It’s not often that any section of the working class suffers a defeat so crushing that the collective memory of its struggles and the living tradition of the participants is completely extinguished.
Perhaps the closest we have come to this is the fate of the revolutionary Jewish working class movement of the first half of the 20th century in Eastern Europe.
Revolutionary Yiddishland is a marvellous, bitter-sweet book that seeks to rescue this tradition. It is a bitter book because we know the ending.
But the sweetness comes from understanding the depth and vibrancy of the revolutionary socialist movement, from listening to the voice of the interviewees, and from the matter of factness of their everyday heroism and commitment.
The book starts with the social effects of the rapid industrialisation of the western part of the Russian Empire (today’s Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jews had been forced to live in these areas and were prevented from owning land.
As a result, a very traditional society was split into opposing classes, a rich bourgeoisie and a young proletariat.
These young workers rapidly gravitated towards the Bund (anti-Zionist Marxists, who differed from the Bolsheviks by insisting on their exclusive right to organise Jewish workers), the left Poale Zion (socialist Zionists, but very militant) and later on into the Communist Party.
The subsequent chapters talk about the role of these revolutionary Jews in the Spanish Civil War and in the resistance to the Nazis in both Poland and France.
It also discusses the flowering of Yiddish culture after the revolution in Russia, antisemitism in Stalinist Eastern Europe, and the psychological and political effects of the Holocaust on the survivors.
In every chapter, the amazing biographies allow the thoughts and words of the surviving activists to shine through.
Being Jewish, a revolutionary socialist, and an anti-Zionist, this book affected me in a very personal way. It filled in a number of blank pages for me.
Perhaps ironically, I received it as a present about halfway through Christmas Day and had finished it by the evening of Boxing Day.
But I think this book will be of general interest, because it provides an interesting perspective on the revolutions and counter-revolutions of the first half of the 20th century, which are very relevant to today’s unstable world.
Despite some political weaknesses, I also think this book could start a useful discussion about the similarities and differences between the experience and resistance of Jews in the last century and Muslims in this century.