Bundist leaders at a Poland-wide gathering, Warsaw, 1928; (left to right) Yisroel Lichtenstein, Yitskhok Rafes, Henryk Erlich, Yekusiel Portnoy, and Bella Shapiro. At left is a portrait of Bundist leader Vladimir Medem, who died in 1923; at upper right, a portrait of Bundist leader Bronisław Grosser (1883–1912). The Yiddish banner reads: “Bund in Poland. Proletarians from all lands unite!” Photograph by Ch. Bojm. (YIVO)

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Erlich, Henryk

(1882–1942), Bundist leader and major Jewish politician in interwar Poland. Henryk (Hersh Wolf) Erlich was born in Lublin; his father was a lapsed Hasid who had become a follower of the Ḥoveve Tsiyon (Lovers of Zion) movement. Erlich received a traditional Jewish education as well as secular instruction. A significant turning point in Erlich’s political career came when he befriended Bronisław Grosser, a Bundist activist and prominent young theorist in the movement.

In 1902, Erlich studied law at Warsaw University. At the same time, he increased his political activities for the Bund, and in 1904 was arrested and jailed for several months. After his release, he studied political economy in Berlin. The 1905 Revolution was a springboard that further propelled his activist consciousness. In 1906, he and Grosser moved to Saint Petersburg to study law while continuing their political activities. It was there in 1911 that he met and married Sophia Dubnow, daughter of the Jewish historian Simon Dubnow.

In 1913, Erlich was appointed to the Bund’s Central Committee. Four years later, the February Revolution opened the largest window of opportunity for him and his colleagues. They hoped that this political milestone signaled the imminent establishment of an egalitarian and democratic regime. After the October Revolution of 1917, their hopes began to unravel. Irreconcilable disputes about the stance to be adopted by the Bund toward the Bolshevik revolution split the Russian branch into two (and threatened to do the same to the Polish branch at the beginning of the 1920s). In August 1918, Erlich and his family moved to Warsaw.

From Henryk Erlich in Warsaw to Dovid Eynhorn in Paris, 30 September 1931, asking him to compose a new hymn for the Bund in honor of its upcoming 35th anniversary. Yiddish. Polish and Yiddish letterhead: The Bund in Poland, Central Committee, Warsaw. RG 277, David Einhorn Papers, F30. (YIVO. Published with permission.)

Erlich had a decisive influence on the Polish Bund’s agenda during the interwar years. With a group of activists that included Wiktor Alter, Vladimir Medem, and Beynish Mikhalevitsh, he determined that the Bund in Poland should be integrated into the parliamentary political system that had been established during the Second Polish Republic. The party’s Yiddish newspaper, Folks-tsaytung, of which Erlich was an editor, became one of the most important Jewish dailies in Poland. When in the 1920s the Bund took ideological decisions that distanced it from the Soviet government’s policies, Erlich led the drive for incorporation into the Labor and Socialist International. In 1931, the Bund became a full and official member of this organization, an association that included the main social democratic parties of Europe. Under the joint leadership of Erlich and Alter, the Bund on the eve of World War II became Polish Jewry’s most important party.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Erlich left Warsaw, as did many other Jewish public figures. Jewish Communists denounced him to the Soviet authorities in October 1939; Alter was arrested as well. Erlich was imprisoned and interrogated for two years, and was forced to write a long and comprehensive essay on the activities of the Polish Bund in which he provided a host of information on the operations of the party’s institutions. In August 1941 he was sentenced to death for participating in anti-Soviet activities, but a few weeks later the sentence was commuted to a 10-year jail term, and immediately after that he was released from prison. His release must be viewed in the context of the Soviet Union’s attempts to enlist Western support in the war against Nazi Germany.

For about three months in 1941, Erlich was involved in setting up what eventually became the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The Soviet leadership viewed this committee as an important propaganda vehicle for gaining support among Western Jews, especially Jewish workers’ organizations, for Soviet war efforts against the Germans. Erlich, however, wanted the organization to have a wider scope, and wished to unite Jewish socialist groups from around the world, including the Polish Jewish Underground, to form a political bloc against Nazism. This goal worried the Soviet authorities, who were especially suspicious of the independent channels that Erlich and Alter established with British diplomats stationed in the Soviet Union.

In October 1941, Erlich and Alter were rearrested. For a second time, Erlich endured harsh interrogations, which severely affected his health. Bund activists in New York and London made untiring but futile efforts to discover their fate. On 15 May 1942, a drained, tired, and ailing Henryk Erlich ended his life by hanging himself from the bars in his Kuibyshev (mod. Samara) jail cell. An official notice of his death was not published by the Soviet leadership until February 1943.

Suggested Reading

Daniel Blatman, For Our Freedom and Yours: The Jewish Labour Bund in Poland, 1939–1949 (London and Portland, Ore., 2003), pp. 69–89; Lukasz Hirszowicz, “NKVD Documents Shed New Light on Fate of Erlich and Alter,” East European Jewish Affairs 22.2 (1992): 65–85; Gertrud Pickhan, “‘That Incredible History of the Polish Bund Written in a Soviet Prison:’ The NKVD Files on Henryk Erlich und Wiktor Alter,” Polin 10 (1997): 247–272; Samuel A. Portnoy, ed. and trans., Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter: Two Heroes and Martyrs for Jewish Socialism (Hoboken, N.J. and New York, 1990); Isabelle Tombs, “Erlich and Alter: The Sacco and Vanzetti of the USSR; An Episode in the Wartime History of International Socialism,” Journal of Contemporary History 23.4 (1988): 531–549.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1300, Rachel (Shoshke) Erlich, Papers, 1934-1984; RG 226, Franz Kursky, Papers, 1939-1942; RG 277, David Einhorn, Papers, 1914-1940s; RG 311, Pinchas Schwartz, Collection, 1930s-1960s; RG 339, Jacob Lestschinsky, Papers, 1900-1958; RG 493, Michael Zylberberg, Collection, 1939-1945.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler