One hundred and twenty-three years ago today, a fateful and momentous meeting of two exceptional minds occurred in a café in New York City’s Lower East Side. Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, or John and Yoko, the reaction between the two was instant and transformative. And, as with the aforementioned duos, together they would learn and grow, urge each other ever onwards, blaze a trail and leave an indelible mark. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were twenty and nineteen respectively when they met, and for the next fifty years until Berkman’s death – first as lovers but always as co-conspirators – they became pivotal revolutionaries as the leading voices of the early twentieth century anarchist movement.
Emma Goldman – a Russian Jewess who had emigrated to America in 1885 – arrived in New York City alone and with $5 to her name, having the previous day fled from her loveless marriage and provincial life some 300 miles northwest in Rochester. The oppressive heat overpowered her as she disembarked from the ferry on 12th avenue and 42nd street. Unable to speak English and ignorant of Manhattan’s geography, she walked for three disorientating hours until she finally arrived at her aunt and uncle’s house on the Lower East Side’s Canal Street. Her relatives greeted her unexpected arrival with suspicion, bombarding her with questions and making it no secret that they disapproved of her situation. Despite exhaustion, she made her excuses and once again fled from family expectations that were too painfully oppressive and narrow for this newly enlightened young woman. For Emma Goldman’s decision to quit her previous life had been borne out of an epiphany, a political awakening torn out of her in the wake of her reading reports of Chicago’s Haymarket Martyrs, the innocent anarchist victims of 1886’s infamous Haymarket Affair.
Leaving her family still squabbling, the exhausted Emma then set out to locate her sole other acquaintance in the whole of New York City – Solotaroff, a young anarchist whom she had briefly met during one of his lectures the previous year. Emma arrived at Solotaroff’s address only to discover he’d moved away, possibly to nearby Montgomery Street. Without knowing his house number, she knocked on every door until, hours later, she finally found him. Welcoming her at once as a comrade, Solotaroff offered Emma temporary board and took her to dinner at Sach’s Café on Suffolk Street. Inside the tiny two-room eatery, as its customers’ voices competed against each other, it gradually dawned on Emma Goldman that she had found herself inside the headquarters of the Lower East Side’s bourgeoning community of Yiddish radicals, socialists, anarchists and artists – and amongst more like-minders than she had ever dreamed possible.
Introduced by Solotaroff to several of his friends, Emma’s attention was immediately caught by a young man who was loudly ordering extravagant amounts of food. ‘Who’s the glutton?’ Emma asked Solotaroff, wondering how the young man could possibly afford so much. But by the time Solotaroff had explained that this was merely anarchist Alexander Berkman celebrating his paycheck, the 19-year-old ‘glutton’ was fixing Emma Goldman with his intense stare and approaching her with an invitation to join him at an anarchist meeting that night. She accepted. But, as they walked, Emma stumbled badly as her fatigue caught up with her. As Berkman caught her, he jested: “I have saved your life.” “I hope I may be able to save yours some day,” she replied.
Thus their covenant was made. Romance came soon after, and together they crystallised their vision for social reform. As a radical couple, Goldman and Berkman thereafter came to the attention of their movement’s leaders far quicker than would have been possible had the two not enjoyed such mutual inspiration. Just three years later, they would leapfrog the entire anarchist community with a righteous and audacious direct action – from which neither would ever be able to look back. But that’s another story.