International Workers Order (IWO) and Jewish People's Fraternal Order (JPFO)

Fellow Travelers: From Popular Front to Cold War. Selections from the ILR School Catherwood Library Archives of the Yiddish Immigrant Left

Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (U.S.)
יידישער פראטערנאלער פאלקס־ארדן
JPFO, א.פ.פ.א
International Workers Order
אינטערנאציאנאלער ארבעטער ארדן
IWO, א.א.א

This bilingual project conserves, digitizes, and curates* a portion of Cornell’s International Workers Order (IWO) archives and most especially those of its Jewish division, known as the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO). The IWO was founded in 1930 as an immigrant fraternal order that provided high-quality, low-cost health and burial insurance and other benefits for members. The origins of the IWO / JPFO arose from a decade of splits (1920-1930) concerning the U.S.S.R., the Bolshevik Revolution and Communism that consumed the Jewish Federation of Socialists and the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) groups associated with Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist Party. While the vast majority of the IWO’s members—~200,000 at its peak right after World War II—did not belong to the Communist Party of the United States of America, the IWO’s politics and leadership were largely aligned with those of the Party. For those familiar with the Yiddish speaking immigrant Left, this group was often referred to as "Di Linke" or the Left. The IWO was legally disbanded in 1953 due to the Cold War “Red Scare.” This closure followed on a famous and unprecedented court case, in connection with which the organization’s insurance funds and records were seized by New York State’s Insurance Department. The presence of a substantial portion of the IWO Records (#5276) in the Kheel Center at Cornell’s ILR School is a direct result of that seizure.

The JPFO—~50,000 members at its height—was the largest of the many “national” or “language” sections of the IWO. The Kheel Center’s IWO Records (#5276) directly record the activities of the JPFO, in English as well as Yiddish. These documents provide a rare window into the politics and culture of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant Left during World War II. They contain the seeds of a fascinating history of competing and complementary loyalties and priorities: to the Soviet Union and the international left-wing movement; to the United States; and to the Jewish people and the propagation of secular Yiddish culture. During the Popular Front and World War II, many “fellow travelers” trod partially or fully on the same path as Party members. During these years, as knowledge of Nazi policies and atrocities increased, aligning with policies that supported Stalin’s U.S.S.R. could be viewed as tantamount to fighting Hitler’s Germany. Although they kept their distance from Stalinist politics, as seen in these archives notable fellow travelers arguably included Marc Chagall, Albert Einstein, Pete Seeger, Sholem Asch, Vito Marcantonio, Paul Robeson** and many others.

The trajectory of the IWO / JPFO's relatively hard-won acceptance into the mainstream—Jewishly and otherwise—can be seen in this correspondence. It follows the arc of Hitler declaring war on Stalin, the larger Allied war effort and the rapid fading of that moment with the start of the Cold War, circa 1947. Also reflected is Stalin’s repression of the JPFO’s erstwhile wartime ally, the Moscow-based Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

This site is meant to serve as an online teaching and research tool in secondary and university classrooms (in fields such as American history, labor, left, immigration and ethnic studies, the Cold War and Jewish studies), as well as to provide document access to a wider literate public that increasingly does its “continuing education” online. Digitized by Cornell University Library with the help of Cornell’s Jewish Studies Program, this collection addresses issues ranging from the transformations of Jewish identity in the middle of the twentieth century under the pressures of immigration, revolutionism, and World War II, to the history of splits and reconfigurations in United States radical politics during the first half of the twentieth century, the relation between class and ethnicity, and the participation of folk musicians and other artists in radical politics.

Sickle and Hammer, May 1929, Number 2, booklet, Hersh Lekert School, Detroit Michigan

While substantial work has been done on the interaction of Jews and the left, and while these archives have to some extent already been consulted, there is much more to be revealed by the kind of close focus on organizational files offered here. For instance, these materials shed light on the intersections of Black and Jewish identity in programmatic political work and cultural productions prior to the mainstream civil rights movement, and they reflect the fact that the IWO recruited African-American members for its lodges and did not apply discriminatory rates for its benefit packages, as major private insurance companies did.

Some of the wartime labor and relief efforts documented in the collection potentially complement materials about left-wing labor and political movements during World War II. Thus there are songs and programs by Ruth Rubin, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson et al. Also, as part of its support for the Moscow-based Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee’s Black Book project which documented Nazi genocide in the U.S.S.R., the JPFO worked with the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists headed by Albert Einstein and Sholem Asch, as well as with the Jewish Council for Russian War Relief.

