Remembering Revolutionary Yiddishland

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By now, generations separate us from the world of working-class Jewish Europe, a world of shtetls and Communists, pogroms and partisans. It was a world that was immolated, gunned down, almost irretrievably lost. And it is one separated from the present not merely by cataclysmic antisemitic violence, and an insistence on turning Jews into colonizers, but also by the power over history wielded by history’s winners.

Revolutionary Yiddishland, by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg, is a history of that world, of European Jewish radicalism. Their oral history – a history from below – seeks to capture the lives of struggle of Jewish dissidents, communists, Bundists, working-class militants, martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.

The book refers to a world that is no more except in memory, or secondhand memory, one that may seem almost a curio, where it is visible at all amidst the black shadow cast across official Jewish memory through the sacralization of the German Judeocide as the crucial hinge of modern Jewish history.

(Image: Verso Books)
(Image: Verso Books)

The history of those who fought for a shared utopia will not be very acceptable to the self-appointed representatives and spokespeople of Jews, the Zionist state and its US-based emissaries and co-thinkers. Not merely because the moral universe of Israel is not constructed around the division between exploiters and exploited, but that of “Jews and goyim.” But also because of the other binary of Zionist ideology. That is, a rejection of the Jews of the Diaspora, “often not far removed from the typical caricature of anti-Semitic propaganda,” in favor of the “mythical warrior who made a last suicidal stand at Masada,” and for whom the Israeli state and its citizenry is their self-anointed heir. This second pairing has no place for the Jews of Yiddishland, either.

Against these two binaries, there has been little place for the history Brossat and Klingberg chronicle, grasp tight, refuse to release. In the Zionist state’s propaganda system, there was only “room for the Yiddishland revolutionaries at the price of their own history.” But for the people whose lives the authors brilliantly bring to light, their struggle was an attempt to make room for themselves. In a world where they were victims of brutal discrimination and exploitation, they searched out their own path to the universal from the particular place in which they found themselves.

The Bund, started in Vilnius in 1897, was one example. Raised in the crèche of radical ferment, working-class factory agitation, and learning circles, the Bundists spoke in Yiddish. They correctly identified the national dimension of their oppression, organizing self-defense groups to fight back against the pogroms. Its cadre went to prison in the thousands. They called for political and civic equality at first, and later for national and cultural autonomy for the Jews in the tsarist empire. All along, they viewed their fate as tied to the rest of the Russian working class.

The Jewish radicals in Poland were immersed in Yiddish literary culture. Largely auto-didactic, from the manual trades, they were regularly imprisoned, often for years at a time. In the prisons, “each cell was a university for the political prisoners,” a place for the study of “Marxist theory, dialectics, historical materialism.”

The Spanish Civil War was another event with an uncommon meaning for radicals, and the authors note the disproportionate presence of Jewish names amongst its martyrs. The “little people,” the “tailors, shoemakers, furriers, carpenters, tinsmiths,” were born to the “internationalism of the exploited in the wretched workshops” of Eastern Europe. Many of the European poor of all faiths were drawn to internationalism. But the Jews of this generation were particularly drawn to anti-fascism. They understood that fascism imagined a Europe in which as Jews and as Communists they could not be, that “it was the fate of Europe, the fate of the workers’ movements and the European revolution, that was being played out in Spain.”

Accompanying their awareness that anti-fascism was a struggle being fought with arms and not merely with words was a desire to settle accounts with that stereotype of antisemitic propaganda – European Jewish weakness.

Later, eastern European Jews who had immigrated to France were in the vanguard of resistance to onrushing fascism. Jews composed perhaps 15-30 percent of the French Resistance. Young Jewish women were the main agitators amongst German occupation troops in France in the “travail Allemand.” Those discovered paid quickly, and with their lives. And when the military forces of fascism were defeated – primarily by the USSR, but also by communist partisans across Europe – the internationalist spirit which had animated Jewish participation in the anti-fascist resistance soon, too, left the European scene. Parochial nationalism took its place, as the post-war European states consolidated national sentiment behind patriotism and sought to coopt, destroy, and demobilize the immensely popular communist resistance.

