Lessons From the Bund

A newly translated memoir takes us inside the Jewish Labor Bund's fight for survival and social transformation in 1930s Poland.

A meeting of the Bundist Youth Organization, Warsaw, Poland, 1932. Bund Archives of the Jewish Labor Movement, New York.

In the 1930s, Jews constituted 9.5 percent of Poland’s population. The enormous pressure of European fascism and the dramatic growth of antisemitism politicized the country’s Jewish community, especially its younger members. They were drawn toward Bundism, Zionism, and Communism in massive numbers. By the end of the decade, the Bund had become the hegemonic union and political force among Polish Jews.

Founded in 1897 as the General Jewish Labor Bund in Russia and Poland, the Polish Bund became a separate organization during World War I, when opposed occupying armies cut off communication between the Polish and Russian chapters. In the interwar years, the Polish Bund’s success came from its call to maintain cultural autonomy, including preserving Yiddish language and culture, its aggressive defense of the Jewish community, and its labor militancy.

Unlike Zionism, the Polish Bund insisted, under its doctrine of “hereness” (doikayt in Yiddish), that the right place for Jews was where they already lived. Trying to escape antisemitism by moving to Palestine — which, it reminded its members, was not empty land — and establishing a Jewish state would be unjust and provoke resistance. Instead, Jews had a duty to fight in alliance with the labor movement and with socialist organizations to establish a democratic republic in Poland.

The Bund’s demands for cultural autonomy put it on a collision course with the Russian Social Democratic Party (RSLDP), which it had joined in 1898. When its demands for autonomy were rejected in 1903, the Bund split and reestablished its separate existence.

Admittedly, some of the Bund’s demands — such as becoming the exclusive representative of all Jewish workers no matter what language they spoke or where they lived — could not be justified. But Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, influenced by their assimiliationist expectations, refused to treat Jews like other national groups within the empire.

By the 1930s, the Bund was successfully recruiting left-wing support not only because of its defense of Jewish culture, but also because of its combative social-democratic line, which appeared as an alternative both to Stalinism and Zionism.

Bernard Goldstein richly portrays the organization’s history during those fateful interwar years in his recently translated memoir, Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund. There, he speaks both as a Bund member and as head of its Warsaw militia. Taken with The Stars Bear Witnesshis account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto and its 1943 rebellion, led by a coalition of Bundists, Zionists, and Communists organized into the Jewish Fighting Organization — Goldstein covers the Bund’s rise and fall.

A Well Regulated Militia

Goldstein’s account explodes the Zionist narrative that contrasts brave Israeli warriors with meek and submissive Eastern European Jews. As Goldstein relates, from 1905 until the early 1920s, the Jewish Bund engaged in self-defense as the need arose. Members would create ad hoc security forces for events and demonstrations or to ward off attacks. But as antisemitism and conflicts with Communists grew, the Bund’s central committee decided to organize a permanent militia, naming Goldstein to head it. The new militia traced its roots to the Zelbst-shuts (self-defense) units that had participated in the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Goldstein describes his newly formed militia’s discipline. Its members could not use firearms unless specifically ordered to do so nor could they act on their own to seek revenge for attacks. According to Goldstein, the party established these rules to prevent the militia from degenerating into outright banditry, as some revolutionary groups in tsarist Russia, like the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRP) and the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), did.

Further, the Bund did not grant the militia any special privileges and in fact imposed stricter rules on them than on other party members. Militia members had to pay party dues and, like other Bundists who had to miss work to fulfill a party assignment, were not compensated for lost wages while on duty. The militia had its own sick fund to take care of those who had been wounded on duty.

Occasionally, the militia went beyond self-defense and behaved more proactively. Goldstein recounts instances when he tried to stop evictions by negotiating with landlords. When it didn’t work, militiamen appeared in the building’s courtyard, waited for the authorities to move the tenant’s possessions into the street, and then carried them back to the apartment once the bailiff and police had left. They repeated the whole operation until the landlord agreed to work out a compromise.

