Revolutionary Yiddishland

Review of Revolutionary Yiddishland
By Alain Brossart and Sylvia Klingberg
Verso, £16.99

Not all Jews who emigrated to Israel in the last century were Zionists. Some Trotskyists, Bundists and loyal Communists went to Israel as a refuge from the Nazi inferno and Stalin’s gulag.
Scarred by such murderous regimes, these survivors of Red Yiddishland represented the shipwreck of a generation — a mass movement of radicalised Jews in Europe who believed that “another world was possible”.
In 1983, the authors of this interesting “History of Jewish Radicalism” interviewed the few who had managed to reach Israel. Some remained committed to the beliefs of their youth while others had embraced Zionism.
The book focuses mainly on Communists, Bundists and the adherents of Left Poale Zion (LPZ). In 1905, the Bund boasted 30,000 members while the RSDLP, the forerunner of the Bolsheviks, had only 8,500.
In the 1920s, multitudes of Jews — some former Zionists — flooded into the Soviet Communist party to build Zion in the USSR at a time when the very idea of a Hebrew republic in Palestine was a pipe-dream.
David Grynberg of LPZ wanted to make Eretz Israel into a Communist country. Other recent immigrants joined the Palestine Communist party because they perceived injustices directed at the indigenous Arabs.
Through their interviews, the authors describe the grinding poverty in eastern Europe that was experienced by working-class Jews. Yaakov Greenstein remembered that his mother placed a loaf of bread on the table for their evening meal. But she refused to slice it before her husband came home for fear that her ravenous children would devour all of it.
Like many others, Bronia Zelmanowicz from Łódz in Poland came from a religious home but found salvation in Marx and Plekhanov instead. She asked “how can God permit such injustice?”
Foreign Communists tried their utmost to “escape” to the Soviet Union, only to be confronted by the dark reality of Stalin’s state. Adam Paszt finally reached the utopia of his dreams and was bewildered when he was asked to pay for his tram ticket. He had believed that, under Soviet socialism, travel was free. The other passengers laughed uproariously.
For some, the journey to Israel was long and arduous. Solomon Fishkowski was a Trotskyist, arrested in 1927 during Stalin’s attempt to liquidate the opposition.
Repeatedly incarcerated in camps and prisons, he was allowed to leave for Israel only in 1970, following a hard-fought campaign to emigrate. When interviewed at the age of 84, he still viewed himself as a revolutionary.
The authors are themselves activists on the far left in France and Israel. The occasional anti-Zionist animus and telescoping of Jewish history mars an otherwise absorbing account.
The lost world of Yiddishland and Jewish internationalism is food for ideological thought today in a time of austerity and adversity.

Jewish Chronicle 23 December 2016

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