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The year was 1897. Here’s what Jews were doing.

125 years ago, the Forverts entered a vibrant Jewish world

The year is 1897. Cuba is in the throes of a multi-year war of independence. Thomas Edison is patenting an early motion picture device. Two babies destined to change the world of entertainment — and rock iconic bowl cuts — are born into the world. 

This paper first arrived on the laps of Yiddish-speaking socialists in April of that year, and its headlines were animated by the events of the day. What follows is but a sampling of the Jewish happenings of 1897, from notable nativities to tragic massacres, both in the U.S. and abroad. 

January 2 — At Barnard College in Manhattan, the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority is founded by a group of undergraduates, including Jewish student Stella George Stern Perry. Of course, the partial impetus was Perry’s rejection from other sororities, owing to her Jewishness. AOII strives to be inclusive to undergrads from all backgrounds.

January 10 — Vincent d’Indy’s symphonic poem “Istar” premieres in Amsterdam and Brussels, 89 years and four months before Elaine May’s “Ishtar.”

January 26 — Erwin Blumenfeld is born in Berlin. He will one day become a fashion photographer for magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Before snapping pics of haute-couture in Manhattan he will contribute to the movements of Dada and Surrealism, with one indelible photomontage reflecting his homeland — and the evil that came to consume it. Blumenfeld creates a 1933 piece called “Hitler,” in which the Führer’s head morphs into a skull. That image would make a homecoming in 1943, when Allies printed it on propaganda leaflets and airdropped them over German cities.

A picture of young Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust Photo by Wikimedia Commons

February 5 — Marcel Proust duels literary critic Jean Lorrain after the latter insinuates that the future “Swann’s Way” author is hooking up with a guy named Lucien Daudet. Both Proust and Lorrain are gay, but Proust is closeted and thinks the allegation constitutes character assassination and shames his family honor. Meeting Lorrain in the Meudon forest, the eternally sickly Proust is cool under fire, shooting a bullet that hits the ground by his adversary’s foot. Lorrain misses Proust at a distance of 25 paces. The matter is settled and no one dies — least of all the enmity between the two men. (Lin-Manuel Miranda, if you’re reading this, one duel musical is plenty.)

March 9 — Parts of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony — the second, third and sixth movements — debut in Berlin. Just weeks earlier, in Hamburg, Mahler was secretly baptized Roman Catholic, a precondition to lead the Vienna Court Opera. He is appointed to that post later in the year. 

March 20The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the first Orthodox Jewish seminary in the United States, is chartered by the state of New York at Yeshiva University. 

March 24 Wilhelm Reich is born in Dobzau, Galicia. The tyke will grow up to become an influential psychoanalyst and author and pioneer of a bizarre pseudoscience that claims the world is surrounded by blue “orgone energy” and that orgasms are the cure for all that ails us. (Also, UFOs, he believes in UFOs too.) His “orgone accumulator” — really just a box — will run afoul of the FDA, be collected by Norman Mailer and mocked in a Woody Allen sci-fi spoof under the name the “Orgasmatron.”

March 30 — It happens one night that Robert Riskin, who will marry Fay Wray and write an iconic Frank Capra comedy, enters the world. Growing up watching Vaudeville, Riskin will bring its trademark patter to “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “It Happened One Night” (an Oscar-winning screenplay) and “Lady for a Day.” He will indirectly influence the careers of Clark Gable, Mel Blanc, Peter Bogdanovich and Barbra Striesand. Not bad, doc.

April 7 — In a blessed event, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Winschel announce the birth of their child, Walter. The visit from the stork for this future habitue of the Stork Club arrives in April. Young Walter will go on to innovate the gossip column, helm the country’s most popular radio program and, in an improbable twist, go from a stalwart supporter of Roosevelt to a lapdog for J. Edgar Hoover.

