My Bundism is not just a memory
Irena Klepfisz, poet, writer, teacher, activist, was born in the Warsaw ghetto in 1941. She grew up among Bundist survivors in New York, absorbing their philosophy. She describes the impact of that philosophy on her life and what it means to be a Jewish socialist in the 21st century.
Main photo: New York City Lesbian and Gay Pride March 1989. Irena is second from the right in the group holding the banner. The Yiddish words are Freylekhe folk/Happy (gay) people. Credit: Rachel Epstein
Below: Irena with her mother in Sweden, 1946.
The historian Emanuel Ringelblum organised and led the Oneg Shabes project in the Warsaw Ghetto in order to document ghetto life and to record for posterity German crimes against the Jews. In the introduction to his book, Who Will Write our History?, Prof Samuel Kassow explains why Ringelblum continued documenting ghetto life even after he learned of German plans to liquidate the ghetto. Prof Kassow writes:
Over time Ringelblum realized more and more clearly that the survivor identity would overshadow the prewar past. The “before” would be erased by the “after.” As ... [Ringelblum] confronted the unfolding disaster he fought all the harder to preserve the “Now” and the “Before,” to keep the a posteriori label of “victim” from effacing who the Jews were before the war. In a very real sense ... [Ringelblum] saw history as an antidote to a memory of catastrophe which, however well intentioned, would subsume what had been – into what had been destroyed.
Ringelblum’s prediction that after “the catastrophe” many Jews would perceive themselves solely as victims/survivors came true – at least as I have observed it in the United States. For many Jews – and not only Jews in the US – memorialising the Holocaust has become a central part of their Jewish identity and for them, Jewish history begins in either 1939, the start of the war, or in 1948, the establishment of the Jewish State, seen as the “answer” to the Holocaust.
Over the past four decades I have taught Jewish Studies courses in numerous universities around the US and, therefore, the majority of my students have been Jews – many of them with 12 years of Jewish education behind them. Yet I have found that almost none of them had any significant knowledge of Jewish life before 1939, and knew very little of the “destruction” – der khurbn – itself. Few could answer such questions as: Who were the six million? Where did they live? What were their lives before the war? These young people’s knowledge of der khurbn has been primarily focused on the sadism and horrors of the camps, and they know very little of life in the hundreds of ghettos across Europe or the challenges faced by so many thousands of Jews passing or resisting in forests and in the underground.
I have found this ignorance of Ringelblum’s “before” and “now” painful and also rather peculiar, for I was offered a Jewish history in which the “before” 1939 was vivid and very much alive. The community that raised me in the Bronx in New York City in the late ’40s and ’50s consisted exclusively of lebn-geblibene Bundistn, survivors who were members of the Jewish Labour Bund in Poland, and who remembered vividly and in great detail not only how they survived the war, but how the Bund raised and nurtured them in the decades before the war. Their stories about Skif, Tsukunft, Morgnshtern, (the Bund’s children’s, youth and sports organisations), Medem Sanatoria (where young people with respiratory problems were helped), or the Yiddish veltlekhe shules/secular schools, cultural programmes, marches and worker strikes, armed fights with antisemites and fascists were intermingled with memories about the war and with anecdotes about their present American lives. They not only loved their Bundist life before 1939, they also continued to honour the Bund’s ideals.
I learned all this while eavesdropping on their casual conversations when they gathered together to share an evening of talk, a slice of pound cake and some tea. Not being able to afford a babysitter, my mother would bring me along and I would listen to the stories of their lives before and during the war. Their utter love, continued enthusiasm for their pre-war life was infectious. I envied them. My life in the Bronx seemed but a pale shadow compared to the lives they led. If I was living in goles/exile, it was an exile from that interwar Poland.
But there was another element in these reminiscences which prevented them from being simply hazy romanticism and nostalgia. These survivors also discussed and sometimes re-argued endless issues that involved Bundists’ criticism of other Jews without worry or fear of being called antisemitic or self-hating. I heard how Bundists unhesitatingly challenged Zionists, rabbis, and Jewish factory owners; how they acknowledged the existence of criminal elements in Jewish society. In short Bundists weren’t romantic or sentimental about Jews or Jewish life. They identified what was wrong, diagnosed what was needed and worked toward improving the life of the Jewish masses. If Jews are illiterate, establish Yiddish shules and libraries. If they lacked medical attention, establish clinics. If children suffer from TB and hunger, establish a sanitorium. And throughout the discussion and arguments I saw that these Bundists were never ashamed. As much as Bundists memorialised heroes and martyrs of the war, they also talked openly about the role of Judenrats and Jewish policemen.
