Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1931.
HELEN MINKIN WAS AWAY AT WORK. ANNA WAS OUT OF A JOB just then. She prepared tea, and we sat down to talk. Berkman inquired about my plans for work, for activity in the movement. Would I like to visit the Freiheit office? Could he be of help in any way? He was free to take me about, he said; he had left his job after a fight with the foreman. "A slave-driver," he commented; "he never dared drive me, but it was my duty to stand up for the others in the shop." It was rather slack now in the cigar-making trade, he informed us, but as an anarchist he could not stop to consider his own job. Nothing personal mattered. Only the Cause mattered. Fighting injustice and exploitation mattered.
How strong he was, I thought; how wonderful in his revolutionary zeal! Just like our martyred comrades in Chicago.
I had to go to West Forty-second Street to get my sewing-machine out of the baggage-room. Berkman offered to accompany me. He suggested that on our way back we might ride down to Brooklyn Bridge on the Elevated and then walk over to William Street, where the Freiheit office was located.
I asked him whether I could hope to establish myself in New York as a dressmaker. I wanted so much to free myself from the dreadful grind and slavery of the shop. I wanted to have time for reading, and later I hoped to realize my dream of a co-operative shop. "Something like Vera's venture in What's to be Done?" I explained. "You have read Chernishevsky?" Berkman inquired, in surprise, "surely not in Rochester?" "Surely not," I replied, laughing; "besides my sister Helena, I found no one there who would read such books. No, not in that dull town. In St. Petersburg." He looked at me doubtfully. "Chernishevsky was a Nihilist," he remarked, "and his works are prohibited in Russia. Were you connected with the Nihilists? They are the only ones who could have given you the book." I felt indignant. How dared he doubt my word! I repeated angrily that I had read the forbidden book and other similar works, such as Turgeniev's Fathers and Sons, and Obriv (The Precipice) by Gontcharov. My sister had got them from students and she let me read them. "I am sorry if I hurt you," Berkman said in a soft tone. "I did not really doubt your word I was only surprised to find a girl so young who had read such books."
How far I had wandered away from my adolescent days, I reflected. I recalled the morning in Königsberg when I had come upon a huge poster announcing the death of the Tsar, "assassinated by murderous Nihilists." The thought of the poster brought back to my memory an incident of my early childhood which for a time had turned our home into a house of mourning. Mother had received a letter from her brother Martin giving the appalling news of the arrest of their brother Yegor. He had been mixed up with Nihilists, the letter read, and he was thrown into the Petro-Pavlovsky Fortress and would soon be sent away to Siberia. The news struck terror in us. Mother decided to go to St. Petersburg. For weeks we were kept in anxious suspense. At last she returned, her face beaming with happiness. She had found that Yegor was already on the way to Siberia. After much difficulty and with the help of a large sum of money she had succeeded in getting an audience with Trepov, the Governor General of St. Petersburg. She had learned that his son was a college chum of Yegor and she urged it as proof that her brother could not have been mixed up with the terrible Nihilists. One so close to the Governor's own son would surely have nothing to do with the enemies of Russia. She pleaded Yegor's extreme youth, went on her knees, begged and wept. Finally Trepov promised that he would have the boy brought back from the étape. Of course, he would put him under strict surveillance; Yegor would have to promise solemnly never to go near the murderous gang.
Our mother was always very vivid when she related stories of books she had read. We children used to hang on her very lips. This time, too, her story was absorbing. It made me see Mother before the stern Governor-General, her beautiful face, framed by her massive hair, bathed in tears. The Nihilists, too, I saw --- black, sinister creatures who had ensnared my uncle in their plotting to kill the Tsar. The good, gracious Tsar --- Mother had said --- the first to give more freedom to the Jews; he had stopped the pogroms and he was planning to set the peasants free. And him the Nihilists meant to kill! "Cold-blooded murderers," Mother cried, " they ought to be exterminated, every one of them!"
Mother's violence terrorized me. Her suggestion of extermination froze my blood. I felt that the Nihilists must be beasts, but I could not bear such cruelty in my mother. Often after that I caught myself thinking of the Nihilists, wondering who they were and what made them so ferocious. When the news reached Königsberg about the hanging of the Nihilists who had killed the Tsar, I no longer felt any bitterness against them. Something mysterious had awakened compassion for them in me. I wept bitterly over their fate.