April 22 The Jewish Daily Forward — the Forverts — publishes its first issue, blaring Socialist slogans and news about steamfitters mobilizing and calling out various “swindlers.” In time it will briefly achieve a larger circulation than The New York Times and also briefly serve as the official organ for the Jewish wing of the Socialist Party. 

May 10 —  Margaret Schönberger, later Margaret Mahler, is born to a Hungarian Jewish family and commences the part of her life that will come to dominate her career in psychiatry: childhood. In later years, Mahler will develop an influential separation-individuation theory of child development through her work with children with emotional and behavioral disorders.

May 15 — Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in Berlin — likely the world’s first gay rights organization — in hope of repealing a law that criminalized homosexual activity between men. The Committee, whose motto was “Justice through science,” publishes journals, hosts lectures and provides legal support while rallying for the social acceptance of the LBTQ community. As Steve Peters notes in a 2019 blog post, Hirschfeld also produces an early queer film and finds champions for his cause in Albert Einstein and Leo Tolstoy.

May 29 — Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who will go on to pioneer music in Hollywood films, is born into a musical family in Brünn, Austria-Hungary. The lad has a bright future, and will impress the likes of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Alexander von Zemlinsky as a young composing prodigy. He will pen operas in Europe and score swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn and — with his theme for 1941’s “Kings Row ” — inspire the opening strains of a certain space-set franchise set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

An image of Moe Howard of The Three Stooges
1/3 of the Stooges, Moe Howard. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

June 19 — Moses Harry Horwitz is born in Brooklyn, New York. The child, who will later go by Moe, has a difficult homecoming as mother and father, carrying the babe, all try to fit through the narrow door at once. Big brother Shemp is inconsolable at losing his only child status, crying “heep heep heep heep” well into the evening.

August 29  The First Zionist Congress of the Zionist Organization convenes in Basel Switzerland. The Forverts reports on Theodor Herzl’s claim at the conference that the Ottomans would welcome Jews back to their ancestral homeland, writing, “It’s a little thing, really a teensy little thing, maintains Dr. Herzl of the Jewish nationalists leading the Jews out of the diaspora, bringing them to the land where folks don’t die but are eaten alive.” Alluding to the Ottoman treatment of Armenians and Slavs, the paper takes the prediction that Jews may be granted Palestine with more than a grain of salt and notes how Herzl mentions Argentina as an alternative should his plan fall through. Calling Herzl the “new Moses,” the article notes the leader’s vision for the future state as decidedly un-socialist and so, without quite spelling it out, not something readers should get excited about.

September 7 — The Forward reports on an ongoing cloakmakers’ strike in New York City. “You don’t have to be a prophet to see their victory,” writes our reporter of the 300 cloakmakers demanding better wages at the Zilberman Brothers Firm and Empire Cloak Company.


The front page of the Forverts 9/13/1897, reporting from a massacre in Hazleton, PA
The Forverts front page on Sept. 23, 1897. “They Were Butchered For 15 Minutes One After Another” “It’s Impossible To Describe The Scene” “They Can’t Weep Over Their Dead”. (Translation by Chana Pollack.) Photo by Wikimedia Commons
The victims of the Lattimer Massacre Photo by Wikimedia Commons

September 10 — In Hazleton, Penn. a sheriff’s posse kills 19 unarmed immigrant miners during a labor strike in what will become known as the  “Lattimer Massacre.” On Sept. 13, the Forward devotes its front page to the victims, under the headline “They Were Butchered For 15 Minutes One After Another.” Reporting from the scene, an illustrator captured the carnage.

October 7 — Socialist Jews establish the General Jewish Labour Bund in Vilna, with an eye toward drawing Eastern European Jews into the current revolutionary moment in the Russian Empire. Known as The Bund, it flourishes, becoming a custodian of Yiddish culture, provider of social services and an active campaigner against antisemitism and for workers’ rights.

