EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2019/20
Biographies and Politics: The Involvement of Jews and Activists of Jewish Origin in Leftist Movements in 19th and 20th Century Poland
The conference “Biographies and Politics” approached the involvement of Jews and people of Jewish origin in leftist movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from a biographical perspective. Using this method, we aimed to analyze how personal motivations, social and political conditions as well as issues such as gender, generational change and family dynamics influenced the individual and collective paths of Jews into various Jewish (Bundism, Labor Zionism) and general leftist political and social movements. Employing a biographical approach and a long-term perspective, we moved the scholarly debate on Jewish involvement in leftist movements beyond the stereotypes and superficial generalizations which still bedevil discussions of this issue. The conference took place in the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It was co-organized by Aleksander Brückner Center for Polish Studies, Halle (Germany), the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford, and University College London (both UK).
The involvement of the Jews of Poland in leftist political movements in nineteenth and twentieth-century Poland is a complex and challenging topic. Bundism and Labor Zionism openly combined Jewishness with leftist ideology. The situation is more complicated in the case of people of Jewish origin in non-Jewish organizations, who, at least to some degree, did not consider themselves to be Jewish but were regarded as Jews by others. In addition, in the imperial era of the long nineteenth century, we cannot speak exclusively of “Polish Jews” or “Poland” since other affiliations were also possible.
Nevertheless, the presence of Jews or people of Jewish descent in leftist movements, especially the prominent position some “Jews” held in the revolutionary movement and in state socialism, has been an issue of public debate to this day. On the one hand, the stereotype of communist Jews as “Jewish perpetrators” was often and is still used to stir up anticommunist or nationalist sentiments. On the other, especially in western historiography the dominant narrative on the role of “Jewish” participants in leftist movements is that of a struggle for political and social equality, whose results were often disappointing. This narrative focusses on the failure of Jewish revolutionaries and portrays Jewish communists as victims of Stalinism and the Communist regimes in East and East Central Europe.
Our conference will go beyond such schematic conceptions. Instead we approach the involvement of Jews and people of Jewish origin in leftist movements from a long-term perspective starting in the nineteenth century and with a clear focus on individual motivations, ideological choices and personal biographies. To explore the different paths which led Jewish individuals to become active in leftist parties and organizations, we seek to approach the topic from a biographical perspective. Analyzing the formation of Jewish political identities on the basis of biographical sources, especially documents like diaries, personal letters, memoirs and oral testimonies, makes it possible to avoid fruitless debates on the number – real or imagined – of Jews in the higher ranks of communist parties or their supposed influence.
During our conference we seek instead to gain source-based insights on questions such as:
- Was Jewishness an important factor in choosing a specific political path?
- Which other factors led Jews and people of Jewish origin to affiliate with a particular political group?
- How did their leftist involvement influence their attitude towards imperial settings, occupying powers, internationalist movements, as well as Poland and Polish identity?
- How did such individuals assess their leftist engagement later in their lives?
The answers to these questions will shed new light on the character of Polish Jews’ involvement with the left and will lead to a better understanding of their actual motives—why some Central and Eastern European Jews chose to engage in leftist political movements.
The conference will be held at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which provides a well-equipped venue and a professional institutional backing. The whole conference will be open to the public and simultaneously translated (English/Polish). The conference sessions are, however, directed, in the first place, to an academic audience. Two public evening events address a broader public and will be more widely promoted. Karen Auerbach’s keynote lecture will convey the key theme of the conference analyzing the biographies of several Jewish families who lived in an apartment building in postwar Warsaw. Its local flavor should, in addition, attract many Varsovians. The second event will be the screening of the film Tonia and her Children, which tells the life story, from the perspective of her children, of a prewar Jewish communist, who was arrested during the Stalinist period. The professional PR and the extensive network of the POLIN Museum will secure a high outreach into the academic and non-academic public.
To improve the methodological skills of Polish and international graduate students engaged in biographical projects and to promote Jewish Studies the conference will be preceded by a one-day methodological workshop. This will be jointly conducted by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Stephan Stach (POLIN Museum). In it up to twelve graduate students will be given instruction into how to analyse different biographical sources and will discuss with the organizers and other senior scholars’ important aspects of biographical analysis. They will also be invited to attend the conference. The participants will be selected after a publicly announced call for applications. This call will be published after the closure of the CfP for the conference so as not to discourage advanced doctoral students from submitting a proposal for the main conference.