What Russia Means to Us, Albert Einstein, booklet, Jewish Council for Russian War Relief, 1942

In short, the JPFO organizational files supply a detailed, albeit incomplete, record regarding the history of a U.S. immigrant fraternal organization that promoted Soviet-aligned secular Yiddish culture as it navigated some of the twentieth century’s thorniest and stormiest political currents. The JPFO’s international reach is apparent in files that document, inter alia, relief activities in post-War Europe.

Reports from national and local organizers as well as national conventions and international visits offer researchers multiple insights into international and Jewish politics. They also offer official articulations of what it meant to be an immigrant fraternal organization, as seen not only in position papers but in the everyday work of organizing membership drives, lodge activities, movie evenings and delivering health benefits while searching for intergenerational continuity in an American context.

Presentation of these materials can increase contemporary awareness of the complex choices, creativity and constraints that shaped the lives of earlier generations. The IWO Records (#5276) offer a potentially rich vein for advancing that goal. These papers arrived at the Kheel Center Archives between 1960 and 2002. We acknowledge that the Liquidation Bureau of the State of New York Insurance Department transferred IWO records to Cornell University in 1961. We also acknowledge that the Saltzman Schwartz family donated books and files to Cornell University in 1984. That is more than enough time to warrant taking a look at the complicated politics of cultural production that marked the JPFO's years, and how its leadership navigated the various contested and sometimes contradictory or even apologetic policies of its day.

Collections such as Cornell’s that are devoted to the Triangle Fire or other aspects of U.S. labor history benefit through the availability of the IWO / JPFO collection. Clara Lemlich Shavelson is best known for her association with the Triangle Shirtwaist factory as one of the main organizers of the 1909 New York City women’s garment workers strike known as the Uprising of the 20,000. Documents in the IWO Records (#5276) that feature Lemlich, a founder of the JPFO’s Emma Lazarus League, offer new insights into organization around gender and class. We hope that researchers will use the Kheel Center’s unique labor collection as well as its separate, English only, International Workers Order (IWO) Case Files (#5940) based on the Insurance Department’s Case Files. Other relevant materials are part of Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Collections or are stored elsewhere in its library system.***

Cold War Blues

Our fervent hope is that accessing documents online will spur further interest and encourage researchers to come to Cornell’s Ithaca campus to use its paper and microfilm files. The collection known as IWO Case Files (#5940) focuses on the legal issues ensuing from the Insurance Department of the State of New York’s re-interpretation of an insurance regulation in order to revoke the IWO’s charter as a fraternal organization, thereby shutting down the organization. The Insurance Department’s strategy was based on an unprecedented broad reading of insurance law that categorized the IWO as a “hazard” due to its political affiliations. Its financial probity as a fraternal benefits society was not in question, although that was the ostensible reason for the Insurance Department’s ultimately successful effort to seize the IWO’s assets and liquidate it. The legal proceedings raised the question as to whether the IWO was in fact a bone fide fraternal order, since its political activities were clearly interwoven into its framework as a fraternal mutual benefits society with affiliated lodges. The case also raised the question as to whether an insurance regulator was exceeding its authority in attempting to legally liquidate a successful insurance operation for non-financial reasons.

Over two decades ago, law professor Arthur J. Sabin focused his energies on those IWO Case Files (#5940) and worked extensively with the Kheel Center and elsewhere to ensure that a solid legal history of the IWO’s battle with New York State’s Insurance Department would be written. The results of his research are well summarized in his Red Scare in Court: New York versus the International Workers Order (1993), offering insights into the IWO’s administrative hearing. That hearing was held in the same building where IWO members Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put on trial on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. Some legal materials relevant to the hearing are also included here, as they were used in the IWO’s public and membership campaigns to defend itself, or to inform executive decision making.

Since IWO / JPFO documents have not been previously digitized at the Kheel Center or elsewhere, currently there is no good way to digitally get at such holdings, whether they reside at the Kheel Center or elsewhere (primarily the Tamiment Archives at NYU, along with donated papers to be found at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research). Thus, digitizing files from that legal archive would be a separate, worthwhile project.

World War II: The Culture Front, the Home Front, and the War Effort

These archives document the Fascist era and World War II, when the wartime politics of JPFO members met with relatively mainstream acceptance (among Jews and others) despite their political alignment with the Communist Party. One of the major post-War challenges they faced was anti-Semitism: the JPFO was involved in documenting the Holocaust through the Black Book project on Nazi crimes against Jews. That project was shut down by Stalin, even as the IWO / JPFO’s political affiliation with the U.S.S.R. subjected it to intense scrutiny by HUAC (the House Un‑American Activities Committee).

