The history of Jewish political parties in Eastern Europe was short, stretching as it did only from the 1880s until 1949, when what little remained of them after World War II was liquidated by the then recently established Communist regimes. Even during that brief period, experience demonstrated that their ability to change the circumstances in which the Jewish populations lived was severely limited. With the Jewish people in the states and major historic regions of Eastern Europe only rarely exceeding 10 percent of the total population, the parties could not realistically have been expected to gain a significant share in government.
Nonetheless, some of these parties did succeed at times in attaining one of their primary goals: namely, the political mobilization and organization of large followings, often tens of thousands strong. In so doing, they were able to place their stamp on modern Jewish history both in Eastern Europe itself up until World War II, and across the globe wherever massive waves of emigration carried the party (and ex-party) members—leaders, ideologues, activists, and rank and file—be it to North and South America, South Africa, or Palestine, where the parties of East European origin played a decisive role in developments that culminated in the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Social, Religious, and Geographical Divisions
East European Jewish politics had a markedly bipolar character. With the parties denied the possibility of exercising state power (or even of sharing in it except at the margins), political activity tended either toward the utopian, with the advance of grand strategies designed to solve “the Jewish Question,” or toward the parochial, with day-to-day involvement in the minutiae of communal and local affairs. This divide between the quasi-messianic and the mundane, between the bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye view, was an abiding feature of political life among the Jews in the Russian Empire, in its successor states and—to varying degrees—in Eastern Europe generally between the two world wars.
Members of the Zionist Socialist Labor Party on a municipal election day, Częstochowa, Poland, ca. 1916. The Yiddish signs exhort voters to vote for the Zionist Socialist Labor Party, number 1 on the ballot. Photograph by Apollo. (YIVO)
Resorting to a high level of abstraction, it is possible to argue that despite the extremely varied programs developed by the innumerable parties and movements, the solutions advanced in response to the Jewish Question can ultimately be reduced to four basic ideological categories or ideal types. Thus, first, what can be summarized as integrationism and emancipationism, although primarily associated with Jewish life in the West, also commanded a very significant degree of support in Eastern Europe, where it found organizational expression in associations barely distinguishable from full-fledged parties and in Jewish subsections within internationalist parties. In the modern world—so argued the adherents of this viewpoint—Jews as a collectivity should be defined solely in terms of their religion, Judaism, while in terms of their national identity, they had to fight for recognition as fully equal members of the culturally and politically predominant nation in the given state or historic region (Russian, German, Polish, Magyar, Czech, Romanian, as the case might be). At an opposite corner of the quadrangle was the nationalist, or autoemancipationist, set of doctrines that, starting from the premise that the Jewish collectivity constituted a distinct nationality and that antisemitism was taking on ever more menacing proportions, maintained that the Jews had somehow to settle a selected territory, attain the status of a majority there, and even establish their own state.
What is commonly termed autonomism represented yet a third ideological category. In essence, so the case ran, Jews in Eastern Europe constituted one historically rooted nationality among many in the multinational states of the region and there they legitimately belonged. Once parliamentary democracy established itself in the region, the Jewish nation, regardless of its minority status everywhere, had to be granted the right of national self-determination, at the very least in the cultural sphere. In specific terms, this meant that the Jews would elect their own representative organs to control their state-budgeted school system and cultural institutions, all to be based on the national language or languages (Yiddish, possibly in combination with Hebrew).
Last, but not least, was the traditionalist or Orthodox standpoint. Its primary goal was defined as the defense of the halakhicly controlled and rabbinically supervised way of life that had predominated in the majority of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe for centuries, but was now under fast-accelerating threats from secularization, religious reform, indifference, atheism, materialism, and anticlericalism.
“There, where we live, there is our country! A democratic republic! Full political and national rights for Jews. Ensure that the voice of the Jewish working class is heard at the Constituent Assembly.” Yiddish poster, Kiev, ca. 1918. Its message urges Jews to vote for the Bund in an election following the Russian Revolution; non-Bolshevik parties were at that time still tolerated by the regime. (YIVO)
A clear-cut ideological division such as the one just described might in theory have resulted in the creation of four, or even fewer, large parties, but in the subworld of Jewish politics in Eastern Europe, the trend was, in the main, toward a high degree of fragmentation. Beyond the profound differences with regard to the Jewish problem and to its solution, a number of other factors served to encourage the proliferation of political parties, movements, and similar organizations.
Of particular importance in this respect were class divisions. The industrial proletariat constituted only a small part of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe, but particularly in tsarist Russia and in Galicia a high proportion of the population was made up of wage workers employed in small-scale production and in stores; and a higher percentage still lived in, or on the verge of, outright poverty. It was this set of realities that provided the socialists, populists, anarchists, and various other such groups within the radical Jewish intelligentsia with their potential recruiting grounds. Even where the imperative of outright class war was not adopted, and, even within the religious and the Jewish nationalist parties, there was a pronounced tendency on the part of workers and indigents to form themselves into their own subdivisions, which more often than not evolved at some point into breakaway parties.
Again, schism of a different order overtook that body of opinion that pinned its hopes on the establishment of a Jewish country or state. The polemics, first set in motion in 1881, between the champions of the ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel, as the only acceptable and feasible country, and their opponents who urged the pressing need to find some more realistic alternative, eventually, in 1905, produced a full-scale split between the Zionists and the territorialists.
No less divisive were the deep disagreements within the ranks of Jewish Orthodoxy. A small but significant sector within the Zionist movement opted to form its own party based on a commitment to Orthodox Judaism and opposition to the secular varieties of nationalism. But this policy was rejected outright by the more conservative wing of Orthodoxy that advocated the creation of a totally independent party free to resist modernity untrammeled by ideological or organizational links to the non-Orthodox. And, in turn, such a strategy was declared heretical by still more rigid groups that saw the very idea of a political party, even if ultra-Orthodox, as an inadmissible concession to the inroads of modernization.
The way in which all these multiple faultlines crisscrossed the Jewish political subworld in Eastern Europe—and the relative strength of the competing ideologies and organizations—differed enormously from one country and region to another. Living as they did within radically different governmental, socioeconomic, and cultural settings, the Jewish minorities developed a remarkable variety of political “systems.” To illustrate the point, a comparison can be made between the form taken by Jewish politics in the tsarist empire, on the one hand, and in the Kingdom of Hungary (a constituent region within the Habsburg Empire), on the other.
