By Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg (translated by David Fernbach)

Verso. 304 pages. £16.99. ISBN 13: 978-1-78478-606-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It might be useful to start this review by saying what is meant by “Yiddishland.” In simple terms it refers to “the Jewish world of Eastern Europe,” though in the introduction to this book it is mentioned that interviews were conducted with “former revolutionary Jewish militants from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe”. So, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine, wherever there were concentrations of Jews, and the common language among them was Yiddish, was Yiddishland. As the authors stress: “It was a social and cultural space, a linguistic and religious world, rather than a territory in the strict sense.” I don’t think I need to labour the point that it was a world that largely came to an end with the Holocaust.

As for “Revolutionary Yiddishland,” it was the society that essentially developed as industrialisation and urbanisation, and the consequent drawing of many Jews away from the shtetls and into towns and cities, began to break up traditional Jewish communities. As workers were concentrated in factories and other places of employment, they began to respond to the radical ideas that circulated in the late-19th century. Socialism, anarchism, communism were all in the air, and organising workers into unions was a priority. The Jewish General Workers’ Union, or the Bund as it was known, was one of the leading organisations, but not the only one. Poale Zion and the Communist Party were also of importance: “In the period between the world wars, the Bund swung between communism and social democracy, while the trajectories of Poale Zion allegiance were also multiple, from Moscow to Tel Aviv”. The authors also say that, “communist may mean Stalinist, but also Trotskyist or Brandlerite”. 

There was some separation from other proletarian groups due to the nature of the employment that Jews found in towns and cities: “they remained largely concentrated in the handicraft sector, a type of production with a low technological level at the end of the production chain: tailors, shoemakers, weavers, carpenters, locksmiths, etc”. The Bund was founded in 1897, and initially, at least, the intention was to inaugurate the Jewish workers’ movement into the general workers’ movement, though specific Jewish matters, including the speaking of Yiddish, did require special attention. Bolsheviks like Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg spoke out against Jews being seen as a group apart, and were in favour of a “universalist current that wagered on the extinction of the Jewish question” as the “great current of the revolution” brought about assimilation. This was effectively saying that whatever differences there might be between groups of workers, they were of far less importance than the concerns they all shared as members of the proletariat.

“Militancy was the key word in in the existence of our witnesses” in the years between the two World Wars, say Brossat and Klingberg when beginning to look at the lives of the people they interviewed. And though each party’s “utopia had its “particular colouration,” they all “sprang from the same root: the great utopia of a new world, the New Covenant that was prefigured by the writings of the socialist thinkers of the second half of the nineteenth century, that was consolidated with the growth of the workers’ movement in the early 1900s, and that stormed the heavens with the Russian Revolution”.

The 1930s, however, tended to see the ending of the dreams that had inspired so many radicals. The rise of Stalinism in Russia, the collapse of the Left in Germany, and the eventual defeat of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, all took their toll. People still believed, of course, especially in the notion that communism would eventually provide the answers so many people sought for. Looking back at an incident when she was young, one of the witnesses says: “At that time, things were simpler than they are today; that kind of simple humanity was more or less synonymous with communism.”  The problem was that, as the Communist Party in Russia became increasingly bureaucratised and wanted to control every action by communists world wide, activists began to question the level of their commitment. As Isaac Deutscher put it: “Bureaucratic uniformity and revolutionary enthusiasm are a contradiction in terms”. Not all communists had doubts about the Party line, or if they did they kept their thoughts to themselves. One old radical, reflecting on what had happened in the late-1930s when the Polish Communist Party was dissolved on orders from Moscow, admitted that he was “naïve”, and accepted the decision “without demur”. 

The Spanish Civil War was a key experience for more than one of the individuals described in Revolutionary Yiddishland: “In the revolutionary commitment of the former militants we interviewed in Israel, as for so many thousands of others, the Spanish war was a strong and special moment, both in itself and as a turning point”. The reasons are fairly obvious. Fascism was on the march. Germany and Italy had already succumbed to it, and though there had appeared to be some signs of a growing opposition with the election of Popular Front governments in France and Spain, the events in Spain as Franco launched his offensive clearly indicated that decisive action was needed. Some Jews were already there, having left their homelands as anti-semitic feeling increased, but it took the formation of the International Brigades to provide the main source of Jewish recruitment to the fight against Franco.