The conference, the workshop and the accompanying programme attracted great interest. We received a huge number of responses to the CfP of the conference as well as to the Early Career Scholars Workshop. The contributions to the conference covered a wide range of issues raised by CfP and discussed them from various disciplinary viewpoints. The biographical approach to the topic of left-wing political commitment of Jews proved to be suitable for examining even difficult aspects from new perspectives.
The Conference and its Accompanying Programme
Workshop for Early Career Scholars. 30 November 2019
The conference was preceded by a workshop on biographical research for early career scholars, organized and directed by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Stephan Stach (POLIN Museum). Eleven participants from Poland, Germany, Croatia, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, the United States and Israel discussed their biographical research projects and methodological texts. The discussion was given additional impulses by a presentation of Piotr Osęka (University of Warsaw) about challenges and opportunities of using communist security service files as a source for biographical research. After the day full of lively and engaged discussions all participants were invited to also observe the conference. Two of them also presented a paper at the conference.
First Day of the Conference
The conference was opened by Anthony Polonsky, who welcomed participants and guests on behalf of the conference organisers. He also gave a concise outline of the basic ideas and considerations, that lead to the organisation of this conference. In particular he emphasised the epistemic advantages of approaching a complex and disputed topic like Jewish engagement in left-wing politics though specific biographies. After his words the participants split up to continue in two parallel panels.
In the first panel explored the interconnection of Jewishness and leftwing political activism. Jacob Stürmann investigated, how the exiled Russian-Jewish Social-Democrat Pavel Axelrod became an important point of reference for interwar Jewish Socialists. Alexandra Kemmerer traced the impact of Rosa Luxemburg’s personal Jewish experience on her political thinking and Katarzyna Chmielewska approaches the question through an analyze of narrative structures in Polish-Jewish communist family memoirs. François Guesnet, who chaired the panel, opened the discussion. With a short reference to Karl Marx’s concept of communism as liberation from Jewishness towards human liberation, he added another perspective on the panels central question.
In the second panel titled “Internationalist Politics, Transnational Biographies, Local Activism” addressed the question of leftist engagement in Polish Jewish émigré communities. Zoé Grumberg analyzed political and social trajectories of Polish-Jewish Communists in France during from the 1920s to the 1960s. Among other she points on the exceptionally high engagement of this group in the French Résistance but also to their strong Jewish identity, which, however, did not contradicting their internationalist conviction. Ebony Nilsson examined the paths of an anticommunist Polish-born Jewish labor activist that immigrated along with of several thousand other Jewish DP’s to Australia. Based on his own family history Daniel Walkowitz explored how Jewish immigrants from Lodz and Bialystok engaged in the Yiddishist, socialist General Jewish Labor Bund formed a specific milieu in Patterson, New Jersey. Among other topic brought forward during the lively discussion, David Slucki raised the question, how family histories focusing on rank-and-file activist and institutional sources concentrated on party leaders could be better integrated into a more comprehensive narrative.
Cultural and social activism was in the center of discussion in the third panel, exploring leftist activism beyond party boundaries. Sylwia Kuźma-Markowska analyzed the biography of the gynecologist Herman Rubin. He was one of the proponents of birth control and conception and his Yiddish and Polish publications influenced the discussion of birth control in socialist circles and leftist literary journals. Andrea Feldman examined the role of the progressive Jewish academic and social activist Vera Ehrlich Stein in interwar Zagreb and her involvement in leftist politics. The “unwritten autobiography” of the Soviet Jewish actor and cultural activist Solomon Mikhoels was the topic of Vassily Schedrin’s talk. On the example of Mikhoels’ contribution to the Soviet movie “The Return of Nathan Becker” of 1932, he demonstrated, how combined elements of religious messianism of Judaism and the messianic ideology of the Bolshevik revolution.