October 8 — Socialist leader and perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs makes his first speech in New York. The Forverts describes his oratory as “a Niagara of poetic pearls that excited everyone with penetrating earnest simplicity.” This paper effuses that Debs is “the soul of the working masses” who “loves, breathes, suffers and feels for the suffering masses.”

Edith Head in 1955 Photo by Wikimedia Commons

October 28 — Edith Posener is born in California to a haberdasher father, and will, in time follow in his sartorial footsteps, embarking on a career in costume design under her married name, Head. After teaching French and art, Head — who will earn the moniker “the Doctor” — and rock her own understated style (bobbed hair; white suits; black, round glasses) will become Paramount’s chief designer, dressing Dorothy Lamour in her famous sarong and a future princess in iconic gowns. Head will win eight Oscars, the most of any woman in the awards show’s history, and be immortalized in the character of Edna Mode, a clear parody, in the Pixar film “The Incredibles.”  

October 29 — In a factory town near Dusseldorf, a family of modest means welcomes its middle child and names him Paul. Sickly in childhood, the boy will excel academically and even earn a doctorate. Upsetting his parents’ plans for him to enter the Catholic priesthood, Paul becomes a journalist and frustrated author, finally finding success by supporting the politics of a charismatic veteran of The Great War. He will innovate a genre of literature, becoming essential to the messaging of his chosen party’s ideology and a powerful public speaker. You may know him better by his middle name: Joseph, which rolls off the tongue better with his tricky last name, Goebbels.

November 7 — An infant wit named Herman J. Mankiewicz is born to a cultured, German immigrant family in New York. After embarking on a career in journalism, Mank, as he is often called, will deign to work in a medium he largely reviles: film. Despite his derision for the medium — summed up by a script for Rin Tin Tin in which the heroic dog runs into a burning building with a baby in his mouth — he contributes to many classics, though he often goes uncredited. He did fight for one credit: “Citizen Kane.”   

December 1 In Prague, “a band of wild fanatic Czechs” attack Jews and German speakers, the Forverts reports. Screams of “down with the Germans! Down with the Jews!” are heard throughout the public squares. Mass property damage ensues, with “hundreds of Jewish and German homes” reduced to rubble and synagogues targeted. “By the end the gang had set a huge fire where they burned lots of German and Jewish furniture, cushions and various other items,” The Forverts reports. The riot, inspired by Czech nationalism, leaves several dead and hundreds wounded, ending after three days.

Dec. 2, 1897 issue of the Forverts: “Zola Fights for Dreyfuss.” “The acclaimed writer’s ultimate goal is to free the innocent captain.” “Antisemitism is France’s shame.” (Translation by Chana Pollack.) Photo by Wikimedia Commons

December 2 A month before Emile Zola publishes “J’Accuse,” The Forward reports that the French writer claims to have evidence of Alfred Dreyfus’ innocence and intends to make freeing him his life’s goal. 

December 12 — “Incitement Against Jews in Romania,” blares the front page of the Forverts, reporting on a riot in Bucharest that left hundreds of Jewish homes and storefronts ransacked. The cause was a rumor that Jews had killed Christians.

December 30 — The year’s final session of the American Jewish Historical Society at Temple Emanu-El convenes around a paper on Jews in the American Revolution. The paper’s author, Leon Huhner, says that “in New York, shadows have rarely if ever fallen upon the bright page of Jewish history.” The group also discuss, according to minutes recorded by The New York Times, “Early American Zionist Projects” and whether America served as “the abode of the ten tribes” of Israel.

December 31 — The Forverts, evidently unmoved by pseudo-history or academic articles on the Jewish financing of the American revolution, publishes a scathing polemic about mass deaths inside a “house of illegitimate children” on Randall’s Island. “The guilty party must be punished or at the least abolished,” the editorial thunders.

April 22, 2022 — 125 years after the Forverts’ first issue, PJ Grisar publishes a list of significant Jewish events to an electronic version of the newspaper. The world has changed much since, but the Forward lives on.

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