The JPFO’s activities during the war years reflect left-wing Jewish responses to shifts in Soviet policy. These encouraged the JPFO not only to fully support the war, but to put together a “Jewish Unity” front. Voluminous correspondence in the archive documents the JPFO’s campaign to convince organizations such as B’nai B’rith to accept it as a Jewish organization per se. War support efforts include active get-out-the vote campaigning for FDR as well as Jewish community fund-raising for US War Bonds, Russian tanks, and Jewish refugees.

The political shifts are well documented here, including the 1944 change of name from the Jewish American Section of the IWO to the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order. The emphasis on producing and being part of “Yidishe Kultur” (Yiddish Culture, a broad rubric that encompasses primarily secular Jewish engagement with the arts that was seen as consistent with the IWO / JPFO’s overall focus on harnessing “Kultur-Arbet” (Cultural Work) for overtly political ends) is described in these papers as part of an ideology connected to ethnic pride. There is concern for strengthening the identity of a new generation, so that its cohort can be proudly Jewish during these challenging war years. Moreover, the Nazi genocide—and the refusal of Soviet-led Communism to acknowledge its particular anti-Jewish valence—put the JPFO somewhat at odds with Communist Party policy, as did its insistence on a “national minority” having its own fraternal order. The JPFO’s intensive and well-documented campaign for postwar “rehabilitation and relief” efforts was geared to supporting Jewish community, and especially orphanages, in Poland, Belgium and France, as well as towards resettlement in the U.S. and in Palestine.

A related thrust is the IWO / JPFO’s organized support for “the party line.” One prominent feature of this complicated terrain is its insistence on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s innocence, after they were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, in what became a famous capital punishment case. The IWO / JPFO insisted that the Rosenbergs were simply victims of anti-Semitism, which was claimed to be a known U.S. phenomenon absent from (and legally forbidden in) the Soviet Union.

New Evidence in Rosenberg Case, Booklet, May 1953/p>

More generally, the IWO / JPFO defended the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, supported the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Poland by ceding half of it to Hitler, and justified the prison deaths of the Polish Bundists Erlich and Alter. Later, they denied reports that Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels and others from the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had been murdered along with those tried and convicted in the so-called “Doctors’ Plot” ostensibly to murder Stalin. While many joined the IWO / JPFO, many left as well.

By the late 1940s, repression in the U.S. had escalated as part of Cold War McCarthyism, including a “Red Scare” that targeted civil rights activists and a broad spectrum of leftists. The IWO was placed on Attorney General’s Tom Clark’s “Red List” and its activists were placed under FBI surveillance. The rhetoric of that era continues to resonate today, especially in discussions of the constitutional right to free speech and the right to avoid self‑incrimination.

Hence, the archives’ holdings touch deeply on topics of interest to scholars, students and prospective researchers of labor, Jewish life and education, international relations, the Cold War, McCarthyism, race relations, Yiddish poetry, ethnicity, the New York State Insurance Department, the McCarran Act, immigration, American Jewish-Black Relations, the poll tax, immigrant acculturation, American Jewish identity, the Jewish Federation of Socialists, the Workmen’s Circle, the Soviet Union, the Black Book, Stalin, and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Scholars of Soviet oriented communism will be interested in this archive, as will scholars of immigration and immigrant acculturation. Other pertinent topics include Palestine/Israel, folk music, summer camps such as Camp Kinderland and JPFO schools (Shule), health insurance, burial insurance, unemployment insurance, social security, fraternal societies, and mutual aid. Scholars of immigration, fraternal societies and the left will find a small amount of materials that pertain to the IWO’s other national affiliates which included the Garibaldi, Ukrainian, Polish, Romanian, Spanish, Greek, Finnish, Carpatho-Russian, Czech, Croatian, Hellenic, and Douglas-Lincoln fraternal lodge sections (the “general” lodges were interracial).

The IWO / JPFO’s responses to the rapid crescendo of federal and state legal actions are reflected here. At the denouement of the legal struggle, the JPFO spun off its children’s schools and camp as well as its cemetery department, to ensure that they were not fully shut down. The (Women’s) Emma Lazarus Division also became its own legal entity. It is clear that New York State and the FBI did not confiscate all organizational files; some were removed before the offices were raided in 1951. What is less clear is whether the Kheel Center’s holdings represent all files confiscated.

The Archival Materials: Organizational Files

The digital files represented here are a curated subset including ~1,700 documents found in the Kheel Center’s IWO Records (#5276). They include but are not limited to memos, minutes, correspondence, convention proceedings, flyers and other ephemera, Jubilee (anniversary) journals, educational materials, political pamphlets and the occasional magazine.

Almanakh 10th anniversary, Yiddish Cooperative League, 1940

In addition to printed materials, archive documents are primarily typed text (English or Yiddish) on paper with a small amount of handwritten materials in Yiddish. While the IWO documents are primarily in English, perhaps a quarter of the selected JPFO documents are in Yiddish. Their very production proves the JPFO’s engagement with and contribution to “Yidishe Kultur.”

