The second episode of our series on the Jewish Labour Bund, a secular Jewish socialist movement founded in the late 1890s! If you haven’t listened to part one, you can listen here.
On this episode, we spoke with Jack Jacobs about the Jewish Labour Bund during the interwar period in Poland. We talked about the Polish Bund’s many different auxiliary organizations, its approach to Secularism, Zionism, Doykeit, and its widespread support during this period.
Finally, Shkoyakhs were given to Bernard Goldstein’s ‘Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto’ and Marek Edelman & Hanna Krall’s ‘Shielding the Flame’. Special thanks to JB Brager for the art we’re using for the series!
Episode 48 – The General Jewish Labour Bund Pt 2: Show Notes
Introduction and Interview
- Treyf Ep 46, ‘The General Jewish Labour Bund Pt 1’
- The YIVO Encyclopedia – Daniel Blatman, ‘The Bund’
- Jewish Virtual Library – Moshe Mishkinsky, ‘The Bund’
- CUNY – Jack Jacobs
- Jack Jacobs, ‘Bundist Counter Culture in Interwar Poland’
- Jack Jacobs, ‘Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100’
- Guide to the YIVO Archives – Bund Archives
- Stephen Duncombe, ‘Theory: Cultural Hegemony’
- YAF, Yidisher Arbeter Froy (‘Society of Jewish Women Workers’)
- Jewish Women’s Archive – Gertrud Pickhan, ‘Dina Blond’ (YAF Chair)
- SKIF, Sotsyalistishe Kinder Farband (‘Socialist Children’s Union’)
- Yugnt-Bund Tsukunft (‘Youth-Bund the Future’)
- Morgnshtern (Bundist sports organization)
- Medem Sanatorium (Educational and clinical youth facility)
- TSYSHO, Di Tsentrale Yidishe Shul-Organizatsye (‘Central Yiddish School Organization’)
- Wikipedia, ‘Polish Socialist Party (PPS)’
- Wikipedia, ‘Communist Party of Poland’
- Wikipedia, ‘National Democratic Party (SDN)’
- YIVO Encyclopedia – Gershon Bacon, ‘Agudas Yisroel’
- Jewish Currents – Archives: Doikayt
- JB Brager, ‘Doykeit Zine’
- Jacobin – Sarah Lazare, ‘The Forgotten History of the Jewish, Anti-Zionist Left: An Interview with Benjamin Balthaser’
- Wikipedia, ‘National Personal Autonomy’
- Wikipedia, ‘General Jewish Labour Bund – 4th Conference’
- Bernard K. Johnpoll, ‘The Politics of Futility: The General Jewish Workers Bund of Poland, 1917-1943’
- Daniel Blatman, ‘For Our Freedom and Yours: The Jewish Labour Bund in Poland 1939-1949’
- Bernard Goldstein, ‘Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto’
- Bernard Goldstein, ‘Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto’ pdf
- Bernard Goldstein, ‘Twenty Years With the Jewish Labour Bund’
- Jewish Virtual Library, ‘Marek Edelman’
- Marek Edelman & Hanna Krall, ‘Shielding the Flame’
- Jewish Women’s Archive – Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, ‘Hanna Krall’
- Marek Edelman, ‘The Ghetto Fights’
- Marek Edelman, ‘The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’
- David Rosenberg, ‘Marek Edelman and the Struggle for Democracy in Poland’
Sam: I’m Sam.
David: I’m David.
Sam: And this is Treyf.
David: Welcome back to Treyf! The only Jewish podcast dedicated to the destruction of the government of Canada.
Sam: That’s factual..
David: Check snopes dot com.
Sam: (Laughing) How are you doing, David?
David: I am doing as well as I can isolated to my home, but pretty lucky all things considered. But welcome Sam, to our second episode on the Jewish Labour Bund!
Sam: They said it couldn’t be done and we’re here.
David: Wait (Laughing) who told you that?
Sam: The fictional haters that I have created for the purposes of this bit..
David: Oh, you’re like Michael Jordan.
Sam: That’s a great reference, David! Exactly.
David: Thank you, always imagining haters…
David: But fictional haters aside, are we escaping into history? Maybe. But we are committed to finishing this series on the Jewish Labour Bund. If you’ve never heard of the Jewish Labour Bund before, just check out our last episode.
Sam: That would be really weird that you jumped right into episode two on the Bund. But if that is the case, thank you and welcome.
David: Yeah, you do you! We can’t control your listening activities, nor do we want to.
Sam: Not at all.
David: Freedom, Sam.. (Laughing)
Sam: (Laughing) So with that being said, on the last episode..
David: ‘Previously on Treyf podcast.’
Sam: (Laughing) We talked about the first period of the Bund, which was the Russian period, from about the 1890s until the Russian Revolution.
David: Yeah, for the purposes of this series, we’ve been talking about the Bund having roughly three periods. So the Russian period, which we talked about last time. The Polish period, that we’re going to be talking about today. And then the period following the Holocaust.
Sam: And so when we got to the Polish period of the Bund, between the first and second World War, all signs pointed to the person who we talked to today. His name is Jack Jacobs, he’s a professor based in New York, an author, and a Bundist. And he’s written numerous works. The two that apply most to the conversation today are Bundist Counterculture in Interwar Poland and the book Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100.
David: Yeah, it was great to get to talk with Jack. One thing that we didn’t get to in our conversation was the role of the Bund in this explosion of working class Yiddish culture that happened during this time in Poland. If you’re interested in learning more about this, I’d highly recommend reading these books, we’re going to have links to them in the show notes.
