For me, it represented a genuine and profound experience. I mainly remember her strong criticism of the Bolsheviks, who destroyed all revolutionary forces for many years to come through their dictatorship. At that time, in Berlin, it was very daring to express such thoughts in public. I knew that the title of her lecture referred to Bakunin’s famous statement. But Emma Goldman developed this position from her own point of view and came to conclusions that suited the troubled times and the difficult events that were about to take place.
As just mentioned, Rudolf Rocker travelled to Amsterdam to unveil the monument to Niewenhuis in Haarlemer Plein. This anarchist was so popular with Dutch workers that not even the Nazis, who later occupied the country, dared to tear down his statue.
When he returned from his trip, Rocker told me that the Dutch comrades were ready to help me, so I could settle there. Now there was the question of a passport. I didn’t have one. And, of course, I couldn’t appeal to the Romanian consul in Berlin either, because I was a deserter. Augustin Souchy got me a Polish passport from a citizen of Upper Silesia. But there was not the slightest resemblance between me and the person in the photo on the passport. Rocker suggested that a German comrade living on the Dutch border smuggle me into the Netherlands at the right time.
I remember the last day in Berlin very well. It was August 23, 1931, four years after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The Anarcho-Syndicalist Youth League organised a commemoration ceremony for these two Italian comrades, who had to give their lives for their ideas of a “free” America. Several comrades from different countries spoke at this meeting. Each in their own language. Among them, I remember Ferdinand Orobón, who spoke in Spanish, and Senia Fleschin, who gave his speech in Russian. The play Es blitzt was also due to be performed, but just before the curtain went up, the police of the Weimar Social Democratic Republic intervened and announced that the performance of the play was completely forbidden.
With a heavy heart, I said goodbye to my German comrades, many of whom had become close to me. I took the train to Holland and got off in a small town near the border. At the station, I was met by comrade Muhr, who explained that it would not be a problem to cross into Holland. I spent the night with this comrade and happened to sleep in the same bed that Rudolf Rocker had slept in during his visit there. The next morning, another German comrade came and walked with me, through the forest, to Holland. Muhr was already waiting there, with a ticket to Amsterdam.
Here, too, I received a very friendly welcome. I was put up in a boarding house and even got some pocket money to live on until I found a job.
The anarcho-syndicalist movement had once been quite big in the Netherlands. In 1919, there were over 100,000 active members. But the Dutch communists, backed by Moscow, destroyed the Dutch labour movement, as they did in other countries, on orders of the Kremlin and under the motto: “master or destroy!”.
When I arrived in the Netherlands, the weekly magazine De Syndikalist was still published regularly. There were then several anarchist organizations in the country, each with their own magazines. Some examples are: De Arbeidar (The Worker), in Groningen and Alarm, in Amsterdam. A magazine with a very high intellectual level was also Befreijding (Brotherhood). There was even a religious anarchist group that published its own magazine, De Freie Communist (The Free Communist). Niewenhuis founded the newspaper De Freie Socialist, which was still published at the time, and De Wapens Neder was published under the editorship of Albert de Jong.
Through a Dutch friend I got a job at the big Citroën car factory. My job was to clean some parts that came from France. Nobody asked me for a passport or work permit. Although the work was dirty and monotonous, I was happy. For the first time since I had crawled out from under the train at Schlesischer Bahnhof, I was earning a living. Besides, the factory had started to agitate for a strike. There were four different unions, including the anarcho-syndicalist one. These unions had to reach an agreement before the strike could begin. I was elected to the strike committee and took part in the picketing. Then, I was arrested by the Dutch police and sent back across the border, to Germany.
So began my five-year wandering between different countries, either trying to cross borders myself or being smuggled across by the police. These countries were Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Denmark, England and Sweden. In all these countries, I was in contact with our comrades.