The fourth panel titled “Antifascism facing the Holocaust” began with Stefan Gąsiorowski’s presentation on the poet and early Holocaust historian Michał Borwicz. Gąsiorowski explored the in how far his personal and political connections to the Polish socialist movement contributed to his rescue form Lviv’s Janowska camp. Michał Trębacz in turn investigated the role of socialist ideology in Szmuel Zygelbojm’s writing and thinking in face of the Holocaust. As he points out, despite his suicide protest against the World’s indifference towards the fate of the Jews under Nazi occupation, Zygelbojm remained faithful that it will be up to labor movement to create peaceful postwar order. While Zygelbojm is one of the more prominent leaders of wartime Jewish socialist movement, Maria Ferenc introduced the so far mostly unknown Shmuel Breslaw, as the “Unacknowledged Intellectual Leader of Hashomer Hatzair in the Warsaw Ghetto”. As Ferenc underlines, Breslaw was one of the staunchest advocates for armed resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, however murdered before the outbreak of the Ghetto Uprising.
Ula Chowaniec chaired the fifth panel “Exclusion and Inclusion in Leftist Jewish Biographies” and opened the floor with a mild critique of the quite general character of the panel title. The three papers tied together here explored the impact of additional overlapping experiences of inclusion and exclusion on Jewish biographies: In the case of Jewish Social Democrat Zygmunt Glücksman, a leader of German Socialists in interwar Poland, this was the double minority identity as German and Jew. Wojciech Goslar presented the biography of Maurycy Jaeger, who oscillated between socialism, anarchism, Polish and Jewish national identities in both late nineteenth century Galicia and his exile in London. Anna Ładowska case study on Dina Blond a leading representative of Bundist women’s movement, persuasively pointed out how the inclusion of gender equality into the Bundist program had to struggle with practiced gender inequal in the organization.
The sixth panel was dedicated to leftist Jewish visions for the future after the Holocaust. Magdalena Semczyszyn examines the different views of two leftist Zionist partisan leaders presented on a meeting in Lublin in 1944. While Aba Kowner was convinced that surviving Jews needed emigrate as soon as possible after the war. Icchak Cukierman on the contrary argued for a better planned and controlled emigration in several waves. Anna Nedlin in turn presented the founders of the Kibbuz Lohamei haGetta’ot (The Ghetto Fighters Kibbuz) – one of whom was the afore mentioned Icchak Cukierman. Eryk Krasucki’s paper was placed on this panel for organizational rather than thematic reasons (cancellations by several participants). In it he evaluated the references of various communist functionaries to their Jewish origins. He shows that family relationships often remained the only remaining link to Jewish life.
The first day ended with Karen Auerbach’s keynote lecture “Jewish Biographies, Leftist Politics, and the History of Emotions”. Auerbach reevaluated analyses of why some Jews have been drawn to Communism and other leftist political movements, under the guiding question, how reconstructions of individual biographies can illuminate commonalities and variations in mindsets as well as frameworks of belonging at times of changing ideas, what binds individuals to broader political, social and cultural communities. To this end, she drew primarily on the material for her study of the families of Jewish communists who lived in a Warsaw apartment building on Ujazdowski Street after the war.
Second day of the conference
The second day started with a panel on religious labor movements. Ada Gebel introduced the orthodox labor union “Poalei Agudat”, founded in 1922 and linked to the leading orthodox Jewish party in interwar Poland. Gebel focused on two pioneering thinkers of the union, Yehuda Leib Orlean and Isaak Breuer, and their concepts to conciliate socialism with orthodox religious thinking. Gershon Bacons, paper that was read by panel chair Yvonne Kleimann, as Bacon was not able to be present, also concerned Polaei Agudat and examined the movement as an orthodox answer to the social needs of Jewish artisans and workers. Yitzchak Schwartz investigated Am Olam, a radical, Utopian agricultural movement founded in Odessa in 1881, building several colonies throughout the Eastern Europe. Schwartz called for the increased consideration of such groups into an inclusive the history of left political movements. A call which was generally welcomed during the following discussion, which circled around the question, where exactly to place it in this history.
Panel eight examined three generations of Marxist historians of Jewish working class: Mojżesz Kaufman, Rafał Mahler and Feliks Tych. Kaufman was the subject of Piotr Laskowski paper analyzing several Polish and Yiddish manuscripts of Kaufman’s articles on the Jew engagement in the Polish Socialist Party during the 1930’s. Laskowski interprets these works among others also as an implicit criticism of the politics of the Pilsudski regime. Tom Navon presented on Mahler’s efforts to create and apply a Marxist methodology to study Jewish History. Tomasz Siewierski presented on Tych, who as child surviver of the Holocaust, became an outstanding historian of Worker’s movement in communist Poland before he turned to Jewish history, after 1989.
