Indiana University Press

One day the future Jewish State will have to erect a gold monument to the Bund for its illustrious achievements.

—Ber Borokhov, founder of socialist Zionism, 1907

The Bundists are nothing more than Zionists suffering from sea-sickness.

—George Plekhanov, Russian socialist leader and theoretician, 1907

One hundred years ago, in the attic of a small house belonging to a poor workingman’s family in Vilna, Lithuania, 13 men and women representing small Jewish socialist groups in Lithuania, Belorussia, and Poland met clandestinely for three days. Everyone in the group was in their twenties, but they all had years of conspiratorial experience behind them. At the end of the meeting, they issued a manifesto that proclaimed the formation of Der Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Rusland un Poyln (the Jewish Labor Union of Russia and Poland), known as the Bund. Since this event took place around the same time as the birth of the Zionist movement, it is not surprising that its anniversary has not been marked with nearly so much fanfare as the second. At the end of [End Page 196] November 1997, a two-day scholarly conference was held in Warsaw, sponsored by the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Bund Institute in Haifa, and the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. Individual Bund groups in New York, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Amsterdam—paltry remnants of a once populous movement—also marked the anniversary; the YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research) sponsored discussions and a concert of Yiddish labor songs; and a few Jewish and non-Jewish publications mentioned the anniversary. Otherwise, however, it passed unnoticed. It is a harsh fate to befall a movement that, while unable to lay claims similar to those cherished by the Zionists (a modern state, a revived language and culture, hundreds of organizations, pressure groups, publications, educational institutions, a haven for Jews fleeing persecution), played a significant role in Jewish life in Eastern Europe and indeed throughout the world, in the international labor movement, and in the United States. Its story is worth telling.

* * *

The contrast between the circumstances under which Zionism and the Bund were conceived was emblematic of the differences between their historic paths and achievements. The founding congress of the Zionist movement in October 1897 was a dazzling affair: over 200 men wearing frock coats and white ties and about 20 elegantly attired women observers gathered at Basel’s ornate Stadt Casino; the galleries were crowded with distinguished visitors, Jews and Christians alike; and correspondents from all over Europe filed long reports about the proceedings. Compared to this, the founding of the Bund was modest indeed. The conspirators wrangled for a while over the projected title, “The Union of Social Democratic Groups in Russia,” then settled unanimously for Der Yidisher Arbeter Bund as one that would “rally all the [Jewish] working masses around it.” 1

Within two years the new organization, drawing its strength from the various Jewish social democratic groups that had already sprung up in the Jewish Pale prior to 1897, did indeed manage to rally thousands of Jewish workers and intellectuals to its banner, becoming the largest—not just Jewish but generally largest—workers’ socialist party in tsarist Russia. 2 In fact the formation in 1898 of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP)—which five years later split into two factions, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks—was largely the work of tireless Bund activists. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that at the founding “congress” of the Russian party—a congress consisting of just nine delegates—three of the nine were Bundists, and one of the Bundists was elected to the party’s three-man Central Committee. [End Page 197]

At the second congress of the RSDLP, in 1905, a far more imposing affair, the Bund broke with the parent party over the latter’s refusal to recognize the Bund as the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat and be allowed to exist as an autonomous group within a federated party. This was, of course, anathema to Lenin, who was backed in this case by the Mensheviks. By that time the Bund had grown into a disciplined political organization, with branches in many towns, a well-functioning press in three languages—Yiddish, Russian, and Polish—and a representational body abroad (Switzerland). Its gestation period in the late 1880s and 1890s thus bore substantive fruits.

That the Bund had towering historic achievements to its credit was acknowledged by many of its ideological enemies, including the founder of socialist Zionism, Ben Borokhov (see his tribute at the start of this article), and by other Zionists. 3 But it should be noted that, whatever the achievements of the two movements, neither Zionism nor Bundism saw the realization of their fundamental goals. In Basel, Theodor Herzl had begun his speech with the words “We are here to lay the foundation stone of the house which is to shelter the Jewish nation.” The words entailed the essence of the Zionist dream: kibbutz galuyot, the “ingathering of exiles.” 4 Yet this principle proved little more than a devout wish, and the hope of the Zionist leaders in the 1920s and 1930s to save European Jews from their approaching doom (even in the 1940s David Ben-Gurion still spoke of an aliyah—emigration—of two million Jews) came crushingly to grief: not only were the doors of Palestine (and of other countries) slammed in their faces, but the vast majority of East European Jews themselves showed little inclination to migrate abroad.

At the founding conference of the Bund, no delegate laid claims as ringing as Herzl’s. And understandably so, since the aim of the Bund was not to build a “house for the Jewish people,” as Herzl’s was, but to build one for the Jewish workers in Russia and Poland (the word “Lithuania” was added later). If this goal seemed more modest, it was also more ambitious than the Zionist program, for it envisioned a rising, in classic Marxist terms, of the “oppressed” against the “oppressors,” a revolution aimed at liberating all the “victims of capitalism” regardless of country, nation, or race. The Bund placed its faith in a socialist revolution that would free both Jew and non-Jew and liberate humankind from economical, political, and national oppression—including antisemitism. In this sense the fundamental hope of the Bund was, like that of the Zionists, not to be fulfilled. It has proved little more than utopian. But for decades, the dream kept the movement alive.

When Hitler attacked Poland, it seemed that the Bund as a viable entity was about to collapse. Some of its members stayed put; some fled east, to end up in Soviet-occupied Poland or deported to the Soviet Far [End Page 198] East; and many later succeeded in reaching the United States. The Bund—what remained of it—regrouped and then played an active role in the ghettos of Poland and Lithuania. 5 After the war, its ranks nearly depleted, it bravely tried to carry on under the postwar Polish regime. But the communists had different plans for it: in 1949, the Bund was dissolved.