Years later I came upon the term "Nihilist " in Fathers and Sons. And when I read What's to be Done? I understood my instinctive sympathy with the executed men. I felt that they could not witness without protest the suffering of the people and that they had sacrificed their lives for them. I became the more convinced of it when I learned the story of Vera Zassulich, who had shot Trepov in 1879. My young teacher of Russian related it to me. Mother had said that Trepov was kind and humane, but my teacher told me how tyrannical he had been, a veritable monster who used to order out his Cossacks against the students, have them lashed with nagaikas, their gatherings dispersed, and the prisoners sent to Siberia. "Officials like Trepov are wild beasts," my teacher would say passionately; "they rob the peasants and then flog them. They torture idealists in prison."
I knew that my teacher spoke the truth. In Popelan everyone used to talk about the flogging of peasants. One day I came upon a half naked human body being lashed with the knout. It threw me into hysterics, and for days I was haunted by the horrible picture. Listening to my teacher revived the ghastly sight: the bleeding body, the piercing shrieks, the distorted faces of the gendarmes, the knouts whistling in the air and coming down with a sharp hissing upon the half-naked man. Whatever doubts about the Nihilists I had left from my childhood impressions now disappeared. They became to me heroes and martyrs, henceforth my guiding stars.
I was aroused from my reverie by Berkman's asking why I had become so silent. I told him of my recollections. He then related to me some of his own early influences, dwelling particularly on his beloved Nihilist uncle Maxim and on the shock he had experienced on learning that he had been sentenced to die. "We have much in common, haven't we?" he remarked. "We even come from the same city. Do you know that Kovno has given many brave sons to the revolutionary movement? And now perhaps also a brave daughter," he added. I felt myself turn red. My soul was proud. "I hope I shall not fail when. the time comes," I replied.
The train was passing narrow streets, the dreary tenements so close by that I could see into the rooms. The fire-escapes were littered with dirty pillows and blankets and hung with laundry streaked with dirt. Berkman touched my arm and announced that the next station was Brooklyn Bridge. We got off and walked to William Street.
In an old building, up two dark and creaking flights, was the office of the Freiheit. Several men were in the first room setting type. In the next we found Johann Most standing at a high desk, writing. With a side-glance he invited us to sit down. "My damned torturers there are squeezing the blood out of me," he declared querulously. "Copy, copy, copy! That's all they know! Ask them to write a line --- not they. They are too stupid and too lazy." A burst of good-natured laughter from the composing-room greeted Most's outburst. His gruff voice, his twisted jaw, which had so repelled me on my first meeting him, recalled to me the caricatures of Most in the Rochester papers. I could not reconcile the angry man before me with the inspired speaker of the previous evening whose oratory had so carried me away.
Berkman noticed my confused and frightened look. He whispered in Russian not to mind Most, that he was always in such a mood when at work. I got up to inspect the books which covered the shelves from floor to ceiling, row upon row. How few of them I had read, I mused. My years in school had given me so little. Should I ever be able to make up? Where should I get the time to read? And the money to buy books? I wondered whether Most would lend me some of his, whether I dared ask him to suggest a course of reading and study. Presently another outburst grated on my ears. "Here's my pound of flesh, you Shylocks!" Most thundered; "more than enough to fill the paper. Here, Berkman, take it to the black devils in there!"
Most approached me. His deep blue eyes looked searchingly into mine. "Well, young lady," he said, "have you found anything you want to read? Or don't you read German and English?" The harshness of his voice had changed to a warm, kindly texture. "Not English," I said, soothed and emboldened by his tone, "German." He told me I could have any book I wanted. Then he plied me with questions --- where I hailed from and what I intended to do. I said I had come from Rochester. "Yes, I know the city. It has good beer. But the Germans there are a bunch of Kaffern. Why New York exactly?" he inquired; "it is a hard city. Work poorly paid, not easily found. Have you enough money to hold out?" I was deeply touched by the interest of this man in me, a perfect stranger. I explained that New York had lured me because it was the centre of the anarchist movement, and because I had read of him as its leading spirit. I had really come to him for suggestions and help. I wanted very much to talk to him. "But not now, some other time," I said, "somewhere away from your black devils."