Brossat and Klingberg’s book is a memorial to missing world. As an aesthetic composition, it is beautiful. But it also feels out-of-place, quite literally an intrusion from at least two other times. The first is of course the alien and destroyed Yiddishland, when there was a Jewish culture oppressed enough that it created a life experience suitable for communist militants to emerge from it in droves. The second is when the book was written and then reissued – in 1982 and 2009. Their interviewees are primarily Jews living in Israel. But amongst both them and the Jews living in Europe, that old revolting world contains the “image…of the loser, the retiree from the revolution,” and “what it sympathizes with here is not so much their utopia…as their disillusions and present ‘realism.’”

But what was real then – even in 2009! – is different from what is real now. The aspiration for a shared emancipation, what the militants of the book would have described unhesitatingly as communism, which seemed so dead, is now very much alive. It is not merely the nostalgia and yearning which feel alien when reading this book, but also the sense of political impossibility which is often such sentiments’ partner.

What makes this book doubly-odd is its failure to pass the test of anti-colonialism. The authors’ reference to the “conquering Zionism of Begin and Dayan,” against the “original dream of the first communist generations in Palestine,” their references to the “macabre farce in the Israel of Begin and Sharon,” and in a different way their approving reference to the brief 1982 demonstrations against the Israeli aggression against Lebanon, conjure up comforting but false formulas of a redeemable settlement project – of a better Israel of Ben Gurion, for example.

Such dreams were true enough for some of the displaced dreamers but were nothing but nightmares for the victims of Zionism. The historian has the right to register the reveries of some of the founders. But the radical has the duty to note that one ought not, one cannot, build any kind of Utopia on a killing field, and that ignorance is no exculpation for a crime. Their socialist Zionism has aged badly. That is a very good thing, since it speaks to a successful struggle against its racism.

The book is, finally, of its time. That does not mean it is useless for ours. The task of historians is often, as Walter Benjamin noted, to grab hold of a memory “as it flashes at a moment of danger,” and repurpose that history as a tool of struggle, but also to defend it, and to defend the world of the dead and what they fought for. For that reason, this book, blights and all, is useful as a reminder to its readers of a moment when another world was felt to be within reach, when Jews in large measure lived a common fate with Europe’s other working peoples, fought, struggled, organized, and died among them. As we lurch into another moment when more and more may feel the jackboot of the state, one can hope also the message of this book can inspire many to again look to that horizon to which the people of lost Yiddishland looked, too, and find something there worth struggling for.

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Thank you for the excellent review, Ajl. Isn’t it an anachronism, though, to call irreligious, revolutionary Bundists, openly connected by their Yiddish language and peculiar culture, “Jewish” instead of what they called themselves –Yiddish? They never saw themselves as anything but culturally Ashkenaze people, with a marked ethnic characteristics that had not much to do with a given religion and nothing to do with any cloud-cuckoo “Jewishness”.

The word Yiddish means, in Yiddish, both the language and Jewish–same word. It is difficult to disentangle the two. If they thought of themselves as Yiddish, as you say, then they neccessarily thought of themselves as Jewish–only to a non-Yiddish speaker would it seem otherwise. Nor was Ashkenazi the great signifier of identity–the great divides were largely descended from the haskalah. (Sephardic Jews were little more than received projections.) The Yiddish language and literary culture… Read more »

thank you so much for this article recording a beautiful page of jewish history. Most of my french- jewish friends, mostly from polish origin have helped the Algerian during their fight for independence. Your article reminds me also f the beautiful poem by Loius Aragon sung by Leo Ferré,” l’affiche rouge,” about the Manouchian underground group in WW2: Ils étaient 23 quand les fusils fleurirent 23 étrangers et nos frères pourtant……I maybe should translate it… Read more »

As Echinococcus notes above, it is inappropriate to call irreligious, revolutionary Bundists, openly connected by their Yiddish language and peculiar culture, “Jewish” instead of what they called themselves –Yiddish? They never considered themselves as anything but culturally Ashkenaze people… and nothing to do with any cloud-cuckoo “Jewishness”. Moreover, they did not romanticize their Yiddishkeit, but viewed it as backward and sterile. The Bund was founded in 1897, not by Yiddish speakers, but by Russophones. The… Read more »