In Memoriam, Leon F. Litwack

December 2, 1929 - August 5, 2021
Emma Goldman Papers Public History Project
August 2021 Newsletter

Leon Litwack, friend, mentor, and inspiration, died on August 5th. A prize-winning historian, he now takes his place in the pantheon of great professors, loved and respected by thousands of students for shaking them out of their complacency, opening their eyes to the legacy of racism, systemic injustice, and to the centrality of exercising the right to dissent.

Leon taught history through the stories of those whose lives were exemplars of courage. Among his favorites was Emma Goldman, the bold anarchist who dared to speak out against the denial of rights to women in marriage, reproduction and sexuality, who challenged institutions of social control from schools to prisons, and who championed the right of workers to organize and of young men to resist military conscription. For this, she was spied upon and censored, repeatedly arrested, imprisoned, and eventually deported.

Leon Litwack had a personal connection to Emma Goldman. As the story goes, his parents first met at a meeting of a Jewish anarchist-socialist vegetarian hiking club on Mount Tamalpais, near San Francisco, where Goldman was the featured speaker.

Thus, perhaps it was no surprise when Leon approached me many years ago at a history event and enthusiastically offered to support the work of the Emma Goldman Papers Project by serving as our Principal Investigator. In that role, he oversaw our progress and represented us to university administrators, to federal grant-making agencies like the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and to private foundations and donors. He also invited me into his impressive circle of like-minded colleagues at annual meetings of historical societies held across the country.

Leon was a great lover of music. Early on, to help raise funds for the Project, he helped organize a folk-rock concert featuring the singer-songwriter Michele Shocked at Wheeler Hall on the University of California Berkeley campus. Interspersed with her singing, representatives of various community groups read passages from Goldman’s writings that related to their work, be it housing, reproductive issues, prisons, or education. At one point, an actress dressed as Emma Goldman interrupted the show, triggering raucous laughter in the packed audience.

Leon responded forcefully when, periodically, administrators expressed doubts about the Project’s value to the university. He was able to speak authoritatively about the exacting, time-consuming demands of archival-documentary editing work—and about its importance to the study of history and to the mission of the university. Of the Emma Goldman Papers, he wrote: “Your work is so vital and timely—a constant reminder of who we were and are.”

For years, the power of Leon Litwack’s eloquence graced every public event held by the Project, particularly celebrations of the publications of our volumes of annotated original documents. To this day, his resounding voice echoes in the depth of our very being.

View a video of Leon speaking at Resilient Rebels, the program of poets, scholars and activists held in 2004 that brought friends and supporters of the Emma Goldman Papers together. [The clip including Leon Litwack’s talk is in the first video linked above, from 14:50 to 28:48]:

The privilege of years of camaraderie, friendship, and compassion, bolstered by the incredible Rhoda Litwack, has been an honor.

You can read Leon’s obituary in the New York Times here:

With admiration and respect,
Candace Falk

Reflections on Leon by a former student:

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