You have a sense of humor," --- his face lit up --- you'll need it if you enter our movement." He suggested that I come next Wednesday, to help with expediting the Freiheit, to write addresses and fold the papers --- "and afterwards we may be able to talk."
With several books under my arm and a warm handshake, Most sent me off. Berkman left with me.
We went to Sachs's. I had had nothing to eat since the tea Anna had given us. My escort, too, was hungry, but evidently not so much as the night before: he did not call for extra steak or extra cups of coffee. Or was he broke? I suggested that I was still rich and begged him to order more. He refused brusquely, telling me that he couldn't accept it from anyone out of a job who had just arrived in a strange city. I felt both angry and amused. I explained that I did not wish to hurt him; I believed that one always shared with a comrade. He repented his abruptness, but assured me that he was not hungry. We left the restaurant.
The August heat was suffocating. Berkman suggested a trip to the Battery to cool off. I had not seen the harbour since my arrival in America. Its beauty gripped me again as on the memorable day. But the Statue of Liberty had ceased to be an alluring symbol. How childishly naïve I had been, how far I had advanced since that day!
We returned to our talk of the afternoon. My companion expressed doubt about my finding work as a dressmaker, having no connexion in the city. I replied that I would try a factory, one for corsets, gloves, or men's suits. He promised to inquire among the Jewish comrades who were in the needle trade. They would surely help find a job for me.
It was late in the evening when we parted. Berkman had told me little about himself, except that he had been expelled from the Gymnasium for an anti-religious essay he had composed, and that he had left home for good. He had come to the United States in the belief that it was free and that here everyone had an equal chance in life. He knew better now. He had found exploitation more severe, and since the hanging of the Chicago anarchists he had become convinced that America was as despotic as Russia.
"Lingg was right when he said: 'If you attack us with cannon, we will reply with dynamite.' Some day I will avenge our dead," he added with great earnestness. "I too! I too!" I cried; "their death gave me life. It now belongs to their memory --- to their work." He gripped my arm until it hurt. "We are comrades. Let us be friends, too --- let us work together." His intensity vibrated through me as I walked up the stairs to the Minkin flat.
The following Friday, Berkman invited me to come to a Jewish lecture by Solotaroff at 54 Orchard Street, on the East Side. In New Haven Solotaroff had impressed me as an exceptionally fine speaker, but now, after having heard Most, his talk appeared flat to me, and his badly modulated voice affected me unpleasantly. His ardour, however, made up for much. I was too grateful for the warm reception he had given me on my first arrival in the city to allow myself any criticism of his lecture. Besides, everybody could not be an orator like Johann Most, I reflected. To me he was a man apart, the most remarkable in all the world.
After the meeting Berkman introduced me to a number of people, "all good active comrades," as he put it. "And here is my chum Fedya," he said, indicating a young man beside him; "he is also an anarchist, of course, but not so good as he should be."
The young chap was probably of the same age as Berkman, but not so strongly built, nor with the same aggressive manner about him. His features were rather delicate, with a sensitive mouth, while his eyes, though somewhat bulging, had a dreamy expression. He did not seem to mind in the least the banter of his friend. He smiled good-naturedly and suggested that we retire to Sachs's, "to give Sasha a chance to tell you what a good anarchist is."
Berkman did not wait till we reached the café. "A good anarchist," he began with deep conviction, "is one who lives only for the Cause and gives everything to it. My friend here " --- he indicated Fedya --- "is still too much of a bourgeois to realize that. He is a mamenkin sin (mother's spoilt darling), who even accepts money from home." He continued to explain why it was inconsistent for a revolutionary to have anything to do with his bourgeois parents or relatives. His only reason for tolerating his friend Fedya's inconsistency, he added, was that he gave most of what he received from home to the movement. "If I'd let him, he'd spend all his money on useless things -'beautiful,' he calls them. Wouldn't you, Fedya?" He turned to his friend, patting him on the back affectionately.
The café was crowded, as usual, and filled with smoke and talk. For a little while my two escorts were much in demand, while I was greeted by several people I had met during the week. Finally we succeeded in capturing a table and ordered some coffee and cake. I became aware of Fedya watching me and studying my face. To hide my embarrassment I turned to Berkman. "Why should one not love beauty?" I asked; "flowers, for instance, music, the theatre - beautiful things?"