In Paris, for example, I stayed with Jani and Rosa Doubinski, and later with Ester and Abraham Erlichman. At meetings of the Jewish anarchist group “Autodidakt”, I met Adele Seller, two comrades from Chernivtsi, Engel and Teichberg, and many others. Among those who gave lectures at the meetings were Alexander Schapiro and Voline. Incidentally, it was through Voline that I obtained a “Carte d’identité”, which enabled me to live and work in France. In Paris, I also met Peter Arshinov, Shalom Schwartzbart and Nestor Makhno.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Hitler had come to power. Rudolf and Millie left the country at the last minute. On their way to America, they stopped in Paris. The French comrades held a banquet in their honor. There, I also met Christiaan Cornelissen and Robert Luzon. The latter had begun translating Rocker’s speeches into French, work that was continued by Paul Reclus, son of Élie Reclus. Rocker also gave a speech at “Autodidakt”. I still remember the introduction: “After 40 years of active work in our movement, I have reached the point where, in my old age, I must leave my homeland and start wandering…”
I, too, have been a wanderer between different countries, sometimes with false papers. During these wanderings, I met many interesting people and prominent figures in the anarchist movement, of different nationalities: Arthur Lehning, Hem Day, Ernestan and many others.
In Paris, I heard Emma Goldman for the second time. This time, she gave a lecture on “30 years of the American trade union movement”. Emma Goldman put me in touch with Michael in London, where I went after a short stay in Stockholm.
In Paris, I learned Esperanto, a language that opened up new horizons in my contacts with like-minded people around the world. Through Esperanto, I also met the beautiful Selma from Stockholm. She was a seamstress by profession and became my companion in life. I returned from London to Stockholm to start a new life with her.
Shortly afterwards, on July 19, 1936, the Spanish Revolution broke out. Souchy and Santillán came to Stockholm. They told me about the heroic struggle of the CNT and the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica) and the revolution. It goes without saying that I felt part of this struggle from the very first moment. I couldn’t sit still in Stockholm knowing that our comrades were fighting, bleeding and dying in Spain while trying to build a new and free world. There was a cry for help coming from there to rebels all over the world. I decided to follow it and go to Spain.
The Spanish Revolution
At the end of 1936, I left Stockholm and travelled through France to Barcelona as a correspondent of the Arbetaren newspaper, that appeared daily at that time. As soon as I crossed the border into Spain, I felt that I had entered an incredible new world. All the Spaniards, men, women, young and old, everyone I met on the way to Barcelona was an anarcho-syndicalist. In the train carriages and in the train stations, I always heard the proud exclamation: Nosotros somos de la Confederación! (“We are from the Confederation!”); which meant they were members of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, CNT. They welcomed us with open arms and greeted us with brotherly warmth, as compañeros (“comrades”). This image of anarchism as a mass movement was, for me, an overwhelming impression. Half-drunk by this atmosphere and very tired after a long journey, I arrived in Barcelona late at night. There were several volunteers who had come to fight against Franco and to build a new world. The first night, we stayed in a barracks in Barcelona. We had just fallen asleep when we were awoken by air raid alarms. German planes were streaking across the starry sky, dropping bombs that spread death and destruction across the city. Most of us stayed in our beds.
The next day, a comrade from the CNT, an Esperantist with whom I had corresponded while in Stockholm, came to pick me up. In Stockholm, as soon as the CNT bulletin started appearing in Esperanto, we stopped publishing our own newspaper, distributing only the Spanish bulletin. This brought me into contact with this comrade.
He took me directly to the CNT headquarters, which was buzzing with activity. The headquarters was in the house of some former bosses, and the black and red flag was flying at the top. There, I met Augustin Souchy and Helmut Rüdiger again. They were both happy to see me. At the same time they told me that there were enough people who wanted to fight against Franco, but the weapons and ammunition were scarce.
But where could they be procured? The so-called free Western countries, led by America, remained hypocritically “neutral”, while in the East, under the iron heel of “everyone’s daddy”, the “socialist fatherland” was thinking more of its own treacherous policies than of saving the Spanish people from Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. In this way, the whole world helped the Nazis carry out their murderous rehearsal for World War II. The Spanish Esperantists also complained to me about the lack of weapons, but assured me that they would find a good job for me. The revolution could have been defended without a rifle in hand. And so it was in my case.
After finding out that I knew German, a comrade from the FAI suggested a job at the Montjuich fortress. When I heard that name, I got scared. I knew very well that it was there that the Spanish government had taken the life of Francisco Ferrer, who had lived nobly and purely, and who had wanted to teach children how to live freely and peacefully together. I had no desire to work in the same fortress, even though the prisoners were now fascists. My Spanish comrade calmed me down. I didn’t have to be in the fortress. I was going to operate a machine on the ridge, where the prison was. A telemetric device had been placed there. With it, it was possible to observe approaching ships from a distance: they could be identified, their distance from the harbor could be measured, and their speed could be calculated. The device was made in Germany and the instructions were, therefore, in German. I learned quite quickly how to use the device, how to recognize enemy ships, and how to report this. After instructing two other comrades how to read the instrument, I began to share the work with them.