* * *

Historical disputes outlast the events that beget them, and this holds true for the dispute between the Bund and Zionism. More than half a century after the Holocaust and nearly that many years after the establishment of the State of Israel, the debate as to which of these two movements was historically and ideologically “correct,” once a burning political issue, still lingers on. The voice of the Bund in this Historiker-Streit is weak, if occasionally rancorous—after all, not much remains of the movement, and its major spokesmen are long since gone.

On the Zionist side, however, the temptation to demonstrate that Zionism has won the historical battle against the Bund endures. The creation of the State of Israel is thus regarded as the final vindication of the Zionist ideal as well as of the political and moral bankruptcy of its critics. According to this notion, the history of modern Jewish political movements is fundamentally a march to that preordained end—Israel. (The Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv is a striking illustration of this teleological doctrine. The history of the Jews is portrayed there as guided by one central idea: the creation of a Jewish state, consummated in 1948. Other momentous developments, such as the growth of a secular movement based on the Yiddish language, are short-shrifted.)

This triumphalist view has entailed a contempt for the Diaspora, for the “ghettoized” Jews, their culture and mentality. It was manifested, among other things, in the fierce campaign against Yiddish in Palestine, which led not only to the banning of Yiddish newspapers and theaters but even to physical attacks against Yiddish speakers. The struggle for Hebrew can be understood in a country that spoke a bewildering array of languages and that had to be fused into some kind of a whole, including one dominant language. Yet the attitude toward Yiddish was not based merely on ideological or practical considerations; it was often suffused with sulphurous hatred, whatever its philosophic-historical rationale. 6

The first premier of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, is a case in point. In 1908, as a newly arrived 20-year-old socialist-Zionist, he edited a Yiddish paper for the local Jewish settlers, all of them from Eastern Europe. In 1949, after listening for several hours to the harrowing story of Rozka Korczak, the first Vilna resistance fighter to reach Israel and a member [End Page 199] of the socialist-Zionist youth organization Ha-shomer Ha-tsair, he said that her story was moving but would have been even more so had she not delivered it in this “grating language, Yiddish.” 7

The attitude toward Yiddish was part of a much larger story. As Howard Sachar put it, the conventional wisdom in Israel was “that the overseas community was inhabited by half-men, or at least by an inferior breed of half-Jews, who preferred the comforts of life abroad to the challenges and dangers of life in Israel.” 8 In the words of the Israeli historian Dina Porat, “the assumption prevailing in Israel [after] the end of the war was that the Yishuv [Jewish community in Palestine] respected only those who took up arms; [the Jews of the Diaspora] were considered inferior human beings who went ‘like lambs to the slaughter.’” 9

Thus, a view that was both patronizing and ignorant and that for centuries had been part of the antisemitic image of the craven, grovelling Jew became part of mainline Zionist—and then Israeli—wisdom. So powerful was this stereotype that for years the Holocaust—as the most potent symbol of Jewish “cowardice”—was rarely discussed in Israel. In the words of one Israeli historian/sociologist:

Although almost 300,000 Holocaust survivors reached Israel in the years 1945-1955 . . . they were the “absent presentees” [the reverse of the term “present absentees,” as the Palestinian inhabitants who fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1948 war were called] of the country. . . . Acts of commemoration of the Holocaust were few and sporadic. State commemorations, official publications, literature and historiography and school manuals, if at all, celebrated exclusively the few ghetto fighters and partisans. In a 220-page textbook of Jewish history published in 1948, one page was devoted to the Holocaust, compared to ten pages on the Napoleonic wars. In 1960, after an official Holocaust Remembrance Day was already established, more than a quarter of the educational institutions still ignored the event. 10

The rejection of the Diaspora outlived the Holocaust. On the eve of the Yom Kipur War, Ben-Gurion himself forecast the extinction of Jews in the United States—the largest community of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews—“whether in ten years or fifty years.” They had neither the will nor the wherewithal to be saved. Immigration to Israel was the only way to escape their fate. Only a person who immigrates to and settles in Israel, said Ben-Gurion, can be considered a “real” Jew—ergo also a “real Zionist.” 11

By now this attitude has become attenuated—but it persists. Only recently a distinguished Israeli scholar told me that, because East European Jewry between the two world wars was “doomed,” everything [End Page 200] possible should have been done to get them out to Palestine (note: not “out,” but “out to Palestine”). When I reminded him of such “minor” obstacles as British exclusionary policies, culminating in the White Paper of 1939, and the fact that other Western countries, too, were severely curtailing Jewish immigration, he dismissed it as unimportant. “Even a relative handful of emigrants” to Palestine, he said, “legal or illegal, would have been worth the effort.” “And why not be equally in favor of immigration to the United States?” I asked, “if rescue mattered above all else?” “As we can see already,” he replied, “American Jews, too, were and are doomed—not physically, but to assimilation. Only in Israel will a Jewish community survive and function as Jews”—a classic Zionist formulation. 12

The scorn for Jews opting for immigration to the United States or other Western countries, and the tendency to regard those who opted for Palestine as the ones worth saving, is not only morally dubious but also reflects an astonishing lack of historical perspective. It is instructive to be reminded, for instance, that in the 1930s many Zionist leaders, even after the proclamation of the Nurenberg Laws, refused to countenance measures to encourage Jewish emigration from Germany on the grounds that Palestine at that time was not ready to accommodate a large influx of Jews. 13

The Bund objected to Zionism not simply because it was a “nationalistic” or a “bourgeois” organization, or because it “pursued princes and rulers” (to use Chaim Weizmann’s expression) “who were to ‘give’ Palestine” to the Jews, 14 or because it was addicted to philanthropy and snuggled up to “capitalist” and “imperialist” powers, or because it diverted the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe from their struggle for social and economic rights—all of which may be true, partially true, or false. It also rejected Zionism on pragmatic grounds. “There were certainly practical reasons,” as an Israeli historian of the Bund put it recently, “for the Bund’s view: Palestine could not absorb millions of immigrants into its economy, and was thus unsuitable for mass immigration; the danger to Jews from Arab attacks was as great as the threat posed by antisemites in Poland; and the diaspora would not be ended even if hundreds of thousands of Jews were to emigrate to Palestine.” 15

