My Great-Grandfather the Bundist

Sam Rothbort: Itka the Bundist Breaking Windows, 1930s–1940s

JVL Introduction

Our strapline derives from one of the mottos of the Jewish Bund,  the radical Jewish movement which provides so much inspiration.

The Bund viewed the diaspora as home. Jews could never escape their problems by the dispossession of others. Instead, Bundists adhered to the doctrine of do’ikayt or “Hereness.” Jews had the right to live in freedom and dignity wherever it was they stood.

Below we reproduce the opening section of a new essay by Molly Crabapple in the New York Review of Books. Here she reconstructs the story of the Bund through the life of her great grandfather Sam, organising in the Russian empire until 1905, then as a refugee with so many others active in New York’s Jewish counterculture; and through the life of Bernard Goldstein who joined the Bund at 13 in 1902 through to his role as head of the Warsaw self-defense militia. He managed to escape in January 1945 and also ended up in the States.

Volkavaisk Bundists, 1905


My Great-Grandfather the Bundist

Molly Crabapple, New York Review of Books
6th October 2018


“There, where we live, that is our country.”
              —Motto of the Jewish Labor Bund

During his elder years, my great-grandfather, the post-Impressionist artist Sam Rothbort, tried to paint back into existence the murdered world of his shtetl childhood. Amid the hundreds of watercolors that he called Memory Paintings, one stood out. A girl silhouetted against some cottages, her dress the same color as the crepuscular sky above. A moment before, she’d hurled a rock through one now-shattered cottage window. On the painting’s margin, her boyfriend offers more rocks.

“Itka the Bundist, Breaking Windows,” Sam captioned the work.

I may have been fifteen, seventeen, or twenty when I saw the watercolor, in my great aunt’s sunbaked living room or my mother’s apartment; I don’t recall exactly. What sticks with me is the Old World awkwardness of the heroine’s name. Itka. I turned the Yiddish syllables on my tongue. And Bundist. What was that?

This question became a thread that led me to the Bund, a revolutionary society of which my mother’s Grandpa Sam had been a member, whose story was interwoven with the agonies and triumphs of Jews in Eastern Europe, and whose name has all but been erased.

Founded in 1897 in Vilna (Vilnius in modern-day Lithuania), and reaching its height in interwar Poland, the Bund was a sometimes-clandestine political party whose tenets were humane, socialist, secular, and defiantly Jewish. Bundists fought the Tsar, battled pogroms, educated shtetls, and ultimately helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Though the Bund was largely obliterated by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the group’s opposition to Zionism better explains their absence from current consciousness. Though the Bund celebrated Jews as a nation, they irreconcilably opposed the establishment of Israel as a separate Jewish homeland in Palestine. The diaspora was home, the Bund argued. Jews could never escape their problems by the dispossession of others. Instead, Bundists adhered to the doctrine of do’ikayt or “Hereness.” Jews had the right to live in freedom and dignity wherever it was they stood.

When the Bund is acknowledged at all today, it is often characterized as naive idealism whose concept of Hereness lost its argument to the Holocaust. But as I watch footage on social media of Israeli snipers’ bullets killing Palestinian protesters, I think that Bundism, with its Jewishness that was at once compassionate and hard as iron, was the movement that history proved right.

*********

Read the full article My Great-Grandfather the Bundist – and look at the wonderful watercolours by Sam Rothbort reproduced there:  Violence During a Strike, Volkavisk on Fire,  and Ripping Feather Beds During a Pogrom, all dating from the 1930s–1940s.


Molly Crabapple, a New York-based artist and writer, is a contributing editor to VICE. Her published work includes the memoir Drawing Blood, a nonfiction book on the Greek economic crisis Discordia (co-authored with Laurie Penny), and the art books Devil in the Details and Week in Hell. (November 2017).

Visit her web page here.

 

 

 

 

Comments (1)

  • Jim Denham says:

    An interesting, if somewhat naive account of the Bund, that opens up with a fundamental misunderstanding: the author writes, “Though the Bund was largely obliterated by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the group’s opposition to Zionism better explains their absence from current consciousness.” This is, at best a circular argument and, at worst, a re-writing of history: it was the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews that led to the Bund’s eclipse and the concomitant rise of Zionism as the predominant ideology of Jews world-wide. Bundism was, as someone once said, “betrayed by reality.”

