Igal Roodenko was the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, near Kiev. His father, Morris, had emigrated to Palestine but soon left when the Turks wanted to draft him into the First World War. He went to New York City, where he later owned a small retail shop. Roodenko was born on February 8, 1917. He had only one sibling, Vivien, with whom he remained close all his life. At home he was taught ". . . all the good values - - humanist, anti- racist, anti- capitalist. The word socialist was a holy word to us." He went concurrently to non- religious Jewish and public grade and high schools while growing up, speaking both English and Yiddish.
Roodenko was raised as a Zionist and wanted to settle in Palestine. To that end he wished to study subjects that would make him useful in that country. Therefore, Roodenko earned a degree in horticulture at Cornell University (1934- 1938), though he later admitted that he had no real interest in the subject. By the time the Second World War began, Roodenko had, as he stated, become "aware of the conflict between my pacifism and my Zionism, and then ceased being a nationalist."
Roodenko believed that pacifism was more than just the avoidance of guns and military uniforms. He wrote: "[I]n essence, it is the program I found myself adopting when I added up all my concerns for individuals and for mankind: it is the total of my endeavors toward truth and justice and compassion. I have always considered these things real - - never pleasant ideals the contemplation of which can be enjoyed in the seclusion of an ivory tower. I have always considered these goals as unattainable unless I joined with those . . . whose outlooks and temperaments were as mine."
Roodenko began his life- long activism on behalf of peace while at Cornell University. He was involved, often as an officer, with such organizations as the Hillel Foundation, the Cornell chapter of the League for Industrial Democracy, the Cornell Cooperative Dining Club, the Cornell chapter of the American Student Union, the Young Poale Zion Alliance, and with a study group on Marxism. He helped organize anti- war demonstrations, circulated petitions, and wrote letters to Congressmen and newspaper editors urging their support of world peace. Roodenko's arguments were already incisive, showing the ability to cut through rhetoric to the root of a problem, and presented in a powerful style that not only highlighted his firm commitment to his beliefs but his ability to move others to action.
During and after college Roodenko worked as a farm hand on private farms in the east, as a clerk in the Division of Agriculture of the Census Bureau in Washington, DC, as the assistant scientific aide for the USDA Pecan Field Lab in Albany, Georgia, as a clerk in the American Emergency Committee for Zionists Affairs in New York City, and as the assistant office manager for the AFL- CIO War Relief Committee in Washington, DC. He was offered a civilian job in the War Department which would have paid better, been more conveniently located and pleasant, and probably given him exemption from military service, but he adamently refused to work for the War Department under any circumstances. In 1942 Roodenko received his draft order and began the process of declaring his conscientious objection to war. On February 1, 1943 he was ordered to report to Civilian Public Service [CPS] Camp #52 in Powellsville, Maryland, run by the American Friends Service Committee, for "work of national importance." He began his time there a week later.
In April 1943 Roodenko attended the Chicago Conference on Social Action, a gathering of conscientious objectors from around the country who met in spite of the orders of Major General Lewis Hershey, head of Selective Service, to cancel the meeting. They considered it their democratic right to assemble together and were not willing to submit to military rule. This resulted in great turmoil within the Civilian Public Service camps as Hershey charged CPS attendees with being AWOL. When Civilian Public Service authorities imposed the proscribed penalties it was seen as pacifists punishing other pacifists for following their conscience. One thing highlighted at the Chicago Conference was the hunger strike of Stanley Murphy and Lou Taylor in Danbury Prison. For six weeks prior to the conference, Roodenko had limited his protests on their behalf to letter writing and fasting. However, on May 3rd he declared his refusal to work until their fast was ended. Four days later it was, and he went back to his duties "until the next time."
In July 1943, at his request, Roodenko was transferred to the newly opened Civilian Public Service camp (#111) in Mancos, Colorado, which was directed by the Bureau of Land Reclamation of the Department of the Interior and run by Selective Service. The men were to erect an earth dam at the head of the Mancos River to irrigate Mancos Valley. Roodenko became deeply involved in several controversies that had erupted in the Civilian Public Service community in 1943. One concerned the issue of pay. The base wage for men in Civilian Public Service was $3 a month; they wanted a minimum of $50. The COs called their work "forced labor without compensation" and Roodenko termed Civilian Public Service as "close to a prison camp" and a "slave labor camp." Many felt that the work they were directed to do was not of national importance, as had been promised. They also believed that Civilian Public Service should have been under civilian direction, rather than military, as they still considered themselves to be civilians. Some stated that they would have refused to register for Civilian Public Service if they had known all it entailed. On September 29, 1943, six war objectors imprisoned at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania started a hunger strike against censorship of mail and reading material by prison authorities. In October, Roodenko began his own hunger and work strike in support, stating: "My concern was [with] . . . censorship which occasionally reached preposterous depths of pettiness and stupidity, censorship of mail and reading matter which frequently denied men the opportunity of reading and writing about those very matters which made them sacrifice comforts and respect for the ignominy and disrepute of a prison record. And it should be noted that the opinions of such men were not treasonous, but those objections to warfare recognized by Congress in the Selective Service Act."