This was the Bund’s principal objection to the Zionist idea, and it remained so from the early years of the Bundist movement until the 1940s. In 1901, the Fourth Congress of the Bund, meeting in Bialystok, adopted a resolution to this effect:

[T]he final goal of political Zionism—the creation of a territory for the Jewish people—insofar as it could only accommodate a small segment [of it], [End Page 201] is a matter of little significance and cannot solve the “Jewish question.” To the extent Zionism pretends to concentrate in [Palestine] the entire Jewish people or at least a major part of it, this congress considers it as an utopia incapable of realization. 16

Nearly four decades later, Henryk Erlich, one of the Bund’s foremost leaders and theoreticians, had the following to say on the subject of the Peel Commission’s 1937 plan to partition Palestine:

What type of Jewish state would it be? . . . Is there anything in this that is new for the millions of Jews in Poland and other countries? . . . The area of Palestine is approximately equal to that of the province of Warsaw. Only a small portion of this would be allocated to the Jews. Where will the millions go? What place exists for them there? In the Jewish state there are 300,000 Jews and approximately the same number of Arabs. The immigration of millions more to the Jewish state is not possible. The Zionists say that in the future the Jewish country will probably grow. What does this mean? Is this acceptable to the Arabs? 17

* * *

Doctrinal myopia has hardly been a strictly Zionist affliction, and one can think of many examples of how it hobbled the Bundist vision of its adversaries. “Philanthropy,” for instance, was something the Bund detested. It suggested precisely the same type of shtadlones—the wheedling and cajoling attitude of the Jew to the Gentile—that the traditional Orthodox Jews regarded as the one effective way of obtaining redress or concessions, and that was detested as much by Zionists as by the Bund. Yet in the first decades of this century the Zionist resort to philanthropy (however demeaning they might consider it) clearly served the needs of Jewish settlers in Palestine who might otherwise have perished from starvation or hideous living conditions. 18

In the early 1920s, to take another example of ideological blinkers, the Polish finance minister Wladyslaw Grabski nationalized those branches of industry and commerce in which Jewish employees were heavily represented; these employees were then dismissed, and Poles were hired in their stead. As a result of this policy, as well as of the heavy taxes levied on Jewish merchants, a third of the total number of Jewish merchants in Poland lost their sources of income and were driven into penury. To be sure, the left-wing political parties, including the Bund, and the professional unions fought a desperate struggle against the government’s discriminatory policies, but it was the existence of a large and efficient Zionist organization that made it possible for 70,000 of the [End Page 202] new unemployed to go to Palestine. This was not exactly the “solution of the Jewish Question,” but it provided a refuge for many Jews, which, shorn of its millennial pretensions, Zionism often provided.

The Bund was not, of course, opposed to emigration as such, including immigration to Palestine. It even maintained its own emigration bureau, designed to offer aid and advice to Jewish workers desiring to leave the country. The Bund objected to what it called “emigrationism”: the idea that emigration was the fundamental solution to the “Jewish problem.” It bitterly attacked those Zionists who, it said, played into the hands of the Polish antisemites by maintaining that Jews had no future in Poland and must therefore leave en masse—an attitude, aside from its sheer impracticability, that was characterized by the Bundist leader and theoretician Viktor Alter as one that views Jews “as ‘excess baggage’ in Poland.” 19

No movement, of course, can or should be judged by its founding principles. In the hundred years of its existence, Zionism has gone through many changes and has spawned numerous ideological variants. A good number of the old beliefs have receded into limbo; many are devoid of any relevance. Kibbutz galuyot is no longer on. No one speaks of aliyahs; even the Russian exodus has virtually come to a halt. American Jews are happier staying in the United States and supporting the State of Israel by buying Israel Bonds and lobbying the U.S. government than moving to Tel Aviv or Haifa. The various chalutz (pioneer) movements that inspired so many young people in the 1940s and 1950s have disappeared. If Zionists still refer to Zionism—which in fact they do less and less—as “the solution to the Jewish Problem,” then they have something else in mind, more along the lines, arguably, of Ahad Ha-am’s culturalist conception than of Ben-Gurion’s statist version. 20

Similarly, many of the Bund’s original articles of faith have been firmly laid to rest. The vision of a Jewish proletariat building its political and cultural institutions in the Yiddish language is extinct. Antisemitism has proved remarkably tenacious in “capitalist” as well as in so-called “socialist” and post-communist societies. And if Bundists speak of socialism as humankind’s noblest ambition, then they do not have in mind any pat ideological formulas, Marxist or otherwise, but rather a general goal that they hope can be achieved and adjusted piecemeal and in a manner suitable to local needs, wishes, and expectations.

The basic ideas of both Zionism and Bundism were decimated by the Holocaust. Whether this would have happened anyway is of course an unanswerable question. 21 But in fact the very death of six million Jews determined the success of the final version of Zionism—a Jewish state encompassing a minority of the Jews throughout the world. 22 And only [End Page 203] the death of six million Jews (in particular of the Polish Jews) put an end to the program of the Bund—not, to paraphrase Marx, the “poverty of its philosophy.”

* * *

Before proceeding to the ultimate problem I will examine in this article—the historic significance of the Bund—a few more words about its history are in order. Roughly speaking, the history of the Bund can be divided into two chapters: in tsarist Russia until the end of World War I; and in independent Poland, 1921-39. There was a brief interregnum in 1918–21, when the Bund veered sharply to the left; a faction of it, the so-called kombund, actually joined the new Communist International (a process characteristic of many socialist parties at that time). A much larger faction of the Bund, indeed for several years the majority of its members, found itself attracted to the Comintern and was hostile to the reestablished Second International (the pre-war Second International having been disbanded in 1914), which it considered the heir to an organization whose members had betrayed its socialist principles by supporting their respective governments during World War I. At the same time, the Bund balked at the idea of joining the Third International, rejecting passionately the International’s conditions for membership that would have robbed the Bund of all autonomy. 23

The internal Bund debates on whether or not to enter the Third International were fierce. Some Bundists said they could live with 16 of the famous 2l points that constituted the conditions for joining, some said they could live with 19 of them, but what in effect prevented the Bund from capitulating to the Comintern and helped it to remain an independent party was not so much doctrinal differences with communism as it was the loyalty of the vast bulk of the members to their organization and to their fellow-members.

