Revolutionary Yiddishland – a review

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Revolutionary Jews

Revolutionary Yiddishland. A History of Jewish Radicalism,
Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg, London: Verso, pp.304

First published by Balland in 1983 as Le Yiddishland révolutionnaire
Translated by David Fernbach from the revised second edntion of 2009

Reviewed by Elfi Pallis, The Political Quarterly, Volume 88, Issue 4
Oct–Dec 2017, pp. 727–729


At the height of the Spanish Civil War, the commander of the Romanian section of the International Brigades needed to communicate with a delegation from the American Lincoln Brigade but did not speak English. Stumped at first, he decided to take a chance by asking: ‘Does anyone here speak Yiddish?’ Instantly, a flurry of hands went up.

The anecdote forms part of a fascinating study chronicling the role of radical Jews from Yiddishland (not a country but a huge linguistic region) in the struggle for a better world. Taking us first from Tsarist Russia to Romania and Hungary, it moves on shedding new light on the anti-Fascist fronts in Spain and Vichy France.

By covering over a century of radical activism, the authors convincingly challenge the widespread view of Yiddishland’s Jews as meek, pious and unworldly folk, eventually all ‘going like sheep to the slaughter.’ They focus on two Jewish-socialist movements, the Jewish Labour Bund and of Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion) as well as on Jewish communists in order to reject this cliché. The book is an ode to ‘the little people from the ranks of the poor,’ Jews who fought, suffered and often died for economic justice, political equality, the rights of others and, ultimately, to defeat a genocidal foe.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, members of the Bund and of Poalei Zion believed in parliamentary democracy, though Poalei Zion also sought a Jewish state in Palestine. With most of Russia’s Jews by the 1880s facing destitution, Jewish mass strikes and demonstrations spread. The Bund, founded in 1887, had 30,000 members eight years later, far more than Lenin’s Bolsheviks (8,500 in 1905). In fact the Tsarist authorities regarded Jewish working class organisations as the most dangerous.

Being a Jewish radical took courage. Anti-Semitic thugs would break up protests and soldiers fired on strikers. Agitators were executed, radical writers and their printers exiled to Siberia. Jews could not legally carry weapons, but after the 1905 pogrom in Kishinev (then in Bessarabia, now Moldavia) Bundists supplied vulnerable Jewish communities with guns and taught them self defence. The Bund also fostered workers education, libraries, lecture events, book clubs and theatres. Jewish students who knew Russian or French introduced workers to new political texts, painstakingly translated into Yiddish.

The Bolshevik revolution drew many Bundists into the communist camp. Yiddishland men and women volunteered to modernise the country, although the party’s frequent U-turns were upsetting: sent to give Russian peasants health advice, cadres could find themselves sent back a few weeks later to throw the same peasants off their land.

The Bolsheviks at first provided well-funded government department for Jewish education and culture. In the 1930s its task were changed to Russification. All Yiddish-based institutions were closed, the Jewish department itself was abolished and its staff sent to Siberia or shot. So were the leading Yiddish-language writers. Lenin had tolerated separate cultural activity by national groups, but Jews, though a recognized nationality, did not have a national territory (the so-called Jewish Autonomous Oblast created in 1934 in the Russian Far East attracted hardly any Jews). The Bund and Poalei Zion were banned as separatists.

Worse came. Stalin’s 1930s purges saw the killing of many former Yiddishland activists, then followed the deadly 1949 purges of the country’s greatest and by now fully Russified Jewish writers, poets, scientists and composers. It is a grim story well told, and marred only by the authors’ bewildering insistence that, nevertheless, ‘at no moment…did Stalinism practise the kind of racial discrimination and repression that the Nazis had made a precept.’

The tragedy of post-WW1 Polish Jewry, the book shows, was not due to Jewish passivity either, but to chauvinism, anti-Semitism and an overwhelming imbalance of power. Freed from the Tsarist yoke, Poland (like Romania and Hungary), denied Jews work; ultra-nationalists attacked Jewish shops and sought the expulsion of all minorities. Jews were now seen not just as Christ killers, but also as spoiling the national landscape with their alien garb, religion and language. Marshal Pilsudski built Poland’s first concentration camp for ‘Judeo-Bolsheviks’, modelled on Dachau, well before the Hitler-Stalin pact.

The chaotic 1939 flight of nearly 300,000 Jews from the German to the Russian zone scuppered resistance (and will make readers wish for some maps). Soviet forces took charge, sending some refugees to safer Asian republics. Others were sent to labour camps or drafted into the Red Army. Jewish leaders were sent to Moscow for instruction or execution.

