The Ideals of the Jewish Labor Bund Have Outlived Nazi Genocide

In tsarist Russia and interwar Poland, the Jewish Bund developed a socialist alternative to Zionism while fighting against antisemitic oppression. The neglected international history of their movement is a vital resource for our own time.

Members of the Jewish labor bund participate in a May Day march in Poland, 1930. (ullstein bild / Getty Images)

I was in my late teens, reading about the Russian revolutionary movement, when I first stumbled across the Bund, a left-wing Jewish movement that emerged in Eastern Europe during the late nineteenth century. “Bund” means “union” in Yiddish.

My first encounters were not promising: these were footnotes about the Bund arguing with Lenin at the 1903 London Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) for the right to agitate autonomously in Yiddish among Jewish workers. This preceded the momentous Congress wrangle that split the Russian revolutionary party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

In these footnotes, leading figures denounced the Bund as “separatists,” “nationalists,” and worse. Elsewhere, standard Jewish histories dismissed them as irrelevant “dreamers” who opposed Zionism in the 1930s, when millions of Europe’s Jews were about to be mass murdered in the Holocaust.

Fortunately, I later discovered other sources that described the Bund as a courageous mass movement, founded among working-class Jews in a clandestine meeting in Vilna (Vilnius), in 1897, the same year that Theodor Herzl launched the Zionist movement at a plush venue in Basel. The Bund’s opposition to Zionist values was based on internationalism vs. nationalism; integration vs. isolation/evacuation; optimism vs. pessimism; and class struggle vs. class collaboration.

The Bundist Legacy

In 1898, the Bund provided the infrastructure for the RSDLP’s inaugural gathering of nine socialists, three of whom were Bundists. By 1905, the RSDLP had between five thousand and eight thousand members, many of them educated, professional revolutionaries. The Bund was already thirty thousand strong by then, mostly comprising Yiddish-speaking workers — a third of them women — who were located principally in the “Pale of Settlement” in Imperial Russia, where the tsarist regime had forced most Jews to live.

Until relatively recently, literature about the Bund focused mainly on its early years up to 1905, or around the fall of tsarism in 1917. Its high point, though, was in Poland in the mid to late 1930s, when Europe’s largest Jewish community suffered under a semi-fascist regime. In Poland’s last municipal elections before the Nazi invasion, the secular, socialist, anti-Zionist Bund swept aside their religious or Zionist rivals, winning big majorities in several large cities, including Warsaw and Lodz where Jews were most heavily concentrated.

The first two living Bundists I met, during the 1980s, were remarkable people. Majer Bogdanski lived in London’s East End. At thirteen years of age, after his mother died, he began a tailoring apprenticeship in Piotrków, central Poland. Majer joined the Bund in his teens. In the 1930s, he and his wife, Esther Wolstajn, moved to the larger textile city of Lodz.

When the Nazis invaded, Majer was mobilized into the Polish army. His Bundist wife became part of the Lodz underground resistance. Arrested and tortured, she perished in Auschwitz. In the meantime, Soviet forces had captured Majer after invading Poland from the east and sent him to a Siberian labor camp, where, he told me, he was expected to work and die.

He attributed his personal survival to the poverty he had experienced as a child. He could already endure whole days without food. Small in stature, he had a physical and mental toughness, a mind eager to learn and absorb new experiences, a love of Yiddish song and poetry, and unshakeable socialist values.

I remember his vehement reaction when I mentioned Trotsky. He dismissed “Lenin–Stalin–Trotsky” in one breath, as he described how the Soviet government repressed the Bund after the October Revolution, with huge numbers of non-Bolshevik socialists imprisoned under the rule of Lenin and Trotsky. In the 1930s, he said, Bundists faced physical terror from Polish communists who were obedient to Stalin.

His denunciations of Zionism carried equal vehemence. According to Majer, Zionists did not lift a finger in the fight against rampant antisemitism in Poland during the 1930s, apart from one small left-wing faction (Left Poale Zion). It was activists from the Bund and the Polish Socialist Party who led that daily struggle.

Leaders Who Listened

The second Bundist I met was Esther Brunstein, born into a family of Bund members in Lodz. Aged eleven when the war broke out, Esther spent four years in the Lodz ghetto, followed by incarceration at Auschwitz, where her mother was murdered. The Nazis transferred Esther to a slave labor camp soon afterward, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen.

She slept right through the day of liberation as her body was fighting typhus. She was taken to Sweden, where a growing number of Jewish survivors found refuge, including several hundred Bundists. She stayed in Sweden for nearly two years before finally obtaining a visa for Britain as a domestic worker, having discovered that her older brother had also survived and was living in London as a refugee.