Sam: Yeah, always check out the show notes. David and I actually put a bunch of work into putting resources together. So if you’re curious, there’s always way more to look into. And one quick note before we get to the interview itself, David and I are still trying to figure out recording in the pandemic era and the sound quality is not fantastic.
David: (Laughing) Yeah, we had… our conversation with Jack happened in two instalments, one of which was when we still had access to the radio station we usually record at, and one was after we were stuck in our houses. So depending on the question, it might just sound a little different. So if this is a very jarring experience, I just want to give you a heads up of what’s going on.
Sam: Yeah, we apologize in advance to all you audio heads out there, it’s not perfect.
David: But without further ado, here’s your episode of Treyf for the 18th of Elul 5780.
Jack Jacobs: I’m Jack Jacobs and I’m a professor of political science at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
David: Well Jack, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Jack Jacobs: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
David: So we have you on because we wanted to talk about the Polish Bund. And I wanted to start off by just talking a bit about how, and when, the Bund formed in Poland. When when did it originally start?
Jack Jacobs: So at the time that the Bund was created in 1897, there was no such thing as an independent country of Poland. The Bund was established in the city of Vilna, and that was part of the Russian Empire. And very long before that time, that is to say, at the end of the 1700s, Poland had been divided up and the lion’s share was taken over by the Russian Empire. And from the very beginning, that is to say, from the time of the founding meeting onward, there were people who came to the organizing of the Bund from what we would now think of as Poland, from places like Warsaw. But there was no distinction at all, at that point in time, between the organizing of the Bund in Poland and the organizing of the Bund in what we would now think of as Russia. This was one united organization that was created in 1897.
David: So when do we start to see the Bund in Poland acting on its own, you know, separate from the rest of the Bund in Russia?
Jack Jacobs: Well, during the course of the First World War, large chunks of Poland were occupied by the German army. And it became clear to the leadership of the Bund that it would be necessary for there to be distinct committees of the Bund operating in areas that were under very different jurisdictions and different political circumstances. And then when the First World War ended in 1918 and Poland became an independent country, the distinctions between the Bund in Poland and the Bund in Russia became more formal and more established. And so I would say that beginning from the end of the First World War onward, the Bund in Poland and the Bund in Russia were rather separate, rather distinct entities.
Sam: Right. And so Poland is an independent country, World War One is over, and there’s now this distinct Polish Bund. What were the differences between the new Polish Bund and the Russian one?
Jack Jacobs: When the Bund was created in the Russian Empire, it was an illegal and underground organization and it remained an illegal and underground organization in the Russian Empire for much of the period up through the Bolshevik Revolution. But in Poland, the Bund became a legal organization, a legal political party. There were points when it was subject to oppression by the Polish government, but this was something altogether different. It meant that in Poland in the 1920s and in the 1930s, the Bund could create a network of organizations around it that were open and operating in public. And that was very different than what had happened in Russia in the earlier period.
David: Right. And so did that difference of circumstances change the politics of the Bund in Poland?
Jack Jacobs: Well the Bundists had been critical of Lenin and the Leninists from a rather early point onward. There were very famous, very stormy debates at the beginning of the 20th century. And those differences were exacerbated when the Bolsheviks staged what could best be described as a coup in late 1917. The Bund in Russia, those Bundists that had supported the Bolsheviks, they were absorbed into the Communist Party. The minority grouping, who attempted to maintain the good fight to critique policies that the Bolsheviks and that Lenin were proposing, they were subject to ever greater oppression. Ultimately, the Bund was declared illegal and people who had been active in it either were arrested or needed to flee the country. Some of those people succeeded in making it out of Russia and making it to Poland. And in independent Poland, the Bund established a large structure of organizations, including any number of things that hadn’t been possible in the Russian period.
David: And so this is the moment when the Bund’s centre of gravity shifts to Poland.
Jack Jacobs: For sure, because the Bund in Russia ceases to exist. And the Jews of Poland become the single most vibrant Jewish community in Europe during this interwar period. So the numbers are very rough but we could say that in the late 1890s there had been something in the neighborhood of just over five million Jews in the Russian Empire. After the First World War, when Poland becomes an independent country, the bulk of those Jews were actually in Poland, not in what we would now think of as Russia, right. So that by the 1930s, the Jewish population of Poland is over three million, well over half of those Jews who had been part of the Russian Empire. And it wasn’t only a matter of numbers, it was also a matter of cultural creativity and ferment. That Polish Jewish community was a hotbed of political and literary and cultural and artistic change during this era that we’re talking about in the 20s and 30s. And the Bund was part and parcel of this and was itself a spark contributing to this creativity and change.
Sam: You also mentioned that the Polish Bund created a network of more public cultural auxiliary groups. Can you talk a bit about them and and why the Bund thought they were so important?
Jack Jacobs: Sure. I can talk about it at great length if you want, tell me when you’ve had enough and we’ll move on to something else.