“The Sukkah in Danger.” Di royte fon (The Red Flag), edited by Yoysef Tunkel, Warsaw, ca. September 1918. The cartoon depicts the leaders of Jewish political parties (some newly legalized) holding their respective party-oriented newspapers and arguing with each other. Meanwhile, they ignore the “counterrevolution” (pig) leaning against the shaky upright that holds up the roof of the flimsy postrevolutionary political structure (Sukkah). (YIVO)
The 25 western and southern provinces (guberniias) of the Russian state—the Pale of Settlement and Congress Poland—emerged as the natural homeland of Jewish party politics in its most radical, revolutionary, and utopian forms. This development was caused by a combination of factors, some rooted in the external and some in the internal situation of the Jewish people in Russia. Of particular significance in this respect were the increasingly exclusionary and deeply resented policies adopted by the tsarist regime in the late nineteenth century (the May Laws of 1882 and the numerus clausus of 1887, for example); the powerful influence exerted on Jewish youth by the long-entrenched Russian and Polish revolutionary traditions; and the extraordinary rate of demographic growth (from some 1 million in 1800 to about 6 million in 1914). The resultant impoverishment and unbalanced age structure, with some half the population in 1900 aged between 10 and 29, ensured a huge reservoir of potential recruits for radical parties and movements. Above all, it was “Jewish Lithuania” (the six northwestern provinces), where the Hasidic movement was relatively weak and the Haskalah (Enlightenment) circles firmly established, that served as the seedbed for the emergence of modern Jewish politics.
Ḥibat Tsiyon and the Bund.
The two movements (neither adopted the actual term party
) that first came to embody the evolving ethos of Russian Jewish politics were the Ḥibat Tsiyon
(or Palestinophile) organization, on the one hand, and the Bund
, on the other. Despite the vastly different character and hostile ideologies separating these movements, they shared, at least in the initial stages of their development, the quasi-messianic belief that if only the correct strategy were adopted, the situation facing the Jewish people could be transformed totally.
Formally, the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement was founded at a conference held in Kattowitz (Katowice), a town across the Russian frontier in Germany, in November 1884. By then, however, it had been in the making for some three years, ever since the outbreak of pogroms in April 1881 and the subsequent, largely spontaneous, formation of dozens of societies across the Pale pledged to the idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine. The optimal goal of the movement, wrote Mosheh Leib Lilienblum in 1881, was to organize a steady exodus from Russia so that “in the course of one century the Jews can almost totally leave hostile Europe and move to the land of our fathers.”
“A General Electoral Bloc.” Der sheygets (The Delinquent), Warsaw, 8 October 1930. Cartoon satirizing the not unusual situation of Jewish political parties entering into uneasy alliances in order to form parliamentary blocs. Here, the parties are shown beating each other mercilessly. (Left to right) Agudas Yisroel, Zionist, Mizraḥi, Folkist, Artisan, Merchant. (YIVO)
The gulf between this concept and the actual achievements of the movement during the first 15 years of its existence was vast. A number of agricultural settlements were established in the early years (most notably Rishon le-Tsiyon and Petaḥ Tikvah). Their survival, however, was only ensured by the massive financial intervention of Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Paris.
What saved the movement from ever deeper decline was the appearance on the scene of Theodor Herzl, whose booklet, Der Judenstaat, of 1896 and extraordinary success in assembling the First Zionist Congress in the following year combined to breathe new life into Ḥibat Tsiyon, which now for the most part merged into the Russian branch of the World Zionist Organization. Herzl not only revived the maximalist goals proclaimed by Lilienblum and other leaders of Ḥibat Tsiyon, but also provided the organization in Russia with what it had failed to establish on its own: a national movement with a major presence beyond the tsarist empire. The administrative center of Ḥibat Tsiyon had ended up in Odessa; that of the World Zionist Organization was in Vienna. In 1896, the former movement numbered only 23 branches, but the newly founded Russian Zionist organization had 356 by the end of 1897.
A few weeks after the First Zionist Congress, attended by some 200 delegates, had gathered in the concert hall of the Basel Municipal Casino in 1897, the Bund held its founding congress in the attic room of a worker’s house in Vilna, with a mere 13 representatives present. Its full name adopted there was the General Jewish Labor Union [Bund] in Russia and Poland.
As was the case with the Ḥibat Tsiyon, the Bund had its roots primarily in the Lithuanian region, and shared with that movement the maximalist vision of imminent change. But there the resemblance ended. Ḥibat Tsiyon and the Russian Zionist organization that largely replaced it was made up of both secular and Orthodox Jews, and its membership was predominantly drawn from the middle class. Its leadership was deeply committed to the concept of national unity.
By contrast, the proto-Bundist movement that had begun to take shape in Vilna in the early 1890s was the work of young socialists, atheists all, who although Jewish in ethnic terms, had initially seen themselves simply as members of the revolutionary Marxist (and Russian-speaking) movement that was pitting its strength against the tsarist autocracy. The decision to create an organization of Jewish workers spanning the urban centers of the Pale and Congress Poland, and employing Yiddish as its primary language, was reached hesitantly over a period of some five years. Many factors underpinned this evolution, including the fierce opposition of the Polish Socialist Party (the PPS) to what it scornfully dismissed as the “Russifying” tendency of the Jewish revolutionaries, but what drove it forward above all was the fact that Jewish workers, young men and women, with Yiddish as their mother tongue, proved so ready to join the revolutionary movement. Members of the organization were arrested by the thousands, subjected to imprisonment and, often, dispatched to penal exile in Siberia.
The Bund was committed to proletarian solidarity crossing over ethnic lines and to the doctrine of class war. One of its earliest moves as a full-fledged movement was to play a key role in the establishment of the Russian [Rossiiskaia] Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898 (the choice of the term, rosiiskaia, rather than russkaia, implied that the party was “Russian” in a geographic but not in an ethnic sense). At this early stage of its history, up until 1900, the Bund still advocated a strictly emancipationist and integrationist ideology or, as it put it at its Third Congress in 1899: “In its political demands, the Bund includes only civil, not national rights.”
The Habsburg Empire and Romania.
While party politics was thus becoming a major factor among Jews of the Russian Empire, public life developed along totally different lines amid the Jewish population in the Kingdom of Hungary. Emancipated by the Habsburg regime in 1867–1868 at the time of the constitutional division (the Ausgleich
) between the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the empire, urged to identify themselves as members of the Hungarian nation by the Magyar elite eager to counterbalance the demographic weight of numerous national minorities, and given unimpeded access to economic and professional opportunities (aside from civil service), the Jewish population for the most part saw no reason to create its own political associations.
