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North (Joseph and Helen Oken) Family Papers

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2630

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Heather Mulliner

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on June 26, 2018 using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Edited by Heather Mulliner to reflect inclusion of 2016 accretion.  , March 2017

Historical/Biographical Note

Joseph North was born Jacob Soifer in Ukraine to Jessie Soifer and Balia Yasnitz in in 1904. The family immigrated to the United States when he was 9 months old and settled in Pennsylvania. Joseph North began working in a Pennsylvania textile mill at the age of 12, and later worked summers in the ship yards of his hometown. Joseph graduated with a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and worked for several years after his graduation as a reporter for a variety of Pennsylvania newspapers. In 1935 he was one of the founders of the weekly New Masses and served as its editor for 15 years. Joseph North also served as a communist party organizer and a correspondent for the  Daily Worker. Through his work as a journalist he reported on a number of major events including labor strikes of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II.

Helen Oken North was born in the Bronx, New York in 1912 to Russian immigrants Morris and Jennie Oken. Helen Oken was the youngest of five siblings, two sisters and two brothers. Her older brother Semyon was her mother's son from a previous marriage who eventually left to live with his father, and her brother Yaksha, born in 1906, died when he was only year old after contracting an illness during the family's passage to the United States. Helen and her two older sisters Mary and Lydia were born in New York and maintained close ties throughout their lives. The Oken family was highly involved in labor and socialist organizations. Helen's father Morris Oken was a textile worker and was active in the Workmen's Circle as well as other labor organizations. Helen was also involved in union activity and worked a labor organizer as a teenager. She later worked as a Communist party organizer in Pennsylvania in the 1930s. Helen's sisters Lydia was also highly involved in political activism and worked as a Communist Party organizer in Detroit and Chicago. She married Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteer Dave Mates in 1930.

Helen Oken married Joseph North in 1931. Joseph worked as a correspondent for the New Masses in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Helen accompanied him to Spain and worked in the medical service during those years. Helen and Joseph later settled in Manhattan and had three children Daniel, Susan, and Nora. Helen continued to be involved in Communist Party activism. She also assumed the role of breadwinner on many occasions, as Joseph's work as a journalist did not provide enough to support a family and often required him to travel abroad. Helen and Joseph were married for 26 year, but eventually divorced in 1957. Helen married Communist Party of the United States leader Gil Green in 1970. Joseph North also remarried, marrying  Daily World journalist and editor Augusta Strong in 1963. Joseph's wife Augusta died in early 1976 and Joseph died in December of that same year. Helen North died in 1990.