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A Jewish revolutionary tells her story – The Forward


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The Yiddish Book Center recently launched a unique podcast in which the actress, translator and Yiddish theater scholar Caraid O’Brien reads her own translation of the memoirs of a Russian revolutionary.

The program, “The Last Maximalist,” recalls the extraordinary early years of Klara Klebanova, a Jewish girl who left her wealthy family at age 16 to join the Russian Revolution of 1905 in an effort to liberate the country’s 80 million peasants.

Klebanova, a talented speaker, writer and propagandist, belonged to a splinter group of revolutionaries who called themselves Maximalists. Unlike most other Russian activists, who believed in incrementally enacting social change in Russia, Klebanova’s group sought to immediately wage war on the government by murdering high-ranking political figures and members of the Czar’s family. Besides assassinating governors and setting off bombs, the young revolutionaries frequently robbed banks, which was the easiest way to fund their activities.

Klebanova fled Russia and eventually settled in America in 1914, where her memoirs were serialized in the Forward in 1922 as “Bloody Days: Memoirs of a Jewish Revolutionary.” Klebanova’s memoirs were never translated or reprinted after their initial publication.

Upon discovering “Bloody Days,” O’Brien felt that the text would make a great play. As she explained in an interview with the Yiddish Book Center’s podcast, “The Schmooze,” she was friendly with the legendary Yiddish actor and singer Seymour Rechtzeit, who regaled her with tales of Yiddish radio’s glory days. Years ago, Rechtzeit himself often appeared in serialized radio dramas and O’Brien has long been intrigued by the genre. Instead of trying to stage a full play based on Klebanova’s memoirs, she decided to turn her translation into a serialized podcast, which eventually became The Last Maximalist. (The program’s name comes from an extended oral history interview with Klebanova that was published in the journal, The Russian Review, in 1973.

The podcast, which will consist of 12 episodes of 20-25 minutes each, will also include a radio interview Klara Klebanova herself gave to Pacifica Radio in the early 1970s.

The first four episodes can be streamed on the Yiddish Book Center’s website. A new installment will debut every week.