Elisa
Elisa de Jager (1925-91), daughter of Alida.

 

Tracing a life lived across several continents can be tricky – especially when the person you are tracing regularly changed her name. I have found the woman known variously as Emmy de Jager, Elisa Kaemmerer, Alida de Jäger, Alida Leonhard and Alida von Leonhard Kämmerer in some unusual places; flirting with soldiers in a Red Army encampment outside Moscow in 1925, sharing a cabin with the anarchist philosopher Simone Wiel in 1932, caring for an internationally famous trade unionist in wartime Mexico and wistfully remembering her life at a Swiss retreat in 1973. These snapshots of her life can be found in documents in the private papers of Leon Trotsky, the archives of the Soviet Communist Party, the University of Warwick and an attic in a sleepy Oxfordshire village. To date, potted secondary source references chiefly discuss Alida as the partner of Dutch trade unionist Edo Fimmen – but she was a great deal more than that.

I am searching for Alida because she was intimately connected to two Irish women who have become a borderline obsession of mine. Her daughter, Elisa, is also a person of interest in this investigation. My knowledge of the lives of Alida and Elisa involves decades of unaccountability and moments of intensely specific detail. For example, she was born in 1890 in Hamburg, Germany, then disappeared from home in 1914 before reappearing in Soviet Russia a decade later. Yet I also know that on May 31st 1925 Alida went into labour, was bundled into a Moscow taxi by an Irish comrade and then delivered her first daughter in the Kremlin hospital. Her Moscow days, optimistic in experience but tragic in retrospect, haunted her throughout her life. She reflected in 1973:

Of course, in 1925 and 1926 it was still the great time with Trotsky, Bukharin and Radek and Tchicherin and many people around them were still the greatest group of men who I have ever met. Stalin also was among them but was so uninteresting and unimportant that nobody ever thought that he was going to destroy all the others.

Another curiosity is that towards the end of her life Alida developed and wrote a composite social and economic theory entitled Tomorrow. All that survives is a table of contents and this beguiling pair of lines

“This book is no utopia in the strict sense of the term. It presupposes no new discovery or invention, only the fairly reasonable use of those already existing”

This scrap of paper, currently sitting on my desk, brings to mind the frustratingly incomplete past historians deal with. As Seth Koven notes, lost pages ‘remind us that archives, like the life stories we make from them, are always fragments.’[1] In this case, the life philosophy of Alida is literally reduced to fragments.

Alida died in 1976, aged 84, and was survived by her daughters Elisa and Alida junior. Neither married or had children – though both had interesting lives working at the United Nations and International Rescue Committee. I have put up this blog for two reasons. First, I am writing in the hope that someone with information on Alida might eventually string together the correct search terms to bring them here (a long shot, but I have been blessed by coincidence before). Second, because the person whom it concerns is, I think, fascinating and deserves to have some sort of notes on her life made available.
[1] S. Koven, The Match Girl and the Heiress (Oxford, 2014), p. 134

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