"I did not say one should not," Berkman replied; "I said it was wrong to spend money on such things when the movement is so much in need of it. It is inconsistent for an anarchist to enjoy luxuries when the people live in poverty."
"But beautiful things are not luxuries," I insisted; "they are necessaries. Life would be unbearable without them." Yet, at heart, I felt that Berkman was right. Revolutionists gave up even their lives -why not also beauty? Still the young artist struck a responsive chord in me. I, too, loved beauty. Our poverty-stricken life in Königsberg had been made bearable to me only by the occasional outings with our teachers in the open. The forest, the moon casting its silvery shimmer on the fields, the green wreaths in our hair, the flowers we would pick --- these made me forget for a time the sordid home surroundings. When Mother scolded me or when I had difficulties at school, a bunch of lilacs from our neighbour's garden or the sight of the colourful silks and velvets displayed in the shops would cause me to forget my sorrows and make the world seem beautiful and bright. Or the music I would on rare occasions be able to hear in Königsberg and, later, in St. Petersburg. Should I have to forgo all that to be a good revolutionist, I wondered. Should I have the strength?
Before we parted that evening Fedya remarked that his friend had mentioned that I would like to see something of the city. He was free the next day and would be glad to show me some of the sights. "Are you also out of work, that you can afford the time?" I asked. "As you know from my friend, I am an artist," he replied, laughing. "Have you ever heard of artists working?" I flushed, having to admit that I had never met an artist before. "Artists are inspired people," I said "everything comes easy to them." "Of course," Berkman retorted, "because the people work for them." His tone seemed too severe to me, and my sympathy went out to the artist boy. I turned to him and asked him to come for me the next day. But alone in my room, it was the uncompromising fervour of the "arrogant youngster," as I mentally called Berkman, that filled me with admiration.
The next day Fedya took me to Central Park. Along Fifth Avenue he pointed out the various mansions, naming their owners. I had read about those wealthy men, their affluence and extravagance, while the masses lived in poverty. I expressed my indignation at the contrast between those splendid palaces and the miserable tenements of the East Side. "Yes, it is a crime that the few should have all, the many nothing," the artist said. "My main objections," he continued, "is that they have such bad taste --- those buildings are ugly." Berkman's attitude to beauty came to my mind. "You don't agree with your chum on the need and importance of beauty in one's life, do you?" I asked. "Indeed I do not. But, then, my friend is a revolutionist above everything else. I wish I could also be, but I am not." I liked his frankness and simplicity. He did not stir me as Berkman did when speaking of revolutionary ethics; Fedya awakened in me the mysterious yearning I used to feel in my childhood at sight of the sunset turning the PopeIan meadows golden in its dying glow, as the sweet music of Petrushka's flute did also.
The following week I went to the Freiheit office. Several people were already there, busy addressing envelopes and folding the papers. Everybody talked. Johann Most was at his desk. I was assigned a place and given work. I marvelled at Most's capacity to go on writing in that hubbub. Several times I wanted to suggest that he was being disturbed, but I checked myself. After all, they must know whether he minded their chatter.
In the evening Most stopped writing and gruffly assailed the talkers as "toothless old women," "cackling geese," and other appellations I had hardly ever before heard in German. He snatched his large felt hat from the rack, called to me to come along, and walked out. I followed him and we went up on the Elevated. "I'll take you to Terrace Garden," he said; "we can go into the theatre there if you like. They are giving Der Zigeunerbaron tonight. Or we can sit in some corner, get food and drink, and talk." I replied that I did not care for light opera, that what I really wanted was to talk to him, or rather have him talk to me. "But not so violently as in the office," I added.
He selected the food and the wine. Their names were strange to me. The label on the bottle read: Liebfrauenmilch. "Milk of woman's love - what a lovely name!" I remarked. "For wine, yes," he retorted, "but not for woman's love. The one is always poetic - the other will never be anything but sordidly prosaic. It leaves a bad taste."
I had a feeling of guilt, as if I had made some bad break or had touched a sore spot. I told him I had never tasted any wine before, except the kind Mother made for Easter. Most shook with laughter, and I was near tears. He noticed my embarrassment and restrained himself. He poured out two glassfuls, saying: "Prosit, my young, naïve lady," and drank his down at a gulp. Before I could drink half of mine, he had nearly finished the bottle and ordered another.