    Similarly, the author’s statement, “As I watch footage on social media of Israeli snipers’ bullets killing Palestinian protesters, I think that Bundism, with its Jewishness that was at once compassionate and hard as iron, was the movement that history proved right” simply makes no sense from any rational point of view, unless you believe that the experience of hideous oppression and suffering ought to turn a people into a beacon of enlightenment and pacifism – something that nobody suggests was likely to have happened in (say) South Africa.

    As it happens, a major influence on my own thinking on this subject was Steve Cohen, the author of ‘That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Like an Antisemite’ (recommended, by the way), who considered himself a Bundist, but was rigorously consistent: he opposed not just the existence of Israel but the existence of *all* nation states and , indeed, all immigration controls. He opposed Zionism, but also denounced those on the left who singled out Zionism whilst being indifferent, or even supportive, towards other nationalisms. Other would-be Bundists (like the Jewish Socialist Group and Jewishn Voice for Labour) are less consistent and, in addition, allow their obsessive hostility to Zionism to render them indifferent, or blind to, antisemitism in all but its crudest and most obvious forms.

    Nevertheless, a look at the history of the Bund, and why it eventually failed and disappeared, is instructive.

    In Poland the Bund made impressive gains in the kehilla — Jewish community council — elections in 1936 and later in the 1938 Warsaw City Council elections. Out of twenty Jewish councilmen, seventeen candidates associated with the Bund were elected. Similar results came in from Łódź, Wilno, Lublin, Białystok, Grodno, Piotrków, Tarnow, and other cities. The Bund also performed well in municipal elections held in January 1939. An agreement with the PPS (Polish Socialist Party) facilitated these successes. Each party called on their bases to support the other when only one had presented a slate. The Bund also produced a large number of searing anti-Zionist pamphlets and leaflets for distribution within the Jewish community.

    In light of its excellent results in local elections, the Bund hoped to do very well in the parliamentary elections that were supposed to take place in September 1939. They were, of course, pre-empted by the German invasion that began on September 1 and by the Soviet invasion just two weeks later.

    The Nazi genocide of the Jewish community in Poland, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere began. While in 1933 there had been three million Polish Jews, by 1950 only forty-five thousand remained. The threat of pogroms and the harsh realities of the new Stalinist regime reduced this group even further within a few years.

    As the Zionists foresaw (and as the USSR later denied), the Nazis murdered the Jews of Poland. In a few short years, the people who wrote the anti-Zionist pamphlets, and those who read them, were almost all dead.

    With the Nazi conquest of Poland, the Bund went underground. Many of the leaders who had preached “do-igkeit” had fled to the United States or had been captured by the Russians. In the cities, leadership was taken over by the Tzukunft youth movement leaders. Bundists smuggled out reports of Nazi atrocities and demanded that the world take action to stop the massacre of European Jewry. In 1943, Shmuel (Artur) Zygielbojm, the Bundist representative to the Polish government in exile in London, committed suicide to protest allied inaction in helping the Jews.

    In the immediate postwar period, large numbers of Jewish refugees waited for visas to the United States and other capitalist democracies. By and large, these countries refused to admit them, and many ended up in Palestine, joining the substantial number of German Jews who had already fled there.

    This played a key role in building the hegemony of Zionism over Jewish communities all over the world. The original settlers only had the support of a minority current of Jewish opinion, competing against the Bund and religious parties. But the horrors of the Holocaust and the plight of Jewish refugees granted a new international legitimacy to the Zionist project. At the same time, as its social base had been virtually exterminated, the Bund ceased to exist as a mass movement.

    Bundists fought side by side with Zionists in partisan groups and in the heroic Ghetto revolts. In the end, they could not escape the fate of European Jews. Bundist leaders who were captured by the Soviets were killed or committed. Viktor Alter, who had declared “We link the essence of the Jewish masses’ life to that of humankind” was executed by the Soviets.

    Following the war, the remnant of the Bund continued to function in Poland until 1949, when it was suppressed by the Stalinist Polish government. The history of the Bund was finished. It was the history of the loftiest ideals and the greatest bravery in the name of an ideology that was “betrayed by reality”.

Comments are now closed.