This profound sense of loyalty has been an extraordinary feature of the Bund from its inception to the present day. Indeed, it has more than anything else saved the Bund, over the years, from the curse of brutal internal antagonisms and factionalism that haunted all other left-wing parties. In 1903, the Bund refused to give up its independence, its cherished mishpokhedikayt (“familyness”), on the altar of what Lenin and his disciples chose to call “proletarian unity.” Nearly two decades later, the Bund would not abjure its independence for the sake of international unanimity or “world revolution”—which of course meant, again under Lenin, the unquestioned rule of the Russian Communist Party.

Nevertheless, for the next 10 years or so the cause of “proletarian revolution,” championed by the communists, still found its adherents in [End Page 204] the Bund, its rejection of the Comintern’s fraternal embrace notwithstanding. These were the so-called “tsveyers,” supporters of a resolution that had urged the Bund to condemn decisively any manifestation of “reformism” (that is, the view that socialism can only be achieved through parliamentary and democratic means). Real “revolutionary” socialists—and it must be remembered that the Bund considered itself a “revolutionary” and not just merely a “social democratic” party—must support the Soviet Union.

The dispute remained on a back burner in the 1920s but erupted again in 1930, when the Bund, over the vehement objections of the tsveyers, voted to join the Labor and Socialist International, or, as it was still known, the Second International. The tsveyers, who by now were in a minority, though with an impressive 40 percent of the party membership, objected that the International was still wedded to the concept of accommodating the “capitalist” powers and that it refused to countenance the necessity of a proletarian revolution.

The majority accepted many of the left wing’s criticisms but maintained that, by joining the International, the Bund would be able to push it along a more radical revolutionary path. The argument used by the Bund reflected the party’s deepest belief. But even more urgent than the Bund joining the International was its relentless search for allies—in Poland as well as in the international arena. From that point on the Bund began to play an active role in the International. Because of the prestige of some of its most prominent leaders, such as Viktor Alter and Henryk Erlich, the Bund’s role in the organization was striking, exceeding in fact that of other, numerically stronger parties. The periodic meetings of the International, and the speeches delivered at them by the Bund’s representatives, were assiduously covered in the Bundist press and also earned considerable attention in the socialist papers in other countries. 24

* * *

During the first decade in independent Poland, the Bund was a fairly small party, both within the Jewish community and nationally. But the role it played in the social and cultural life of the more than three-million-strong Jewish community in Poland was immense, what with its network of the various institutions it dominated (including the Jewish trade union movement, schools, and summer camps).

In the mid-1930s the Bund crossed the divide from a class to a mass party. Partly as a result of Poland’s fervent nationalism and hostility to the striving of its national minorities (which composed one-third of the country’s total population), and partly encouraged by the rise of Nazism in Germany, Poland was swept by a wave of frenzied antisemitism. A rash [End Page 205] of pogroms in towns and villages, assaults on Jews in the cities, the creation of special “ghetto benches” for Jewish students in the universities, poisonous propaganda fanned by the Catholic Church, and steps designed eventually to expel the Jews from the country all galvanized the Bund to come out forcefully on behalf of the entire Jewish community, to organize paramilitary defense units, and to seek more common actions with the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, or PPS). 25 Attempts to secure collaboration with the Polist socialists had been a regular feature of the Bund’s political strategy, but with the rise of fascism and antisemitism, they were redoubled.

This led to a phenomenal rise of popularity. Within a few years, Bund membership doubled and henceforth kept growing. By the end of the 1930s the Bund found itself the strongest Jewish political party in Poland, in control of several of the largest Jewish municipal elective bodies and with decisive majorities in several city councils, including Warsaw. Simultaneously, the strength of Zionist and clerical parties, such as Agudas Yisrael, drastically declined. 26

During the war, the Bund’s underground press was the largest and most dynamic. 27 In the ghettos it maintained schools, theaters, and even courses for adults, as did a few left-wing Zionist youth groups. Though consistently advocating armed resistance to the Nazis, it was at first opposed to the formation of a joint fighting organization with Zionist groups, on the grounds that the Bund put its faith in an “international” socialist revolution (in this case, a joint Polish-Jewish uprising) rather than in a national—that is, purely Jewish—endeavor. This view continued for some time, but in the end the differences between the Bund and the other groups were ironed out, and a unified Jewish Fighting Organization came into being. The Bund came to play a leading role in Warsaw as well as in other ghetto uprisings. Few of the Bundist Warsaw ghetto leaders survived, and only one, Marek Edelman, still lives in Poland.

The Bund was the first underground Jewish organization to send a full report of the extermination of the Jewish community to the Polish government-in-exile. That famous report, by the Polish courier Jan Karski in 1943, was based largely on what he was told in Warsaw by the Bundist leader L. Feiner and a leader of the Poale Zion party, Adolf Berman. In May 1943, Shmuel (Arthur) Zygelbojm, the Bund’s representative at the Polish National Council in London who seems to have been more aware of the real dimensions of the Nazi extermination policy than his comrades in New York, and who was desperate about his failure to rouse the conscience of the world, committed suicide. In his farewell letter he explained the reason for this act: his suicide, he hoped, would finally goad the Western Allies into action. Tragically, it did not. 28 [End Page 206]

The experiences of the Bund under Soviet occupation in 1939-41 were also grim. Many Bundists were arrested and deported to the Far East. Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter were first detained as “British agents,” then after the German invasion of the USSR they were released and then rearrested, this time as “German agents.” Alter was secretly executed in Moscow in 1942 and Erlich committed suicide, according to information made available only a few years ago. 29 Many other Bundists leaders were also arrested and sent to labor camps, then released and allowed to go back to Poland after the end of the war.