Sam: (Laughing) Sounds good
Jack Jacobs: What I would say is the following, the Bund attempted to compete electorally in Poland at the beginning of this period, the beginning of the interwar years, and it was not successful for a number of different reasons, including the ways in which Polish electoral laws were stacked against us and then because of the strength of competing Jewish parties. But for a lot of reasons, the Bund did not succeed on a national level in getting its candidates into the most important institutions in Polish political life. And so the Bund was seeking alternative paths for having an impact, for growing its base, for attracting new entities. And one of the things that it did was it created around the party a constellation of organizations, each of which had a more specialized constituency, but these organizations were ideologically linked to one another. So it created an organization for children, and it had an organization for youth, and it had an organization for physical education and sport, and the list goes on beyond that. And one of the things that I’ve actually tried to do in explaining this is to make reference to an idea that the Bundists at that point in Poland were probably actually not familiar with, but I think it goes a long way towards explaining what was going on. And that’s the Gramscian notion of cultural hegemony. You probably know that the famous Italian communist Gramsci, who was imprisoned by the fascists in Italy for much of this relevant period, was one of the proponents of a notion of cultural hegemony. And what he tried to demonstrate was that there were specific circumstances in which a head on assault, so to speak, by revolutionaries, by socialists, would not be likely to succeed. And that what was needed was a cultural shift, an attempt to undermine the cultural hegemony of the ruling class. Now, again, the Bund, in all likelihood, didn’t read Gramsci during this period. Most of Gramsci’s writings were actually not published during this period, even though they were written during that period. But the notion that the Bundists were working with in the 20s and 30s was in fact, so far as I’m concerned, a notion of attempting to break the cultural hegemony that existed in the Polish world and in the Jewish world. They wanted to create countercultural values. And to a very considerable extent, I would argue they succeeded. They succeeded with children, they succeeded with youth, they succeeded with physical education. And as time went on over this period, the Bund grew very substantially in strength.
David: And what did that growth and success look like at the time?
Jack Jacobs: Well, the people who had been drawn into the youth movement, the sports movement, the women’s movement, the trade unions, school work, they became more willing to endorse the Bund politically. Such that in the late 1930s, the Bund began to win municipal elections and Jewish communal elections, that means kehila elections, in major Polish cities in ways that earlier had not been possible. And it began to win those elections overwhelmingly, by absolutely staggering amounts. One of the famous examples of this has to do with what happened in Warsaw in the final elections right before the beginning of the Second World War, Warsaw had the largest Jewish community in Poland by a very very substantial margin. And in the last local elections before the beginning of the war, there were, I believe it was 20 seats up for grabs so to speak, on the Jewish street, right, leaving aside those seats that were in Polish districts. And of the 20 seats that were up for grabs, a total of I think it is 17 were won by the Bundist slate. And all of the other Jewish parties all together, the Zionist parties, the religious parties, etc, they won only three. And lest one think that this was simply an accident or an exception, there were comparable victories in a number of other Polish cities. Lodz, which was a major industrial city and we could argue the second most important Jewish city, so to speak, in Poland, the Bund had very significant victories there. It also had significant victories in Vilna and elsewhere. Now, it’s certainly the case that the non-Bundist political parties had great strength in certain smaller cities in certain rural areas. But the point that I would make here is that in part, as a result of the creation of a constellation of countercultural movements, the Bund succeeded in winning politically in the late 1930s in ways that earlier had not been possible.
David: Right. And so out of this constellation of auxiliary organizations there are many we could discuss, but one that I’m particularly interested in is the Bundist women’s organization or the YAF. Could you maybe talk a bit about how that group started and what the nature of the organization was?
Jack Jacobs: So in order to talk about that organization, once again, you’ll forgive me, we have to backtrack a little bit and talk about the role of women in the Bund from the time that the Bund was founded, and how that changed in independent Poland, and why, and what the consequences of that were. Women played extraordinarily important roles in the Bund from the beginning of the organization on, there were several women who attended the founding organization of the Bund. And shortly after the founding of the Bund, all of the members of the Bund’s first Central Committee were arrested. Again, the Bund was an illegal and underground organization during that period, and the Tsarist secret police were paying very close attention and they clamped down as fast as they could. And the leadership of the Bund was promptly incarcerated. And amongst the people who stepped up to replace them, were several women who came to play very important roles. And this process continued, not only by these women who stepped into leadership positions but also rank and file seamstresses from Lodz and from Kovno and elsewhere. But, and this is an important but, in the period of the Russian Bund from the late 1890s, up through the period of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Bund did not have a separate Bundist women’s organization. And the women who were in the Bund insisted that they did not want to have such an organization. They said, and the Bundist leadership believed, that women should play leadership roles alongside the men and that there were common aims and common goals and that there was no need to separate out the women from the men. Now, there were roles that women could play in this underground and illegal organization, that it was difficult for men to play. But this had more to do with stereotyped attitudes towards women than it had to do with attitudes amongst the Bundists. So what I’m thinking about here, for example, is during this Russian period, Bundist women played very important roles as couriers of illegal publications and as couriers of arms. And these, of course, were very, very risky roles to take on. But why was it that the women that were doing this? Well the women were much less likely to be searched by the police, on trains or elsewhere. You know, given the mores of the time, these women would wear clothing that would make it possible for them to hide materials and they were able to get away with it. During this period, the Russian period we’re still talking about, there were also any number of women who were important as orators at Bundist events. And there’s at least some evidence to suggest that women played a larger role in the Bund than they did in other revolutionary organizations, both Jewish and non Jewish. Now, when the Bund became a legal political party in Poland, the proportion of women in leadership seems to have gone down. There were actually relatively few women actively engaged in the party on a leadership level. Now, why that was the case, what it was that happened, that was a subject of great debate in the Bund. But I think that it would be fair to say that men and women stepped into more traditional gendered roles during that era. And when it became apparent that this was going on in the mid 1920s, one of the responses on the part of the Bund was to initiate the establishment of a organization for Jewish working class women. And that organization was the YAF, the Yidisher Arbeter Froy. And that organization was headed by prominent female Bundists. And its task was precisely to address the needs of Jewish working class women, to encourage Jewish women to enter the ranks of the Bund, to engage in consciousness raising and address the other needs of its constituency. They were attempting to build the base for Bundist ideas amongst women in the same ways that the Tsukunft had tried to do amongst the youth or the Morgnshtern had tried to do amongst athletes and those interested in physical education. And it was not easy. And the YAF organizations, even in the Bund’s areas of greatest strength, in places like Vilna, the YAF actually remained rather modest in size. So I think that the history of the YAF, the history of the women’s organization, also demonstrates the limitations of the Bund and the limitations of this strategy in that the YAF was not able to break through. And even in the period of the Bund’s greatest strength, in the late 1930s, the YAF actually remained rather small relative to the other organizations that we have been talking about.
