from "THE DOWNTOWN JEWS: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation." by Ronald Sanders
1969, Publisher: Harper & Row, Publishers

Cahan
Abraham Cahan in 1883, aged
twenty-three, a year after his
arrival in the US.

(pp. 34-36) Specifically, [Abraham] Cahan was now beginning to have inklings of the activities of students who were involved in the revolutionary movement. "Near the railroad tracks... I used to see several young men and a few barishnyas [in Russian: a young lady, a girl of refinement, a girl gymnasium student] whom I suspected to be members of an underground group.... They were dressed like anyone else, they talked like anyone else... but a certain manner, a certain expression on their faces, and the special intimacy with which they behaved toward one another - all this was testimony that they belonged to another world. Among them were a few gymnasium graduates, two or three boys still in gymnasium, a few from the trade school, and some gymnasium girls. These were all Jews. But together with them was always a young Christian, a very handsome, blond young man who wore the uniform of the Vilna Railroad School." ...

But Cahan was soon to become a part of this world. "At the beginning of the summer of 1880, when I was between my third and my fourth year at school, I made my first acquaintance with the secret literature [of the revolutionary movement]. It turned out that two of my friends belonged to the Vilna underground kruzhok ("circle," in Russian), and they gave me socialist writings, the first I had ever read. Afterwards, they introduced me to other members, and I was admitted into the revolutionary family. This brought about a transformation in me that influenced my entire life." Cahan was soon regularly attending the meetings of the Vilna revolutionary kruzhuk, which was affiliated with Narodnaya Volya.

These meetings took place in the apartment of a young Gentile named Vladimir Sokolov, a bachelor who earned enough money to provide for his simple personal needs by giving private lessons in various subjects. Though only in his early thirties, Sokolov was a good ten years older than most of the members of the kruzhok over which he presided, and he represented to them a figure of maturity and wisdom, from whom they received their first lessons in the principles of socialism. The blond young man in the uniform of the railroad school, a Pole named Anton Gnatowski, was a boarder in Sokolov's apartment; he looked upon his host as an elder brother and teacher.

(pp. 148-154) In August, 1891, ... Abraham Cahan went to Europe as a delegate of the United Hebrew Trades to the Second Congress of the Second International [which was held in Brussels].... He had first stopped in London on his way to the Congress, ...crossed the Channel and landed in France,... In Paris, as it happened, the comrade at whose house he was to stay was a Jew from Vilna, a former gymnasium student and member of Cahan's revolutionary kruzhok, named David Gordon.

Yeva [David Gordon's sister] assumed the role of Cahan's guide during his stay in Paris. Together they walked the streets, visited the great open squares and boulevards.... One day, Yeva took Cahan to a cafe where they met an exiled young Polish revolutionary who turned out to be none other than Anton Gnatowski, the blond-haired railroad-school student from the Vilna kruzhok. Since that time, as Cahan learned in their conversation, Gnatowski had taken part in a plot to kill Alexander III in the same way his father had been killed before him, by a dynamite bomb. The assassination had been planned for the early part of 1887, but on March 1 - six years to the day after the death of Alexander II - the plot was discovered and fifteen of the conspirators were arrested. Gnatowski had been among the few who escaped. Of those who were arrested, ten were sentenced to various terms and five were executed; among those who went to the scaffold was a twenty-one-year-old chemistry student named Alexander Ulyanov. Neither Gnatowski nor Cahan, at the moment they discussed this incident, could know that the death of Ulyanov would prove to have had major historical significance; for it was mainly this event that converted Ulyanov's younger brother, Vladimir, to the revolutionary cause, in which he would become known under the pseudonym of Lenin.

The conversation turned to old friends and associates, and Gnatowski informed Cahan that their old mentor from the Vilna kruzhok, Vladimir Sokolov, was now living in Paris too, and was married to Gnatowski's sister.... "What made the strongest impression upon me was what I heard [from Gnatowski] about Vilna. It seemed to me that everything had changed in the ten years I'd been away, that it was now a completely different city with different people in it. I have never had such a strong feeling of life passing me by as I did at that moment." Cahan took his leave of Gnatowski in a somber frame of mind.

(pp. 416-417) In the summer of the following year [1912] Cahan went on a three-month trip to Europe with his wife, during which he had ample opportunity to observe the ways in which the gap between the European and the American experiences that obseese him in his youth now seemed considerably smaller and less consequential.... "In sum," he wrote of this trip, "when I thought about the various changes that had taken place in twenty years, I felt strongly that the different parts of the civilized world were becoming more like one another, that all countries were becoming one." This seemed even more to be the case when, in Paris, he visited his old friend and fellow revolutionist Anton Gnatowski, and discovered him to be living the life of a happy, mellow - and somewhat bourgeois - family man.