In postwar Poland, the Bund’s renewed activities may be described as the triumph of hope over experience. 30 The Jewish community in Poland was decimated. Only several thousand Bundists survived, Jews were losing their lives to antisemitic gangs, and the communist authorities were sharpening their own knives. But the Bund was undaunted: the Jewish people will prevail, socialism will triumph. For the first time in its history, however, its mantra of doikayt (“here and now”—the doctrine of waging a political struggle now and where the Jews resided, not for nebulous goals in the future) acquired some disagreeable features. The Bund tried to revive Jewish cultural institutions while urging Polish Jews to stay put and portraying life in Palestine in unrelievedly somber terms. In fact, it cooperated with the communist authorities in making it difficult for the Jews to immigrate to Palestine. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Kielce pogrom of July 1946, about 60,000 Jews left Poland, among them hundreds of Bundists. 31 For the Polish Jews, as for Jews in most of postwar Europe, the idea of a Jewish homeland acquired an attraction unmatched in that part of the world—or for that matter anywhere—before the war.

A self-delusive character began to pervade the party press. “Thanks to the government’s vigilance,” said one prominent party member, “antisemitism has shed its claws,” and relations between the communists and the Bund are marked by “loyal collaboration, friendship and cordiality.” 32 Needless to say, as attested by the magnitude of the emigration from Poland, far from all Polish Bundists shared this Panglossian vision. For many if not most of the surviving Polish Jews, including Bundists, the ideas of doikayt and socialism were thoroughly discredited. They were replaced by a longing to be among other Jews, to feel their own territory under their feet, to be delivered from the ubiquitous antisemitism that raged in Poland after the war.

Indeed, the “cordiality” did not last long. Two years later came the reckoning. 33 The communists began to tighten the screws. Several hundred additional Bundists refused to heed the party’s call and left the country illegally. Others were forced to confess their “errors,” and in [End Page 207] January 1949, the Bund—or what remained of it—was absorbed by the new United Polish Workers’ Party, concocted out of a merger between the communists (at that time known as the Polish Workers’ Party) and the PPS in December 1948. With that the Polish Bund breathed its last.

* * *

What, after so stormy a century, can be said of the Bund’s distinguishing characteristics, and what, finally, of its historic achievements? First, the Bund was the leader in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in bringing the message of national and social liberation to the poor and disfranchised (which is to say the vast majority) of Jewish people in Eastern Europe—the growing number of workers in large industrial towns and the denizens of those impoverished, hidebound, and stultifying shtetls so romanticized by some contemporary writers. Perhaps no one has better captured this trait than the Israeli historian Israel Getzler:

What held the Bund together . . . was a fully shared, deeply felt and incessantly practiced ethos (more characteristic of youth movements and sects than of political parties) at the very heart of which stood the valiant and unceasing effort to get under the skin of the Jewish proletarian masses in the Pale of Settlement, the pariahs of the pariahs about whom no one else bothered or cared. It was these people whom the Bundist intellectuals sought to raise from their apathetic submission to fate and servitude, and transform instead into dignified human beings. 34

One social stratum to which the Bund successfully appealed was women. In the traditional middle-class movements of the nineteenth century, and also in the Zionist movement in the early twentieth, women were conspicuous by their relative or total absence. In the Bund, however, from the end of the nineteenth century on, women played a significant role—larger, incidentally, than in the Russian socialist parties. 35

The Zionist groups in the nineteenth century were overwhelmingly middle class, and even the Zionist-socialist groups that arose in the early 1900s, by proffering a vision of a Jewish classless society thousands of miles away, did not address themselves to the interests and basic concerns of those they wished to liberate from oppression and antisemitism. The Bund, on the other hand, was firmly grounded in its tenet of doikayt as a way to solve the overwhelming needs of the Jews in situ, together with the other dispossessed members of society.

The second distinguishing characteristic of the Bund was the spirit of democracy that pervaded it. The claims to be bastions of democracy [End Page 208] have been made by many political parties, and indeed in some of the political movements of the twentieth century it had real meaning. The Bund, however, breathed a new ethos into the concept of political democracy. The sense that the Bundists owed an allegiance to both the party and each other, that they were a family—a mishpokhe—whatever the differences and conflicts among them, became a hallmark of Bundism.

It is this value that explains, for instance, the Bund’s refusal to enter the Third International, despite the pro-communist views of so many of its members. And it also explains why in 1930, after it decided to join the Second International, much to the grief of many of its left-oriented members, the Bund did not break up. In fact, the left was allowed to publish its own journal—an extraordinary event in the history of European socialism—called Kegn shtrom (Against the Current), in which the differences between the majority of the members, the so-called right and the left-wing members, were openly discussed.

A third characteristic was the Bund’s remarkable sense of pragmatism. There were times when this party, proud of its Marxist and “revolutionary” credentials, seemed to set greater store by ideological dogmas than recognition of realistic options. But, in the end, realism inevitably triumphed. In the mid-1930s, for instance, the Bund in effect set its sectarian compulsions aside by defending the religious Jews’ right to ritual slaughter (which the government wanted to abolish), by abandoning its hostility to the kehiles (which for many years most of the Bundists considered seats of nationalistic and clerical power), and by including religious young men dressed in Orthodox garb in paramilitary defense units.

The Bund’s “ecumenical” spirit, so much in contrast with its declared “proletarian” character, had deep roots. Already in tsarist Russia the Bund insisted that it represented the interests of “the Jewish masses.” As Henryk Erlich was to write later, “The Bund has always and consistently thought of itself as an organic part of the Jewish people . . . [as] the standard bearer and champion of the broadest masses of the Jewish people with whom we identify. 36

A major achievement was the Bund’s role in maintaining and developing Yiddish, Yiddish literature, and many other secular cultural activities in the language of the Jewish masses. It was the first political party in tsarist Russia, in 1896, to publish a Yiddish paper—Der idisher arbeter. In 1922, the population census in Poland still showed that the vast majority of Jews considered Yiddish their mother tongue. The demand for the right of the Yiddish language was part and parcel of the Bund’s theory of “national-cultural autonomy,” borrowed from the Austrian socialists in the early part of this century. This theory stipulated the right of the [End Page 209] Jewish minority to use its language and maintain its own cultural institutions in all areas where it constituted a significant part of the local population. The theory was formulated in 1901 and carried over into independent Poland. It became one of the foundations of the Bund ideology.

