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Here and Now: The Vision of the Jewish Labor Bund in Interwar Poland

About the Exhibition

Here and Now was mounted by YIVO to commemorate the 105th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Labor Bund. Made possible through the generous support of the YIVO Board of Directors and by YIVO Trustee Motl Zelmanowicz, the exhibition was curated by Leo Greenbaum, Krysia Fisher, and Fruma Mohrer. It opened on October 28, 2002 at the Center for Jewish History.

All the materials exhibited in Here and Now were drawn from the collections of the YIVO Archives and the YIVO Library.


The establishment of the Polish Republic in 1918 was heralded by Poles and Jews alike as the dawn of a new age of democracy, equal rights and social justice. For a large percentage of the three million Jews who lived in Poland, however, the interwar period was one of widespread virulent anti- Semitism, systematic economic discrimination, and increasing impoverishment.

While Zionist parties urged Jews to leave and emigrate to Palestine, the Bund took up the call for Doikeyt or Living Here and Now. The critical problems of Jewry needed to be resolved, not by escaping from the hard realities of everyday life, but by addressing them, Here and Now, in Poland, by means of an energetic political and cultural program.

At the heart of the Bund's vision was the creation of a modern, secular and culturally autonomous Jewish society which would strive for the ideals of Socialism and for the rights of the Jewish working class. Yiddish, the centuries-old vernacular of Polish Jewry and the language of the majority of Jews in interwar Poland, would be the national language of this new society.

Building a New Society

Faithful to its mission, the Bund created a whole new network of cultural, educational and social organizations for Jewish workers and their children. The Bund infrastructure of schools, publishing houses, libraries, drama groups, youth and sports clubs and health sanatoriums contributed significantly to the flowering of Yiddish culture in interwar Poland and left a significant mark on an entire generation.

In 1921 the Central Yiddish School Organization, called Tsysho, was established at a conference in Warsaw. The network of secular Yiddish schools included kindergartens, elementary schools, high schools and teachers' seminaries. Emphasizing Socialist ideals, secularism and Yiddish, the Tsysho schools served primarily working class children. In 1929 a total of 24,000 students were enrolled in Tsysho schools. Although the student population had dropped to 15,000 by 1935, the school system continued to maintain high academic standards, and to publish textbooks and scholarly journals.

The Bund's infrastructure included its well known official daily organ, the Folkstsaytung, which appeared in 1921. Renamed Naye folkstsaytung in 1926, the daily newspaper was published continuously until September 1939. The newspaper championed the rights of workers, reported on political debates in the Sejm, and covered cultural and scientific subjects. Its literary supplement promoted the works of great Jewish as well as non-Jewish writers such as Joseph Opatoshu, Moshe Kulbak, Melekh Ravitch, Leo Tolstoy, Upton Sinclair and others.

Kultur Lige, the publishing house of the Bund, promoted the publication of important Yiddish literary works and also established libraries, drama clubs, theater troupes and popular lecture series. On the 40th anniversary of the Bund, at a ceremony held in the Nowosci Theater in Warsaw, prizes in literature were awarded by the Bund Central Committee. Itzik Manger received the prize for best author and Yehoshua Perle was recognized for his work Yidn fun a gants yor.

Kultur Lige also organized a theater troupe called Yung Teater and created a network of popular Yiddish libraries. The Bronislaw Grosser Library in Warsaw held about 20,000 books. Herman Kruk, later the diarist of the Vilna Ghetto, was the director of the Library.

Interested in stimulating the growth of the party, the Bund considered the establishment of youth groups as central to its mission of attracting and recruiting new members. Yugnt Bund Tsukuft (Youth Bund—The Future) was founded in 1919 and SKIF—Sotsyalistisher Kinder Farband (Socialist Children's Union) was established in 1926. Both Tsukunft and SKIF organized summer camps, drama clubs, and various cultural activities. Tsukunft-Shturem, a division of Tsukunft, consisted of a para-military self-defense group, which participated in the struggle against anti-Semitism.

Morgenshtern (Morning Star), the Bund sports organization for Jewish workers and their children, was founded in 1926. While sponsoring physical education and activities such as gymnastics, cycling, swimming and hiking, Morgenshtern emphasized Socialist values and the Yiddish language. It published a journal titled Arbeter sportler. The Bundist sports organization did not encourage competitive and "champion" oriented sports. In the 1920s boxing was not allowed but by the late 1930s boxing was considered a permissible defensive sport which symbolized the importance of selfdefense. Named for Vladimir Medem, the Bundist leader, the Medem Sanatorium was founded in 1926 and located in Miedzeszyn, near Warsaw. Established as a center for children with tuberculosis, the facility also provided health care and education for other children. Between 1925 and 1939 the institution cared for more than 10,000 children. In August 1942 the Nazis raided the sanatorium and deported the children, teachers and medical staff to Treblinka.

The Bund as the Party of the Jewish Working Class

Formed from the ashes of the defunct Russian Jewish Labor Bund, the party reorganized itself in Poland in 1918. In 20 years of existence the Polish Bund clearly established itself as a party striving for Socialism within a democratic state; as the defender of the Jewish working class and its right to decent living conditions, and as the leader of the Jewish trade union movement.