The anti-Franco opposition was always riven with arguments about the purpose of the struggle against attempt to overthrow the democratically-elected government. The Communist Party, along with the “moderate” socialists, and the bourgeois who had committed to the Republic, said that the aim was simply to defeat the fascists. But many others saw it as an opportunity to push through a social and political revolution. The anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists of the FAI-CNT, and the alleged Trotskyists of the POUM militia, therefore had to be suppressed. As with earlier events, doubts were raised in some people’s minds, but others were inclined to think that the Party must be right: “I was one of the fanatics. The party pointed out the way and we followed. Our motto could be summed up as this: `The party said so, the party is right. Stalin said so. Stalin is right’.”

When the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in 1938, and the war ended with Franco’s victory in 1939, many volunteers found themselves imprisoned in what were effectively concentration camps in France. And although the policy of the French Communist Party was not to offer armed opposition to the occupying Germans until June, 1941, when Hitler attacked Russia, Jews were quickly active with the Resistance. They knew from years of bitter experience how to survive in a hostile environment. Their experiences in Germany, Spain, and elsewhere, gave them a “realistic perception of German fascism”. And being in the Resistance provided the possibility of survival, whereas doing nothing was almost certainly likely to lead to their deaths. 

The post-war years did not bring the Utopia that had seemed to be promised. The anti-semitic nature of the communist authorities in Russia and their satellite countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary, became obvious when the show trials began in Prague and Budapest in the early 1950s. Jews were prominent in the ranks of the accused. Artur London, a veteran of the International Brigades, was among them. The fact that he survived the purges, though spending years in prison, meant that he could later tell his story, but others were not as lucky and were executed after trials that were farcical in their allegations of Trotskyism, Titoism, spying, sabotage, and other “crimes”. Even those militants who had managed to suspend their disbelief about earlier purges began to think that something was terribly wrong.

“The USSR holds a central place in the experience and thought of Yiddishland”, according to Brossat and Klingberg. And they suggest that this can partly be ascribed to the fact that the Soviet Union opened its borders to the “flow of Jewish refugees from Poland” in 1939 and 1940. As one of the people they interviewed stated: “Stalin was a criminal, but it was the Soviet Union that saved my life, while my whole family, who stayed in Poland, were exterminated by the Nazis”. For a time, until around 1948, Jewish cultural activities were encouraged in Russia, that is until Stalin embarked on a campaign against “cosmopolitans”, who were defined as individuals “deprived of patriotic sentiment, detached from the interests of his homeland, a stranger to his own people with a disdainful attitude towards its culture”. It’s not hard to detect the undertone of anti-semitism in that, and as noted earlier, Jews were often a majority among the accused when show trials were held.

The interviews with one-time militants that provide a basis for this book took place in Israel, where they had gone to live despite whatever their earlier political involvements had been. It would, however, seem that little respect was given them for their activities. Brossat and Klingberg say that there is, a “gaping, radical break between the world that they lost and the arrogant new Sparta within whose walls they have chosen to live”. It would seem that few people know or care about “Revolutionary Yiddishland”, and the official view is that the Jews of the Diaspora, which is where the militants came from, are not relevant or at least not to be acknowledged as ancestors worthy of attention: “As taught in Israeli primary schools, thousands of these Jews, degraded by the spirit of the diaspora were led to the gas chambers like cattle to the slaughter”. “Yiddishland” not only ceased to exist in reality because of communist ideology and repression and fascist brutality, but also in memory because its history has largely been blotted out by many Jews.

The account that Brossat and Klingberg provide uses a great deal of personal testimony from the ome-time activists, and I should point out that the original edition of their book was published in France in 1983. I’d guess that all of the people they refer to are now long dead. I’ve used only a few phrases from their testimonies when writing this review, partly because to do so would take up to too much of the available space. The testimonies are essential, because through them one gets an idea of the levels of commitment and suffering that were experienced. It is sobering to read about people who survived Nazi concentration camps and the Stalinist gulags, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance, who were beaten by the police and imprisoned in various countries, and retained their political convictions despite what happened to them. It is reasonable, of course, to wonder how and why some of them sustained a belief in communism when the evidence pointed to its corruption

There was, also, a reluctance on the part of some of those interviewed to speak too much about their roles in the communist states that were established after the Second World War. Brossat and Klingberg say that “the blue heaven of utopia gave way to a reality with far more varied colours.” The new regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslovakia “needed “these experienced Jewish militants, who thus turned from revolutionaries into officials, privileged people in countries that had a hard time rising from their ruins.” They became a part of the bureaucracies they would have scorned in their younger days. But that, perhaps, was inevitable.

Brossat and Klingberg  added a great deal of information about the various factions and intrigues  in The Bund, Poale Zion, and the communist parties in various countries, to their history of “Revolutionary Yiddishland”, and so rounded out this fascinating and essential story.