Another achievement of the Bund was its influence in the United States, both in the labor movement and in Yiddish-language activities, such as schools, book publishing, magazines, and summer camps. Abe Cahan, first editor of the New York-based, Yiddish Forward (which celebrated its centennial in 1997), was for a long time a dedicated supporter of the Bund. David Dubinsky, president of the Ladies Garment Workers Union for years, had been a member of the underground Bund in tsarist Russia. He became a practiced orator in English but often addressed meetings of his union in Yiddish—the language of most of its members at one time.

Irving Howe’s The World of Our Fathers lists an array of activities the Bund sponsored and kept alive from the early years of this century until the present. 37 The Bund also maintained a close relationship with the American Socialist Party, fiercely criticizing Norman Thomas’s early “anti-imperialist” stance during World War II (the notion that socialists could have no sympathy for one or the other “imperialist camp”), then becoming a dedicated supporter of the party after the socialist leader and his party changed their position.

* * *

In a recent book on the history of the Bund’s final years—in the underground and then under the (watchful) aegis of the Polish communist government—the Israeli scholar Daniel Blatman contends that the Bund, which in effect ceased to exist in the late 1940s, must assume part of the historical responsibility for its demise. The objective reasons for the demise are obvious. As Blatman puts is starkly but movingly, “Where there is no Yiddish culture, . . . no Jewish proletariat, no separate political activity, and no struggle for equal civil rights for Jews, there is no Bund.” 38 By the time the Polish communists settled their own accounts with the Bund, all of those conditions mentioned by Blatman were gone.

But what of the Bund’s own role in bringing about its collapse? Blatman traces it (I am quoting here from his English-language summary), to the Bund’s “early rejection of any common action with the Zionists against the Nazis, and in general to the Bund’s obstinate sectarianism, its failure to grasp the uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy, and, after the war, of the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.” In 1947, the Bund made a decision that marked, in Blatman’s opinion, “a watershed [End Page 210] in the party’s history”: at a conference in Brussels, it established a World Bund Committee, thus in effect abjuring its 80-year-old thesis that Jews are not a “pan-world people” and can only find salvation in concert with their non-Jewish co-citizens. Even representatives of the Bund in Poland took part in this conference (having been told that the Polish Bund had no business taking part in “bourgeois gatherings”). And a few years later, the Bund further distanced itself from its historic beliefs by adopting a constructive position vis-à-vis Israel.

But by then, says Blatman, the damage had been done. During the occupation, the Bund had failed to “equip the Bund with a new ideology.” Even “the Bund activists in the West” missed “the opportunity to launch the Bund on a new path” that would “allow the Bund to sustain its heritage and insert some of its strands into the fabric of post-Holocaust Jewish life.” Moreover, the Bund made itself irrelevant to the new realities and has been “relegated to the margins of Jewish recollections of the Holocaust . . . because even its survivors failed to integrate it into the new chapter in Jewish history.”

A harsh judgment, but how correct?

The Bund’s antipathy to other parties on both left and right and insistence on upholding its own ideological verities was a matter of general knowledge, but in fact a penchant for theoretical exegesis and hair-splitting was characteristic of nearly all Jewish radical parties, frequently lampooned in the Jewish press. (The legacy of hours of disputations over this or that part of the Scriptures which thousands of Yeshiva graduates brought to their party meetings no doubt had something to do with it.)

The hostility to the Bund, resulting from its obstinate opposition to the Jewish state, lingers on. But this hostility is probably far greater among the post-Holocaust generations than it was in the ghettos, where the attitude of the Bund was taken as a matter of course and its cooperation was vigorously solicited not only because of the important contributions the Bund could make—such as access to the Polish underground and contacts with the Polish government-in-exile—but also because it was known that the Bund was entirely dedicated to armed resistance.

True, the Bund remained deadlocked in its ideological dicta and in a modus operandi from which there seemed to be no escape. Without Yiddish the Bund could not possibly exist, and all of the brave attempts to keep Yiddish alive in the United States or anywhere else in the Western world came to naught. I remember as a teenager in New York being harangued by Bundist comrades to do more “to help build the youth movement of the Bund”—perhaps a kind of successor to Skif and [End Page 211] Tsukunft. For a while the Bund even maintained a summer camp built on the same principles as its children and youth organizations in Poland, replete with confident Yiddish songs, blue shirts and red ties, and resonant greetings of khavershaft (comradeship). But the several dozen children of Bundist survivors could not replicate an historic era. Very few American-born Jews have ever used Yiddish colloquially, and few of the immigrant Jews who wanted to transplant the Bund to U.S. soil felt altogether comfortable in English.

The Bund in the United States, Australia, and France remained, fundamentally, émigré organizations, never able to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers in order to become legitimate components of the new social realities. All attempts at grafting “some of its strands into the fabric of post-Holocaust Jewish life” were bound to fail. To soldier on was noble. The remnant of what Blatman rightly calls “this magnificent movement, with its hundreds of activists and tens of thousands of supporters—a movement that had published dozens of newspapers, literary and political journals, had maintained a youth movement, a Yiddish-speaking Jewish educational system and had struggled against antisemitism in Eastern Europe” simply came apart at its seams.

The Bund’s constituents in Eastern Europe are gone. And its remnants in the United States are also fading away. The proponents of doikayt by now are the liberal-minded American and other Western Jews, loyal to the State of Israel yet worrying more and more about intermarriage (more than 52 percent), the fate of Hebrew schools in the United States, pockets of antisemitism, and the fierce attempts of Israel’s diehard Orthodox community to deny the non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora the right to call themselves Jews. Perhaps doikayt, in this new garb, constitutes today the Bund’s single intransigent legacy. Borokhov’s dream of a “gold monument” to be erected in the Jewish state in honor of the Bund seems farther away than ever.

