On Feburary 10th I presented at “Eddie Balchowksy, Portrait of a Chicago Jewish Radical,” put together by Rabbi Brant Rosen, of Tzedek Chicago and co-sponsored by the Chicago Workmen’s Circle.
The night started off with a Havdallah service, the Jewish ritual for the end of the Shabbat and the start of the work week, lead by Rabbi Brant.
Jeff Balch then spoke to the crowd of 40 people about the legacy of his distant relative, Eddie Balchowsky. He explained how much it hurt to know he never got to know the one-armed pianist, artist, and poet who fought in the Spanish Civil War. He detailed how he got his friends of Eddie’s together to fund a grave stone (as Eddie’s grave was unmarked) along with a stroke of luck and the help of musician Utah Phillips.
I spoke about Eddie’s personal history, how he had lost his right arm at 21 after a week on the front lines fighting fascism in Spain. How, upon return to Chicago he spent a decade drunk then two decades after that addicted to heroin. In Cook County Jail he met Paul Crump, a Black inmate on death row, whom he championed and encouraged to write. Crump wrote a novel, Burn Killer Burn, which became a best seller, and resulted in the reopening and commutation of his death sentence.
I wanted to capture the spirit of Sophie Madej, owner of the Busy Bee who had been a friend to so many in the Wicker Park neighborhood, and who when Eddie was found dead of a possible suicide in 1989, used her restaurant to host a memorial where friends gathered enough money to bury Eddie, in the unmarked plot in Forest Home cemetery, which Jeff Balch was to discover in the mid-1990’s.
The Busy Bee has become a Penny’s Noodles, and is now an Urban Belly. Beneath the gentrified glamour of Wicker Park lurks the history of international and interpersonal struggle.
The greatest joy of being apart of this program was meeting Mimi Harris, wife of the late Syd Harris, a photographer who fought in Spain. She told her memories of Eddie and details from her life to a crowd that was both shocked and moved. Seven other people were present who had relatives and loved ones who had fought in Spain, all of them Jewish.
I explained that of the 2,800 American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, 1,250 of them were Jews. During the questions and answer session I passed around a list of the volunteers from Chicago, which numbered 182 men and women.
It was a powerful night which brought people together around a story that has been purposely forgotten by decades of FBI repression, redbaiting, and the onslaught of popular culture.
Long live the memory of the International Brigades and Eddie Balchowsky.