Comrade Bernard

Issue: 157

John Newsinger

A review of Bernard Goldstein, Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund: A Memoir of Interwar Poland (Purdue University Press, 2016), £55.50.

On 26 September 1936, Polish fascists attacked the offices of the Jewish Labour Bund in Warsaw. The building was shot-up and bombed. According to Bernard Goldstein: “We went out into the corridor and surveyed a horrific scene. The front door was torn off its hinges. The glass panes in the doors were shattered. We counted ten bullet holes in the walls. The entire foyer was on fire.” The attack was used by the Polish police as an opportunity to search the building for weapons (they had been removed to safety by the time the police arrived) and it was made absolutely clear that there would be no further investigation. The decision was quickly taken to retaliate and a contingent of the Bund militia was assembled together with comrades from the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) militia. One evening soon after, a joint militia force attacked the Polish fascist headquarters, “breaking their furniture to pieces and wrecking anything we could lay our hands on”. There was “a big fight in which they got well beaten” with a number of them seriously injured. One of the fascists later died from his injuries.

Unfortunately, one of the Polish comrades, Stanisław Wojciechowski, was arrested by the police and looked likely to be charged with murder. Goldstein and the commander of the PPS militia decided to offer the police a bribe to release their prisoner but were told they were too late as he had already been booked in. The situation looked hopeless when Leon Andruszek, a Polish worker who had taken part in many fights against the fascists, suggested that they propose replacing the comrade who was in the cells with another Polish comrade who had a cast-iron alibi. The police sergeant agreed, in return for “good money” of course. The substitution was made and the charges were promptly dropped as the man being held could prove beyond any doubt that he had been at work when the attack took place and that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity.

This episode is recounted in Goldstein’s tremendous firsthand account of the struggles of the Jewish working class in Poland between the two World Wars, Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund. This book is essential reading not just because of its account of Jewish working class life and working class struggle, but also for the way it chronicles the Bund’s fight against antisemitism and fascism. As far as the Bund was concerned, unity with the Polish working class and peasantry was an essential part of the battle. What makes Goldstein’s account all the more important is that over the years the Zionist movement has made determined efforts to write this story out of the historical record. Goldstein places it centre stage.

“Comrade Bernard” was very much a legend on the Jewish left during these years. He had been active in the socialist movement in Tsarist Russia, first arrested at a meeting outside Warsaw in May 1905 when he was only 16. On this occasion, he received a cut from a sword that left his face scarred for the rest of his life. In the years after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, he was involved in political agitation and union organising work, leading strikes of fur workers, carpenters, iron workers and painters. In 1913, he was involved in organising a general strike against the Tsarist regime’s notorious trial of the Jewish worker, Mendel Beilis, for ritual child murder. He was sent to Siberia during the First World War and was only set free with the overthrow of Tsarism in February 1917. He was elected onto the Kiev Soviet in Ukraine and organised the local Bund militia before returning to live in the newly independent Poland in 1919. He remained loyal to the Bund and during the inter-war years was a key figure in the party leadership. He was also the leader of the party’s militia that organised the self-defence of the Jewish working class against antisemitic persecution and attack, against the police and against strike-breaking employers, often Jewish employers.

The Bund was always strongly opposed to Zionism. As one of its leaders, Vladimir Medem, put it:

We are asked why we are opposed to Zionism. The answer is simple: because we are socialists. And not merely socialistically inclined or socialists in belief only. But active socialists. And between the Zionist activity and the socialist there is a basic, deep chasm…and across that chasm there is no bridge.

The Bund was all about fighting for socialism wherever it was that Jewish workers lived and worked, whether it was Poland, the United States, Russia or elsewhere. They fought against antisemitism and for socialism in alliance with non-Jewish workers. As far as the Bund was concerned, Zionism was a capitulation to antisemitism, indeed on occasions they actually condemned it as itself antisemitic. It was a tool of British Imperialism. The way to fight Jewish oppression was most emphatically not to assist the British in oppressing the Palestinians. Instead, the struggle was always “right here and not elsewhere—in a relentless fight for freedom, arm in arm with the working masses of Poland”.

