L'Chaim / Living Judaism
February 6, 1998 / 10 Shevat, 5758

A lost cause remembered

Marking the centennial of the failed ideology of the Bundists

By Jonathan S. Tobin

Yiddish is in. From Harvard to the spanking new National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., to local schools and JCCs around the country, study of Yiddish is on the upswing.

Nostalgia for the culture and especially the language of Eastern European Jewry is definitely in fashion among American Jewry these days. This is, by and large, a good thing. Yiddish has an honorable place in the history of Jewish literature and thought. Even more, the emotions the sounds of Yiddish evoke among Jews of Ashkenazi descent -- even those who are two or more generations removed from Yiddish as a spoken language -- are a tender rememberance of generations past. In particular, it is closely associated with the millions who perished in the Holocaust.

The debates which raged among Jews two generations ago over whether Yiddish or Hebrew was deserving of primacy in Jewish life, are over. Hebrew, the language of the Bible and modern Israel, always was and still is the national language of the Jewish people. Yiddish could no more assume that title than Ladino -- the language spoken by Sephardic Jews. Only Hebrew embraces the past, the present and the future of all of Jewish civilization. And though Yiddish ought to be preserved and respected, it is the study of Hebrew (in which scandalously few American Jews have attained fluency) and not Yiddish, that educated Jews ought to devote themselves.

But largely lost amid the Yiddishist craze is the memory of the movement that truly gave Yiddish life and purpose: The Bund. Few American Jews outside of college history departments or the Workmen's Circle Building in New York City have even heard of it. But, on the eve of the Holocaust, the Bund (officially known as the Algemeiner Yiddisher Arbeterbund fun Russland un Poilen -- the General Jewish Labor Federation of Russia and Poland) was the largest Jewish political movement in Poland -- the second largest Jewish community in the world at that time.

A forgotten centennial

Ironically, even as we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Theodor Herzl's convening of the First Zionist Congress this past summer, the Bund's centennial passed largely without notice. Last month, about a hundred Jews gathered at the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center to remember the Bund with a historical lecture, Yiddish songs and the showing of a Bundist film made in 1939.

As historian Prof. Samuel Kassow of Trinity College pointed out at that gathering, only weeks after Herzl placed the modern Zionist movement onto the world stage at Basel, Switzerland, a group of hardbitten Jewish revolutionaries did the same for the Bund in Vilna. But, as Kassow pointed out, "there were no top hats and no cheers" at the Bund convention. The Bund delegates slipped into a nondescript house one at a time to evade police surveillance. For days, they sat on a bare floor under a picture of Marx, debating Russian Socialist doctrine.

In part, theirs was a revolt against the low status of urban laborers in Jewish culture as well as a protest against the persecution every Jew faced. Their goal was to create a movement which would strive to overthrow the Czarist government of Poland and Russia while maintaining a separate Jewish workers' identity. Though they despised Jewish religion and tradition, the Bundists, unlike other Marxists, did not want the Jewish people to disappear.

They had a utopian vision in which the Jews of Eastern Europe would live and work side by side with their Polish, Russian and Ukrainian neighbors. They believed Poles would "sober up" from the virus of antisemitism.

Their dreams became a sick joke

Today, after the Holocaust, and generations of antisemitic violence in those countries even after the Nazis and the Communists, their dreams sound like "a sick joke," said Kassow.

The Bund was also characterized by a fervent opposition to Zionism, a policy they pursued up until the bitter end of Eastern European Jewry. When in the late thirties, the Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky toured Poland urging the "evacuation" of European Jewry, the Bundists hurled abuse at him and accused him of abetting antisemitism! The Bund had their way: The Jews of Poland would stay and ultimately more than 90 percent would perish in the crematoria of Treblinka and the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto.

"No movement has ever failed so completely" as the Bund, concluded Kassow. Having allied themselves with a failed ideology that turned upon them in the Soviet Union (where Bundists were persecuted and murdered), and uninterested in escape from the deathtrap of Eastern Europe, the Bund lost everything in the Holocaust.

Visions of a doomed people

Yet, up until this tragic end, the Bund was far more popular among Polish Jews than the various Zionist movements. And for that Kassow had a cogent reason. Though they were wrong about virtually every important question that faced 20th century Jews, they were often animated by a greater sense of ahavas Yisrael -- love of the ordinary Jew.

Zionists were sometimes more interested in building the Jewish future than helping the Jew trapped in the present. Bundist achievements were not inconsiderable. They organized Jewish self-defense against pogroms as well as trade unions. It helped transform Yiddish from a colloquial jargon into a great literary culture. And Bundist immigrants had a powerful impact on American Jewish life.

"They gave the Jewish worker a sense of dignity, of worth and hope," Kassow said in his eulogy for Bundism. "They gave them a sense they were not alone."

Viewing the Bundist film which portrayed Jewish children at the movement's youth camp, it was hard to keep back the tears as one stared into the faces of Jewish children who would almost certainly all be dead in less than five years. As they mouthed the socialist claptrap about the solidarity of the workers, one could dismiss Bundism as a bizarre, if picturesque, chapter of Jewish history.

One hundred years after Bundism was founded, we have no need for their foolish political ideology or their sad rejection of Jewish tradition and the land of Israel. Their idea that Jewish identity could survive as a purely secular Diaspora phenomenon is an intellectual dead-end.

The Zionists were right about Jewish history, the Jewish future, and the primacy of Hebrew. That is a fact that we should never forget even as we celebrate Yiddish.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.


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© 1998, Jonathan S. Tobin