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Border Lessons: Jewish Resources for Resisting Nationalism

The legacy of nationalism looms large over our program, and over my own studies of Yiddish literature and culture.We learn about the Bundists, the largest and most influential Jewish socialist movement both in Czarist Russia and in interwar Poland which sought to walk the fine line between celebrating and fostering Jewish workers and their culture (meaning especially Yiddish), while remaining a part of the international socialist movement and opposed to nationalism.

Helix 2014 students stand on the site where the Bund was founded in 1897, in the shadow of the (still-operating) central prison. ,Yiddishkayt

Last month I was in Warsaw. I was on my way home to LA after two weeks traveling with a group of university students through places that Yiddish-speaking Jews once called Lita, Lithuania. Jews from this area are called Litvaks, Lithuanians, they have distinctive dialects of Yiddish, and a reputation as intellectuals, given that Lita was the home of the greatest yeshivas, houses of study, in Jewish Europe.

Today, cities and towns that once belonged to the same Russian province are now separated not only by national borders, but by the border of the EU, which feels like it has re-concentrated all of the displaced energy of the open borders within the Schengen zone. All of the stress of border crossing that has disappeared between, say, Poland and Germany, feels manifested on Poland’s eastern border with Belarus. In order to travel through the places that were part of the largest state in Europe in the sixteenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, we now travel between Belarus, Poland and Lithuania, moving between time zones, currencies, alphabets, languages, and the legacy of the Soviet Union and her satellite states.

I am an instructor in The Helix Project, a program that offers students – Jewish and non-Jewish – an opportunity to learn about the rich intricacies, complexities, and variety of Jewish life in Europe in its 1000 year history, focusing on Yiddish culture, literature and daily life in the great blossoming of that culture beginning towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Necessarily we confront the Holocaust, as we face the reality of towns that were once 60-90 percent Jewish and are now 90-100 percent Polish, or Lithuanian, or Belarusian. But we try to contextualize the Holocaust by giving equal attention to the long history preceding it and the history that continues to be written.

Think about how much time was dedicated to the Holocaust in that survey of Jewish or modern European history you took in college. And how much time was devoted in that same course to the almost 300 years of relative peace and prosperity for Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian State? How much do you know abouthow Jews were killed during the Holocaust? And how much do you know about the jobs those Jews had, the songs they sang, the books they read, the political parties they belonged to, the summer camps their children attended? This imbalance in Jewish and U.S. education toward death and away from life is a focus of our program, and we encourage our students to ask: why is our history skewed toward the study of the means of genocide and away from periods of coexistence? Who writes that history, who presents it that way?

Much of what we see on our program defies our expectations and what we have been taught about Jewish life and legacy in Europe. To give just a few examples: Lithuania is home to both the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, one of the pre-eminent sites for Yiddish scholarship in the world, and to the state policy of teaching the “double genocide,” according to which the crimes of Communism are to be given equal status to the crimes of the Nazis. In Poland, the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow is entering its twenty-fifth year and attracts thousands of participants, and in Warsaw the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened last year in honor of the seventieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Both the Festival and the Museum, and dozens of other initiatives related to honoring the Jewish past and present in Poland receive government support. In Belarus, our state tour guides, often young women the same age as our students, express genuine pride in Belarus’ legacy as a multiethnic state. The Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (discussed by Elissa Bemporad inBecoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk and Barbara Epstein in The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism)remains the only state where Yiddish was an official state language (along with Polish, Russian and Belarusian), and the post-war Jewish communities in cities like Minsk and Grodno were larger than in many other places, perhaps in part because Belarus has never had a nationalist movement on the scale of Poland, Lithuania, Germany, or, for that matter, Zionism.

The legacy of nationalism looms large over our program, and over my own studies of Yiddish literature and culture. We learn about Józef Piłsudski, who at the founding of the Second Polish Republic in 1918 was seen as a hero to many Jews, because he stood for a vision of a multiethnic Polish state, in which all citizens would have equal rights and minorities would have protections. And we learn about Roman Dmowski, the leader of the right wing National Democratic movement that believed in a Poland for Catholic Poles and gained ground during the 1930s just as the Nazis were gaining ground in Germany. We learn about the Bundists, the largest and most influential Jewish socialist movement both in Czarist Russia and in interwar Poland which sought to walk the fine line between celebrating and fostering Jewish workers and their culture (meaning especially Yiddish), while remaining a part of the international socialist movement and opposed to nationalism.

The Bund deeply opposed Zionism. It believed that Jewish workers should be empowered in the places where they lived, where their families had lived for generations, to fight for equal rights and a fair economic and political system, the same as every other person who called Russia or Poland home. The Bund believed that nationalism turned workers against their neighbors, rather than focusing on the true enemy: an authoritarian government that denied citizenship (let alone rights) to the residents of its territories and the capitalist system that thrived on the exploitation of working people.

In Warsaw, at the end of our trip, I heard Israeli Hebrew in the lobby of my hotel, and saw groups of Israeli teenagers on the street. Warsaw is one of the hubs of Holocaust tourism, which consists largely of American and Israeli Jews coming to Poland to visit sites of atrocity associated with the Holocaust. I visited the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which shares a square with the monument to the Ghetto Heroes. The core exhibit of the museum is still not open, so my tour of the building consisted of just me and an Israeli couple. We chatted after the tour, each curious about what the other was doing there. I tell them about the program I work with, and mention that I’ve never been to Israel.