Abraham Brumberg

Abraham Brumberg has written widely on Russian, East European and Jewish affairs. He is now working on a book of essays about the Bund.


1. Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge, Engl., 1981), 207–8.

2. Although there are no reliable statistics on the membership of the various revolutionary parties around the turn of the century, a comparison of the number of activities organized by the Bund in comparison with those by the Russian party makes it quite clear that at that time the Bund was much the stronger organization of the two. See Henry J. Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia: From Its Origins to 1905 (Stanford, Calif., 1972), 1215–60, and Frankel, Prophecy and Politics, 171–257.

3. See also Israel Getzler, “The Jewish Bund and the Dignity of Man,” in Religion, Ideology and Nationalism, Ben Israel et al., eds. (Jerusalem, 1986), 341–54.

4. Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel, vol. 1 (New York, 1986), 45.

5. This is covered in Daniel Blatman, Lemaan herutenu ve herutkhem Ha-bund be-Polin, 1939–1949 (Jerusalem, 1996).

6. Benjamin Harshav, in his brilliant book Language in Time of Revolution (Berkeley, Calif., 1993), points out some notable exceptions to this attitude, including several early-twentieth-century Zionist pioneers who resolutely promoted Hebrew without losing their sentiment for Yiddish. But he also depicts the much more widespread disdain for Yiddish and especially for its Ashkenazic (East European)—as distinguished from the Sephardic —dialect: “The theory, first formulated most harshly by Moses Mendelssohn, [stated] that Yiddish was a perverted language (as compared to literary northern German), reflecting the perversion of the soul of the Diaspora Jew. . . . The revulsion from this [i.e. Ashkenazic dialect] . . . is a recoil from Diaspora existence, from the Yiddish language—the mother tongue, intimate and hated at the same time, from their parents’ home in the shtetl, corroded by idleness and Jewish trading, and from the irrational and primitive behavior of the Hasidim” (157).

7. See Tom Segev, The Seventh Million (New York, 1993), 180.

8. Sachar, A History of Israel, 718.

9. Dina Porat, The Blue and the Yellow Stars of David (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 239.

10. Idith Zertal, “From the People’s Hall to the Wailing Wall: A Study of Memory, Mass Hysteria and War, 1960–1967,” unpublished ms. I am grateful to Ms. Zertal for letting me quote from her study (minus the footnotes), which is to appear later in 1999 in an Israeli journal.

11. Sacher, A History of Israel, 718. The disdainful attitude toward the Diaspora and its secular cultural legacy, Yiddish, persists to this day. True, the Israeli government has pledged aid to Jewish languages and cultures other than Hebrew (such as Ladino), but Yiddish activities—despite pleas from Yiddish writers and organizations—have not received any financial support. (See the journal Lebns-fragn [in Yiddish], Tel Aviv: May–June 1998, 1.)

12. David S. Wyman carefully analyzes how the American Zionist movement in the mid-1940s—at that time still in conflict with other trends and organizations in the American Jewish community—won the battle over whether American Jewry should concentrate on the efforts to achieve a Jewish state rather that doing everything within its power to rescue the survivors of the Holocaust (The Abandonment of the Jews [New York, 1984], 157–77). In April 1998, the Israeli prime minister and leader of the revisionist Likud, Binyamin Netanyahu, voiced exactly the same sentiment as Ben-Gurion, bitter enemy of the revisionists, half a century earlier. While on a visit to Poland, he advised all Polish Jews to immigrate to Israel as they have no place in Poland. See the monthly Midrasz [in Polish], Warsaw: May 1998, 3.

13. See Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews (New York, 1997), 170.

14. Sachar, A History of Israel, 58.

15. Daniel Blatman, “The Bund in Poland, 1935–1939,” Polin—Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 9 (London, 1996), 68.

16. Kh. S. Kazhdan, “Der bund biz dem finftn tsuzamenfor,” in Di geshikhte fun bund, vol. 1 (New York, 1960), 183.

17. Cited in ibid.

18. As a matter of fact, many of the Bund’s cultural activities in independent Poland were also actively supported by philanthropic efforts in the United States.

19. Victor Shulman et al., eds., Henryk Erlich un Viktor Alter (New York, 1951), 405. See also Nora Levin, “The Influence of the Bund on the Jewish Socialist Movement in America,” in Levin, ed., Jewish Socialist Movements: 1871–1917 (New York, 1977).

20. Ahad Ha-am [Asher Ginzberg], 1856–1922, was the founder of “cultural Zionism,” and he was critical of political Zionism, which he doubted would inspire the majority of Jews to immigrate to Palestine.

21. In the opinion of the Israeli historian Israel Getzler, had it not been for the war, “the pre-war years would have marked the triumph of the Bund, with its battle-cry of doikayt (here and now) trumpeting its will to stick it out and fight on. In short, both the Russian and Polish Bund were going strong before they were destroyed” (Getzler, “The Jewish Bund,” 342).

22. It can also be argued that not only the basic political goal of Zionism but also its very spirit, or ethos, was obliterated by the Holocaust. Although the first ideological principles of Zionism were laid down by such middle-class liberals as Leon Pinsker and Theodor Herzl, the Yishuv and subsequently the State of Israel were largely the work of the secular left-wing part of the Zionist movement. It was not an accident that Labor ruled the Yishuv and Israel for so many decades: the first three aliyahs (at the turn of the century, in 1906–14, and in the early 1920s) laid the foundations of the main institutions of the Jewish “National Home”—such as trade unions, schools, political and administrative structures, and kibbutzim—and it was the Labor ideology that dominated intellectual discourse for more than half a century. Today the forces that shape the character of Israel are increasingly the Oriental (that is, primarily, Moroccan) Jews and even more conspicuously the ultra-Orthodox, neither of whom played much of a role in laying the foundations of the Jewish state.

