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  • Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg
  • Amir Locker-Biletzki (bio)
Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism By Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg. New York: Verso, 2016. 320 pp.

"Yiddishland," the world of the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe that burst with vital creative energy as modernity erupted into the tradition-bound shtetls, is all but gone. The hammer blows of the Soviet regime, which destroyed the walls of the age-old Jewish communities, have been augmented by the flames of Nazi genocide. Revolutionary Yiddishland, by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg, wishes to reconstruct part of this lost world—that of the Jewish leftist militants from the fin de siècle to the early 1980s. This oral history of Jewish Eastern European revolutionaries is based on the memoirs of Yiddishland militants and on interviews with those of them living in Israel.

The book traces the history of three socialist currents that were active in the flourishing political world of Eastern European Jewry: the Bund (General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia), the Po'ale Ẓiyon Sem'ol (Workers of Zion Left), and the communists. Brossat and Klingberg recount the history of the Yiddishland activists, beginning with the early groups of socialist intellectuals and Jewish workers that grew from small study circles to form the Yiddish-speaking Bund. The book details the Jewish radicals' struggles against the czarist regime and the Jewish bourgeoisie. The narrative portrays the troubled relations between the Bund and pre–World War I Russian social democracy, which rejected the Jewish activists' claim to represent the Jewish workers exclusively. The opening chapters also show how Jewish left-wingers were simultaneously Jewish rebels who, carried by the wave of modernity, defied their pious families as much as they protested against the abject poverty and exploitation of the Jewish masses.

From this depiction of the early stages of the creation of Jewish radicalism, Revolutionary Yiddishland moves to describe the involvement [End Page 84] of Jewish left-wingers, mainly communists, in the Spanish Civil War. This chapter is a heartfelt homage to the unflinching internationalism and antifascism of these Jewish communists. The section also stresses the Jewish dimension in the volunteering of Jewish fighters in the international brigades, as well as in other Marxist and anarchist parties. Driven by a desire to prove themselves in battle against the fascist menace, they were also intent on disproving the anti-Semitic prejudice that Jews are cowardly and lacking in valor. The next parts of the book concentrate on the tragic end of the world of Yiddish speakers and culture, from which the Jewish revolutionaries originated. Jewish radicalism, across all its ideological parties, was crushed by the twin monsters of the twentieth century: Stalinist communism and Nazism. These sections of the book first follow the heroism of the Yiddishland revolutionaries in the ranks of various European resistance movements during World War II. Then, regarding the Soviet Union, the text shows us how Jewish leftists were swept up by the October Revolution's great promise of freedom to Jews and all mankind, only to be crushed in the hell of brutal Stalinist purges. The book ends with the fate of the Jewish Yiddishland rebels in the post–World War II people's democracies, in which some of them became part of the oppressive regimes. Others—in fact, most of them—ended up as disillusioned retirees in the Jewish state, the creation of which some had rejected for most of their political careers.

Revolutionary Yiddishland is not an academic text, despite the fact that its authors are academically trained. While representing the results of much research, the book is not written in the dispassionate tone of the academic but rather in the engaging language of the committed intellectual. Brossat and Klingberg make no effort to conceal their political views and sympathize with the revolutionary involvements of their subjects. At the same time, they justly criticize the criminal excesses of Soviet communism, the failure of the Bund's Jewish cultural nationalism, and the digression of Marxist Zionists toward outright colonialism. Revolutionary Yiddishland is imbued with a critical attitude toward Zionism, giving voice to Jewish groups...


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pp. 84-87
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