He became animated, witty, sparkling. There was no trace of the bitterness, of the hatred and defiance his oratory had breathed on the platform. Instead there sat next to me a transformed human being, no longer the repulsive caricature of the Rochester press or the gruff creature of the office. He was a gracious host, an attentive and sympathetic friend. He made me tell him about myself and he grew thoughtful when he learned the motive that had decided me to break with my old life. He warned me to reflect carefully before taking the punge. "The path of anarchism is stee and painful," he said; " so many have attempted to climb it and have fallen back. The price is exacting. Few men are ready to pay it, most women not at all. Louise Michel, Sophia Perovskaya --- they were the great exceptions." Had I read about the Paris Commune and about that marvellous Russian woman revolutionist? I had to admit ignorance. I had never heard the name of Louise Michel before, though I did know about the great Russian. "You shall read about their lives --- they will inspire you," Most said.
I inquired whether the anarchist movement in America had no outstanding woman. "None at all, only stupids," he replied; "most of the girls come to the meetings to snatch up a man; then both vanish, like the silly fishermen at the lure of the Lorelei." There was a roguish twinkle in his eye. He didn't believe much in woman's revolutionary zeal. But I, coming from Russia, might be different and he would help me. If I were really in earnest, I could find much work to do. "There is great need in our ranks of young, willing people --- ardent ones, as you seem to be --- and I have need of ardent friendship," he added with much feeling.
"You?" I questioned; "you have thousands in New York --- all over the world. You are loved, you are idolized." "Yes, little girl, idolized by many, but loved by none. One can be very lonely among thousands --- did you know that?" Something gripped my heart. I wanted to take his hand, to tell him that I would be his friend. But I dared not speak out. What could I give this man --- I, a factory girl, uneducated; and he, the famous Johann Most, the leader of the masses, the man of magic tongue and powerful pen?
He promised to supply me with a list of books to read - the revolutionary poets, Freiligrath, Herwegh, Schiller, Heine, and börne, and our own literature, of course. It was almost daybreak when we left Terrace Garden. Most called a cab and we drove to the Minkin flat. At the door he lightly touched my hand. "Where did you get your silky blond hair?" he remarked; "and your blue eyes? You said you were Jewish." "At the pigs' market," I replied; "my father told me so." "You have a ready tongue, mein Kind." He waited for me to unlock the door, then took my hand, looked deeply into my eyes, and said: "This was my first happy evening in a long while." A great gladness filled my being at his words. Slowly I climbed the stairs as the cab rolled away.
The next day, when Berkman called, I related to him my wonderful evening with Most. His face darkened. "Most has no right to squander money, to go to expensive restaurants, drink expensive wines," he said gravely; "he is spending the money contributed for the movement. He should be held to account. I myself will tell him."
"No, no, you musn't," I cried. "I couldn't bear to be the cause of any affront to Most, who is giving so much. Is he not entitled to a little joy?"
Berkman persisted that I was too young in the movement, that I didn't know anything about revolutionary ethics or the meaning of revolutionary right and wrong. I admitted my ignorance, assured him I was willing to learn, to do anything, only not to have Most hurt. He walked out without bidding me good-bye.
I was greatly disturbed. The charm of Most was upon me. His remarkable gifts, his eagerness for life, for friendship, moved me deeply. And Berkman, too, appealed to me profoundly. His earnestness, his self-confidence, his youth --- everything about him drew me with irresistible force. But I had the feeling that, of the two, Most was more of this earth.
When Fedya came to see me, he told me that he had already heard the story from Berkman. He was not surprised, he said; he knew how uncompromising our friend was and how hard he could be, but hardest towards himself. "It springs from his absorbing love of the people," Fedya added, "a love that will yet move him to great deeds."
For a whole week Berkman did not show up. When he came back again, it was to invite me for an outing in Prospect Park. He liked it better than Central Park, he said, because it was less cultivated, more natural. We walked about a great deal, admiring its rough beauty, and finally selected a lovely spot in which to eat the lunch I had brought with me.
