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Haim Sloves, the Jewish People, and a Jewish Communist's Allegiances

From: Jewish Social Studies
Volume 9, Number 1, Fall 2002 (New Series)
pp. 95-142 | 10.1353/jss.2003.0001

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Jewish Social Studies 9.1 (2002) 95-142

To tell the story of Haim Sloves is inevitably to confront certain controversies, the controversy over communism in general and over Jewish communism in particular. The former has been most pointedly brought to the forefront by Stephane Courtois, who, in his introduction to Le livre noir du communisme, argued that communism was in its essence a criminal phenomenon, in every way comparable to Nazism in its degree of evil, if not surpassing it. The latter controversy is well expressed in a work such as Annette Wieviorka's Ils etaient juifs, resistants, communistes, in which she continually points out that the Jews in the communist resistance in France during World War II sacrificed the interests of the Jewish people to the interests of the party, thus betraying their own people for the sake of a power- hungry institution.

Rather than challenging these positions head on, this article will simply present the specific details of a specific period of a specific Jewish communist's life. Its aim is to understand from their point of view what this man and the community of which he was a part thought to be at stake in their Jewish and in their communist allegiances. The intent is not to bring everything back to a relativistic position ("this is the way they thought then") but rather to accomplish two goals. The first is to make moral judgment less ideologically driven. That is, in reading both Courtois and Wieviorka, one might perhaps conclude that simply refusing communism puts one on the path of purity. Confronting the details of specific human lives should make us considerably less smug precisely because these details so rarely fit into clean-cut oppositions between communism on the one side and representative democracy on the other, or Jewish tradition on the one side and communism on the other.

The second purpose for recounting the details of a Jewish communist trajectory is to raise issues that the current controversies do not seem to be concerned with at all: the religio-historical significance of a certain kind of Jewish communism. Only in the concrete choices individuals made in the context of their communities can we potentially get a glimpse of transcendence, unexpectedly there in the midst of a militant secularism. This transcendence, I would like to claim, is tied to the ever-recurring tension in the Jewish tradition between the particular and the universal. Put more concretely, it involves the fight for Jewish specificity in the context of the modern state.

Before embarking on the issues themselves, I would like to underscore two points. The first is that the portrait to be painted here, though it represents a certain subset of Jews who turned to communism, does not represent the phenomenon as a whole. Many Jewish communists relinquished all concerns for the Jewish people as such, considering being Jewish a mere accident of birth. The individuals I will focus on here neither lost their sense of belonging to a people nor lost the sense of responsibility that went with it. They were Jewish-communists, the hyphen indicating a peculiar hybrid. Second, the main person whose works I will be interpreting, Haim Sloves, though he was a Communist Party member at the least for 40 years, was never, except in his youth, when he was the secretary of the Jewish section of the Polish Komsomol, a party functionary. In his adulthood, he made his living as a lawyer in the French courts. By avocation he was a writer, most specifically a playwright. This does not mean that he was less devoted to the communist cause but emphasizes that he was a rank-and-file member whose commitments did not translate into a career.

Sloves's Jewish communist story is long; it starts in 1920 when, at the age of 15, he followed the Red Army to Moscow, and it finishes in 1988, the year of his death. I choose to see the end of the story here rather than when he first started to distance himself from the party, almost 30 years earlier, because when he realized that neither the Soviet Union nor the French Communist Party were going...

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