There are also a small number of flyers, concert programs and coupons (raffle size for the war effort). There are a few radiograms (from the U.S.S.R. or elsewhere) and telegrams, as well as a tiny number of photos (not artistic in nature). The bound volumes of newsletters as well as other more graphic documents such as pamphlets or songbooks are more visual in nature and often associated with cultural programs and/or projects. Some publications such as book, magazine and pamphlet covers also have interesting graphics or lettering in addition to historically valuable content. Of note is a rare 1941 poetry anthology published in Moscow by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee as well as autographed letters from Marc Chagall.

Yiddish Orthography and Ideology

YIVO standards of transliteration have been used when providing titles and names from Yiddish into English. Since Yiddish speaking immigrants generally chose their own English surnames, often used commonly transliterated spellings as part of a process of immigrant acculturation, and generally arrived in the United States before the YIVO standards were promulgated, most did not employ YIVO’s system to determine the spelling of their names or those of many other words. Hence, in rendering names found in this archive every effort has been made to use the names that the immigrants themselves used while noting that those names may have shifted over the course of time. Thus, Itche Goldberg is rendered as “Itche,” since that is how he spelled his name in English, but the YIVO orthography of Itshe is also noted since it is used by the Library of Congress Name Authority File (LCNAF). Pesach Novick used Paul as his English first name. Other examples abound. Also an English translation of the title/subject is often noted on the top of a document. These renderings—some penciled in as a result of the files being confiscated—have been captured in a separate field since they may be helpful when matching up a document to a title or subject seen in a finding guide.

Also, twentieth century Yiddish itself does not necessarily use a fully phonetic orthography. Yiddish, a fusion language spelled with Hebrew letters, includes Germanic, Slavic, Semitic and Romance components. Words and expressions of Hebrew or Aramaic origin are spelled as they are in the source language. Thus, Yiddish language history is reflected in its variable orthography. Notable here is that aside from differences based on regional dialects, most of the writers and publications did not use the Soviet “simplified” system which discouraged the retention of Hebrew or Aramaic spellings. While Yiddish orthography may well reflect ideology, in the case of this archive, it does not necessarily do so.

We have provided Yiddish titles and names, in Yiddish as spelled in these documents, and also summary translations where possible of Yiddish language documents.

Figures of Interest

Researchers may find documents authored by or that merely touch upon historic figures who were important in Jewish life and culture or are relevant to public history in other ways. Among such figures are Earl Browder, Max Bedacht, Jay Lovestone, Paul Robeson, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Marc Chagall, Ruth Rubin, B.Z. Goldberg, Sholem Asch, Albert Einstein, Dr. Stephen S. Wise, Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels, Itzik Feffer, and Moshe Nadir. Those who were directly involved with daily work in the IWO / JPFO include but are not limited to Clara Lemlich (Shavelson), June Gordon, Kalman Marmor, Nachman Mayzel (Meisel), Itche Goldberg, Pesach (Paul) Novick, Sam Pevzner, Morris Schappes, Gedalya (George) Sanders, George Starr, Shimshon (Sam) Milgrom, Rubin Saltzman and Albert E. Kahn. Material also exists on extensive IWO / JPFO legal and political campaigns that involved national historic figures.


We gratefully acknowledge the support of Cornell’s Grants Program for Digital Collections in Arts and Sciences and the work done by the DCAPS (Digital Consulting & Production Services) unit. The program, funded by the College of Arts of Sciences and coordinated by the Cornell University Library, was developed by the Arts & Sciences Visual Resources Advisory Group.

* The total 5276 International Workers' Order collection is 42.4 linear feet. The curated selection is 5 linear feet, including a few bound volumes.

** Scholars and others have long debated whether Paul Robeson at any point actually became a member of the Communist Party; most think not. He visited Moscow on a number of occasions starting in the 1930s. Robeson worked extensively with the IWO / JPFO, who introduced him to Itzik Feffer of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee of the U.S.S.R. (JAFC) when Feffer visited New York in 1943. Robeson kept up the connection in Moscow and was one of the last people to see Feffer before he was murdered. The IWO and JPFO were active organizers and promoters of the 1949 concert in Peekskill, New York where Robeson was prevented from performing due to physical threats by an organized mob that objected to his politics and presence.

*** Making these materials electronically available may also help alert researchers to significant archives on related topics at the Kheel Center, such as the 200 linear feet of archives of the remarkable Foner family, a multigenerational heritage of radical organizing (particularly in the Furriers’ Union), musicianship, and scholarship (the historians Philip, Eric, and Nancy).

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