Esther appears in a photograph in Håkan Blomqvist’s poignant study of Bundist refugees in Sweden which focuses on the years between 1945 and 1950. She is singing in a choir at the opening celebration of a temporary Bund home in Malarbaden in 1946. Behind the choir a banner in Swedish reads “Welcome! Long live socialism.”

Esther’s formative years were in a Bundist primary school, run on very progressive educational lines, that taught pupils in their Yiddish mother tongue. She told me that even in her darkest days in the ghetto and camps, she retained her faith in fellow human beings, and promised herself that she would never hate, because of the humanistic socialist values that school had instilled in her. Late in life, she recalled the pride she still felt about the ceremony in the ghetto when she graduated from SKIF, the children’s Bund group, to Tsukunft (future), the youth movement.

Majer, Esther, and other Bundists I met in Britain, and in America shortly afterward, were indeed different to many other socialists I encountered. Their sense of “mishpukhedikayt” (family-ness) was palpably displayed. I was also struck by the strength of their class consciousness and their determination to marry politics with culture, enabling cultural offerings to be accessible to all. They had no aspirations to be middle-class. Instead, as Majer Bogdanski put it, “We wanted to be educated workers.”

They were sure-footed about their own values but inquisitive about other opinions, respected minority viewpoints, and were consistent egalitarians and democrats. Leon Kuczynski, a Bundist I interviewed in 1991, said of their 1930s party leaders, Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter:

Ordinary working-class people looked up to Erlich and Alter but they never looked down on us. They listened to us. In other parties the leaders led and the others followed.

Alter and Erlich’s lives ended on Stalin’s orders in a Soviet prison in December 1941, where they were being held on ludicrous charges alleging that they had appealed to Soviet troops to make peace with Germany. Alter was executed; Erlich hanged himself.

The Bund Beyond Europe

Frank Wolff’s extremely detailed, though sometimes quite dense book provides several penetrating insights into the shared experiences and activist patterns of typical Bundists, and the character traits they acquired in a movement that navigated such a difficult path in which rivals and enemies loomed large. Living as a Bundist meant much more than shared programs and slogans. Alongside official records, Wolff’s sources include hundreds of pieces of autobiographical material by Bundists.

His main focus though is on a different and under-researched question: Bundists in migration — a phenomenon that had already started, involuntarily or voluntarily, by 1900. The Bund’s heartlands were in Vilna, Warsaw, and Lodz, and remained so until the Nazi invasion, when Bundists were prominent within the ghetto resistance. As Wolff asks:

How did Bundists remain Bundists after migrating to parts of the world that lacked both a Bundist organization and the conditions to directly reproduce the movement they had known in Russia and Poland?

The largest destination was the United States. Bundists were among 1.4 million Jews who emigrated to the United States, especially New York, mainly from the Russian empire, between 1904 and 1914. Even by the late 1920s, nearly 45 percent of Jews in America lived in New York, a place Wolff considers “utterly unfit for a Bundist party,” especially as many of them arrived from countries where activists previously had to meet in conspiratorial conditions, taking to the forests for clandestine gatherings.

However, when the first Bundists arrived there from 1900, they found a Jewish community that lacked a Bund but had a very active and flourishing Yiddish socialist scene, including a newspaper, Forverts (Forward), founded in 1897. He describes the lack of familiarity and comprehension the Bundists would have felt about the American labor movement (AFL), which abhorred association with socialist ideals.

When Eugene Debs founded the Socialist Party of America, Bundists found more likely allies. They joined unions and built contacts with nascent socialist organizations in New York. Some Bundists rose to prominent union positions, and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was particularly infused with Bundist ideals.

It was not just North America where Jewish emigrants, including many Bundists, arrived in large numbers. The second destination that Wolff highlights in fascinating detail may surprise readers who think of New York and London as the major port cities receiving Jews from the Russian Empire. In Buenos Aires, there was a Jewish community of around twenty thousand in 1901, which grew to more than a hundred sixteen thousand just before WWI, and more than twice that figure by 1935.

The Jews who came to Argentina mainly settled in two districts of Buenos Aires, Nueve and Once. In sources that Wolff researched “the term ruso (Russian) . . . often meant Jewish, while for a long time the term judío (Jewish) simultaneously meant ‘from Russia.’”

Diaspora Dilemmas

Landing in destinations so far from Eastern Europe emphasized a sharp dilemma for Bundists. A key Bundist concept was “doikayt” (here-ness): wherever Jews live, that is their country, and that is where they will strive for socialism, alongside other oppressed and exploited people.