On November 9th, after Roodenko's strike had reached the twelfth day, he was arrested for refusal to work and held in the Denver County jail on $3,500 bail. He was tried and found guilty in Denver. Supporters of the rights of conscientious objector tried to make the case Roodenko and two others a "test case" in which the constitutionality of the Selective Service Act was argued, but the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. On June 6, 1944 a Denver judge found Roodenko guilty and sentenced him to three years in a federal penitentiary.
Roodenko served his sentence at Sandstone, Minnesota from April 1945 to December 1946, when he was paroled. His records show some of the petty frustrations endured there - - the illogical rules (not being able to write to his parents in Yiddish because then everyone would want to write in another language; not being able to write to a woman friend because she was married and his own age), the endless forms needed before anything could be done, the tedium of life behind bars. But his time there was also incredibly productive in terms of the issue he chose to expend his labors on, namely amnesty for imprisoned conscientious objectors. Roodenko wrote scores of letters to government officials, and others about whom he read in newspapers, who might be able to sway the President and Congress. Favorable replies were received from Albert Einstein, Emily Greene Balch, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, to name a few. Roodenko and others undertook another hunger strike to highlight the need for immediate amnesty of conscientious objectors. During this time also, he and his sister, Vivien, kept up a prolific correspondence which pictured the status of their fight for amnesty, as well as personal news. Vivien was a secretary for the Washington branch of the Committee for Amnesty (and later for their New York City office) and so could report on national efforts in detail.
The years Roodenko was in Civilian Public Service camps and prison provided him with a wealth of information and stories for the future, as well as a determination to carry the fight for justice into other arenas. He wrote at one point: "I would like to think that all the writing and thinking and talking during the past . . . years . . . have not been in vain, that when we are free men again, there will be found a considerable residue within us of that sometime unwise impatience with a world which is not to our liking and that we can get on the ball, each in our own way, and really get down to doing those things we now feel we certainly would do - - were we free." Upon his release from prison he joined with Dave Dellinger, another previously imprisoned conscientious objector, to start the Libertarian Press. They published books, magazines, leaflets and art work as a means of giving voice to authors who had a message to deliver but no publishing outlets, and to "help people live more sensibly and more beautifully." In 1950 Roodenko set up in his own press in New York City which he maintained until 1969 [1968?, 1970?].
Roodenko took part in the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress for Racial Equality. This trip, by a mixed-race group of sixteen men through Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi, aimed to test the extent to which a recent Supreme Court decision forbidding segregation on interstate bus travel was being upheld. The group had more than thirty speaking engagements before Roodenko and three others (including Bayard Rustin) were arrested in North Carolina for sitting in interracial pairs in the white section of a Trailways bus. Roodenko was subsequently sentenced to 30 days of hard labor. He was instrumental in abolishing the chain gain system when he wrote an expose of it for the New York Post. Roodenko continued to protest racism and militarism (in 1963 he organized what turned out to be the first demonstration against United States military involvement in Vietnam), and was arrested at least ten times for his stands. He was deported from Poland in 1987 for anti-government protests there.
Roodenko had a long and fruitful relationship with the War Resisters League which continued until his death. He was on the organization's Executive Committee 1947- 1977, served as a Vice- Chair 1958- 1968, and as Chair 1968- 1972. Roodenko first travelled for the War Resistors League in 1949 when he represented the group at the World Pacifist Meeting in India. Thereafter he went on many War Resisters League speaking tours throughout the United States and visited Europe several times. After 1970 he became a full- time volunteer for War Resisters League. In 1979 Roodenko was honored with the groups Annual Peace Award. For some years Roodenko was also on the Executive Board of the Consortium on Peace Research, President of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, and active in Men of All Colors Together, a gay men's group working against racism within the gay community. In his later years, Roodenko spoke out about his homosexuality and supported the Gay Liberation and rights movements.
Roodenko was known as a gentle revolutionist, who believed that outrage against injustice must be acted upon to be fully human. However, this outrage must take nonviolent forms. He promoted dialogue between people and governments of opposing views, and had a great impact on the many persons he talked to throughout the years. Roodenko taught that the power of truth - the truth that our survival depends on shared struggle - is all that will win out over oppression. And he was optimistic that this would someday occur.
Roodenko died of a heart attack on April 28, 1991.