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.

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

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.