“A case like the Dreyfus case, by which the soul of a people
is tested and displayed…”

— H.G. Wells

On August 23, 1927, Italian-born anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed by electric chair in Boston, Massachusetts. The two immigrants had been convicted of a murder committed during a 1920 armed robbery.  During the next seven years, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti became a global cause-célèbre, many believing that their persecution and conviction was based not on guilt, but rather on their Italian immigrant background and anarchist political convictions.

With writers like H.G. Wells and Anatole France drawing comparisons to the Dreyfus trial, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was widely covered in the world Yiddish press, of all political stripes. Below is the front page headline from the August 24, 1927 edition of the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper Haynt:

Death sentence carried out on Sacco and Vanzetti — Sacco died with the words: ‘Long live Anarchy! Long live my mother!’ — Vanzetti’s last words were: ‘I am innocent. I forgive everyone!’ — Bloody unrest in America — Attack on the palace of the League of Nations’ Congress of National Minorities

Along with English-language poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and John Dos Passos, several Yiddish writers made literary tributes to Sacco and Vanzetti. Among them was the New York Yiddish poet Moyshe Leyb Halpern:

From “Sacco and Vanzetti”

…And if a child of the very poorest
Dolled up in good clothes for a holiday
Can allow itself to be led everywhere by the hand,
You, too, may allow yourself to be led to the electric chair
No matter how old you are.
What can still be too hard?
A king–even when the whole kingdom wails around his throne–
Should be silent at his coronation.
And if, elected, his crown is one of fire,
It is a crown of wonder in this desolate world;
And only the wolf, who ranges forever because of his wildness,
And only the thief in the night,
Are afraid of fire.
Infants, speechless, who cannot yet
See anything with open eyes,
Reach out toward fire.
And only the butterfly that longs for the light
In the night’s darkness
Welcomes forever with outstretched wings
His fiery death.

— Moyshe Leyb Halpern

translated by John Hollander

“פון „סאַקאָ און וואַנצעטי

,און אַז א קינד, דאָס אָרעמסטע…
,ווען מען טוט עס אָן א בגד אין אַ יום–טוב
;גייט בייַם האַנט, וווּהין מען נעמט עס מיט
מעג מען אויך זיך לאָזן פירן צו דער טויטנשטול, וואָס וואַרט
.ווי אַלט מען זאָל ניט זייַן
,און אַז עס בלאָנקט שוין אויך דאָס טויטנדיקע קופּער אויפן קאָפּ
?וואָס קען נאָך שווער זייַן דעמאָלט
אַ קיניג — ווען דאָס גאַנצע פאָלק אַפילו וויינט אַרום זייַן טראָ
.דאַרף שווייַגן, ווען מען קרוינט אים
,און אַז פון פייַער איז די קרוין אויף אים דעם אויסדערויילטן
.איז דאָס א וווּנדערקרוין אין אָט דער וויסטער וועלט
,און בלויז דער וואָלף, וואָס אייביק לויערט ער, ווייַל ער איז ווילד
און בלויז דער רויבער אין דער פינצטער
.שרעקן זיך פאר פייַער
קינדער שטומע, נאָך
,מיט אויגן אָפענע, וואָס זענען גאָרנישט נאָך
.שטרעקן זיך צום פייַער
און בלויז דער שמעטערלינג, וואָס גאָרט נאָך ליכט
,אין חושך פון דער נאַכט
באַגעגנט מיט צעשפּרייטע פליגל אייביק
.דעם טויט אין פייַער

משה־לייב האלפּערן —

Beginning in 1931, Kovno-born social realist artist and left-wing activist Ben Shahn, who had also been inspired by the Dreyfus Affair, painted a series called The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, which included the painting at the top of this page (installed as a mosaic at Syracuse University in 1967). Shahn late also made another image (right) of Sacco and Vanzetti, reproduced with a quote from Bartolomeo Vanzetti, printed in Shahn’s signature font:

“…Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for joostice, for man’s onderstanding of man as now we do by accident…”

This image also appeared on the August 23, 1952 cover of The Nation.