Bundists stressed this concept especially in their polemics against Zionists who posited a Jewish state in Palestine as the only place where Jews would build their homeland. From this perspective, everywhere else in the world, the Jews were in goles (pronounced “gol – es”), meaning “exile.” Yet Jews who landed in New York and Buenos Aires had consciously chosen not to go to Palestine.

What of the home they had left behind in Eastern Europe? Bundists in the Americas made no compromise with Zionist ideas about “homeland” but did nevertheless place themselves in a particular relationship with the pre-Holocaust Bund heartland in Poland. Were they not prioritizing the Bund’s needs in Poland over their own political, economic, and cultural needs, and the struggle for a collective secular, socialist identity for Jewish workers — what Wolff calls yidishkayt — as a minority in their new land? This question applied to Bundists in both New York and Buenos Aires, and from Wolff’s evidence, perhaps even more so to the former.

However, the deeper Wolff takes us into that relationship, the more complex it becomes. Bundists had formulated their goals in Eastern Europe with a view to achieving them there. After 1922, newly independent Poland became the central focus of Bundism. Instead of acting more independently of the Bund in Eastern Europe, activists in the Americas consciously strove to establish the crucial importance of struggles by Jewish socialists there, and they facilitated a considerable transfer of resources. But they did so in a way that simultaneously contributed to the growth of progressive Jewish life in their new lands.

They fostered the growth of what Wolff calls “secondary Bundism” organizations, especially Yiddish cultural and educational projects, in which Bundists were very active but which were not created in the name of the Bund. Among the most significant of these were the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) which began in New York in the period before Bundist emigrés arrived but expanded and benefited enormously from their energy and commitment; and the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), formed as an umbrella relief organization responding to the growth of fascism in Europe.

The success of these initiatives was realized both in the richness of the Yiddish cultural and educational opportunities offered and in their ability to fundraise among a much wider constituency of Jewish workers to support various projects — libraries, schools, newspapers, even a remarkable sanatorium for children suffering from respiratory problems — that the Bund was pioneering in Poland. Wolff confirms that these transfers started to play a really significant role very early on. He describes the relationship in terms of “networks” that make up the Bund’s “transnational history,” and regards Bundist immigrants in the Americas as pioneers of the modern, global, secular Jewish diaspora.

Destruction and Survival

The dramatic rise of the Bund’s political position in Poland during the late 1930s, which led to their extraordinary result in those last municipal elections before the Nazi invasion, was the culmination of a period of incredible hope that was destroyed with the most unimaginable brutality. Though they were physically far from the site of destruction, the world of the Bundists in America was shattered, and they were forced to adapt once again.

They could look back with pride on everything achieved by the Bund in Eastern Europe from its inception until the Holocaust and would have been determined to find ways to enshrine that experience more deeply in collective Jewish and socialist memory. At that point, however, they must have found it hard to look into the future at all.

Håkan Blomqvist’s book shines a light on that fraught period after the Khurbn (destruction — a Yiddish term for the Holocaust) by focusing on the specific case of Sweden, especially in the immediate postwar years. Interestingly, Wolff’s research shows that a small Bundist group had operated there for a few years from 1902 under the name Zukunft (Future). Archival fragments describe them as a “department of the Bund.” Ana Mironovno, who led a Bund group in Copenhagen during the 1910s, had come there from a Bund group in Stockholm, where her name was Anna Brumberg.

Another Bundist with a long-standing Swedish connection was Paul Olberg. Born in Latvia in 1878, Olberg was active in underground Jewish workers’ circles (kruzhki) that preceded the Bund’s formation in 1897. At the age of twenty-one, the Russian authorities imprisoned him for smuggling Marxist literature. He participated in the revolution of 1905 and was active in the Menshevik faction after the split within the RSDLP.

In 1917, Olberg was running an agency in Stockholm that assisted Mensheviks in Western Europe to return to Russia in the throes of revolution. He later moved to Berlin, working as a journalist, but he and his wife Frida Markovana returned to Sweden when Hitler came to power in 1933, a year after the Swedish Social Democrats had scored their great election victory.

Throughout the 1930s, Olberg was heavily involved in strengthening the Swedish labor movement’s efforts for refugee aid. Both the Bund and the JLC in America were in contact with him then. In 1945, when there were transports to Sweden of Holocaust survivors from Poland and Germany, Olberg asked the JLC to appoint him as their Swedish representative.

Opening the Borders

Olberg recruited Sara Mehr to assist with the work. Born in Grodno in 1887, in present-day Belarus, she became a Bund supporter in her teens while working in a tobacco factory. After she participated in a strike that was forcibly suppressed, Mehr fled to Sweden. The very next day, she attended a May Day demonstration where she met her husband-to-be, Bejnes Meyerovitch, a Bundist who had changed his name to Bernhard Mehr.