Sam: So just to zoom out a little bit, how is the Bund relating to broader Polish society at the time, whether it’s other socialists or the Jewish community at large?
Jack Jacobs: So the Bund was first and foremost a socialist organization, and it related first and foremost to fellow socialists, both in Poland and elsewhere. They devoted a great deal of time and attention to its international affiliations with other like minded socialist groupings. And within Poland, that meant that its relationship with the party that was known as the PPS, the Polish Socialist Party, was quite important to it. And those relations were rocky. The PPS, though it was socialist, was also a nationalistic party. And there were ways in which it became more nationalistic over time. And that was something of a problem for the Bund. So the Bund worked hard at creating strong relations with the PPS, its closest counterpart on the Polish street, so to speak, and cooperated with it on things like May Day demonstrations and in electoral districts where there were relatively few Jews, the Bund would often try to convince Jews to vote for PPS candidates, things of that nature. As to Bundist relationships with Jewish groups in Poland, what I would say is that the Bund had very sharp distinctions with all of the parties that it considered to be bourgeois, and that included a broad range of parties. The Jewish political map in interwar Poland was very, very complicated. There were many Jewish parties. There were many, many different Zionist parties. There were different Orthodox parties. There were lots of Jews who worked in non Jewish political parties of different kinds, there were Jews who worked with the Polish Communists. And the Bund had sharp critiques of each. We haven’t talked at all about the Bundist attitude towards Zionism, but I think that that’s an important thing to discuss in this context. The Bund had argued, from its creation on, that what was needed was an overthrow of the autocracy and its replacement with a regime that would be democratic and socialist, and that would give rights to the peoples of the Russian Empire. And that Jews should work arm in arm with the non Jewish peoples amongst whom they lived, with Poles, with Lithuanians, with Ukrainians, with Russians, for this common task. And they argued that the Zionist movement was undermining this task because the Zionists were in favour of removing Jews from Russia. The Zionists were arguing that anti-Semitism could not be stamped out and that this, from the point of view of the Bund, was a reactionary political program. And so the Bund clashed with the Zionist movement from the point that the modern Zionist movement organized. And in Poland, those clashes continued throughout the interwar period, with the Bundists arguing that you know, we have a right to live here, we will continue to live here, there isn’t any other place for us to go. If Jews individually want to emigrate well, gezunterheit, and we’re willing to help them. And there was such a thing as a Bundist emigration bureau in Poland to help individuals who, for a variety of different reasons, wanted to or needed to leave Poland. But this is not going to be a solution. You know, in late 1930s, there was something like 3,400,000 Jews in Poland and there wasn’t any country in the world that was going to accept them, that was interested in accepting them. And so the Bund would argue, in contradistinction to Zionists, what we need to do is to transform Poland into a socialist country. And we need to do this together with our Polish and other non Jewish colleagues. Now, on other fronts, we’ve already mentioned the Orthodox, or we could say more generally the more traditional components of the Jewish community. The leading Bundists were all secular Jews. They were proud of their Jewish backgrounds but they were not observant Jews, they were not religious Jews. And they believed that the Orthodox sector was playing a reactionary role, just as the Zionists were playing a reactionary role, but for very, very different reasons. They thought that clerics had far too much say in the life of Jews, especially in small towns. They were very unhappy about the strictures imposed on Jewish life by traditional Judaism. They were unhappy about the roles that women played in traditional Jewish families. And so they argued against and fought against not only the Zionists, but also the Orthodox political parties. And there were some Jews who were assimilationists, or acculturationists, who became members of the Communist Party of Poland or any number of other parties that were open to the participation of individual Jews within their ranks. And the Bund argued that Jews had specific needs and that the Communist Party, altogether apart from the fact that its understanding of socialism was quite different, the Bund argued that Jews had needs as a people. And that what was needed was national cultural autonomy for the Jews of Poland, not the assimilation of Jews into the Polish population. So relations between the Bund and many other segments of the Jewish world in Poland were often testy, often hostile. But even though that’s the case, there were times when the Bund was defending the general interests, so to speak, of Jews in Poland at a point when no one else was in a position to do so.
David: And what did that look like at the time?
Jack Jacobs: Well, there were some pretty strong pushes on the part of anti-semites to outlaw Shechita, the butchering of meat in such a way as to make it kosher. Now, by and large, the Bundists weren’t kosher. By and large, the Bundists weren’t observant, but they opposed these efforts to the best of their ability. And whenever they could, and whenever they had Bundist representatives in city councils for example, the Bundist representatives would speak out against these efforts and would denounce these efforts as anti-Semitic, which they were. They understood very well that the defence of the right of the Jewish community to have kosher meat was something far more significant. And they played a substantial role in this.
