Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2
South African Trotskyism
You may be interested in the following supplementary information about Yudel Burlak, since your South African issue (Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 4) carried a very limited account of him, and Baruch Hirson incorrectly states that ‘there are few details of the life of Yudel Burlak’. But my brother David and I knew him, and there are still people around in Cape Town who were his political associates, as well as his widow, so it would be quite possible to put together quite a lot about him, both politically and personally. But it is my belief that Burlak and Baruch had little time for one another.
Baruch has used my statement to him that Burlak organised a bank workers’ strike. I was told that by my cousin who had worked for my father, and who was probably the first person to introduce me to Trotsky’s politics when I was 13 or 14. Burlak came out on a ship with my father, who was the leader of and interpreter for the emigrants from Poland, who were, I presume, largely from Bialystock. When going through his papers and library, I have seen a book in Russian, given to Burlak on his twenty-first birthday in Kaunas in 1923, so he was born in 1902, and the dedication calls him ‘comrade’, which suggests he was then a member of a Marxist organisation, probably the Bolsheviks. Apart from Yiddish, Russian, rather than Polish or Lithuanian, was obviously his first language. My father, too, must have been left wing in Poland, and I suppose they may have known each other there. Every day after work my father would spend a few minutes, or even hours, discussing with Burlak. Burlak worked as a book-keeper for a tobacco company. He never qualified as an accountant because he regarded it as useless for a professional revolutionary. He also acted as my father’s book-keeper and adviser. Through Ben Kies he had considerable influence on the Unity Movement. Much of what I am saying is unchecked oral history, but it would certainly be possible to research a great deal more about his life.
Both Burlak and my father were totally secretive, so much so that I was the only child to know that my father was a Marxist. Burlak, too, was not known as a Marxist. He lived quietly in a flat just above that of my parents until I was four, when my parents moved a few streets away. My father would tell me nothing of their relationship, even when he was over 80. He would not even tell me how he had become a Marxist, so I still do not know exactly what his intellectual relationship to Burlak was.
There is a very tragic footnote to this story. Burlak died when he was about 80, but his son had got a job teaching maths at Glasgow University, and he later went to the USA – Duke being the last place where he was. Burlak senior regarded working for the military as a crime, and his son had imbibed that doctrine and was, as a consequence, excluded from a number of plum jobs. Anyway, in 1979 they came back to his Scottish wife’s parents in Ayr for a holiday and there he contracted a rare condition, and, after about 36 hours, he went into a coma and died three months later. While he was in hospital his mother came over from South Africa and stayed with me. I thought the church service at Glasgow University was a supreme irony. Jackie Burlak was a total atheist.
Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011