The Bund militia grew at the same pace as the Bund’s political influence. By 1939, as many as twenty thousand people attended Bund rallies with some two thousand militia members guarding them. Goldstein details the militia’s exhaustive defense preparations: for marches, members would station themselves in every tenth rank. Other groups positioned throughout the crowd would watch people on the side streets and look out for police or hostile counterprotesters.

The militia also expanded in response to the new waves of antisemitism that swept Poland after the Second Republic’s founding in 1918. For one, the Bund had to deal with Haller’s Army, followers of the nationalist war hero Józef Haller, who used to beat up Jews and cut off the beards of the pious in the streets of Warsaw and in provincial towns.

The police also took a hostile stance to the Bund, ransacking and seizing their clubs and offices, as they did in the Warsaw suburb of Praga in 1920. The Bund also violently clashed with religious Jews when, in 1922, it decided to publish a Saturday edition of their newspaper Folkstsaytung, violating the Sabbath rest.

Antisemitism became an even greater threat in the 1930s thanks to Hitler’s rise and Poland’s increasingly dictatorial and nationalist government. Physical attacks on Jews increased, and pogroms reappeared. Polish students, strongly influenced by Polish Nazism, established a ghetto for Jews at the university, forcing them to sit on specially assigned benches on the left side of the classrooms. The Polish government sanctioned this practice in 1937, decreeing it the law of the land. In response, all Jewish parties joined the Bund in declaring a general strike.

The Bund and the Comintern

While fighting antisemitism, the militia also had to deal with the Communist International. After the 1917 Russian Revolution and especially following the Comintern’s 1919 founding, serious tensions developed between the Communists and the Bund, eventually fracturing the party.

The pro-Communist faction, called the Kombund, represented a substantial part of the membership. It demanded that the Bund accept all twenty-one conditions that the Comintern had stipulated for party membership. The three other factions — the left-wing majority, the centrists, and the small right-wing faction that eventually joined the center — refused to accept several of the twenty-one conditions. As a result, the Kombund defected and joined the Communists.

The two parties had to compete for Jewish workers’ allegiance and remained in sometimes violent conflict with each other. These occasional clashes did not prevent the Bund’s open opposition to the war craze that swept Poland after World War I, as nationalist forces called for extending the nation from the Baltic to the Black Seas at the expense of revolutionary Russia. In fact, Henryk Erlich, one of the Bund’s main leaders, spoke at the Warsaw city council to demand that the government repudiate plans to capture Ukraine and instead seek an immediate and just peace with Soviet Russia. Amid this turmoil, Goldstein reports that the Bund jointly participated with the Communists and with the Polish Socialist Party in the 1920 Warsaw May Day parade.

Whatever friction and violence excited up to this point pales in comparison to what happened after 1928, when Stalin and the Comintern adopted the ultra-left “Third Period” policies.

Inside the Soviet Union, this justified the first Five Year Plan, which mercilessly crushed the peasantry and created the 1932–33 Ukrainian famine to advance Stalin’s forced industrialization. Internationally, the period represented an ultra-sectarian line that denounced all other left political groups and attacked social democrats as social fascists. This policy, together with the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) timid and conservative politics, opened the door for Hitler’s rise to power.

Since the Bundists were also social democrats — albeit far more combative than the SPD — Third Period Communists unleashed an all-out war against them. This included attempts to split Bund-led unions by calling for wildcat strikes without any justification or worker support, which frequently entailed physically attacking the uncooperative workers. Goldstein describes the tailors’ wildcat strike, which the Communists forced in the summer of 1930 and ended with severely injured workers.

Beyond those reckless actions, Goldstein describes assaults on Bund institutions, like the Medem Sanitarium for children. In 1931, 150 Jewish and Polish Communists attacked it, destroying the electrical station and kitchen, breaking all the windows, and engaging in a wild shooting spree. Fortunately, all the children had been evacuated.

Communist persecution of the Bund did not stop with Stalin’s adoption of the Popular Front policy in 1935 or his subsequent national-unity policy against Nazism. It continued for years, and took the lives of two Bund leaders: Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter. Alter was executed, and Erlich driven to suicide by the Soviet authorities in 1943.

Working-Class Unity

The Bund’s leaders realized that its militia alone could not protect its members from Communist excesses or from the far more important problem of Polish antisemitism, which affected the Jewish community at large.

