Boris Yelensky was born in 1889 in Krasnodar in the district Kuban, a city in the Caucasus, not far from the port of Novorosisk on the Black Sea in the Russian Empire. His father was a capmaker. He went to a Russian primary school, and at the age of ten he started to work with his father. The family was not involved in Jewish life, and Boris did not speak or write Yiddish. At the age of 16 he became acquainted with the anarchist movement.
To escape persecution from the tsarist secret police, in 1913 he fled to the U.S.A. and arrived in Philadelphia, one of the centers of American anarchism, where Joseph J. Cohen (1878-1953), a well-known Jewish anarchist leader, took him under his wing. He met and married Bessie, who became his lifelong helpmate. He learned Yiddish and English and became secretary of the Anarchist Red Cross, an international relief fund to aid anarchist prisoners. After the October Revolution in 1917, he returned to Russia with his wife and small son. At first, he was active in the workers’ committee of Novorosisk, but after the victory of the Bolsheviks he was imprisoned twice. He was released because he was an American citizen. In 1923 he returned to the U.S.A. with his family and settled in Chicago.
In Chicago he became secretary of the Russian Political Relief Committee (1924-1925), and from 1925-1936 he was secretary of the Chicago Aid Fund to help the anarchist prisoners in Russia and exiled Russian anarchists throughout the world. In 1936 the name of the fund was changed to the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund in honor of the deceased anarchist leader Alexander Berkman (1870-1936). He was also founder and secretary of the Free Society Group and of many anarchist funds.
The Alexander Berkman Aid Fund financed several important publications on the history of anarchism such as The guillotine at Work by G.P. Maximoff, on the persecution of anarchist by the Bolsheviks, in 1940, and The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism in 1953. In 1959 he and his wife moved to Miami, where he continued his work and became secretary of the Simon Farber Memorial Fund, in commemoration of the well-known anarchist. Because of objections by Farber’s widow, Yelensky was not able to publish Farber’s autobiography.
During the Second World War, Yelensky focused on contacts with exiled Spanish anarchists in South America. Soon after the liberation of France, contacts with comrades in France were resumed. After the fall of Nazi Germany, contacts with comrades in other European countries were also resumed, and the Fund was very active in sending parcels to needy comrades, fugitives, and survivors of the holocaust, who were interned in the camps for Displaced Persons in Germany. The parcels were sent through the American relief organzation C.A.R.E.
Yelensky’s memoirs of the Russian Revolution were published in Yiddish in Buenos Aires in 1967 under the title: In sotsyaln shturm: zikhroynes fun der rusishen revolutsye. An English version is in typescript in his archives entitled: In the social tempest: memoirs of the Russian Revolution, as well as another work on the same subject: In the shadow of death, love and life: a story of real life in the period of the Great Russian social revolution. Copies of several of his articles in Russian on the Russian Revolution and anarchism and articles in Yiddish under his pseudonym Berl Kavkazer are also in his archives.
Inspired by the example of the famous anarchist Rudolf Rocker, whom he revered, he offered his archive to be kept in the IISH in 1959, and the papers were sent to Amsterdam upon his death in 1974.
Inventory to Boris Yelensky Papers