One group that the Bund had to defend itself against in the late 1920s and early 1930s was the Communists. During the so-called Third Period, Communists throughout the world had ferociously attacked others on the left as “social fascists”. This strategy had notoriously helped Hitler into power by dividing the German working class. In Britain, it had involved denouncing the Labour Party and the trade union movement as “fascist”, with Communists even being urged to break up meetings where they could. In other countries, including Poland, it involved physical attacks on rival socialists including, on occasion, assassination. On two occasions, Communist gunmen attempted to assassinate Goldstein himself. The second time they ambushed him outside his apartment but he drove them off, shooting one of them in the process. The Bund leadership recognised that the Communists were determined to kill Goldstein and publicly warned them “with total seriousness” that if they continued their efforts and were successful, “we will hold every leader of the Communist movement in Poland responsible”. The assassination attempts ended.

The mid-1930s saw a dramatic increase in antisemitic persecution and fascist activity in Poland, inspired by the Nazis’ triumph in Germany. Indeed, in 1934, Joseph Goebbels actually visited the country as an honoured guest and gave a lecture at Warsaw University with senior politicians, including the prime minister in the audience. The rise of Polish fascism saw the Bund take up the fight, defending Jewish shopkeepers against boycott attempts and attack. The Bund militia provided guards. When fascists tried to photograph Polish customers using Jewish shops, the Bund and their PPS allies smashed their cameras and beat them up. The Bund was also actively involved in defending Jewish students in the universities, strongholds of Polish fascism. A number of Jewish students were killed in attacks by fascist students despite the Bund’s efforts. But for Goldstein, the decisive moment was the general strike called in response to the pogrom in the town of Przytyk on 9 March 1936 in which two Jews had been killed. On 17 March the Jewish working class and middle class went on strike for half a day, under the leadership of the Bund. Jewish children stayed off school in their thousands. The general strike was supported by the PPS and in a number of cities Polish workers walked out in support. According to one historian, the extent of the support that Polish workers gave to the general strike was “more effective than even the Bund had hoped for”.

At the end of May, Goldstein and a PPS organiser were sent to the town of Mińsk Mazowiecki where there had been attacks on Jewish shops and homes. While he was there a Jewish house was set on fire and the fire spread to a Polish neighbour’s house. The Bundists and Polish Socialists rescued Polish children from the blaze, with Goldstein himself carrying an elderly Polish woman to safety and then leading the effort to put out the fire. As he recalls, when the word spread that the Jews had saved a Polish family, opinion turned decisively against the fascists and the Bund and the PPS were able to stage an anti-fascist demonstration. There were “no further attempts to attack Jews in that town”.

As far as Goldstein was concerned it was always vital to carry the fight to the fascists and wherever possible to unite with Polish workers. He was very much to the fore in the struggle himself. On one occasion, the Bundist and PPS militias decided on a joint attack on a bar that was used by the fascist leadership. It was decided that Goldstein and another comrade would go into the bar and when the fascists attempted to throw them out, this would provide an excuse for the rest of the militiamen to intervene. As Goldstein recounts, he was immediately recognised and when one of the fascists moved to attack him, he “grabbed a bottle off the table and threw it at him”. The rest of the militiamen rushed in and “we battered and bloodied them, teaching the Polish Hitlerite bandits a lesson”. Nevertheless, he emphasises that these actions were always a matter of self-defence. They never let a fascist attack take place without retaliation, but, at the same time, they never themselves initiated the trouble.

The support the Bund gave to the struggles of the Polish working class and the peasantry played a vital role in building unity with them and combatting antisemitism. In August 1937, ten days of peasant strikes and protests were put down by troops with at least 50 peasants killed. The Bund sent speakers to the peasant rallies to express solidarity, raised money for the protestors and held its own meetings and demonstrations in their support. As the 1930s came to an end, not only had the Bund established a dominant position among Polish Jews, but together with its Polish allies, it had the Polish fascists and antisemites in retreat. In the December 1938 Warsaw council elections, of the 20 Jewish candidates elected, 17 were Bundists. All this, of course, came to an end with the German invasion and occupation which was to encompass the murderous destruction of Poland’s Jewish population.

Goldstein went on to survive the German occupation and was to write a classic grim and unrelenting account of Jewish working class life in the Warsaw Ghetto, The Stars Bear Witness, republished by AK Press in 2005 as Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto. Comrade Bernard and the Bund deserve to be remembered. There is much we can learn from their struggles.

John Newsinger’s new book Hope Lies in the Proles: Orwell and the Left is due out in March 2018.