David: Right. And, you know, it makes me think about how when I think about the most powerful writing that I’ve read about the Bund in Poland, it’s actually in the memoirs of Bernard Goldstein, who was in charge of the Bund’s armed wing or their defensive militia. And so could you talk about what motivated the Bund in Poland to take up arms? How did this become part of what the Bund became in Poland?
Jack Jacobs: Right. Well, first of all, I agree with you that the memoirs of Chaver Bernard, as he was called, are really powerful. But what was it that motivated the creation of the defence organization, of the organization that made use of arms? Well the first answer is that the Bund itself and also other Jews were subject to physical attacks and abuse. And this went on from a number of different sources. So the Communists would attempt to break up certain Bundist meetings or institutions and would sometimes do so physically if they couldn’t do it by argument. And it became necessary to defend these institutions from attacks by the Communists. But perhaps much more importantly, the hard right, the non Jewish hard right, grew very significantly in Poland in the late 1930s. The hard right, the Endecjas, the National Democrats as they were called, became more aggressive. And they became more aggressive in their day to day attacks on Jews. This played itself out in terms of, you know, Jews in public parks being attacked. It played itself out in terms of Jews who were in universities being attacked by Endecjas and others. It played itself out amongst workers. And so the Bund found it necessary to have a organization that would be in a position to defend Bundists and others being attacked physically by the hard right. And Chaver Bernard, Bernard Goldstein, was a pivotal organizer in this way. He succeeded in organizing this tough guy component of the Jewish world, the balagules, the butchers, big guys who were perfectly used to taking care of themselves, and combined it with rank and file people who had been brought up in the Bundist movement for physical education, Morgenshtern, or in the youth movement, the Tsukunft, and these groups would provide defence as needed. So when, you know, there were Jewish university students being attacked at the universities, the Bundist self-defence groups would go to the front gates of the university and make sure that Jewish students would be allowed to enter and leave without being molested. And they succeeded in providing some security to a population which was otherwise all too often left defenceless. And this willingness on the part of the Bund to defend Jews from anti-Semitic attacks, whether these Jews were members of the Bund or not, this of course contributed greatly to the credibility of the Bund. And certainly led some people who had up until that point in time not been sympathetic to Bundist ideas to say, okay, these guys are our shield. The Bund can protect us in ways that other parties can’t, the Bund is willing to protect us in ways that other parties can’t. And it contributed to the successes of the Bund.
Sam: And on the subject of success, can you give us more of a sense of how large or prominent the Bund became in interwar Poland?
Jack Jacobs: The Bund became the largest Jewish political party in many of the most important Jewish communities in Poland. It became the largest Jewish political party in Warsaw and in Lodz and in Bialystock and in Vilna and elsewhere. You know, I would say the Bund was concentrated in major urban centers where lots of Jews lived and its influence emanated out from those centers. But it didn’t have the same kind of strength everywhere. It didn’t have the same kind of strength in small communities in Poland. There were other parts of Poland particularly, but not exclusively in smaller communities, where the Zionists were extremely strong. There were some communities where the Orthodox party, Agudas Yisroel, was extremely strong and where the Bund did not dominate. Now in the period of the 1930s, there’s something in the neighbourhood of three million Jews in Poland. How many people were formally and officially members of the Bund? Twenty thousand, something like that. But if one includes not only the auxiliary organizations that I have already described, but also the trade union movement, for example, which was dominated by the Bund, we’re talking about a very large number of people who were not formally and officially members of the Bund, but felt comfortable enough with the Bund to support it. And I think it would be fair to say that in the latter half of the 1930s, the Bund became the dominant Jewish political movement in the most important Jewish communities in Poland.
David: And so, you know, we’ve already talked about this a little bit. But I want to hone in a bit more on the ideas of the Bund, which really had an opportunity to flourish during this time. And one of the central ideas of the Bund was doykeit, or hereness in English. What was doykeit and what did it mean for how the Bund related to the Zionist movement at the time?
Jack Jacobs: So the notion that the Bund would fight first and foremost in the places in which the Bundists were living was a notion that goes back to the very beginnings of the organization. Doykeit, of course, means hereness, and if we don’t worry for a moment about when the word per se began to be used and think rather about the concept or the intent, there’s no question at all that in the Russian period, from a very early point on, the Bund was committed to the notion that Jews were not strangers in Eastern Europe, that that was their home, and that they ought to fight for their rights in that home. In the Polish period, of course, they transferred that notion from the Russian Empire to independent Poland. The concept remained unchanged. And what was the connection of that to Zionism? That the Bund was in fact an anti-Zionist organization. Now, the Bund was not founded in order to combat Zionism, it had an agenda of its own. But from the moment that Zionism emerged as a movement in the Russian empire, the Bund was very deeply opposed. You know, the fourth Congress of the Bund was held and Bialystock in May of 1901. And at that Congress, the Bund very formally and officially declared, they resolved that Zionism was a reactionary movement, that it was a bourgeois reaction to anti-Semitism. And they believed that Zionism was hindering the development of class consciousness and they were very much committed to fostering the class consciousness of the Jewish workers in the territories in which they lived. So what’s the relationship between Doykeit and Zionism? Well, they were opposite sides of a coin, so to speak, with the Bund committed to the Doykeit and the Zionists committed to attempting to obtain a Jewish state in Palestine. And I would say that from my point of view, the Bund maintained that position throughout the Russian period and indeed throughout the Polish period.
Sam: During the Polish period, the Zionist movement was active in Europe, but at the same time it was engaged in settlement activity in Palestine. How did the Bund commitment to Doykeit at this time relate to these different contexts?
