Prisoner 155: Simón Radowitzky by Agustín Comotto; foreword by Stuart Christie; translated by Luigi Celentano. Published by AK Press (24 April 2018)

In Jewish mythology every generation has thirty-six righteous men, extraordinarily noble individuals, “Tzadikim” or “Lamedvavnikim” — “Just Men” — whose existence justifies the purpose of humankind to God, and on whose example the moral integrity of the world depends.

If “Lamed Vavninks” have walked the earth, one must surely have been the Ukrainian-born Jewish anarchist Simón Radowitzky, whose life story, told in this compelling graphic novel, is that of one man’s tenacious belief in social justice.

This period was followed by the torture and relentless barbarities of a twenty-one-year calvary (1909-1930) — ten of them in solitary confinement — in the remote Ushuaia penitentiary on the Beagle Channel in Argentina’s Antarctic region of Tierra del Fuego. Finally, emerging from his ordeal with dignity and his ideals and selfless faith in humanity intact.

Simón Radowitzky’s chronicle, a Monte Cristo-esque odyssey, must surely rank among the most powerful in anarchist historiography. Based largely on Agustin Souchy’s biographical memoir, “La vida por un ideal”, it is retold in fragmented flashbacks, skipping around in time between the year of his birth in 1891 and death in 1956, in panels of black-and-white ink sketches with occasional dramatic splotches of red to portray tension, violence and exile. The images and text jump between Radowitzky’s childhood and youth in Tsarist Ukraine, resisting repression and Cossack brutality for much of the first eighteen years of his life.

The second phase encompasses his time in Argentina, from 1908, having fled from the Russian secret police, the Okhrana, because of his revolutionary anarchist activities and involvement in the 1905 Revolution.

The year 1909 was a pivotal one in the history of Argentina’s anarchist and labour movement, following the massacre of around 11 striking workers — and the wounding of at least a hundred more — at a May Day demonstration. The killings had been ordered by the hated Buenos Aires police chief, Colonel Ramón L. Falcón, who was also the head of Argentina’s sabre-wielding and ruthless Federal, i.e. national, Police. Some months later, on 14 November, Radowitzky, a member of the anarcho-communist FORA (Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation) and a survivor of the slaughter, halted Falcón’s brutal career — and that of his equally complicit secretary, Juan Lartigau — by throwing a hand grenade into their carriage.

Arrested close to the scene, Radowitzky was tortured and — saved from the firing squad by his age as he was 18 at the time — sentenced to life imprisonment most of which he was to serve in the Ushuaia, Argentia’s notorious equivalent of one of Stalin’s later Siberian gulags.

Pardoned in 1930, he was immediately deported to neighbouring Uruguay where, three years later, his ongoing anarchist activities led to his arrest and exile on the remote Isla de Flores, 20 miles off Punta Carretas, Montevideo, where he remained for the next 15 months. Released in March 1936, Simón was again placed under house arrest in Montevideo for six months. Following the attempted fascist coup in Spain in July 1936, he made his way to Barcelona where he joined an anarcho-syndicalist militia commanded by Gregorio Jover, the Ascaso Column — later the 28th Division of the Republican army — and fought on the Aragón front. After Franco’s victory in April 1939 he escaped to France and made his way via Bordeaux to Mexico, where he remained for the last sixteen years of his life, continuing his activism and doing what he could to promote the anarchist idea. Among those he influenced was Octavio Alberola of the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL), the coordinator of Defensa Interior, the clandestine anarchist body responsible for the assassination attempts on General Franco, and a prime mover in the 1960s of the “First of May” action group.

Radowitzky’s life story — slightly fictionalised inasmuch as all history is fictionalised to some extent — is the product of more than six years’ dedicated work by the author and illustrator Agustín Comotto. To better understand his subject the author — himself the son of an Argentinian exile, a left-wing labour lawyer who escaped the military coup of 1976 — immersed himself in prison memoirs and autobiographies such as Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. Agustín’s researches took him across Europe and to Ushuaia itself where he found the infamous gulag had been transformed into a tourist destination at which visitors can now pay to dress up as prisoners, an irony that reminded me that at least one of Franco’s prisons (Alcalá de Henares) that has been turned into a four-star luxury hotel.

Comotto’s 155 is, in my view, a truly great work, comparable to Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, rich with complexity and ambiguity, and whose shy and sensitive central character, a committed humanist imbued with a deep sense of justice who never expressed regret for the two lives he took, remains an enigma. Radowitzky’s full story may, perhaps, never be written. He was one of countless men and women, the salt of the earth, most of them anonymous, who chose to resist against an unjust, class-ridden society in the hope of building a better world for humanity. They may not be the “fabric of history” as interpreted by the bourgeois historians who glorify the words and deeds of self-seeking “great men,” but they are certainly its warp and weft.

Perhaps the best epitaph for Radowitzky was written four years before his death. This is what Felipe Alaiz de Pablo wrote in issue number 368 of Solidaridad Obrera, published in Paris, 15 March1952:

“Rightly or wrongly, anxious or not for fame and historical renown, perhaps more sentimentally than coolly inclined towards an absolute nihilism, probably scornful of the gregarious and passive mass for whom they sacrifice themselves without expecting help from it, more attached sometimes to anonymity than to an accumulation of redemptorist reverence — for religions are founded upon the spectacular sacrifice of one, and only one, in favour of the comfort and passivity of the rest — the activists, facing danger, dedicate their lives to their cause, and with their own lives pay.

“Those who persist end up in the hands of the terrorist state, while both the ideologues who preach terrorism as a means of resistance, while remaining uninvolved in it themselves, and the state-terror-fearing masses, though they applaud these isolated fighters, are seemingly too shy or inhibited ever to be prepared to take a direct part in the struggle.”

Stuart Christie