Board of the Jewish Labor Bund-affiliated leatherworkers and tanners union with a portrait of the late Bundist leader Vladimir Medem, Lublin, Poland, 1929. (YIVO)
In consequence, organized Jewish life in Hungary was concentrated in the religious communities that, in accord with a law of 1870, divided themselves into three separate streams: the Neolog, the largest group (roughly the equivalent of present-day Conservative Judaism); the Orthodox; and the small “Status Quo” strand that upheld the concept of a united community, or kehilah, in a given town. In addition, in the northeastern part of the country, there were powerful ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic communities grouped around their rabbinic dynasties.
With religion, rather than nationality, as its basic form of identity, Jewish public life in Hungary represented a sociopolitical type familiar from Central and Western Europe. No small number of Jews became actively involved in various political parties, but they were there as individuals, as Hungarians, not as representatives of a Jewish collectivity.
Ranging between these two extremes (the Russian and the Hungarian) there stretched not so much a continuum as a kaleidoscope of Jewish political “systems,” possessed of shifting characteristics, some more reminiscent of the one model, some of the other. Thus, for example, in Romania the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement was able to gain a considerable following in the early 1880s, and as an immediate result, a wave of immigrants, numbering more than 1,000, arrived in Palestine in 1882–1883. Among their initiatives was the establishment of the agricultural villages Zikhron Ya‘akov and Rosh Pinah. But in Romania, Ḥibat Tsiyon disintegrated by the mid-1880s. There, in contrast to the Russian northwest (Lithuania), the multinational context was missing, and Jewish elites tended to focus not on the cause of Jewish nationalism but on that of emancipation.
While the position of Romanian Jewry thus overlapped that prevailing in the Pale, Jewish politics in Bohemia and Moravia can be seen as broadly similar to the Hungarian “system.” Jews in those twin regions had enjoyed equal civil rights since 1867 and, as was the case with Hungarian Jews, were in the main satisfied enough to express their identity as a religious collectivity. (This despite the fact that there did exist a uniquely Moravian institution created by the state, the local Jewish “political communities.”) However, while Magyar dominance in the Kingdom of Hungary acted on the Jews as a magnet of overwhelming force, in Bohemia and Moravia the Jewish population was caught uncomfortably in the bitter conflict between the German and Czech nationalities. With a Jewish “third way” as one possible response to this dilemma, it was only natural that Herzl’s Zionism should have met a less hostile reception there than in Hungary.
“United Front against the Jewish Worker.” Polish–Yiddish poster. Warsaw, 1928. An appeal to Jews to vote for the Bund in parliamentary elections, and thereby strike a blow against other parties and elements depicted as enemies of the workers. Printed by T-wo Technograf. (YIVO)
The political impact of a multinational environment combined with a constitutional system of government made itself felt most obviously, though, in Galicia (the Habsburg portion of the partitioned Polish state). There, over the last decades of the nineteenth century, were to be found Jewish organizations (to be seen, perhaps, as parties in embryonic form) that in one case (Shomer Yisra’el) advocated a pro-German orientation; in a second case (Agudas Akhim) supported the cause of Polish patriotism; in yet a third (Makhzikey ha-Das) championed the strictest Orthodoxy; and in a fourth (the Österrichische Israelitische Union) defended a “neutralist” line as the most effective response to antisemitism. Broadly similar processes were at work in neighboring Bucovina, another Austrian and multinational province where, for example, Benno Straucher was elected to the parliament in Vienna in 1877, and frequently thereafter, as a spokesperson for specifically Jewish interests.
Both Zionism and socialism established footholds among the Jews of Galicia in the late nineteenth century, but the relatively mild political atmosphere characteristic of the region discouraged the quasi-messianic tendencies then taking root in autocratic Russia. Thus, no significant Jewish groups set out at that time from Galicia to establish Jewish agricultural villages in Palestine; and the Jewish socialists who used Yiddish in their propaganda did so within the general Social Democratic party (which had fraternal links to the PPS), rather than setting up their own Jewish movement parallel to the Bund.
The Parties in Ebb and Flow (1900–1914)
The approximately decade and a half that preceded World War I witnessed a series of dramatic developments in the Jewish politics of Eastern Europe; the formation of numerous new parties; and the reelaboration of preexisting ideologies. Political mobilization on the “Jewish street” in Russia accelerated as the country was swept by a surge of unrest that culminated in the full-scale revolution of 1905. And among the Jewish parties it was the Bund that initially reaped the greatest reward from this situation.
“What Do Our Four Sons Say about Hebrew University?” Der afikoymen (The Afikomen), Warsaw, April 1925. In this parody of the Four Sons of the Passover Haggadah from an example of a yontef-bletl, each of four Warsaw Jewish dailies (from right to left, Haynt, Folks-tsaytung, Moment, and Nasz Przegląd) expresses its opinion of the newly founded Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Haynt: “Nu, who remains the wise one? Me or them?” Folks-tsaytung: “University, shmuniversity! We care about it as much as our left earlock. Comrades! Come to a meeting on the Sabbath!” Moment: “Be my guest. There should be a Hebrew University, too.” Nasz Przegląd: “All right! Let’s do university! There will be photos of it in our illustrated supplement.” (YIVO)
In 1901, at its Fourth Congress, the Bund abandoned its strictly integrationist ideology and adopted, however tentatively, an autonomist stance. In thus moving toward a synthesis between Jewish nationalism and Marxist socialism, the Bund was forced temporarily to break its ties with the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, whose leaders (including Lenin and Trotsky) insisted that Jews constituted not a nation, but rather a sect. However, that synthesis proved to be extremely popular among the younger generation; and the Bund—with its well-oiled conspiratorial organization; its commitment to Yiddish as the language of the masses; its armed wing geared to counter pogroms; and its support groups among émigré communities overseas—emerged as a dominant political force in the Jewish subworld during 1905.
Conversely, the Zionist movement in Russia, as indeed elsewhere, entered a period of prolonged crisis. Herzl’s repeated failures to overcome the refusal of the Ottoman government to allow large-scale Jewish settlement in Palestine steadily undermined his authority, thus opening the way to ever greater disunity in the ranks. The creation in 1901 of the Democratic Faction (led by Leo Motzkin and Chaim Weizmann), which called for the encouragement of Hebrew-based and essentially secular forms of national culture, was countered in 1902 by the establishment of the Mizraḥi organization that advocated a strictly Orthodox version of Zionism.
With Herzl’s highly controversial proposal of 1903 to seriously weigh the idea (emanating from the British government) of creating a Jewish territory in East Africa—and still more, with his death in 1904—the process of fragmentation gathered speed. The hard core of the movement in Russia, led by Menaḥem Ussishkin, proved able to rally the majority, the “Zionists for Zion” (Tsiyone Tsiyon), behind exclusive loyalty to the Land of Israel, but a sizable minority opted in 1905 to break away, soon to associate themselves with the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO) founded in London on the initiative of Israel Zangwill.