These Bundists taught me not to be afraid to admit to Jewish problems and not to be defined by antisemites. And of course many of them served as role models, though it took me years to realise how special this inner circle was. People that I knew by their first names – had well known international Bundist reputations. Bernard was Bernard Goldstein, always the Bund’s tough guy before and during the war, but to me the gentlest of men. Vladka, for whom I babysat, was Vladka Meed, the Bundist smuggler and courier; she sat with my mother and me at Monie and Brucha’s seder together with Monie’s father Jankev Pat, the Bundist leader; and next to them sat the cultural leaders Chana and Yosl Mlotek.
And there was always talk of Marek, one of the Bund’s organisers and fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who became an international human rights advocate and famous cardiologist – Marek who had to explain over and over again to one interviewer after another why he, Dr Marek Edelman, had stayed in Poland while everyone else had left. But there were so many others, not as well known, whom I listened to on those Friday and Saturday night gatherings, who had survived in different ways and who before the war were involved in the various branches of Bundist political, cultural and sports activities. These were the people who formed my consciousness.
It was listening to their casual, unstructured conversations and memories that I came to fully embrace the Bund’s sotsyalizm/socialism, yidishe veltlekhkayt/Jewish secularism, and the principle of do’ikayt/“hereness” which I understood as being the right to lead a full Jewish life wherever one happened to be. This was my Jewish “norm.” It was only decades later, when I was in my mid-30s and came in contact with other Jewish progressives that I began to understand that my “norm” was virtually unknown.
The moment of realisation solidified in my early 30s when I first became politically active and began to engage with Jewish feminists and Jewish leftists who shared my socialist values, but who considered secular identity as being “nothing” (simply not going to synagogue) and who were uncomfortable identifying as Jews, embarrassed either by the Hasidim or by their own middle-class backgrounds or by Israel or by the constant focus on the Holocaust. Reasons for being ashamed of one’s Jewish identity in the left are numerous. Needless to say, no one knew anything of the rich possibilities which Bundism afforded me.
But with that realisation came another – perhaps more painful. Like my parents and their friends, I became politically active because I experienced specific dangers and challenges. However, unlike my parents, my greatest challenge and danger was not antisemitism. I felt relatively safe as a Jew in the US. My sense of safety, however, was threatened when I came out as a lesbian and became engaged in the feminist and lesbian/feminist movements of the 1970s. So rather than antisemitism, it was homophobia that pulled me into political life, a homophobia that saturated American life including American Jewish communal life. This proved to be a difficult period for me: discovering simultaneously that the Bund and its principles had been forgotten or erased by Jewish progressives and that its adherents, my childhood heroes and heroines, were not perfect. It was countering ignorance that forced me to actually start reading about the Bund and become more educated about the movement that had so shaped my thinking. It was Jewish homophobia that made me stop being romantic about the interwar period in Poland.
Contemporary Jewish homophobia forced me to see that my “do’ikayt” was not the same as that of my parents. Issues of homophobia and gender identity were unknown to them: they recognised antisemitism, but couldn’t have imagined its genocidal manifestation as the Holocaust; they challenged Zionism but knew nothing of a seemingly irreconcilable conflict between Palestinians and Jews. They recognised a few other Polish minorities, but saw Jews as the largest, most visible and probably most oppressed. In the US, Jews are among the smallest of American minorities. And unlike American Jews today, who are fully integrated into American political life, during the ’30s Polish Bundists were just beginning to experience some political power.
The interwar Bund’s views on veltlekhkayt/secular identity were also different. In those first three decades in Poland, a system of secular Yiddish schools had developed alongside Yiddish libraries and theatres, Yiddish newspapers and publishing houses – all contributed to a thriving Yiddish culture. Much of this also existed in the States, but after the war it was fading quickly. Like Bundists before me, I accepted Yiddish culture as my legacy while, paradoxically, becoming fully rooted in the English language. Yet despite all these differences and contradictions, I continued to feel a direct connection to the Bund of that generation.
So here is what I have taken from Bundism and here are some areas that I needed to challenge or expand.
In gerangl/In struggle
Without shame or self-consciousness, Bundists identified what was wrong and tried to fix it. Loyalty to the tribe, however, did not make them romantics and did not make them hide problems that were in need of being addressed. The Bund taught me not to be afraid to admit publicly to Jewish problems. That Bundist commitment to free discussion and critical analysis guided all my anti-homophobia and Middle East peace work.
It also enabled me to be critical of the very period that had always fascinated me. As my feminist and lesbian consciousness developed, I became painfully aware of the absence of women in my Yiddish education. There were no women intellectuals, political activists, or writers in the Yiddish cultural lessons included in curricula of my shule, mitl-shule, and later post-doctoral work in Yiddish literature and culture.