A panel chaired by Dariusz Stola gathered talks circling around the question if there is a particular Jewish responsibility for communist crimes. Stanisław Krajewski approached the delicate issue through his own family history: his grandfather and his great-grandfather were both pre-World War II communist leaders and victims of Stalinist purges. Katarzyna Rembacka presented the reckoning of a Jewish pre-war communist with communism in post-war Poland based on autobiographic writings. Katarzyna Kwiatkowska-Moskalewicz and Marcin Moskalewicz examined the pre-war and war-time biographies of Helena Wolińska and Włodzimierz Brus, both communist activists associated with Stalinist crimes in postwar Poland. The following at times heated discussion considered, among other things, the role the identification with Polish culture of most of the persons, whose biographies were debated.
Less controversial but no less exciting was the panel “Emancipatory Empowerment and Leftist Politics” that took place simultaneously. Emma Zohar analyzed autobiographical writings of two communist women activist regarding emotions expressed in relation to their political activity in interwar Poland. Jan Rybak, too, based his talk on the autobiographical writings of an activist of Zionist-Socialist Poale Zion from Galicia, describing her experience of emancipation through revolutionary politics. Magdalena Grabowska in turn examined the biography of the postwar Polish communist women’s activist Edwarda Orłowska, raising the question if such activism can be described as feminism.
The last panel focused on generational aspects in biographical research of Jewish leftist activism. Jaff Schatz evaluated the biographical paths that led young Jew into the Communist party of interwar Poland. He pointed at general social mechanisms that led to the political formation of this group. Łukasz Bertram evaluated three periods of activity in his biographical analysis of Jewish communists beginning with their entry into the movement, proceeding through interwar clandestine activity until the postwar period. He raises the question whether a and in how far dispositions shaped in the processes of their political socialization can be considered as a specific habitus of Jewish communists.
The end of the conference was heralded by round table on Jewish Leftwing Activism and Family History, whose participant approached this issue form different perspectives. Ewa Herbst portrayed the biography of her great-uncle, the Polish-Jewish socialist Herman Diamand, in a very committed and engaging way, drawing among others on family correspondence. Leopold Sobel spoke about three generations of Leftist engagement in his Jewish family beginning with the union career of his father in interwar Poland, through his own engagement in the formation of the New Israeli Left in post-1967 Israel up to his sons current political work as a British Labour MP. David Slucki discussed the story of his grandfather Jakub, a Bundist activist first in Poland and later in in Australia, based on his recently published book “Sing This at My Funral”.
Yvonne Kleinmann, co-organizer of the conference representing the Aleksander Brückner Center for Polish Studies, took over the task of making a short final comment. Referring to the longish and complicated title conference, she pointed at the complication the organizers faced defining Jewishness in the period under consideration. In the course of the conference and this problem repeatedly appeared in different contexts. The most fruitful of these approaches had been those that consider of Jewishness as pluralistic and bound to its historical context. Summing up, Kleinman was especially satisfied with the fact that many new currents in historical research such as history of emotions of gender studies had been used to examine Jew leftist engagement.
The final cord of the conference was a public screening of of the film Tonia and her Children, which tells the life story, from the perspective of her children, of a prewar Jewish communist, who was arrested during the Stalinist period.
Outcomes: The conference made a significant contribution to the networking of European, American and Israeli researchers of different generations working in this field. Furthermore, it deepened the existing personal and institutional academic contacts between the organizing institutions. A video recording of the individual conference panels, the keynote lecture and the round table including the discussions is available online at: https://www.polin.pl/pl/aktualnosci/2019/12/24/biografie-i-polityka-nagrania-wideo
Output: A selection of the contributions will be published either in the form of an anthology or as a thematic issue of a scholarly journal.
Event Programme: https://www.polin.pl/pl/system/files/attachments/program-v3_0.pdf
The conference sparked an enormous public interest. It was attended by 180 visitors. The countrywide radio station Tok.fm dedicated an issue of its 45-minute programme “Historia Polski” to the conference. Krzysztof Persak, representing the POLIN Museum, and Stanislaw Krajewski, representing the conference, discussed the conference topic with the moderator Maciej Zakrocki. The broadcast is available online via the following links:
An academic report for the web portal HSozKult.de is currently under preparation.