Der shtot magid (The Town Preacher), Vilna, 1897, by Shmul Gozhansky, a founder of the Bund. The brochure was one of the first Yiddish-language socialist booklets. (YIVO)
It was on the socialist wing of the Zionist movement, though, that the territorialist idea exerted its greatest attraction and hence produced the maximal degree of schism. In the wake of pogroms in late October 1905, and of the subsequent unprecedented upsurge in emigration, the territorialist message carried exceptional weight. Eager to compete with the Bund, three parties emerged during the revolutionary years that combined territorialism with Marxist doctrines of class war, a strong emphasis on armed self-defense, and the celebration of Yiddish as the language of the masses: the (misleadingly named) Zionist Socialist Labor Party (SSRP); the Jewish Socialist Labor Party (SERP), which synthesized territorialism and autonomism; and the Jewish Territorialist Labor Party. Only one such group—the Jewish Social Democratic Labor Party, Po‘ale Tsiyon (which was led by Ber Borokhov)—remained loyal to Palestine.
With the final suppression of the revolution by mid-1907, the Jewish socialist parties, including the Bund, went into precipitous decline, leaving as their primary legacy from the heady days of 1905–1906 a generation of very young but already politically experienced activists who would play key roles later in public life, whether in Soviet Russia, Poland, America, or Palestine.
By contrast, the decision of the tsarist regime in 1905 to grant the establishment of a parliament, the State Duma, to be elected on the basis of a relatively broad franchise—and to allow Jews equal participation—opened up new, nonrevolutionary channels of political activity. The gap between the Jewish political “systems” in the tsarist and Habsburg empires was thus narrowed.
With many public figures eager to take part in the Duma elections of 1906 and 1907, new parties and political groupings (dubbed “bourgeois” by the socialists) now proliferated: the Folkspartey (led by Simon Dubnow); the Jewish People’s Group (associated with Maksim Vinaver); the Jewish Democratic Group; and a host of ad hoc Jewish electoral committees at the local level. At its congress held in Helsinki in December 1906, the Russian Zionist movement joined the trend, defining its role in terms not just of Palestine, but also in those of autonomism and of Gegenwartsarbeit, action on behalf of the Jewish people in the here and now. The Russian Zionists, it was there resolved, should participate “in the liberation movement of the territorial nations in the Russian state” and seek “self-government in all matters pertaining to Jewish national existence.”
Bundists and other political exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, the scene of an uprising staged by exiles in 1904. (YIVO)
Twelve Jewish deputies, among them five Zionists, were elected to the First Duma, with the numbers declining in the subsequent three elections. The “Jewish Club” formed by Duma deputies served as a focus of advocacy on behalf of Jewish collective interests. A similar phenomenon developed in the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire, where in 1907 universal male suffrage was introduced and where four Jewish deputies representing a nationalist platform (a synthesis of Zionism and autonomism)—three from Galicia and one from Bucovina—were returned to the Reichsrat in Vienna.
At other levels, too, a measure of convergence between Jewish politics in Russia and Galicia was discernible. Thus, for example, in 1905 a new organization modeled on the Bund, the Jewish Social Democratic Party (Żydowska Partia Socjalno-Demokratyczna; ŻPS) was established in Galicia by a group breaking away from the Polish party fraternally linked to the PPS. And, as in Russia, the Po‘ale Tsiyon party split apart as territorialist and pro-Palestine factions went their separate ways.
Even though the defeat of the Russian Revolution brought with it a short hiatus of stagnation in East European Jewish politics between 1908 and 1914, those years still witnessed a number of significant political developments. Thus, for instance, at the Tenth Zionist Congress in 1911, representatives of the movement in Russia—now identified primarily with the practicalities of agricultural settlement in Palestine—gained control for the first time of the executive committee of the World Zionist Organization.
No less important was the establishment in 1912 of the Orthodox party, Agudas Yisroel, by a congress held in Kattowitz representing a coalition of disparate groups (most notably, neo-Orthodox in Germany; and important East European rabbis, including the Hasidic rebbe of Ger, Avraham Mordekhai Alter, and Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna). Strongly opposed to the Zionist movement in all its forms, the Mizraḥi included, Agudas Yisroel nevertheless resembled that movement in the worldwide nature of its organization and in the fact that its mass following was to be found primarily in the Russian Empire.
Yet another political initiative of long-term importance initiated in this period was the establishment in Bucharest in 1910 of the Union of Native-Born Jews (Uniunea Evreilor Pământeni; UEP), soon to be led by Wilhelm Filderman, which undertook to spearhead the uphill struggle of Romanian Jewry for citizenship and equality.
The Interwar Period
Demonstration by Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Lublin, 1930s. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
When compared to the old order of the Romanov and Habsburg Empires, the Eastern Europe that emerged from World War I; the revolutions and Civil War in Russia; and the Russo-Polish War of 1920, was barely recognizable. On the one hand, there was now a series of new states (among them, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Czechoslovakia) that—together with a vastly enlarged Romania—were in theory mononational, but in reality multinational (containing, inter alia, large Jewish minorities), and on the other hand, the revolutionary Communist state, known from 1924 as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which encompassed most of the former tsarist territories and a Jewish population of some 3 million.
The Soviet Union.
Following their seizure of power in late October 1917, the Bolsheviks left no doubt that they were ready to establish a one-party dictatorship. This policy meant that by 1922 the General Zionist
organization, the Bund
and the Fareynikte
(The United Jewish Socialist Workers Party, created in 1917 by the unification of the SSRP and the SERP) had all been outlawed. Paradoxically, the Palestine-oriented Po‘ale Tsiyon
party was permitted to eke out a cramped existence until 1928. Carrying far greater weight in Soviet Russia during the period of the 1920s (the years of the New Economic Policy [NEP]) was the movement set up by the younger generation of Zionists, He-Ḥaluts
(The Pioneer), which, as indicated by its name, sought to prepare its members for productive labor in the Land of Israel
. Seeking to avoid narrow partisanship, He-Ḥaluts was able to draw support from both wings of the Tse‘ire Tsiyon (Young Zionists) movement, which had split in 1920 into a socialist faction (The Zionist Socialist Party [TsS]) and a near-socialist faction (The Zionist Labor Party, or Hit’aḥadut
). Despite sporadic harassment by the regime, the membership of this political camp was put as high as 14,000 in 1925; and hundreds among them were allowed, often after terms spent in prison and penal exile, to leave for Palestine.