When I became active, the American feminist calls to recognise the challenges and struggles of women echoed the recognition that Bund gave to common people or those generally marginalised. Yet, somehow, Jewish women’s lives were not given special notice as having perhaps different needs from those of men. Though secular, a lot of the sexist and patriarchal attitudes so easily condemned in observant Jewish communities, were replicated in progressive communities. Following the examples of those who taught me in the Bronx, I was not going to whitewash the past or continue the amnesia.
I believe in the Bund’s formulation that secularism isn’t just assimilation or not going to synagogue. Veltlekhkayt includes building Jewish life by establishing Jewish education and fostering Jewish culture. I was taught that one couldn’t just be against something, one had to be for something. One of the destructive effects of our focus in the US on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that it has sapped energy away from working to enrich Jewish life here in the States. I struggled with my Middle East activism because it took time away from my Bundist commitment to pass on Yiddish culture in general, and Yiddish women’s history and culture specifically, through my writing, translations and teaching. Eventually I felt it became more important for me to do this cultural work, and I began to focus my energy more on that than on the Middle East.
Simultaneously, veltlekhkayt has emerged as a wider and even more complicated concept than in my parent’s generation. Unlike the Polish Bund of the ’30s, American Jews are slowly coming to recognise Jewish multiculturalism and know that there are different ways of expressing one’s secular identity. In the States, Jews from Middle East countries and Jews of Colour are emerging as visible groups within communities previously perceived as purely Ashkenazi, and forming connections between Jews and other minorities, who are also grappling with issues of identity and their own traditions. The visibility of LGBTQ Jews in all areas of Jewish life is also something that would have been inconceivable to the pre-war Bundist generation.
Do’ikayt within the Bundist framework has not simply meant anti-Zionism. It also demanded building Jewish identity, a refusal to just blend in, an insistence on remaining and being fully, distinctly Jewish, wherever Jews happened to be. Like earlier Bundists, I see do’ikayt as entwined with strengthening our Jewish identity and committing ourselves to a Jewish future in our chosen environments.
There are other Bundist principles that motivated me, such as looking to the margins towards those who are invisible, who seem to exist on paper only: the single mother struggling to feed her children; the woman prisoner who never had any options. Or the Bund’s emphasis on memory and history so that as Jews we know our various heritages, know who we are and where we came from, understanding that history binds us as a people and guarantees a Jewish future. These Bundist principles have always been an integral part of my life and work.
And I believe they saturate my life in terms of the many decisions I make, the way I write, where I devote my energy. I believe, as did the Bundists before me, that for people to thrive, to have meaningful lives, they must be part of a just society and a just society is where all people thrive. There is a Yiddish song, Avreml der mavikher/Avreml the pickpocket, which expresses this in very simple terms and was written by the great Yiddish poet Mordekhai Gebirtig. Throughout most of the song Avreml boasts about his skills as a grifter and thief, and claims to be admired for being the best of all con men.
But in the final stanza, Gebirtig, who was a member of the Cracow Bund, provides Avreml with self-awareness and a critical analysis of his life. In this stanza, Avreml begins to lament his criminal actions and envisions what his tombstone might have contained – not a list with his criminal achievements – but rather a list of his virtues:
Do ligt Avreml, der feikster mavikher
A mentsh a groyser geven volt fun im zikher
A mentsh a fayner, mit harts, mit a gefil,
A mentsh a reyner, vi got aleyn nor vil
Ven iber im volt gevakht a mames oygn,
Ven s’volt di fintstere gas im nisht dertsoygn
Ven nokh als kind er a tatn volt gehat
Do ligt Avreml, yener voyler yat!
Here lies Avreml, the best of all pickpockets
He would have certainly been a great person
A fine person, with heart and feelings
A moral person, as God wants him to be
If only his mother’s eyes had watched over him
If only the dark street hadn’t raised him
If only when he as a child had a father
Here lies Avreml, a great guy!
Gebirtig shows us that Avreml is a criminal because of his environment. If Avreml’s environment had been different, he might have become someone to be admired for his humanity, his morality. In this song, Gebirtig articulates the Bund’s belief in people’s inherent goodness, but a goodness that can only be activated in a just and humane society.
And that too is exactly my Bundism – in Yiddish and English.
This essay is based on two talks: “Bundism's Influence Today”, given at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York City, 16th September 2019; and “For Socialism, for Freedom. The Jewish Bund: History of Yesterday, Memory of Tomorrow”, presented at the University of Genoa, 22nd April 2021.
Posted: 24 March 2022 | Published in: Jewish Socialist No 76