He was long dead when Sara Mehr began working with Olberg to support Holocaust refugees. Their work began with visits to refugees in war hospitals and sanatoria. Mehr sometimes arrived with members of an amateur Yiddish theater troupe. But soon their work revolved mainly around finding collective housing arrangements for Bundist refugees.

They found a large temporary Bund home in Malarbaden just outside the industrial town of Eskilstuna. Blomqvist quotes the moving description by one of the refugees, Markus Kshienski, of the special event to mark the opening of guest house, where my late Bundist friend Esther Brunstein featured in the choir.

Kshienski talked of how the young people were received, including by representatives of the Swedish Social Democrats who were present, “with tears in their eyes” since so few children survived, and how the evening ended with the singing of Di Shvue (The Oath) — the Bund’s anthem “after having not been able to sing it for 6 years.” He added: “No matter what miserable state we are in, we will be loyal to the Bund and Socialism.”

As more Bundist refugees arrived, temporary homes were established in several cities. During the five years that the book describes, there were perhaps as many as five hundred Bundist survivors in Sweden altogether, but probably not more than three hundred at any one time. After a period of recovering their physical strength — though the psychological damage would endure — many opted to move again to destinations that fellow survivors — family members and friends — had reached, especially in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Between 1946 and 1948, there was a critical mass that enabled groups not only to start rebuilding Bund cultural and political activities, but to seek support among the wider Jewish minority living in Sweden. In 1947, the Bund participated in Stockholm’s May Day celebration with a banner in Yiddish and Swedish demanding, “Open the Borders for the Victims of Nazism,” and they issued their own May Day manifesto.

A Living Tradition

That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the Bund’s founding. Despite the horrors of recent years, the Bundists in Sweden affirmed their survival by holding a banquet with politics and culture in Stockholm. In that same year, the Bund created a World Coordinating Committee (WCC) at a conference in Brussels that gathered together representatives from its supporters in different countries. The WCC’s central office would be in New York. Olberg represented the Swedish Bund on that committee.

In 1948, a national Bund delegate assembly was held with roughly one delegate for each ten members. There were twenty-five delegates present. Paradoxically, however, just as the Bund was beginning to flourish again in different Swedish locations and starting to seek support from the longer-established Jewish community, external factors brought severe renewed pressure on the Bundists.

With the end of the British Mandate looming, the push by Zionists to establish a Jewish state resulted in a UN agreement to partition Palestine. The Bund internationally affirmed its principled opposition to Zionism and to the establishment of a Jewish state, seeking instead a bi-national arrangement providing self-determination for all communities of Palestine on the basis of equal rights. In the WCC’s literature published in 1947 and 1948, Bundists in Sweden could read about the coercion and terror imposed by Zionist authorities in the displaced person camps against non-Zionist and anti-Zionist inmates, driving them out of their jobs and exposing them to starvation because they did not wish to enlist for the war in Palestine.

In September 1948, ultraright Zionists assassinated Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish UN mediator on Palestine who had earlier been responsible for the “white buses” that transported many Jewish prisoners in Germany to Sweden in the final stages of the war, among them several Bundists. The Bund in Sweden were among the first contributors to the fund for peace and humanity established in his name.

But Zionist emissaries flooded into Sweden, too, dominating the Jewish street and strongly influencing the wider Jewish community. The saddest part of the book describes the denial of communal facilities for Bund meetings by mainstream Jewish institutions, and the boycotting and marginalization of Bundist survivors in Sweden, after everything they had been through.

By 1949, many more of the survivors had left for other destinations. Those that remained felt increasingly isolated and lonely, coping with physical and mental illness. This was compounded by the increasing inability of Olberg and Mehr to meet the demands placed upon them, increasing the sense of fractiousness among the remaining Bund members. Olberg himself became more remote and reclusive. Yet the book ends with a beautiful afterword describing visits and reunions in Sweden among Bundists in later life, and the appreciation especially by those who were very young then of what that brief time in Sweden provided for them.

One of these books is a large, detailed tome unpicking the mechanisms of how Bundists constantly reinforced their fundamental ideas, flourished on activism, honored the memories of their achievements, and adapted to the most trying circumstances. The other is a microcosmic study of sanctuary in one country immediately after the Nazi destruction. Together, they convey so much about the spirit of an extraordinary movement, as well as its philosophies.

Those philosophies did not die. Rather, they are being embraced today by an increasing number of small groups of Jewish radicals on different continents who are engaged in a form of politics inspired by Bundism and are starting to construct their own transnational networks.