Jack Jacobs: You know what Doykeit means, as I understand it, is the place that we live is our home. And it was a concept that the Bund fought for from a very early point in its history onward. And again, to reiterate, because I think this is actually rather central, from the Bund’s point of view, the mainstream of the Zionist movement was undermining Doykeit. And so the Bund again and again and again published strong critiques of Zionism. The Bund thought that Zionism was a nationalistic ideology, the Bund thought that nationalism was reactionary, that nationalism obfuscated the interests of Jewish workers, that nationalism diverted attention away from the needs of workers. And and again, what were those needs? Well, the needs, first and foremost, were the need to organize a revolutionary movement that would overthrow the Tsar and that would overthrow capitalism. Now, there’s an important point to be made here, which is that initially when the Bund began to express opposition to Zionism, this opposition had precious little to do with events in Palestine. It had precious little to do with Jews who were living in Palestine or moving to Palestine and it had precious little to do with Arabs in the Middle East. Their opposition to Zionism was an opposition that was based on their understanding of the needs of Jewish workers in Eastern Europe. But by the time we get to the interwar period, to the Polish period of the Bund, it was possible for people to travel from Eastern Europe to Palestine and to report on events in Palestine and their perceptions of what was going on. And there were several different people connected to the Bund who went to Palestine at several different points in the interwar period and who wrote about it. And as Bundists were visiting and reporting on Palestine, they had increased direct contact with the Arab population in Palestine. And it became clear to them that the Zionist aims were deeply, deeply problematic, not only because of the internal Jewish matters that we have already talked about, but also because there was a direct conflict between the needs of the Arab population in Palestine and the needs of the [settler] Jewish population in Palestine. And the Bundists who visited Palestine, they believed that it would be a great tragedy to try to create a Jewish state in Palestine against the will of the Arab population. And they were deeply opposed to that.
David: Right. And I also want to talk about another of the central concepts of the Bund, which was secularism. What did this part of the Bund’s approach look like in practice during this period?
Jack Jacobs: Well, I would say that perhaps most important in this regard is the kind of work that the Bund did in the Medem Sanitorium and in the secular Yiddish schools, which operated under the auspices of the Bund but which were also open to certain other people from other parties. The schools I’m talking about are the schools in Poland who were part of the Tsysho, Di Tsentrale Yidishe Shul-Organizatsye. And I think that you get a pretty clear idea of what the secular orientation of the Bund is by looking at the educational materials that were being used with the kids in the context of the Tsysho, or in the context of the Medem Sanitorium, which was associated with Tsysho. But in both instances, you know, they wanted kids to be familiar with Jewish history, they wanted kids to be familiar with Jewish literature, to have some understanding of Jewish folklores, language. But these kids were not being taught how to pray, were not praying in school, the schools were not trying to convince the kids to keep shabbes or to only eat kosher or to lay tefellin or, or, or, or, or. Right. Their whole take was, should the kids gain some awareness of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world? Sure, but that’s a secular awareness, it’s not a religious awareness, and it has nothing to do with observance of religious traditions. It has a lot to do with language and literature and music and art. It’s a rather different take and it’s a secular take. And the Bund was very interested in fostering this kind of secular Jewish culture in the Polish period.
David: So on our last episode about the Bund, we spoke with Josh Myers about the Russian period. He talked about some of the barriers that the Bund sometimes faced when trying to organize religious Jews. You know, as the Bund gained prominence and more widespread support during the Polish period, was was this something that changed?
Jack Jacobs: Okay, so it wasn’t different in the sense that a very considerable part of the Jewish population remained traditional and remained observant. And what they [the Bund] were attempting to do was to organize a population that differed from the leaders of the Bund very substantially in lots of different ways, amongst other ways, in matters having to do with religious observance. But what we see in the interwar period is a trend, a small tendency for young people who had been raised in an Orthodox environment entering the ranks of the Bundist youth movement. Now, we’re not talking about a mass movement here, we’re not talking about thousands of people here. But there was enough such people that the Bund leadership and the Bund’s Youth Movement took notice and actually helped to organize specific groups within the youth movement meant for young people who had been raised in Orthodox environments and who had moved away from that but still were comfortable with people who had backgrounds like their own. So the Bund actually had people who had themselves received yeshiva educations, regular members of the Bund, right, who had been raised in observant households, who were given the task by the Bund – look, we need you to act as group leaders, as guides, as intermediaries for these young people coming from Orthodox environments. Again, it’s not a vast movement. It’s not, you know, the overwhelming bulk of Polish Jewry moving away from tradition. But there were such people and some of them were increasingly sympathetic to the Bund in the 1930s.
Sam: As we get closer to the Second World War and the end of the interwar period, what was the status of the Bund leading up to the Holocaust?
Jack Jacobs: Well, the status was that in Poland, the Bund continued to operate. I talked already about how it continued to take part in elections, especially municipal and communal elections, and how it was quite successful in those last few years, immediately before the beginning of the Second World War in major Jewish population centres. The Bund, of course, recognized the significance of the Nazi threat and denounced it quite forcefully. And then there was the question of all of those Jews that were pushed over the border from Germany into Poland. There were lots of Jews in Germany who were stripped of their rights and simply taken to the border and pushed across, often defenceless. And there were many organizations that tried to help. The Bund played a role here, the Bund tried really hard to provide relief services, to provide places for these refugees to stay, to help kids find places and schools, etc, etc. So in this last period, right before the beginning of the war, the Bund had a lot of responsibility from its point of view. It had a lot of obligations from its point of view. It was trying to push back against the anti-Semitic fascist forces growing abroad, against the hard right forces growing within Poland itself, against the purges that were going on in the Soviet Union, and it was also trying to provide supper and education for Jews in Poland itself. And it did a great deal with limited resources.