The Bund's stability as a party and its position within the Polish and international Socialist movements were not firmly established until the 1930s. Throughout the 1920s the Bund experienced factionalism from within and political harassment from without.

The internal dissension between the right and left wings of the party was resolved in 1930 when the Bund joined the Socialist International. The Bund's affiliation with an international Socialist group contributed to its stabilization as a party and to closer relations with the Polish Socialist Party, the PPS. The understanding between the two parties was reflected in their cooperation in several local government elections and in the holding of joint May Day processions.

Political harassment of the Bund by the Polish government lasted through the 1920s and into the early 1930s. The government distrusted the Bund and suspected its members of disloyalty to the Polish state. The authorities closed down Bundist newspapers, trade unions and Yiddish schools, and denied funding to the Tsysho Yiddish secular school system. The Communists constituted another source of external harassment. Determined to seize control of the trade union movement and to eliminate the Bund as a rival, the Communists subjected the Bund to numerous attacks, which lasted into the 1930s.

Throughout its existence the Bund concentrated its efforts on the development of the Jewish trade union movement, supporting decent working conditions and encouraging labor strikes and demonstrations. In the 1920s the Bund began its "Right to Work" program, challenging employment discrimination and urging Jewish workers to fight for their right to the same jobs as non-Jews. By the end of 1939 the Bund controlled the overwhelming majority of the Federation of Professional Labor Class Unions, a largely Jewish organization comprised of 14 unions, 498 branches and 99,000 members.

The Struggle of the Bund Against Anti-Semitism

The founding of the new republic in 1918 had been accompanied by a wave of pogroms in Lwow, Pinsk, Vilna and other localities. Although by 1921 the anti- Semitic excesses had diminished, it soon became clear that the new Polish constitution's guarantee of equal rights for all could not prevent the governing authorities from practicing economic discrimination against the Jewish population.

With over half a million people working in its administrative departments and factories, the Polish government, the largest employer in the country, began to dismiss or exclude Jews in the early 1920s. Municipal governments followed suit. Jewish doctors were not hired in state hospitals, nor were Jewish lawyers employed by state institutions. Similarly, the railroad companies removed Jewish workers from their jobs. In 1925, the Sejm voted to deny Jews permits to sell cigarettes and tobacco. Many thousands of Jewish employees were fired, including those in the Polakiewicz cigarette factory in Warsaw and in the Szereszewski tobacco factory in Grodno.

The Bund created a Bureau for the Right to Work and negotiated vigorously with the Polish trade unions and the government to open up employment possibilities for Jews. In 1926 a Congress for the Right to Work, attended by 600 delegates from throughout Poland, took place in the Kaminski Theater in Warsaw. 422 of the delegates were members of the Bund. The Bund continued to fight for the right of Jews to work throughout the interwar period up to the Second World War.

The ten years of Marshal Pilsudski's administration, from 1926 to the time of his death in 1935, was a period of fragile peace during which the most radical tendencies of the right wing parties were held in check. This peace was shattered with Pilsudski's passing, and the new government, inspired in part by the success of the Nazi Party in Germany, openly espoused a policy of economic anti-Semitism and publicly encouraged the emigration of Jews. The government promoted a boycott of Jewish businesses, passed a ban on shehitah or ritual slaughter, and approved the establishment of "ghetto benches" in the universities which segregated Jewish students in separate seats at the back of the class.

In 1936 pogroms took place in Przytyk and in other communities, resulting in many injuries and much destruction of property. During this period, no fewer than 1,289 Jews were wounded in attacks in over 150 towns and villages in Poland. In August of 1937 alone there were four hundred attacks on Jews in seventy-nine cities and towns.

Faithful to its mission of Doikeyt, the Bund organized the fight against anti-Semitism by opposing it head on. It mobilized public opinion by means of mass protests, work stoppages, and demonstrations. When word spread of the pogrom in Przytyk, the Bund Central Committee called for a half-day general strike, which brought Jewish businesses to a standstill in Warsaw, Bialystok, Czestochowa, Vilna, Krakow, Lwow, Tarnow, Lublin and Lodz.

Following the strike the Bund called a conference against anti-Semitism, to be organized together with the PPS, the Polish Socialist Party. The government confiscated the leaflets and banned the event before it could take place.

Influenced by its early self-defense activities in the Tsarist period, the Bund organized selfdefense groups to stop hooliganism against Jewish women and children in the parks and to prevent assaults against Jewish students on university campuses. The Bund newspaper Naye folkstsaytung, expressed its condemnation of the anti-shehitah law passed in 1937, stating that it had been enacted solely to incite anti-Semitism.

The Bund's open and unabated fight against anti-Semitism and its leadership role in the Jewish trade union movement contributed to its transformation into one of the most popular and powerful Jewish parties in Poland. In the last four years before the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish Labor Bund reached its peak, winning a majority of the Jewish votes in municipal elections throughout the country.