That is why they — even if they were not revolutionary Bolsheviks — argued for the unity of the Polish working class while advocating for the Jewish minority’s special cultural and national demands, including that “each union in any city with a large Jewish component should be required to form a separate Jewish affiliate.” To accomplish this, the Bund had to face the power that nationalism and antisemitism had over non-Jewish workers.

Goldstein portrays these tensions by telling a story of bloody worker conflict in the slaughterhouses. Private merchants bought most of the meat, but the municipal and national governments, public hospitals, and the military were clients as well. The Polish workers maintained that, as ethnic Poles, they should get a larger share of the government work, a claim the Jewish workers obviously disputed.

At one point the conflict almost turned into a nightmare, as workers lined up on either side ready to use their butcher knives against each other. The dispute was resolved only after Goldstein, acting on behalf of the Jewish union, persuaded the Polish union’s secretary, a member of the PPS — a non-Marxist and nationalist-inclined socialist party — to jointly address the workers and convince them to lay down their weapons and settle the dispute.

While one might object to organizing a union along ethnic lines, the practice undoubtedly came in response to the systemic discrimination — from both private and public employers — that Jewish workers faced. Goldstein provides a detailed example of this at the Central Provisions Administration Office, which once employed some two hundred Jewish workers. Soon after the Warsaw City Council took over the office, it began to dismiss its Jewish employees, claiming that the office was gradually being liquidated. With the help of PPS and Communist workplace activists, the Bund mounted a successful campaign against the discriminatory layoffs.

Goldstein’s description makes it clear that the Bund conducted much of its work in collaboration with the PPS, despite the latter’s reluctance to identify as a pro-Jewish party. For this and other reasons, relations between the two organizations wavered, but they improved significantly in the 1930s, during Jozef Pilsudski’s increasingly dictatorial regime. Pilsudski, a one-time PPS leader, dealt serious blows to his former party and to the democratic opposition in general. As a result, the Bund and PPS jointly organized the 1931 May Day demonstration.

Among other dramatic incidents in which the Bund, unionized Polish workers, and the PPS came together, Goldstein describes their open fights against fascist and antisemitic demonstrations in Warsaw’s Saxon Gardens and their successful effort to stop a pogrom in the city of Brisk.

The Bundist Brand of Unionism

As a party in the classic social-democratic mold, the Bund built a dense counter-society within antisemitic and reactionary Poland that could encompass every aspect of Jewish life. The party had sections for youth (Tsukunft), women (Yidishe Arbeter Froy), and even children (SKIF or the Union of Socialist Children). It had a Yiddish-speaking school system, a sports and athletic section, and a sanatorioum for children named after Vladimir Medem, one of its leading founders.

As a Marxist party, however, its central priority was organizing the Jewish working class. Goldstein’s book brings to light one important aspect of the Bund-led unions: their odd combination of modern and traditional practices.

On the one hand, they experienced the very modern conflict between centralization and autonomy. Goldstein explains that the Warsaw unions demanded control of locals in the Praga suburb, hoping to collect their members’ dues and organize their activities centrally. The Praga unionists objected and demanded more autonomy. The Warsaw unions eventually allowed their suburban affiliates to take dues and address local issues — like negotiations and limited strikes. But Warsaw retained control over industry-wide strikes and general demands, requiring the Praga unions to submit to the central office on those issues.

These modern disputes mixed with instances of extremely traditional craft unionism. For example, Goldstein explains that the slaughterhouse union was split into separate locals according to an extremely detailed division of labor. There were separate groups for the drivers who moved the cattle and other animals from the train to the stalls, the skinners, the hide haulers and the meat haulers, the record-keepers, the teamsters who delivered to the butcher shops, the tripe workers, and those who worked only with calves.

While this archaic organization did not contribute to union solidarity, other traditional union traits did. For example, the slaughterhouse locals worked on a cooperative basis: everything they earned went into a pool and, at the end of each week, the proceeds were distributed according to rules that stressed need. For example, an unmarried man, regardless of his qualifications, received a smaller share than a married man.

