Longtime Communist leader, educator and union organizer Aaron Cohen died Dec. 12 at the Oakland retirement community where he had lived in recent years. He was nearly 95 years old.

A CPUSA National Committee member for many years and member of the leadership in its Illinois, Southern California and Northern California districts, Cohen was an outstanding educator who reinvigorated party bookstores, expanded the circulation of Marxist literature and organized many classes, seminars and public meetings. He and his wife, Jane Hodes, founded the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library for Social Research in 1989.

Aaron Cohen is warmly remembered for his kindness and keen sense of humor as well as his profound theoretical and historical knowledge. He had a special affinity for working with young people throughout his adult life.

“Aaron was a mentor and an inspiration to many of my generation,” said Juan Lopez, the chair of the Northern California district of the CPUSA. “He was always steady, in good times and bad, and modest to a fault. A brilliant working-class intellectual, he invariably imparted a clear understanding of theory as a guide to action.”

Cohen was born Dec. 25, 1908, in Odessa, the Ukraine. The outbreak of World War I barred Aaron, his mother and siblings from joining his father who had emigrated to the U.S. The family’s dire straits deprived him of any formal schooling. Instead, he went to work at age eight, first in the fisheries and later on a Black Sea barge. Despite these harsh circumstances, Aaron taught himself to read and write. His lifelong love of classical music was sparked by the snatches he heard as a boy, wandering Odessa’s streets.

After the October 1917 Revolution, Odessa was attacked by counterrevolutionary White Guards and blockaded by western interventionist forces seeking to destroy the new Soviet government.

The young teenager nearly starved – and his mother did die of starvation – as famine struck the Ukraine. Rescued and nursed back to health, Cohen finally left for the United States just before his 16th birthday.

There he soon discovered New York City’s exciting left political currents, and by age 17 had made his lifelong commitment to the Communist Party. His working life would take him to factories, mines and truck routes; his political life would center on the struggles for equality, justice, democracy, peace and socialism.

During his years in Illinois, Aaron Cohen became a coal miner, a reform movement leader in the United Mine Workers, and an organizer of Unemployed Councils during the Great Depression. He participated in the steel workers’ demonstration that was attacked by police in the infamous 1937 Memorial Day Massacre.

Moving to Los Angeles, Cohen worked as a teamster during the 1940s and 1950s, continuing his union activism and enduring FBI harassment during the McCarthy years.

Following the death of his first wife, Mary, Cohen married Jane Hodes in 1979. In 1982 the couple came to the Bay Area, where both continued their political and educational activities.

Aaron Cohen is survived by his wife of 25 years, Jane Hodes, and by his three stepchildren, William, Nancy and Peter Hodes. A memorial celebration is planned for Feb. 28, at 1 p.m. at the Niebyl-Proctor Library, 6501 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. For information and directions, call (510) 595-7417.

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