With the liquidation of the Bund and the Fareynikte, and with the marginalization of Po‘ale Tsiyon, many veteran members, including Moyshe Litvakov and Ester Frumkin, chose to join the Evsektsiia (the Jewish Section of the Communist Party). This decision was seen as logical enough given both the widespread belief in the imminent triumph of communism throughout Europe and also the fact that the Soviet regime during the NEP, 1921–1927, appeared to be modifying its extreme integrationist, or assimilationist, stance toward the future of the Jewish people. The creation of a massive governmental Yiddish-language school system and of an equally ambitious program to settle Jews on the land particularly in Crimea and southern Ukraine (there were perhaps 200,000 people in Jewish agricultural villages by the late 1920s) encouraged the widespread idea that, by an irony of history, it had fallen to the Bolsheviks to implement, albeit in modified form, both the autonomist and territorialist ideologies. But the policy of breakneck industrialization that replaced the NEP after 1928 put an end to the short period of putative Jewish “nation-building”; and in 1930 the Evsektsiia itself was closed down.
Parliamentary Experiments in Russia and Ukraine (1917–1918).
While the consolidation of Bolshevik power thus spelled the end of Jewish party politics, the opposite proved to be the case wherever attempts were made to establish parliamentary democracy amid the ruins of the Romanov and Habsburg Empires.
Vote for the Jewish Folkspartey." Yiddish poster. Artwork by Solomon Borisovich Iudovin. Printed by B. Sokolov, 1918. (YIVO)
The shape of things to come first emerged during the period of the provisional governments in Russia, from February through October 1917. The sudden freedom acted as a heady political stimulant, and parties, hitherto sorely harassed or simply outlawed, almost instantly took on new life, recruiting members, calling together conferences and congresses, and publishing manifestos and journals. And this political energy was largely channeled into the effort to establish Jewish national autonomy within the new Russia. With both the Zionists and the Bund ready to cooperate, the parties had proved able by the summer of 1917 to unite in support of two interlocking measures designed to give reality to the concept of Diaspora nationalism—the reorganization of the Jewish communities (the kehilot) on a democratic basis to serve as the building blocks of the autonomy; and the election of a congress to act as the constituent assembly of the Jewish nation in Russia. The elections were actually held in late 1917, but the Bolshevik regime ensured that it did not meet, and that the autonomist idea never gained official recognition.
In contrast, a law granting “national personal autonomy” to the Jewish minority (as well as to the ethnic Poles and Russians) was actually adopted by the Rada (parliament) in Ukraine, which declared itself an independent republic in January 1918; and Moyshe Zil’berfarb of the Fareynikte was appointed by the Ukrainian government to serve as minister for Jewish affairs. The unsettled political conditions (including successive invasions by the Bolshevik and German armies) rendered the assembly of a full-fledged, democratically elected Ukrainian Jewish Congress impossible, and as a substitute, a Provisional Jewish Assembly composed of delegates from the newly reorganized community boards, met in November 1918. It chose the delegation to represent the “3 million Jews of Ukraine” at the coming Peace Conference (soon to begin its deliberations in Paris).
In a sharp reversal of trends dominant during the 1905 Revolution, the mainstream (“bourgeois”) Zionist movement had become the most popular party on “the Jewish street” in the former tsarist empire. Zionism found itself buoyed up by the rise during World War I of nationalism and nationalist ambitions among the people of Eastern Europe; by the appeal of its doubleheaded program, advocating both the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and also national rights in the Diaspora; and, from late 1917, by the immense excitement aroused by the publication of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November. Faced in Ukraine by what they termed the “Blue–Black” alliance—the Zionist movement frequently opted for coalition with Agudas Yisroel and its satellites—the parties of the left (the Bund, Fareynikte, and Po‘ale Tsiyon) turned to the socialist regimes when in power as an alternative source of influence.
East Central Europe in the Postwar Years.
Following the military defeat of the Central Powers, the armistice of November 1918 and the concomitant disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, policies that had first been attempted in Russia and Ukraine were taken up, with many varied degrees of success, across the Jewish subworld of Eastern Europe. Specifically, the Zionist movement sought to attain a degree of political hegemony by initiating the establishment of councils to represent the Jewish nation within a given state or region, on the assumption that they would support its program and its choice of delegates to go to Paris. The memorandum submitted to the peace conference in May 1919 by the Comité des Délégations Juives auprès de la Conférence de la Paix was endorsed by the representatives of Jewish National Councils or Assemblies, inter alia, in Congress Poland, East Galicia, Russia, Ukraine, and Czechoslovakia. National Councils were similarly formed in Lithuania, Bucovina, West Galicia, Posen, and Vienna. Predictably, no such council was established in the now-truncated Hungary; and Romania was represented at the Peace Conference by a joint delegation of Filderman’s integrationist UEP and the Zionists.
Members of the Po‘ale Tsiyon party marching in a May Day Parade, Warsaw, 1927. The Polish and Yiddish slogans on their placards include "Down with Facism" and "Long Live a Jewish Workers’ Society in Palestine! (YIVO)
However, the autonomist program could only be implemented with the active cooperation of the regimes in the emerging nation-states of East Central Europe. And the fact that the Paris Peace Conference sought to render the recognition of those states by the powers (as by the League of Nations) conditional on their accepting minimal group rights for “racial, religious, or linguistic minorities,” proved to be of only marginal significance when it came to translating diplomatic formulas into political realities.
The concept of Jewish national–cultural autonomy was adopted, at least in principle, during the immediate postwar period in the newly independent Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which tended to see Jews as a potential ally against expansionist communism, on the one side, and militant nationalism (whether Polish or German), on the other. In Lithuania, a Ministry for Jewish Affairs was instituted in 1919. No such step was undertaken in Latvia or Estonia, but all three Baltic states provided the budgets for the Jewish school system that was divided primarily along ideological and party lines (ultra-Orthodox; Zionist with a preference for the Tarbut Hebrew-language system; and socialist or populist with Yiddish as the language of instruction and with links to the Bund and the Folkspartey).
Against this, the government of Poland failed to implement the clause in the Minorities Treaty, signed in Paris in 1919, that stipulated state funding for Jewish elementary schools. While this policy meant that some 70 percent of Jewish children (of whom there were about half a million in all) went to state, Polish-speaking, schools, the Jewish networks funded from a variety of private, communal, and municipal sources were still able to put down firm roots. Orthodox schools attracted the largest number of pupils (more than 150,000 in the mid-1930s), followed by the Tarbut system (with some 40,000), then by the socialist (primarily Bundist-linked) Central Yiddish School Organization (TSYSHO, with about 15,000); and by the Mizraḥi-oriented Yavneh group (attended by a similar number).