The free time I had, I spent, of course, in Barcelona. The city was then entirely anarchist. Everything was under the control of the CNT and the FAI. Black and red anarcho-syndicalist flags were flying everywhere. The very air exuded freedom and enthusiasm. It was “El Comunismo Libertario”, as the Spanish called anarchism then.
The CNT had 2,000,000 members throughout Spain. It seemed to me that they were all in Barcelona. I wondered if it could really be possible that all these people were followers of anarchist ideas. Comparing my first years of anarchist awakening in the small town of Chernivtsi, libertarian Barcelona left a deep impression on me. Filled with enthusiasm, I sent correspondence not only to the Worker, but also to Brand magazine. I wrote under the pseudonym Aksorajdanto, which is a translation of the Berlin police joke, Achsenreiter, or “axle rider”, thus alluding to my journey as a passenger under the train car.
In the enthusiastic reports I was now sending to Stockholm, I could not have foreseen the villainous treachery of the Spanish communists. They were slavishly obeying the dictates of hypocritical Moscow. At the same time, the Spanish anarchists were singing “Antes que esclavo, prefiero morir” (“I prefer to die rather than be a slave”). And they did die by the tens of thousands, fighting against Franco without real weapons, while being betrayed by those they considered their brothers: the Spanish communists.
Among the foreign correspondents in Barcelona, I met the Jewish journalist Sch. L Schneiderman, now a contributor to the magazine Vorwärts (Forward), who worked for a Warsaw newspapers at the time. I also met a lot of foreign anarchists who were very concerned that the Spanish comrades were cooperating with the government. They did this with full confidence in their ideological opponents, but the latter were too partisan and cared more about their party, instead of concentrating on the fight against Franco.
I spent fourteen weeks in Spain, in the midst of the libertarian revolution and, unfortunately, in the midst of the civil war.
After a while I realized that the work on the telemetry machine at Montjuich could very well have been done by other German-speaking comrades. I decided to return to Stockholm. The trip involved some difficulties, which, however, an American Esperantist helped me overcome. On the way home, I stopped in Paris. Voline, Jani Dubinski and the Erlichmans were not surprised that I was leaving Spain, because they had already understood that the tragic end of the Spanish Revolution was near. From the very first moment, the Spanish Revolution of freedom was betrayed by the whole world, by seen and hidden enemies.
Back to Stockholm
In Stockholm, I got a work permit as a baker. When World War II broke out, Selma and I solemnly burned our fake Dutch passports. It was a symbolic act, marking the end of my wandering years and the idea of making a permanent home in Sweden. In 1943, our daughter was born. She is now the mother of two children.
Over the years, things have sometimes been worse, sometimes better, but at least I have stopped wandering. Until 1962, I worked in a cooperative bakery and earned quite well. Then, after so many years as a baker, I got sick and I had to quit bakery work. During the last few years, I worked in various professions, and two and a half years ago, I retired. In Sweden, the situation is relatively good, you can live simply and comfortably.
Now, looking back, I think the contact with anarchism at a young age changed my whole life and gave it meaning. I ran away from the Romanian army because anarchism taught me that you shouldn’t learn how to kill people. The first great literary influence came from David Edelstadt, whose songs and writings I devoured with passion ever since I was in Chernivtsi. Later, I came into contact with Rudolf Rocker’s writings, which had a great influence on me, as did his magnetic personality. It is a great honor and joy for me that, when Nationalism and Culture appeared in Yiddish, Rocker sent me a copy from America with the following dedication: “To my dear friend and comrade Mechel Stanger, a gift from the heart and a remembrance of years gone by.”
Of the comrades I have met during my travels, some have come to visit me in Stockholm, and thus I had the pleasure of seeing them again. Among them are Arthur Lehning, Albert de Jong, Augustin Souchy, Diego Abad de Santillán and others who were part of my life during my years of wandering, and who remained my companions and friends during that troubled period. Lately, I have been remembering and reliving with great joy the Spanish Revolution of forty years ago, but also its defeat and disappointment. But now, with the revival of libertarian thought in Spain, I feel that the light of the Spanish Revolution has not yet been completely extinguished.
The text originally appeared in Frihetlig Socialistisk Tidskrift on 28 March 1978: