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The Jewish Bund at Its Peak

Diana Scott
January 1, 2017

by Diana Scott

from the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

Discussed in this essay: Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund: A Memoir of Interwar Poland, by Bernard Goldstein, translated and edited by Marvin Zuckerman. Purdue University Press, 2016, 345 pages.

IF THE NAME Bernard Goldstein rings few bells today in discussions of Jewish Bund activism in Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, perhaps that’s because survivors are less well-known than martyrs; or because his well-known face in Warsaw forced him to play a behind-the-scenes role once the Germans invaded; or because Goldstein’s riveting narrative of that uprising, translated by Leonard Shatzkin as The Stars Bear Witness — titled after a line from Sh. An-ski’s Bundist hymn, “Di Shvue” (“The Oath”) — was published almost seventy years ago.

A key Bund militia strategist, Goldstein was one of few to survive the Ghetto’s destruction and to summon the strength to write about it. Now his prequel to that account, Tvantsig Yor in Varshever “Bund,” published in 1960, has been translated into English and edited by Marvin Zuckerman (an occasional contributor to Jewish Currents) as Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund: A Memoir of Interwar Poland. This is a keenly observed and compellingly analyzed backstory of Bundist organizing and Jewish self-defense between 1919 and 1939. Zuckerman’s labor of love is richly illustrated with photos and posters, brief, informative footnotes, and subject headings for Goldstein’s very short, episodic chapters.

The memoir fleshes out the day-to-day workings of the Jewish Bund in Poland, in the decades between the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion, detailing its strategies to address small and large challenges, its accomplishments and failures — and, by extension, the mettle of Goldstein himself, founder, recruiter, and head of the Bund militia, and his close Bund associates, some of whom he’d bonded with in Russian tsarist prisons.

His insider account includes workplace scenes, profiles of activists and others, and descriptions of violent encounters. It documents, clearly and with informative digressions, Goldstein’s growing status, responsibilities, and connections in the party; his informed approach to organizing and strengthening Bundist labor unions among Warsaw’s Jewish and Polish working class; the Bund’s involvement in protecting Jewish voters, which culminated in the party’s great municipal electoral success on the eve of World War II; and the Bund militia’s strategic physical defense of Warsaw’s Jewish residents as well as of visiting notables, party premises, and Goldstein himself, who was under attack by violent rightwing hooligans, roving Communist bands, and the Polish government.

A short, introductory chronology of Goldstein’s life notes that he was wounded and then arrested in 1905 at age 16, when mounted, saber-wielding police disrupted a large revolutionary forest meeting near his town, three hours from Warsaw. After that year’s failed revolution against the Russian tsar, he joined the Bund. Two subsequent arrests — for helping striking fur workers, and for organizing painters, ironmongers and carpenters — led to his exile and escape. He was later arrested again at a secret meeting of union leaders in Warsaw (1915) and landed in Siberia.

Released after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and elected to the Ukranian Soviet, Goldstein, still under 30, led a Bundist militia to help overthrow a reactionary pro-German general and bring a nationalist leader to power. This victory quickly dissolved as the new Kiev government cooled to its socialist champions, Bolsheviks marched on the Ukraine, and the Bund itself split into left, center, and right factions.

GOLDSTEIN'S SUPPORT went to the esteemed Bund theorist-leader Vladimir Medem’s uncompromising stance for ethnic cultural autonomy, against Bolshevist-brand internationalism. “Painfully, we witnessed how the Bund spirit of comradeship, the feeling of belonging to one family, began to dissipate,” he writes. “In its place came distrust and suspicion.” A report about the party’s revived movement in independent Poland convinced him to go home to Warsaw, yet within two years of his return, the Bund was again outlawed as a party (1920) and had its operations driven underground, as Polish nationalists became intent on regaining part of the Ukraine lost to Russia. Bund leader Henryk Ehrlich’s public plea against war with Russia exacerbated these nationalists’ anti-Bundist attacks.

Zuckerman’s chronology manages to make a sequence of Goldstein’s eighty or so subject-focused mini-chapters, which average only four or five pages each. What makes this peripatetic memoir eminently readable, in addition to biographical bits on prominent Bund activists and Warsaw personalities, is the rich mix of political history and personal detail in the author’s epic Bund experience. Goldstein’s integrity, commitment, modesty, compassion, and humanity — in short, his mentshlikhkayt — shine out from under the many different Bundist hats he wore.
His disciplined approach to organizing Jewish self-defense, for example, eschewed collateral vengeance, although perpetrators of violent attacks against the Bund were sought out and repaid in kind. Volunteers were required to be party members, to be regularly employed in trades, and to attend meetings. There were no special privileges for volunteers. Bund funds would supplement pay of militia members called to action who lost paid hours on day jobs; militia members themselves paid into a sick fund for convalescents wounded in battle. Self-defense, while necessary, would not promote revolutionary banditry or create a privileged military class. To preclude petty entitlement that could lead to corruption, a formula was worked out to give those who stood guard at cultural events half-price tickets, including for their family members, a privilege given also to off-duty militia members but not to their families.

Militia members gathered intelligence on the streets, stealthily positioning themselves to head off anticipated attacks. They defended the Bund offices and press and a much-used meeting place, the Bund Club, venue for meetings, party work, lectures and discussions, and study in the library and reading rooms. Destroyed by Polish police after a boldly successful May Day march in 1920, the Club was moved and quickly rebuilt, becoming Warsaw Bund headquarters.
But the party soon “had to revert to illegal work, techniques it had earlier excelled in and become famous for in tsarist times,” notes Goldstein. Illegal printing operations demonstrated ingenuity and daring under duress (prefiguring ghetto communications under German siege). Securing meeting space also required negotiating skills, bribing landlords, and having them distract police by offering them Bund-purchased brandy.

Goldstein represented Bund unions during the watershed unification of Polish trade unions into a Central Council in 1922. That same year, ethnically autonomous Polish Jewish unions united under their own National Council (Landrat), chaired by Victor Alter (who with Henryk Ehrlich would two decades later be murdered in a Soviet prison). “In this way the Bund, for the first time, realized its principle of a unified Polish Labor Movement,” becoming part of a broader Polish trade union movement while retaining national-cultural autonomy for Jewish workers. In the December, 1938 municipal elections in Warsaw, of twenty Jewish councilmen elected to the hundred-member City Council, the Bund and its allied trade unions won seventeen seats. All other Jewish parties combined won three.

This result was echoed in many other large Polish cities. “We lived to see a day that every political party dreams of,” Goldstein writes. “A day when the people freely follow you an bestow upon you their boundless loyalty.” Less than nine months later, the Nazis invaded Poland.
“On the question of national autonomy,” however, the Bolsheviks “vehemently fought the Bund,” introducing violent disruptions to what had previously been verbal battles. Communists still dominated some Jewish trade unions, Goldstein notes, although the Bund retained dominance at the unification conference of Jewish trade unions, with twenty-eight out of thirty-eight delegates to the Communists’ five and Labor Zionists’ four (and one from combined Zionist-Socialist Worker and Jewish Socialist Worker party).

Recruited by the Bund’s Central Trade Union Council on his return to Warsaw to work with weaker unions in a poor suburb, Goldstein learned about unions’ structure and internal affairs as a Marxist anthropologist might, through personal contacts and fieldwork. He describes three family dynasties that dominated Warsaw’s slaughterhouse industry, controlling access to jobs and shares of profits, and he traces genealogies, who was related to whom. Goldstein spent time, too, as a worker in this bloody trade. A morning break for food and drink, he recalls, and a longer one at shift’s end, featured carrying chunks of raw meat to a local tavern where it was roasted, and sufficient liquor to brace men for the deafening, hellish animal screams and customer curses at the chaotic workplace. Goldstein once intervened to help defuse a rare, dramatic dispute between knife-wielding Polish and Jewish unionists over government work-sharing.

His memoir empathetically details the hierarchy of transit workers — teamsters, privileged “back porters” with underworld connections, rope and handcart porters (the pariahs), and their underlying struggles to get better market stations. He describes their “social security” system: how they pooled and divided pay, including a fund for sick pay and for births and wedding gifts — and all visited the sick.

Among food workers, there were bakers, pastry bakers, bagel bakers, and candy and chocolate makers. “Seldom did you see a baker happy or smiling. The bakers loved to sing Rosenfeld’s famous song, ‘Mayn Yingele,’” Goldstein writes, and would change “The coming of day drives me early from the house” to “The coming of night” as they left for work in darkness.

MEMORABLE SHORT chapters describe the social side of Bund work, such as the transformation of Krochmalna Street, “one of the poorest, most densely populated, and dirtiest streets in Warsaw” and a Communist and underworld stronghold in a neighborhood surrounded by marketplaces and home to poor tradesmen, porters, and teamsters. After the successful parliamentary elections of 1922, the Bund “made a concerted effort to lift the street out of its social and moral abyss,” opening a secular Yiddish school there whose students “began bringing home new cultural outlooks and manners that slowly began influencing their homes,” including hand-washing. Later, with a Bund cultural club established nearby, Krochmalna became a Bundist stronghold.

Separate chapters paint a few colorfully nicknamed neighborhood characters such as Fat Yosl, owner of an ordinary tavern oddly attractive to Warsaw high society, and Malematke, for whom Goldstein posted bail then shamed into cleaning his unkempt house by abruptly leaving a big celebration held there.

How Bund cultural uplift efforts divided some families is addressed in “Troubles with Cultural Awakening,” a longer chapter that combines several “Bintel Brief”-like anecdotes. Men working in Bund unions experienced new ideas and broadened cultural horizons. Some began to read newspapers and books, and some became estranged from excluded, old-fashioned or illiterate wives. This led to the founding of Yidishe Arbeter Froy (YAF, or Jewish Working Woman), “not only to conduct political agitation among women, but also to lift the cultural level . . . bridge the chasm between organized working men and their women . . . [and] guard these families against an unhealthy rupture.” The Bund’s youth group Tsukunft (“The Future”), its Medem Sanitarium, and its sports organization Morgnstern also come to life in other chapters.

Marvin Zuckerman has channeled Bernard Goldstein’s voice into contemporary consciousness. Through this memoir, teeming with purposeful idealists and beloved martyrs, the Bund lives on.

Diana Scott, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, chairs the Northern California branch of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, which is sponsoring an educational forum in February 2017, “From the Bund to the Bern: Yiddish Socialism for the 21st Century.”