In Nazi ghettoes, those left behind endured almost four years of starvation and deportations until the German plan to send the remainder to Treblinka triggered the Warsaw uprising. Largely reliant on home-made weapons, it was doomed, but fighters from different movements held out for four months against a massive onslaught by SS-units and tanks.

Spain was another theatre of war which showed what Yiddishland’s fighters could do. Inspired by the Spanish motto of ‘Land, jobs and freedom’, many joined the International Brigades in 1936 to help the endangered Spanish Republic. Their roles and sacrifices in the bitter fighting barely feature in Spanish Civil War accounts.

Altogether, some 6,000 of the 35,000 members of the International Brigades were Jews, though most fought under national flags. They joined every battle, keen to disprove anti-Semitic stereotypes, and often gained rapid promotion. The Brigades’ general staff included several Jews, and the Defender of Madrid, Emilio Kléber, a former Jewish medical student from Romania as well as a Soviet agent, who later died in the Gulag.

When the Republic fell after dreadful losses due Stalin’s withdrawal of the communist forces and weaponry, non-communist volunteers were both pursued by Franco’s soldiers and accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Fascists. Hundreds were jailed then shot. Communist fighters critical of their leader’s decision were executed by their own side.

Retreating Jewish fighters suffered in French prison camps eventually over-run by the Gestapo. Only a few escaped. Their days of fighting, though, were not over yet. Some, disillusioned with communism, joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary force in Palestine. Others stayed in France and eventually joined the Resistance.

‘France is full’ was the slogan of the French Right in the 1930s, but Yiddishland fighters knew how to avoid the police and hide among those with links to the communist resistance. With foreign Jews being Vichy’s first deportation targets, they had little to lose. Most spent the next four years fighting in the immigrant unit of the MOI (Main-d’œuvre immigrée – a Resistance unit set up by Moscow). Its mainly Jewish members acted as soon as the Nazi invasion started, bombing airfields, railway lines and German positions. Their unit quickly became the most successful.

The French communist party’s own resistance group, the FTPF, held back until Operation Barbarossa, partly because the Hitler-Stalin pact had upset French members. It then set up highly effective urban resistance groups. Its head from 1943 was Colonel Gilles (Joseph Epstein), a brilliant military strategist, Yiddishland revolutionary, communist, veteran of Spain and PoW escapee.

So numerous were foreign Jews among the résistants that Vichy resorted to what is remembered as L’affiche rouge, a poster showing ten members of a newly-arrested resistance group who had carried out nearly all acts of armed resistance in the Paris region during 1943. They were Yiddishland Jews facing execution, and their names and faces meant to convey that the resistance was a Jewish plot.

It is an impressive roll-call, but the authors’ decision to contrast unflatteringly this with the way 13,000 French Jews in the July 1942 round-up had ‘unresistingly’ boarded the police busses that took them to their deaths is rather jarring. What else could they do?

Spain and Occupied France, with all their horrors, were, so the authors show, a new experience for Jewish radicals. They had long diced with death, but finally were part of wider movements, not fighting alone. The book, though, rightly stresses the devastating emotional cost. Most fighters had not only lost comrades but also families back home.

Going to Israel was meant to be redemptive. Some Yiddishland radicals indeed happily joined the Israeli Labour Party and the military. Others, however, were deeply hurt by Israel’s failure to acknowledge their bravery: young Israelis would habitually refer to holocaust survivors as ‘soaps’.

Others again remained internationalists. Shocked by their new homeland’s brutally unequal treatment of its Palestinian minority, some joined Israel’s Jewish-Arab communist party, only to leave again over Soviet crimes.

There is an encouraging postscript to the fighters’ stories. Quite a few of their children or grand children are said by the authors to be active in Israeli anti-occupation campaigns or civil rights. This suggests that the radical, leftwing humanism of the Yiddishlanders lives on.

Comments (2)

  • Kenny Fryde says:

    Readers of this review could be forgiven for thinking that “Revolutionary Yiddishland” is a simple narrative account of Jewish involvement in the revolutionary politics of the 20th century. In fact it is principally an oral history based on interviews with a number of elderly former revolutionaries who, in 1981-82, were living in Israel. This makes it all the more priceless a resource for present-day socialists.