Sam: I know that this is a broad question, but can you talk about what happened to the Bund and Bundist networks during the Holocaust?
The overwhelming bulk of the rank and file members of the Bund were murdered or died during the Holocaust. They suffered the fate of European Jewry. They suffered the fate of Polish Jewry. You know, a relatively modest number of Bundists were successful in escaping from Poland or in finding another means by which to survive. So what happened to the Bund and Bundist networks during the Holocaust? Well, the same thing that happened to Polish Jewry. With perhaps one or two differences. One difference was that the traditions of the Bund and the orientation of the Bund made them more open to and more likely to engage in resistance in Poland than certain other components of the Jewish community. And what I’m suggesting is that, you know, when the Holocaust began, a number of the most prominent leaders of the Bund succeeded in leaving and saving their lives by getting out. What happens is that younger people, people who had been in the Jugendbund Tsukunft or people who had been in the SKIF, begin to become very actively engaged in resistance. So there comes a point when the most important roles are being played by people who were very young, who had been members of the youth movement. In some places, this took the form of armed resistance and in other places this took the form of organizing soup kitchens or publishing underground periodicals or simply trying to maintain contact with comrades in hiding in various places. You know, resistance took lots of different forms. One would imagine that many of your of your listeners are familiar with names like Marek Edelman, those who were able to fight with arms in Warsaw or elsewhere. Those Bundists who remained alive at that point, they resisted however they could and by whatever means they could. And an important component of this was helping one another, maintaining contact with one another.
David: And you know, we’ve already talked about how important the Bund viewed solidarity with non Jewish workers, you know, how much emphasis they put on this. How did solidarity manifest for the Bund though, once the Nazis had occupied Poland?
Jack Jacobs: Well, perhaps not as much as the Bund had hoped. The Bund played a significant role in attempting to organize resistance during the course of the Second World War. And where it could, it reached out to its non Jewish contacts on the Polish left for aid and support. Sometimes that aid and support was forthcoming and sometimes it was not.
David: So in understanding the legacy of the Bund during this time, you know, detractors often say that the Bund put their faith in solidarity but that solidarity did not come through. As sort of a final defeat for the Bund’s politics. What do you make of that analysis?
Jack Jacobs: Well, it’s a analysis that I disagree with. You know, the single most famous work in the English language on the Bund in the interwar period is a work called The Politics of Futility. And it’s the single most important, the single best known study in English of the Bund in the interwar years. And I think that the thesis of the book is in the title of the book, and that it’s wrong. I would say that the work of the Bund was not futile, that the Bund contributed greatly to Jewish life. I would also say that the Bund was facing forces well beyond the control of any party in the Jewish world. There’s an expression in Yiddish that I think is apropos here: Vi s’kristlt zikh, azoy yidlt zikh, that which happens in the Christian world, in the non Jewish world, also is going to be reflected in the Jewish world. So far from critiquing the Bund for its belief in solidarity, I for one continue to think that the Bund was essentially correct in its political analysis in that era. And that the lesson that it’s necessary to confront racism and anti-Semitism in the countries in which we live, and necessary to build Jewish life in Jewish communities around the world, and to do so in solidarity with non Jewish comrades of many nations and races, I think that they were right then and they think that the notion is correct today.
Sam: And I think I’ll take this chance to end our conversation on a relatively optimistic and partially sad note. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Jack Jacobs: My pleasure. Thank you for having me on, thank you for conducting the interview.
David: And thank you for all the writing that you’ve put out about the Bund. It’s been so helpful for us to learn about the Bund and to hopefully share it with other people.
Jack Jacobs: I appreciate that. Good luck with your work.
Sam: Put on your mask, tear down a statue.
David: It’s time for Shkoyakh.
David: Welcome to Shkoyakh! A segment on the show where we each give a shkoyakh, or a positive endorsement, to something. Sometimes an anti-shkoyakh, or a negative. Sometimes it devolves into total chaos, sometimes we stay on topic. We’ll see what happens today.
Sam: And and on the subject of staying on topic, David, what is your shkoyakh for today?
David: Right, getting right to business. My shkoyakh for today is sort of related to the conversation we were having earlier with Jack Jacobs, about the period in which the Bund was organizing after the Nazis had invaded Poland, set up the ghettos, and the Holocaust begins. And, you know, I mentioned before that I was really moved by the memoirs of Bernard Goldstein, who was a prominent Bundist in Poland, part of the the armed wing of the Bund. He actually wrote a second memoir. He escaped Poland to the United States, he was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he wrote a memoir called Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, which was really dealing with his experiences during this time.
Sam: Yeah, that’s a terrific book. I feel like that was significant to me in my early 20s when I was starting to engage more with radical politics and Jewish identity. What parts of the book stood out for you, or are things that you feel like are important to bring up now?
David: I had a similar effect on me, too. I was revisiting it in preparation for, you know, all our research we were doing for the Bund series. And there are so many things in the book, so many stories that actually feel like I want to tell. But I actually just think people should read the book here instead of, you know, ruining little parts of it for people. It’s just an incredibly moving account of this period of time that especially for those of us who grew up in relationship to Jewish communities, I think we learn so much about the Holocaust and this period. And this book represents such a different perspective on those same horrors, and I think is just a really moving read and a really insightful read.
