by Mitchell Abidor
Discussed in this essay: Revolutionary Yiddishland, by Alain Brissat and Sylvie Klingberg. Verso Books, 2016, 304 pages, indexed.
VERSO’S PRAISEWORTHY publication of Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg’s engaging, well-informed, and at times moving Revolutionary Yiddishland comes to us thirty-three years after its initial publication in French, and seven years after its reprinting in that language. When this book — a thorough portrait of the radicals of the Bund, Poale Zion, and the Communist movement in the Yiddish-language archipelago that stretched from Paris in the west to Russia in the east — first appeared, it was at a moment when, in France, after decades of oblivion, the role of foreign Jewish communists in the French Resistance was moving from the shadows, and histories and memoirs were appearing with blessed regularity. It was also virtually the final moment when the world that animated the book’s subjects still existed: the USSR was not yet dead, nor was the Communist movement, though it was beginning its final fade. By 2009, when the book was reissued in France, the world had tipped on its axis, and there was no longer an opposing pole of attraction to that of capitalism. The dream of the revolutionaries of Yiddishland — which for many of them had been dead since the 1950s — was no more. Yiddishland, and even more, revolutionary Yiddishland, had sunk to the bottom of history’s sea. The book is now a message in a bottle from Atlantis — but no less worthy, and perhaps even more fascinating for all that.
Brossat, a French academic, and the Israeli Klingberg, a former militant in the anti-Zionist, revolutionary Matzpen, carried out the interviews that are at the heart of the book at the last possible moment. Their subjects were mainly in their seventies and eighties when interviewed, and had lived through the enormous changes that the world, and particularly the Jewish world, had experienced during the 20th century. The authors had wanted to publish a book made up solely of the interviews around which the book is built, but that idea was (unfortunately) rejected by the original publisher, and the interviews are integrated into as complete a history of the Yiddish left in Europe from the early 20th century to the 1980s as we will ever find.
These men and women, like the majority of their peers, were largely from religious families and milieus, and broke as radically as was possible from the hidebound world of the shtetl and the Pale of Settlement. They were going to build a new world, and if they differed on the details on how — and even where — to achieve this, the ultimate end was the same for all of them: the Jewish proletariat would take an active part in the struggle for a socialist tomorrow.
These were the people who, like the great historian and biographer of Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, went to the cemetery on Yom Kippur, sat on the grave of a rabbi, and ate ham sandwiches. They were men who braved beatings at home for having their peyes shorn so they could be members of the Young Pioneers.
The Bund set up secular Yiddish schools as alternatives to kheyder. As the Bundist Haim Babic recounts: “Up till then, Jews could not imagine a Yiddish-language school in which religious teaching would not be the essential component. The [Bund’s] CYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization) was a genuine popular school, open to workers and promoting a modern, socialist world view.”
If, for Bundists, Yiddish was the language, and the Jews of Poland their focus, for the socialist Zionist Poale Zion, this was misguided. Yehoshua Rojanski of that organization asked, “Comrades … aren’t we all Jews. Why do you follow the Bund?… It’s true that the Bund champions the Yiddish language, but it refuses to see the Jews of the whole world as a single people, a nation. We, Poale Zion, defend the idea of the Jewish nation; we are the genuine national organization of Jewish workers.” In response to this, the communist Shlomo Szlein points out that “there was such a high proportion of Jewish youth in the communist movement here that you could almost say it was a Jewish national movement. The majority of Jewish young people joined it with a Jewish national consciousness.” Which didn’t mean they were necessarily attached to Yiddish as an arm in their struggle. Speaking of her communist comrades in Poland, Bronia Zelmanowicz says that “their mother tongue was naturally Yiddish, but in the context of the party they wanted to speak only Polish. They certainly spoke it very poorly, but it was very important for them.”
HOWEVER IMPORTANT the Jewish aspect of struggle was to all of these groups, their inspiration, and not only for the communists, was the October Revolution and the young Soviet Union. Hanna Levy-Hass, a Yugoslav communist, would say that “I learned that sixth of the world had already been freed by socialism, that in the USSR there was no more exploitation or oppression … I felt that the message contained here resonated with my own sadness, and that I could draw great strength from it to overcome that sensation.” Even Poale Zionists took hope from the Land of Lenin, even if they felt it wasn’t the key focus for Jews: “We saw ourselves as Jewish communists … We thought that out best chance was to make Eretz Israel a communist country.” (A personal note: in 1974, when I was on the left-socialist Mapam kibbutz Hazorea, the well-stocked library contained books by Stalin, Lenin, and Lysenko! Mapam itself was founded by the future communist, Moshe Sneh, and the party’s name was the Hebrew translation of the era’s Polish communist Party, the United Workers party.)