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The man says, “How can you teach about the history of Jews in Europe and not come to Israel?” I mirror his puzzled tone, “Because…we learn about it here, in Europe.” He shakes his head at me, “But Israel is where it all comes from. You must come. You must.” I shrug, and this effectively ends our conversation. I tell them my favorite places to visit in Warsaw, and say I hope they enjoy it.

It ends our conversation, because none of the poets I study come from Israel. None of the political movements. None of the folktales and songs. None of the food. And especially not the language. Yiddish is not a good language for a nationalist movement, as its detractors used to say to insult it and some now say in celebration: Yiddish is a mongrel language, it has mixed blood: Semitic, German, Slavic, Romance. Yiddish reflects the exchange between Jews and non-Jews over those hundreds of years among German and Slavic-speaking neighbors. Berries all have Slavic names.Bentshn-likht, Yiddish for lighting Shabescandles comes from the Latin root of benediction and the Germanic root of light.

And more importantly, because his assertion of what I “must” do to understand Jewish history is a nationalist one. But when I study Jewish history, when I confront the Holocaust as I do every time I enter the ruins of abeys-oylem(cemetery) in small towns throughout what used to be Lita, I see the victims of nationalism. When I study Jewish history, I study people who believed that Jews and their neighbors were capable of looking beyond the differences in their religious practices or languages, to see the commonality of their shared history and struggles. They believed, and had evidence in history, that different ethnic groups could live together, and some even believed they could find ways to live together without erasing difference.

Walking through Warsaw, stepping over the brass plating embedded in the sidewalks of the city inscribed: “MurGetta, Ghetto Wall, 1940-1943″ I thought about so many borders, and the violence that they mark, whether in the partitioning of Poland, in the Molotov-Ribentropp Pact, in the Polish-Soviet and Polish-Lithuanian Wars, in the Berlin wall, inside and outside the ghettoes, and in Israel-Palestine. In the walls, in the checkpoints, in the settlements. Standing on the site of the Warsaw ghetto, hearing Israeli Hebrew spoken around me, I thought about Gaza. And a deeply cynical, deeply hurt, deeply hopeless voice within me thinks: do Israelis really need to come all the way to Warsaw to learn about ghettoes? And a more hopeful voice, the voice of a student and a teacher wonders, what if more of us came to Warsaw not to reinforce a history of oppression, but to study the legacy of those proposing ways to eradicate it?

I’d like to end with a few paragraphs from an essay by a Bundist leader named Leyvick Hodes, written in 1947 – in the direct aftermath of World War II and a year before the establishment of the state of Israel. In it, he discusses the need to maintain hope:

The great Jewish catastrophe has weakened the position of the Bund. In Poland, in the land of the greatest Jewish creativity, one cannot find those millions of Jews, those hundreds of thousands of workers, artisans, regular people, from the black earth of whose lives and struggles the Bund drew the juices of growth and development. That is a tragedy not only for the Bund, but for the entire Jewish people. One cannot speak of “victors” and “losers” on the Jewish street. War has left all parts of the Jewish people defeated.

The idea of the Bund is a deep belief in mankind. The tendencies that are hostile to the Bund are based on the lack of this belief. The idea of belief in mankind is not popular today. In these last years we have all seen it become deeply debased, despoiled, and spat on. But if man is at heart a beast, no amount of running away will help. If there is no tikun, no redemption for mankind, then there is no redemption for the Jews. The beast will hunt those who run and meet them everywhere. If the belief disappears, then every hope disappears. The victory of the Zionist idea is a victory for the failure of belief in mankind, it is a complete victory for hopelessness.

The Bund has always put its cards on socialism, which means a better future for all humanity, — and for all the peoples that make it up. If the dream of socialism becomes true, then there is no one to run from; if the dream dissipates, like so many other of mankind’s better dreams, then there is nowhere to run to. The mirage of a little “statelet” surrounded by enemies is no amulet against anti-Semitism and extermination.

The Bund has always fought for continuity, for creative national-life, for do’ikayt (hereness), for the right to remain rooted in the ground where the Jewish masses live and fight. This idea received from Nazism the most painful blow.The remnants of the Jewish masses lurch through the camps, wander around homeless, or float like splinters on the foaming waves of the stormy post-war world. But with every day it becomes clearer that the pathway to healing these wounds leads not through increasing the number of helpless wanderers, not through increasing the number of uprooted refugees, but through building and rebuilding…

For more than 50 years, [since the founding of the Bund and Zionism] a battle of ideas has been conducted on the Jewish street: on one side, tendencies that spring from lack of belief and despair; on the other side, — the Bund, which remains faithful and turns its gaze to the horizon of a new and liberated world.

Mandy Cohen is a member of the UC Student Workers’ Union, UAW 2865, whose officers have voted to endorse BDS and the decision will be up for a vote of the full membership this year.

This piece was written for “Singing Against the Bad Times: An Evening of Jewish Radical Arts & History” held at the University of California Student Workers’ Union Hall, in Berkeley, California, in August 2014. Another version of this piece appeared at