We talked about my life in St. Petersburg and in Rochester. I told him of my marriage to Jacob Kershner and its failure. He wanted to know what books I had read on marriage and if it was their influence that had decided me to leave my husband. I had never read such works, but I had seen enough of the horrors of married life in my own home. Father's harsh treatment of Mother, the constant wrangles and bitter scenes that ended in Mother's fainting spells. I had also seen the debasing sordidness of the life of my married aunts and uncles, as well as in the homes of acquaintances in Rochester. Together with my own marital experiences they had convinced me that binding people for life was wrong. The constant proximity in the same house, the same room, the same bed, revolted me. "If ever I love a man again, I will give myself to him without being bound by the rabbi or the law," I declared, "and when that love dies, I will leave without permission."
My companion said he was glad to know that I felt that way. All true revolutionists had discarded marriage and were living in freedom. That served to strengthen their love and helped them in their common task. He told me the story of Sophia Perovskaya and Zhelyabov. They had been lovers, had worked in the same group, and together they elaborated the plan for the execution of Alexander II. After the explosion of the bomb Perovskaya vanished. She was in hiding. She had every chance to escape, and her comrades begged her to do so. But she refused. She insisted that she must take the consequences, that she would share the fate of her comrades and die together with Zhelyabov. "Of course, it was wrong of her to be moved by personal sentiment," Berkman commented; "her love for the Cause should have urged her to live for other activities." Again I found myself disagreeing with him. I thought that it could not be wrong to die with one's beloved in a common act --- it was beautiful, it was sublime. He retorted that I was too romantic and sentimental for a revolutionist, that the task before us was hard and we must become hard.
I wondered if the boy was really so hard, or was he merely trying to mask his tenderness, which I intuitively sensed in him. I felt myself drawn to him and I longed to throw my arms around him, but I was too shy.
The day ended in a glowing sunset. Joy was in my heart. All the way home I sang German and Russian songs, Veeyut, vitri, veeyut booyniy, being one of them. "That is my favourite song, Emma, dorogaya (dear)," he said. "I may call you that, may I not? And will you call me Sasha?" Our lips met in a spontaneous embrace.
I had begun to work in the corset factory where Helen Minkin was employed. But after a few weeks the strain became unbearable. I could hardly pull through the day; I suffered most from violent headaches. One evening I met a girl who told me of a silk waist factory that gave out work to be done at home. She would try to get me some, she promised. I knew it would be impossible to sew on a machine in the Minkin flat, it would be too disturbing for everybody. Furthermore, the girls' father had got on my nerves. He was a disagreeable person, never working, and living on his daughters. He seemed erotically fond of Anna, fairly devouring her with his eyes. The more surprising was his strong dislike of Helen, which led to constant quarrelling. At last I decided to move out.
I found a room on Suffolk Street, not far from Sachs's café. It was small and half-dark, but the price was only three dollars a month, and I engaged it. There I began to work on silk waists. Occasionally I would also get some dresses to make for the girls I knew and their friends. The work was exhausting, but it freed me from the factory and its galling discipline. My earnings from the waists, once I acquired speed, were not less than in the shop.
Most had gone on a lecture tour. From time to time he would send me a few lines, witty and caustic comments on the people he was meeting, vitriolic denunciation of reporters who interviewed him and then wrote vilifying articles about him. Occasionally he would include in his letters the caricatures made of him, with his own marginal comments: "Behold the wife-killer!" or "Here's the man who eats little children."
The caricatures were more brutal and cruel than anything I had seen before. The loathing I had felt for the Rochester papers during the Chicago events now turned into positive hatred for the entire American press. A wild thought took hold of me and I confided it to Sasha. "Don't you think one of the rotten newspaper offices should be blown up --- editors, reporters, and all? That would teach the press a lesson." But Sasha shook his head and said that it would be useless. The press was only the hireling of capitalism. "We must strike at the root."
When Most returned from his tour, we all went to hear his report. He was more masterly, more witty and defiant against the system than on any previous occasion. He almost hypnotized me. I could not help going up after the lecture to tell him how splendid his talk was."Will you go with me to hear Carmen Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House?" he whispered. He added that Monday was an awfully busy day because he had to keep his devils supplied with copy, but that he would work ahead on Sunday if I would promise to come. "To the end of the world!" I replied impulsively.