The back porters — workers who transported burdens on their backs — improvised their own social security system. A sick porter continued to receive his share of the pool; if he died, the vacant spot went to his son or son-in-law; if there was no son or son-in-law to take his place, the porter’s station paid the widow a weekly pension for one year. In many other craft trades, especially among bakers, fully employed workers gave up their overtime hours to their unemployed comrades.

The Bund sanctioned these practices, which were rooted in a precapitalist moral economy, but resisted others that violated that morality. For example, the slaughterhouse owners tolerated the workers’ practice of stealing a little meat for household consumption. When some porters took two bundles of leather from a small merchant in order to sell them, however, the Bund forced them to return the product. Goldstein points out that the public received this very well, helping the Bund’s image.

Off the Shop Floor

Goldstein also shows that the Bund did not confine its attention to a narrowly defined Jewish working class. Polish Jews experienced deep and extensive poverty; Jewish beggars tried to survive all over Warsaw; and many Polish Jews, particularly women, never learned to read. The Jewish working class in Warsaw lived side by side with a world of marginalized people into which workers and their families could easily fall.

The Bund did not ignore that world. Goldstein writes about how, in order to develop contacts among the Jewish transport workers in Praga, he attended a wedding of known thieves. He also describes visiting a synagogue frequented by criminals, pimps, sex workers, and other underworld characters who were allowed to pray there between the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement.

Goldstein’s memoir makes clear that the Bund did not pander to and romanticize this world, nor did it condescend with moralizing self-righteousness. Instead, it always attempted to bring its inhabitants into what, as Goldstein put it, was

a world of new ideas and concepts . . . a new culture, a new way of thinking and talking, and new and broader interests. In short . . . [to become] aware of general social problems and a different way of life, things they were never before concerned with or had even thought about.

Yet in offering its model of an alternative society, the Bund ran into some unanticipated obstacles. Goldstein tells the story of a Bund activist who got so involved in his union that he increasingly distanced himself from his illiterate wife, who was left isolated at home tending to their children and household duties. After the wife contacted Goldstein, he approached the husband, who explained that he had nothing to talk to his wife about. Goldstein discovered that the wife had gotten a tutor, learned to read, and wanted to join the Bund, but the husband did not want his wife to become an activist. Goldstein tried to persuade him but concluded that

somehow these two things could not coexist in [the husband’s] mind: the Socialist program about equality for women and the fact that his wife leaves the house several times a week to attend meetings of the YAF [the Bund’s women’s organization], and that he must sit at home and watch the children.

Goldstein’s own conception of the Bund was somewhat contradictory as well. He affirms, on one hand, that the organization never confined itself to socialist mass struggle: “We concerned ourselves with the personal problems of the workers’ lives as well.” A few pages later, however, he tells a member’s wife — who complains that her husband does not contribute to household finances — that the Bund “cannot mix into people’s private affairs,” an answer readers might expect from a modern socialist party organizer.

The woman’s reply, however, got straight to the point: “Comrade Bernard, to whom can I go? Who can help me? . . . Let him at least give the household something to live on.” In the end, Goldstein appealed to the husband’s brothers, who successfully pressured him into discharging his financial responsibilities. The grateful woman became an ardent election campaigner for the Bund. Jewish working-class life had converted Bund organizer Goldstein into a part-time rabbi and social worker.

The Rise Before the Fall

The Bund’s hegemony took on many forms. In the 1930s, one hundred thousand Jewish workers belonged to unions, meaning that one-quarter of all unionized workers in Poland were led by the Bund, giving them enormous power. For example, it led the 1936 general strike against the Przytyk pogrom. All Jewish workers left work, Jewish stores shut down, and pupils walked out of school.

Electorally, the Bund started to make headway 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 facilitated these successes. Each party called on their bases to support the other when only one had presented a slate.

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, preempted by the German invasion that began on September 1 and by the Soviet invasion just two weeks later.

Thus, 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.

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 both leftist 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.

Still, the Left would do well to learn from the Bund, as it combined the defense of an oppressed community with broad worker alliances, mixing anti-discriminatory and pro-worker activism into an effective and popular political force.