23. See Bernard K. Johnpoll, The Politics of Futility: The General Jewish Workers Bund of Poland, 1917–1943 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1967), 54–120, and Henri Minczeles, Histoire générale du Bund—un mouvement révolutionnaire juif (Paris, 1995), 331–440.

24. Thus already in its maiden appearance, at the International’s congress in Vienna in July 1931, the Bund distinguished itself by being one of the two member parties (the other being the British Independent Labor Party) that criticized the German Social Democratic Party (GSDP). Erlich, one of the several Bundist representatives at the Congress, took the German party to task for supporting Chancellor Heinrich Bruening, a leader of the Center Party. By supporting the right and spurning possible cooperation with the communists, said Erlich, the GSDP was paving the way for a fascist government. Nearly all other parties at the Congress supported the GSDP. (See J. Sh. Hertz, “Der bund in umophengikn poyln, 1926–1932,” in Di geshikhte fun bund, vol. 5, 86–87.)

25. See A. Brumberg, “The Bund and the Socialist Party in the Late 1930s,” in The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars, Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Jehuda Reinharz, and Chone Shmeruk, eds. (Waltham, Mass., 1989), 75–97. The Bund was the first in tsarist Russia to organize defense units against antisemitic gangs.

26. Blatman, “The Bund in Poland, 1935–1939,” 58–83.

27. Teresa Prekerowa, “The Jewish and Polish Underground,” Polin—Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 9 (London, 1996), l5l.

28. The Bund’s initial refusal to join an all-Jewish Fighting Organization has been treated in various volumes, notably by Daniel Blatman, Lemaan herutenu ve herutkhem Ha-bund be-Polin. At a meeting of representatives of all underground groups in March 1942, the main Bundist representative, Maurycy Orzech, argued that the Jewish workers must wait for the (inevitable) uprising of the “Polish proletariat” and then join forces with it. The other representative, Abrasha Blum, supported Orzech, albeit half-heartedly, which Blatman ascribes to the fact that Blum represented a younger group of Bundists, most of whom were members of the youth organization Tsukunft. This younger group had already come to the conclusion that neither the Polish socialists nor the Home Army were likely to offer much help to a Jewish insurrection (which proved tragically correct) and that the Bund must put aside traditional sectarian considerations and join with the other groups (mostly socialist-Zionist) in mounting an uprising. By the time this happened, in October, Orzech had already fled to the “Aryan” side and Blum had become one of the most authoritative Bundist leaders in the ghetto. For details about the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Bund’s role in it, see Israel Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw 1939–1943 (Bloomington, Ind., 1982), 283–364. A vivid account of the March 1942 meeting is provided by Yitzhak Zuckerman (“Antek”) in his A Surplus of Memory—Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Berkeley, Calif., 1993), l72–74. Zuckerman, a member of the Zionist-socialist party Dror, was one of the major leaders of the uprising.

In a personal interview, Vladka Meed, who played a leading role in the Bund’s underground in the 1940s, told me that there were two reasons why Orzech’s point of view carried the day initially. First, he was older than most of the others, experienced, and a forceful writer. Second, the Bund’s connection with the Home Army and the PPS were of tremendous practical importance to the Bund, such as by providing a channel to the outside world, and it seemed reasonable to assume that they would assist the uprising via the Bund. Once Orzech left the ghetto, however, consultations between the Bund and the others accelerated, and once the united Jewish Fighting Organization was established, old frictions disappeared and a “remarkably warm relationship between the various groups” sprung into effect. (Personal interview, Aug. 18, 1998.)

29. See Daniel Blatman, “On a Mission Against All Odds: Samuel Zygelbojm in London (April 1942-May 1943),” Yad Vashem Studies 20 (1996): 237–59.

30. The Bund was reconstituted in 1946, with a membership of about 3,000. Minczeles, Histoire générale du Bund, 424.

31. Bozena Szaynok, “The Bund and the Jewish Communists in Poland after 1945,” paper read in Warsaw in Nov. 1997, to be published by the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw. The Polish text appears in Midrasz, no. 6 (1998).

32. See Undzer tsayt [in Yiddish], May 1949, p. 36.

33. I myself recall that most of the Bundists in New York took a dim view of the revival of the Bund. In 1945 my father, a fairly prominent Bundist, took me, an 18-year-old, to a meeting between the New York Bundists (constituting a good part of the pre-war’s Central Committee) and two Bundists from Poland at the Rand School near Union Square. One scene in particular stays with me to this day: a white-haired, distinguished Bundist and well-known lawyer, Ludwig Honigwill, wagging his finger at the two comrades from Warsaw and saying to them: “I warn you, you will live to regret it. They will swallow you alive!”

34. Getzler, “The Jewish Bund,” 343.

35. Zvi Gitelman discusses the participation of women in “A Centenary of Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Legacy of the Bund and the Zionist Movement,” EEPS (Fall 1997): 555–56. Gitelman also discusses the preponderance of middle-class members in the Zionist movement.

36. Henrik Erlich and Victor Alter: Two Heroes and Martyrs for Jewish Socialism, trans. and ed. Samuel A. Portnoy (New York, 1990), 245. Characteristic, too, is the Bund’s objection, at the founding congress of the Central Organization of Yiddish Schools in Poland (CYSZO), to the proposal by the Left Poale Zion party (far more Marxist than the Bund, and a co-sponsor of the Yiddish school movement) to call the Yiddish school “a socialist institution.” With characteristic deftness, Erlich stated that the main functions of these schools would of course be realized only in a “proletarian state,” but “we cannot wait and must do what can be done already at this moment” (Ch. Sh. Kazhdan, Di geshikthe fun idishn shulvezn in umophengikn poyln [Mexico, 1947], 68).

37. Irving Howe, The World of Our Fathers (New York, 1976). See also Levin, “The Influence of the Bund on the Jewish Socialist Movement in America.”

38. Blatman, Lemaan herutenu ve herutkhem Ha-bund be-Polin, xx (English abstract). All of the following quotes in the text are based on this abstract; as of this writing, Blatman’s work has not yet appeared in English.