Apart from Agudas Yisroel (and even it was not fully consistent), the Jewish political parties were not ready to accept the government policy on minority rights without protest. Most prominent in this respect during the early postwar years was the General Zionist movement, which was led in the region that had been Russian (Congress) Poland by Yitsḥak Grünbaum, in East Galicia by Leon Reich, and in West Galicia by Ozjasz Thon. Of the 35 Jewish deputies elected to the Polish Sejm in 1922, Zionists made up 25. With the socialist left in deep disarray, divided between very pro-Communist and less pro-Communist wings—the Po‘ale Tsiyon, unlike the Bund, actually split in 1920 along this fault line into two rival organizations both in Poland and worldwide—the “Jewish street” was thus for a time dominated by the Zionist movement (with Agudas Yisroel in second place). It was Grünbaum’s hope that a show of political strength by the Jewish population, allied to the German and Ukrainian parties in the National Minorities Bloc, could force the Polish government to yield some ground with regard to treaty obligations.
While relations in Poland between the regime and the Jewish parties were thus extremely tense, in Czechoslovakia the relationship between the organized Jewish population and the government developed rather smoothly. There, Jews in 1920 were granted the right to define themselves as an officially recognized national minority as well as a religion; and more than 50 percent of the Jewish population (ca. 350,000) opted for that status, primarily in Slovakia and Subcarpathian Rus’, regions formerly part of Hungary. And a Jewish party (Židovská Strana) was set up in an effort to provide this act of formal recognition with real content, particularly in the field of state support for an autonomous Jewish school system.
Developments in Romania, with a much-enlarged postwar Jewish population of some 750,000, took a different turn. There, with the constitution of 1923, the Jewish collectivity was granted recognition not as a nationality, but only as a religion. On this basis, the Jewish population at large was for the first time granted citizenship and civic equality. Here was a clear victory for the integrationist policies of the UEP, which was now renamed the UER (Uniunea Evreilor Români). Nonetheless, in that country, too, steps were eventually taken to create a Jewish Party in the hope of advancing the Gegenwartsarbeit program of the Zionist movement.
Adaptation and Consolidation (mid-1920s–1933).
The period of flux in the Jewish politics of Eastern Europe, which had opened with the Russian Revolution, could not persist indefinitely. Both the extreme suffering of the period 1917–1922—with its ferocious anti-Jewish violence during the Civil War, massive population displacements, widespread impoverishment, and starvation—and also the paradoxically high hopes that a new order would somehow be born out of the chaos, were giving way to an era of drastically lowered political expectations. The Jewish parties and political leaders had no choice but to adapt themselves to the mundane realities within the numerous East European states that were then in a process of gradual consolidation and painfully uneven economic recovery.
Feliks Kon (second from left) and other exiled members of the Polska Partia Socjalistyczna (Polish Socialist Party, PPS), Kara, Russia, ca. 1900. Others (left to right): H. Dulembar, T. Rekhniyevski, Nikolai Luriye, and M. Mankovski. From a postcard printed by the Jewish Section of the PPS in London. (YIVO)
Thus in 1924, the Lithuanian government put a de facto end to Jewish national autonomy, leaving (as in Latvia and Estonia) state subsidies for the Jewish school systems as its only concrete legacy. In Poland, every effort to wring even that concession from the regime—whether by pressure from the National Minorities Bloc, or by the agreement (the Ugoda) negotiated in 1925 by Zionist leaders from Galicia with the government—ended in failure. This fact, added as it was to the crisis in the mid-1920s of the mass emigration movement (the Fourth Aliyah) from Poland to Palestine, served to erode the hegemonic status of the General Zionist movement. In 1932, Grünbaum left Poland, soon to settle in Palestine.
The Jewish Parties in Czechoslovakia and Romania similarly proved unable to exert any decisive influence on Jewish life in those countries. True, they did win a few seats in their respective parliaments from time to time (two deputies, for example, in Czechoslovakia in 1932, and five in Romania in that same year). But their effectiveness was severely undermined by the fact that, despite their rhetorical stance, they could not in fact speak for a united Jewish nation. In both states, the Jewish population remained deeply divided both geographically and ideologically. Thus, in Czechoslovakia, deep fault lines ran between the nationalists, the integrationists (identifying themselves variously with the Czech, German, and Hungarian nationalities), and the ultra-Orthodox championed by Agudas Yisroel as well as by independent Hasidic dynasties. In Romania, Jewish politics demonstrated a character very different in the country’s heartland—the Regat—where the UER was dominant, from that prevailing in the recently annexed regions of Bucovina (previously Austrian), Transylvania (previously Hungarian), and Bessarabia (previously Russian). Similarly, in Czechoslovakia profound differences divided largely westernized Bohemia and Moravia from Slovakia and even more from the strongly “East European” Subcarpathian Rus’.
Given the increasingly stagnant political atmosphere prevailing across Eastern Europe from the mid-1920s, the parties of the Jewish left—specifically, the Bund and Po‘ale Tsiyon (both left and right factions)—were in no position to exploit the decline in support for the General Zionist movement. True, they had managed to survive the bitter ideological disputes and the schisms that had marked the years 1919–1923, but, with the Bund and the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon committed to doctrines of class warfare and antireligious materialism, their broad popular appeal remained severely limited.
Insofar as can be judged from often unreliable or incomplete data, it would appear that the two main religious parties, Agudas Yisroel and Mizraḥi, suffered somewhat less than the General Zionists and the Bund from the creeping apathy characteristic of Jewish politics from the mid-1920s until 1933. Aguda was able to hold its own with particular effectiveness at the local level of the Jewish communities (kehilot), which gained in relative importance not only in Poland but also across Eastern Europe (as faith in the efficacy of the various grandly transformative projects waned).
A significantly new development in Poland during this period was seen in the influence of the fraternal organizations in the Yishuv (the Jewish population in Mandatory Palestine). This trend produced noteworthy results in the Mizraḥi movement, for example, where the younger generation was strongly attracted to the ideology developed in the Yishuv of Torah ve-‘Avodah—essentially a demand to take up the cause of “productivization” and physical labor in Poland and, once immigrant certificates were to be made available, in Palestine.