Jews within Russian borders played a central role in the conquest of Soviet power, and paid dearly for their efforts. Historian Mikhail Frenkin “points out that 22 per cent of the Soviet administration, the party and the Soviet military apparatus who died in the course of the Civil war were Jews.” And Jews, of course, continued to pay throughout the history of the Soviet Union, falling in huge numbers during the Stalinist purges, suffering during the establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Region, Birobidjan, and then again during the final, post-war antisemitic madness of Stalin, culminating in the killing of the leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and then the Doctor’s Plot.
FOR THE REVOLUTIONARIES of Yiddishland, internationalism meant not only support for the Soviet Union. Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 6,000 of the 35,000-50,000 members of the International Brigades were Jews [veteran Al Prago gave a higher estimate of 7,000 Jews in his 1979 article, “Jews in the International Brigades” –Editor]. As a Romanian Spanish veteran points out, Yiddish became a lingua franca allowing fighters from different lands to communicate. Jews fought as members of the anti-Stalinist Marxist POUM and as communists, the latter having little trouble justifying the eradication of the former. “I didn’t know very much of what was happening in the rear,” says Communist Jonas Brodkin, “but in the end we were orthodox enough to accept that if necessary, all the POUM militants had to be liquidated.” And of course the fighters from Yiddishland took active part in the formation and battles of the Jewish unit, the Naftali Botwin Company, which fought in Extremadura and on the Ebro.
Many of these same militants, after the defeat in Spain and time spent in French concentration camps, would participate in the Resistance movements in their home countries or in France, where at one point the majority of the armed fighters in Paris were foreign, Jewish Communists, part of the FTP-MOI, men and women whose foreign names and faces featured on the Nazi propaganda poster come down to us as L’Affiche Rouge, The Red Poster, condemning them as the Army of Crime.
It is not the least of history’s ironies that the men and women in Revolutionary Yiddishland, who dedicated their lives to either internationalism or the organizing of the Jewish working class in Eastern Europe, spent their final years in Israel, a country whose very idea many of them had fought against all through their youths.
Some of them had been there for years as militants in the Palestine Communist Party, which was victim both of British repression and slavish following of the Comintern line, which led to its isolation from the pre-state Jewish community. Others had returned to their native lands, where Jews figured in large numbers in the new, Soviet-installed governments. Their status as Jews led them to be lightning rods for popular hatred, and ultimately caused them to fall from grace, their internationalist pasts causing them to suffer during the final years of Stalin’s reign, most famously in Czechoslovakia during the Slansky Trials and then in the 1967 antisemitic campaign in Poland. Fleeing the antisemitism of the “peoples’ democracies,” they sought in Israel the final port in the storm of history that they’d ridden all their lives. Many felt few qualms about this, like the Yugoslav Hanna Levy-Hass: “[S]ince Gromyko had spoken of giving a piece of land to the martyred Jewish people, I told myself that it was perhaps just as well for me to remake my life on a socialist footing in this new country.”
In their new land, some felt finally safe and grateful to be in a country where all were Jews, like them. Others, the majority, maintained their leftwing lucidity. After a lifetime of poor predictions, for example, Adam Paszt could say of his new home, with great perspicacity, “the internal contradictions, those between secular and religious, and above all between Ashkenazi and Sephardic, are becoming increasingly explosive… [The Sephardim] are the majority here and they want power; they’ll get it. That’s what worried me, I’m afraid that this country will become a second Lebanon, that there’ll be no more tolerance or democracy.”
AS IT ALMOST MUST, Revolutionary Yiddishland ends on a dark and sorrowful note. The revolutionaries of the book and their comrades in Yiddishland were “the archetypically tragic character[s] of our history,” the authors write. “He or she paid double tribute to the horrors of the century. In relation to both the workers’ movement and Judaism they experienced absolute negation, the sense of the end of the world without a redeeming beyond; their existence was trampled by the passage of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
The lives of these dedicated and self-sacrificing men and women were not wasted, but spent on revolution in vain. “For the Yiddishland revolutionaries, the clock of history stopped most often at the time when the world turned cannibal and expelled them to the ranks of unwanted and banished.” Yet they lived in the hope (and perhaps illusion) that the world as given could be changed. They were misled, and they realize that in many ways they misled themselves, but they did so with a nobility to which few can stake a claim. And they can at least say that had a better world been possible, they were going to be part of the forces to bring it about. This is a claim not to be disdained.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.