Sam: Yeah. I mean, at risk of just big upping one another, I think that was a really good account of the experience, reading a different perspective of the same horror.
David: Yeah and thankfully it’s available. It was originally written in Yiddish, it was translated into English and you can actually buy it from AK Press, I think Nabat Editions had put it out before, so so it’s available. A lot of these writings are actually difficult to find, are not consistently translated into English, a lot of them are difficult to buy. So this is actually a rare one that you can get! So my shkoyakh for today, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Sam: I just completely second that as well, it’s an important book to read.
David: So, Sam.
Sam: Yes, David.
David: What is your shkoyakh for this episode?
Sam: Keeping in theme, or maybe like on-brand for the episode, I’m going to give my shkoyakh to a book called Shielding the Flame.
David: Oh yeah, another Bundist memoir!
Sam: Another Bundist memoir. Well, kind of, it’s not really a memoir. It’s a conversation between Marek Edelman, who was a member of the Bund, a fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and a Polish Jewish journalist named Hannah Krall, who recorded a bunch of their conversations, I think in the late 70s, or in the early 70s, and then published it in Polish. And then it eventually got translated.
David: Yeah, and I think I think it’s maybe relevant to say here that in our preparations for the Bund series, one thing that we found is that Marek Edelman’s mother was a prominent activist in Bundist women’s organization, the YAF.
Sam: Yeah, definitely. And the other big tie-in, I mean, like Marek was a Bundist, he was in SKIF, the youth group, He was in Tsukunft, the older children’s youth movement, he was very implicated in the Bund after his mom passed away when he was in his early teenage years, I think.
David: But Sam, what is it about this particular book and about Marek that made you want to highlight the work today?
Sam: So there are a few things, but I’m going to try to narrow it down. The first thing that I find really significant about Shielding the Flame is the way that it kind of complicates the narrative around armed resistance. Marek and other fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto are often held up for their important armed resistance in the Ghetto. But he refuses to create the binary and blame certain people who chose to take actions that weren’t like his, and saying that it was more difficult for those people to have engaged with what they engaged with than those who took up arms. I don’t know. I felt that that was a very kind of nuanced and compelling take on different kinds of resistance during the Second World War.
David: Right. Something that I think about a lot with him is how consistently he resisted other people’s attempts to make him a hero. And that people who died in armed resistance are no more heroic than the people who died in other circumstances.
Sam: Exactly. And that’s a very, very powerful idea. The other thing that this book did for me is it shows me a person who survives so much violence and trauma. He survives the Second World War, I mean he survives pre-war Poland as a Jewish person, and as someone who both of his parents were radicals and he grew up as a radical. He survives the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he escapes the Ghetto after it was burned to the ground, and then fights alongside Polish resistance against the Nazis in ’44 after he’d gotten out. And then the war ends and he looks around and for everything he sees that’s fucked up around him and terrible, he chooses to live there and stay there and continue the struggle in some respect. He continued to be an activist for the rest of his life and was jailed sometimes. And it just feels like this was someone who was committed to the idea of solidarity and really enacted it throughout his life.
David: And to doykeit.
Sam: Of course, to doykeit as well, that this person looked around, saw that things were fucked up, but figured that this is where he was and this is what he wanted to make better, you know?
David: Well, I think that’s a very deserving shkoykah.
Sam: Yeah. So check it out. He also wrote a memoir about his time in the Warsaw Ghetto, which is kind of a report back so it doesn’t have narrative engagement too much but it’s a really interesting thing to read as well.
David: And as usual we’ll have links to all of these in the show notes.
Sam: We certainly will.
David: Two very on theme shkoykahs today. Which I’m kind of impressed by, usually this is a pretty nonsense segment.
Sam: I know. I think there might be a relationship between the time in quarantine, slash staying at home that we have, and our preparedness for episodes, which is really nice.
David: Maybe we’re just growing up, Sam.
Sam: (Laughing) That is true as well.
David: So that’s our episode for today. Thanks so much for listening. You can listen to part one of the Bund series as well as our entire back catalogue at our website treyfpodcast (dot) com. Over the past year or so, we’ve been posting full transcripts of the episodes too, so if you’d like to read them rather than listen, you just go to the website and check them out any time.
Sam: And on that note, if there is an episode that wasn’t transcribed that you would like us to transcribe, just send us an email. We are slowly trying to transcribe the back catalogue.
David: Yeah, six years is a long time but we’ll get there eventually.
Sam: God willing. I also wanted to note that Facebook and Twitter are kind of purging anarchist accounts. This is not like super surprising. But with that being said, David and I kind of rely on word of mouth. So if you like the show and have a friend or relative or I don’t know what, who might be interested, share the podcast with them.
David: Yeah, you can subscribe using any podcast app and that way your directly subscribed to the show instead of relying on these social media companies to mitigate the relationship.
Sam: Treyf podcast is Sam Bick and David Zinman, a huuuuge thanks to CKUT 90.3FM, where we normally record this podcast under the shadow of the giant cross of secularism on occupied Kanien’kéha territory.
David: Thanks to Saxsyndrum and Socalled for the music you heard in the episode, to JB Brager, who made the art we’re using for the Bund series, and to everybody else who helps make Treyf podcast happen.
Sam: You can find us on all the social media (for now) at Treyf podcast, T-R-E-Y-F. That’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
David: Yeah, and you can also send us comments, suggestions or hate mail to treyf podcast at gmail dot com.
Sam: More episodes soon.