More important, especially in retrospect, was the constant pressure exerted by the leaders of the Histadrut (the General Jewish Labor Federation in the Land of Israel) and of Aḥdut ha-‘Avodah, an expanded version of the Right Po‘ale Tsiyon Party in Palestine—on their allied movements in Poland to unite for the sake of greater effectiveness. Thus, by 1926, the moderate (“right-wing”) Po‘ale Tsiyon in Poland had united with the “left wing” of Tse‘ire Tsiyon (the Zionist Socialist Party; TsS) to form—together with yet a third group, Dror—the Jewish Socialist Labor Party (Po‘ale Tsiyon). The drive toward coordination found broader expression in two umbrella organizations that took their lead from the Yishuv: the pioneer youth movement, He-Ḥaluts, with its many thousands of members, and the League for Labor Palestine, essentially a body designed to win votes for the moderate left in elections to the biannual congresses of the World Zionist Organization, and hence to gain influence in the Zionist leadership and the Jewish Agency.
The Mounting Crisis (1933–1939).
The conquest of power in Germany by the Nazi party in 1933 marked a critically dangerous turning point. With a fascist regime long established in Italy, the victory of Nazism in Germany in 1933 served to accelerate a trend away from parliamentary democracy. By 1936, only Czechoslovakia retained a fully democratic regime. Elsewhere, elections were either eliminated outright or else, as in Poland, heavily weighted in favor of the dominant party. In turn, the authoritarian regimes in a number of countries—even though they themselves were committed to reducing the role of Jews in the economic and public life of their countries—had to face intense pressure from still more extremist and violently antisemitic movements
on the radical right such as the Camp of National Radicals (ONR) in Poland; the Iron Guard in Romania; and the Arrow Cross in Hungary
Across much of Eastern Europe, Jewish enterprises found themselves subject to economic boycotts, while entry to universities and public employment was increasingly restricted. In Poland, Jews became the objects of violence and pogroms. In Romania, more than 200,000 Jews were deprived of citizenship; and in Hungary, the so-called Jewish Laws of 1938–1939 were designed to marginalize the roles of Jews at every level of economic and public life. And rendering the situation still more dire was the fact that would-be emigrants to the West had their way out severely blocked by anti-immigration laws, most notably by those enacted from 1924 in the United States.
Back cover of Frayland (Freeland), no. 3–4 (1934), Warsaw. English, Polish, and Yiddish text about the publication and an advertisement for Sotsyalistisher teritoryalizm (Socialist Territorialism), an anthology of memoirs about the Zionist Socialist Workers Party, Jewish Socialist Workers Party, and Fareynikte, Jewish territorialist parties active in Russia and Poland from the turn of the century to 1919. (YIVO)
These interlocking developments introduced a new sense of urgency into Jewish politics, bringing with it shifts in the relative strength of the rival movements. One phenomenon that transcended state borders (making itself felt even in Hungary) was, for example, the general growth in the size of the Zionist pioneer organization, He-Ḥaluts, and of its constituent youth movements such as Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir and Gordonia. Encouraging individuals to join was the hope that such a step would eventually be rewarded with one of the much sought-after certificates permitting entry into Palestine. By the mid-1930s, He-Ḥaluts in Poland had become a mass movement with some 60,000 members, of whom about one-third were actively training for work in the Land of Israel. However, the Arab Revolt of 1936–1939 and the severe restrictions placed on immigration to Palestine by British authorities—some 30,000 immigrants from Poland arrived there in 1935, and less than 4,000 in 1938—produced a sharp reversal of this process. And no few disillusioned members now opted to join the Polish Communist Party (the KPP), which, inter alia, had a Jewish, Yiddish-speaking section, the Central Jewish Bureau.
Less unstable was the extraordinarily rapid rise, at the expense of the center, of both the moderate left and the radical right within the Zionist movement—most notably in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Given the numerical weight of Polish Jewry, this development had dramatic results. The elections to the Eighteenth Zionist Congress (held in Prague in 1933) produced a clear victory for the left, thus signaling a transfer of power in the World Zionist Organization (WZO) to the labor movement in Palestine. In 1935, the leadership of the WZO passed from Chaim Weizmann to David Ben-Gurion when the latter was appointed chair of the Jewish Agency’s Executive Committee.
With the extreme right, as embodied in the Revisionist Zionist movement headed by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, now also emerging as a major force, the World Zionist movement found itself highly polarized. And in 1935, Jabotinsky led the Revisionists out of the WZO altogether, forming the separate and oppositional New Zionist Organization. It was Jabotinsky’s hope that vociferous Jewish agitation—when combined with pressure from the regimes in Eastern Europe, anxious to accelerate an exodus of the Jews—would induce Britain to lift its restrictions on entry into Palestine. An evacuation of Jews from these countries would thus become a real possibility.
The fast-deteriorating political and economic situation facing the Jews of Eastern Europe served to erode support not only for the mainstream (general) Zionist camp, but also for other parties whose strategies could be seen as out of step with the times. In 1937, for instance, the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon, which since 1920 had clung to a “revolutionary” (pro-Communist) and Yiddishist line, disassociating itself from the rest of the Zionist movement, chose to reenter the World Zionist Organization. At the other pole, Agudas Yisroel likewise modified its traditional doctrinal stance, particularly in Poland. Eager to expand its foothold in Erets Yisra’el, it now like the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon opted for cooperation with the Zionist movement and sought a share in any available certificates for immigration to that country. Its longstanding policy of nonconfrontation and accommodation with whatever regime was in power was losing its persuasiveness in the face of official rejection not only in Germany but also in almost every state in Eastern Europe.
By contrast, the sense of mounting crisis clearly worked to strengthen support for the Bund in Poland. Its reputation for militancy, first gained with its renowned self-defense units in the tsarist period and refreshed from time to time in independent Poland, served it in good stead in face of pogroms and other threats of violence in the mid-1930s. It likewise benefited from its relationship with the Polish Socialist Party, which had much improved since the Bund’s entry into the Second International in 1931. No other Jewish party was able to lay claim to such an association. By 1937–1938, it could plausibly assert that it enjoyed more electoral support than any other Jewish party, at the very least in the major cities. In municipal elections held in this period, for example, the Bund took 17 out of the 20 places won by Jewish parties in Warsaw; 7 out of 11 in Łódź; and 10 out of 15 in both Białystok and Lublin.