We found the house sold out - no seats to be had at any price. We should have to stand. I knew that I was in for torture. Since childhood I had had trouble with the small toe of my left foot; new shoes used to cause me suffering for weeks, and I was wearing new shoes. But I was too ashamed to tell Most, afraid he would think me vain. I stood close to him, jammed in by a large crowd. My foot burned as if it were being held over a fire. But the first bar of the music, and the glorious singing, made me forget my agony. After the first act, when the lights went on, I found myself holding on to Most for dear life, my face distorted with pain. "What's the matter?" he asked. "I must get off my shoe," I panted, "or I shall scream out." Leaning against him, I bent down to loosen the buttons. The rest of the opera I heard supported by Most's arm, my shoe in my hand. I could not tell whether my rapture was due to the music of Carmen or the release from my shoe!
We left the Opera House arm in arm, I limping. We went to a café, and Most teased me about my vanity. But he was rather glad, he said, to find me so feminine, even if it was stupid to wear tight shoes. He was in a golden mood. He wanted to know if I had ever before heard an opera and asked me to tell him about it.
Till I was ten years of age I had never heard any music, except the plaintive flute of Petrushka, Father's stable-boy. The screeching of the violins at the Jewish weddings and the soundings of the piano at our singing lessons had always been hateful to me. When I heard the opera Trovatore in Königsberg, I first realized the ecstasy music could create in me. My teacher may have been largely responsible for the electrifying effect of that experience: she had imbued me with the romance of her favourite German authors and had helped to rouse my imagination about the sad love of the Troubadour and Leonore. The tortuous suspense of the days before Mother gave her consent to my accompanying my teacher to the performance aggravated my tense expectancy. We reached the Opera a full hour before the beginning, myself in a cold sweat for fear we were late. Teacher, always in delicate health, could not keep up with my young legs and my frenzied haste to reach our places. I flew up to the top gallery, three steps at a time. The house was still empty and half-lit, and somewhat disappointing at first. As if by magic, it soon became transformed. Quickly the place filled with a vast audience - women in silks and velvets of gorgeous hue, with glistening jewels on their bare necks and arms, the flood of light from the crystal chandeliers reflecting the colours of green, yellow, and amethyst. It was a fairyland more magnificent than any ever pictured in the stories I had read. I forgot the presence of my teacher, the mean surroundings of my home; half-hanging over the rail, I was lost in the enchanted world below. The orchestra broke into stirring tones, mysteriously rising from the darkened house. They sent tremors down my back and held me breathless by their swelling sounds. Leonore and the Troubadour made real my own romantic fancy of love. I lived with them, thrilled and intoxicated by their passionate song. Their tragedy was mine as well, and I felt their joy and sorrow as my own. The scene between the Troubadour and his mother, her plaintive song "Ach, ich vergehe und sterbe hier," Troubadour's response in "0, teuere Mutter," filled me with deep woe and made my heart palpitate with compassionate sighs. The spell was broken by the loud clapping of hands and the new flood of light. I, too, clapped wildly, climbed on my bench, and shouted frantically for Leonore and the Troubadour, the hero and heroine of my fairy world. "Come along, come along," l heard my teacher say, tugging at my skirts. I followed in a daze, my body shaken with convulsive sobs, the music ringing in my ears. I had heard other operas in Königsberg and later in St. Petersburg, but the impression of Trovatore stood out for a long time as the most marvellous musical experience of my young life.
When I had finished relating this to Most, I noticed that his gaze was far away in the distance. He looked up as if from a dream. He had never heard, he remarked slowly, the stirrings of a child more dramatically told. I had great talent, he said, and I must begin soon to recite and speak in public. He would make me a great speaker --- "to take my place when I am gone," he added.
I thought he was only making fun, or flattering me. He could not really believe that I could ever take his place or express his fire, his magic power. I did not want him to treat me that way --- I wanted him to be a true comrade, frank and honest, without silly German compliments. Most grinned and emptied his glass to my "first public speech."
After that we went out together often. He opened up a new world to me, introduced me to music, books, the theatre. But his own rich personality meant far more to me --- the alternating heights and depths of his spirit, his hatred of the capitalist system, his vision of a new society of beauty and joy for all.
Most became my idol. I worshipped him.
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