    We hear in their own words about the arguments these militants had as young maskilim with their pious parents; about their experiences of organizing in the workplace, on the street and in prison, against a background of grinding poverty; about the conflict – and ship-jumping – between rival organisations. They lived through cataclysmic events that we are still coming to terms with and which, to a considerable extent, define our own political commitments. Their frequently heroic personal stories are thus immensely moving, and their comments – on matters as diverse as the bureaucratization of the Bund in inter-war Poland (“a kind of anticipation of the Histadrut”) and the “neutralism” of Esther Frumkin on the prospects for continuing Jewish identity under socialism (“but then what was the object of all our Jewish work?”) – are fascinating and relevant to our own times.

    The authors supplement the militants’ stories with a thoughtful commentary whose subtleties are apparently lost on Elfi Pallis. Thus, they do not mention the Vel’ d’Hif round-up in order to cast a disapproving glare at those who climbed aboard the Nazis’ buses. Rather, they make the point that – unlike many born and bred in France – the working class Jewish immigrants from the East were equipped by a history of frequently clandestine organisation with the tools that enabled them to take alternative, but only slightly less desperate, courses of action. And again, the authors do not seek to minimize the antisemitic element within the Soviet purges; but it is a simple fact that the Stalinist attack on Jewish activists and institutions was qualitatively different to the Holocaust and the preceding racial measures enacted by the Nazis. Under Stalin’s counter-revolution Jews could be targeted as Jews (“petty-bourgeois nationalists”) or simply for their revolutionary militancy (“Trotskyism”), while their erstwhile Jewish comrades – seeking to evade a similar fate – would be among the loudest of their subsequent detractors.

    I found the discussion of the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union especially valuable. The authors note the lack of a clearly thought out strategy on the Jewish question – hence the “zigzags and inconsistencies” of official policy – and condemn the blanket stigmatization of community traditions. But they also acknowledge both the Yiddish cultural renaissance made possible by state sponsorship, and the social mobility of Jews under a regime that treated them as equal citizens – achievements that liberal propaganda still seeks to bury.

    The authors’ decision to interview solely survivors living in Israel is in my opinion a weakness – the contrast between the Zionist state and the utopia they had striven for is emphasized too greatly, and accentuates the inevitable air of despondency and disillusion at the end of the book. No doubt it also made the authors’ task more manageable, by limiting the pool of potential interviewees. I found myself wishing for a larger work with a global reach, and lamenting the consequent loss of so many other voices – but as with any history we cherish what we have, which in this case is a vital link to a selection of our forebears.

    I urge all JVL supporters to read “Revolutionary Yiddishland”.

  • sheyna schwartzbard says:

    Dear Verso Books,

    I am sad to say that I recently received a defective book and I would like a full refund. The book I ordered was Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History Of Jewish Radicalism, but instead I received an incomplete version. It seems that any mention of anarchy, anarchism, anarchists, and even anarcho-communism has been left out completely from my copy. When looking in the index I found that my copy was missing even the most notable Jewish radicals, who happen to be anarchists, such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Also, there is no mention of the anarchists who participated in the 1905 uprising, the Bialystok anarchists,
    1
    or the notable anarchist group, The Black Banner. When the authors got to the assassination of Symon Petliura on page eight, there was not one mention of his assassin, Sholem Schwartzbard, a Jewish anarchist. I noticed, too, that the numerous Jewish anarchist newspapers were missing, as well as the Jewish anarchists who wrote, compiled, edited, and printed those papers, such as anarchists David Edelstadt and Saul Yanovsky.

    Ironically, the title of the book I received is “Yiddishland” and yet Baruch Rivkin is not mentioned once in my copy. Rivkin, an anarchist, diligently wrote on the subject of “Yiddishland,” and arguably coined the term. It grieves me that I was sold an incomplete version of a “History of Jewish Radicalism.” I am sure it was an honest mistake and not false advertising, since there is not one point in history when communists or socialists have attempted to erase anarchism, anarchists, Jewish anarchists, or Jews from its pages.

    For a history of Jewish anarchism in the United States please refer to Di yiddishe anarkhistishe bevegung in emerika (The Jewish Anarchist Movement in the United States: A Historical Review and Personal Reminiscences) by Joseph Cohen. Within the 557 pages of that lovely book, you will find a beautiful description of Jewish anarchism. However, there is little to no mention of Jewish communism. Maybe that is because it is a history of Jewish anarchism and not Jewish communism. If it were to include both Jewish anarchism and Jewish communism, then it could be boldly titled Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History Of Jewish Radicalism.

    I would like to return this book and be given a full refund.

    Thank you.

Comments are now closed.