World War II
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 opened a new, and immeasurably tragic, chapter in the history of the Jewish political parties and movements in Eastern Europe. With the genocidal net thrown by the German authorities ever wider over the Jews, the possibility of maintaining the Jewish parties in anything like their traditional form was relentlessly closed. However, even in this context, a distinction has to be made between areas falling under direct German rule; those in or annexed to the Soviet Union; belligerent states in alliance with Germany; and nonbelligerent countries. In geographical terms, such a differentiation was, of course, highly unstable as the tides of war ebbed and flowed, as states abandoned their neutrality, and as German forces took direct control of allied countries considered to be insufficiently steadfast. Thus, Jewish parties were able to remain at work, for example, in Lithuania, which retained its independence until its occupation by Russia in June 1940. For more than nine months, Vilna (Vilnius), returned to Lithuania in October 1939, and Kovno (Kaunas), the capital, became hubs of political activity as party members, many of them prominent leaders, found their way there, fleeing occupied Poland. From Lithuania some were able to reach the West (among them, for example, a group of prominent Bundists, including Vladimir Kossovskii and Yekusiel [Noyekh] Portnoy, who were brought to America with the aid of the Jewish Labor Committee headed by David Dubinsky).
Representatives of Agudas Yisroel in Poland at a conference, Mariánské Lázně, Czechoslovakia (now in Czech Republic), ca. 1930s. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
The Soviet occupation brought with it one-party dictatorship and the mass exile to Siberia of political activists (among them Menahem Begin, the leader of the Betar youth movement, a subsection of the Revisionist Zionist Organization). Two other such arrestees in Russia, Henryk Erlich and Wiktor Alter, the most prominent Bundists in interwar Poland, were the first, it seems, to raise the idea in 1941 of creating the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in order to rally support at home and still more in the West for the Soviet war effort against Germany; the proposal was implemented, but not with their participation. The two men died at the hands of the Stalinist secret police (Erlich forced to suicide in 1942, Alter shot in 1943).
With the German conquest of the Baltic region in the summer of 1941, the systematic and wholesale murder there by the Einsatzgruppen meant that by the end of the year only a very small percentage of the Jewish population in the region remained alive. The survivors were now—like the Polish Jews since 1940—confined to ghettos that were largely closed off and subjected to policies of starvation. Under these circumstances, the parties could hold on to no more than a shadowy existence. Nonetheless, until the process of outright liquidation overtook the ghettos, they played a part together with many other organizations in maintaining some kind of orderly existence. Soup kitchens were kept running, meetings held, cultural events arranged, and clandestine newspapers published.
The youth movements of all political orientations proved to be particularly resilient in the face of an ever more hopeless situation. In a number of cities (Warsaw, Kraków, Vilna, Minsk, Białystok) it fell to them to take the lead in preparing for armed resistance, should no other response to the genocidal policies of the German authorities remain. The Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ŻOB) in Warsaw, to take the best-known case, was initially formed by a combination of Zionist youth movements while Betar and the Bund opted to set up their own combat units. By the time of the uprising in April 1943, however, a large measure of unification between all the disparate groups (Communists included) had been achieved. Among the leaders of the revolt were not only Mordekhai Anielewicz and Yitsḥak Zuckerman of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir but also, for example, Marek Edelman of the Bund.
In the countries allied in the war effort to Germany, and enjoying a fluctuating measure of sovereignty, the Jewish leadership often had much greater room for maneuver. This was particularly true of Slovakia (mainly from 1939 until March 1942), Romania, and Hungary. Faced by a constant succession of emergencies, the initiative tended to pass to ad hoc Jewish groups, functioning at different levels, hastily organized, some officially recognized by the regime, others clandestine. Lobbying governments to prevent, delay, or reduce deportations; channeling aid to those deported but still clinging to life; producing and distributing false documents when needed; facilitating the escape of Jews from countries of the greatest danger to those at least temporarily less dangerous; and maintaining contact with representatives of the outside world (the Yishuv, American Jewry, the Allied Powers)—such were among the most vital activities undertaken in the desperate circumstances of the time.
And in these efforts a major, although by no means exclusive, role was played by activists who had acquired experience before the war in political parties and organizations, as well as by the youth movements. In this context, mention should be made of the two outstanding members of the Working Group (Pracovna Skupina) in Slovakia: Gisi Fleischmann, the leader of WIZO (the Women’s International Zionist Organization) and Mikha’el Weissmandel, who was associated with Agudas Yisroel; of Wilhelm Filderman in Romania, who for decades had stood at the head of the integrationist UEP and UER and who in 1941 became a key figure in the underground Jewish Council there together with Chief Rabbi Alexandru Şafran and the Zionist Mishe Benvenisti; as well as of the organizers of the Relief and Rescue Committee in Hungary, led by the controversial Ottó Komoly and Rudolf (Rezső) Kasztner, both veteran Zionists.
The Final Years (1944–1948)
“Jewish Woman—Vote for 3.” Yiddish–Polish poster. Vilna, 1927. The poster urges a vote for the Jewish Women’s List in municipal or parliamentary elections. Printed by J. Lewin. (YIVO)
It is impossible to estimate with any degree of exactitude how far such initiatives contributed to the fact that to a large extent the Jewish populations of the Regat and of Budapest survived the conflict. Be that as it may, by the end of the war there remained alive some 300,000 Jews in Romania and about 250,000 in Hungary. With the large-scale repatriation of Jews who had spent the war years in Soviet Russia, the Jewish population of Poland reached postwar figures of approximately 300,000. These numbers were great enough to sustain a renewal of Jewish party politics. The Zionist movement was able to gain the lead in rallying support; and this was true even in Hungary. However, in Poland, the Bund likewise lost no time in reconstituting itself, in contrast to Agudas Yisroel, which now rallied its strength in Palestine and in America, but proved unable to do so in Eastern Europe.
From the first, the Jewish parties and youth movements were drawn into fierce competition with the Communist forces, which for the most part had been declared illegal in the interwar years but now basked in the immense prestige of the Red Army and the Soviet regime that had saved the Jewish people from total annihilation. That the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and its Yiddish-language newspaper, Eynikayt, continued to function in Russia even after the victory in 1945, provided grounds for the hope that the Communist movement, directed from Moscow, would prove to be more attentive than it had been in the prewar years, to specifically Jewish interests.
However, the toleration of multiparty politics and of parliamentary elections was short-lived. By 1948, the system of Communist dictatorship as practiced in the USSR had been imposed, through sheer coercion when necessary, on all the states of Eastern Europe. A massive flow of Jewish emigration to the occupation zones of the Western Powers in Germany was tacitly permitted and at times encouraged (especially from Poland), while the Jewish parties and movements were liquidated. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was likewise closed down in 1948, and in 1952 many of those associated with it, including prominent Yiddish writers, were executed in the cellars of the Soviet secret police. The era of Jewish party politics in Eastern Europe had been brought to an end. Its impact would continue to make itself felt elsewhere in the world.