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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Portnoy, Yekusiel

(1872–1941), leader of the Bund in Poland. Under the name Noyekh (and sometimes as Józef), Yekusiel Portnoy (actually Portney—the spelling can be traced to an error on the part of a Russian registrar) was one of the leading representatives of non-Zionist Jewish socialism in Eastern Europe. To adherents of the Bund (the General Union of Jewish Workers) in Poland between the wars, he was a charismatic paternal figure with enormous moral authority.

Portnoy was born into a lower-middle-class family in 1872 in Podbrzezie in the Vilna region. His parents owned a small store and his father also worked as a clerk for the local authorities. After attending heder and a state secondary school, Portnoy—like many of those who later joined the Bund—attended teacher-training college in Vilna. It was there, from 1888 to 1892, that he was first exposed to socialist ideas.

While working as a teacher in Vilna and Kovno, he and other Jewish, Polish, and Lithuanian socialists established a secret circle, which led to Portnoy’s arrest in 1895 and subsequent exile to Siberia. There he met his companion, Felicja Goldberg (1872–1959). Portnoy managed to escape, and after joining the Bund’s central committee, he became one of the party’s most important organizers of underground activities. As a member of the central committee, he participated in talks along with leading representatives of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, which the Bundists had cofounded in 1898, although they left the Russian party under protest in 1903.

A levelheaded and disciplined pragmatist, Portnoy made a decisive contribution during this period to the Bund’s development in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, and remained in close contact with the Foreign Committee in Geneva. A moderate on the issue of nationalism, he was instrumental in drafting the resolutions of the Fourth Party Conference in 1901, in which the Bund recognized Jewish nationality for the first time, while rejecting as premature any demand for national-cultural autonomy. This compromise formulation allowed Portnoy to hold together the more nationally oriented and the cosmopolitan, internationalist groups within the party until 1904, when such autonomy became a key element in the Bund’s program.

During the 1905 Revolution, Portnoy was arrested again. After his release, he moved frequently for safety before settling in Warsaw in 1908. During the German occupation of Warsaw in World War I, he used the name Józef and participated in Bund activities, which had become legal. For the first time, the Bund had candidates in various elections and published its first legal newspaper, Lebnsfragn.

Bund statutes stipulated that the party be run collectively, but from 1920 to 1939, Portnoy chaired the party’s central committee as well as the most important local Bund organization in Warsaw. He also served on the Warsaw city council and the kehilah. As a former teacher, he took particular interest in the Bund’s work with children, young people, and the development of a network of schools. Portnoy was closely associated with the Bund-run Medem Sanatorium and visited it often. He also made fund-raising trips to the United States, where he successfully cultivated American Jewish support for the Bund’s projects with the young.

But between the wars, Portnoy was above all a symbol of a heroic and revolutionary past; he served an integrating function as the personification of narratives of the party’s glorious underground during the Russian Empire. Portnoy, Henryk Erlich, and Wiktor Alter made up the Bund’s charismatic ruling triad in Poland. Although his large stature and well-groomed mustache gave him an imposing appearance, Portnoy was also considered by his comrades to be a calm, friendly, warmhearted leader of great personal modesty. He refused to allow the party to throw him a sixtieth birthday party and had the money that was budgeted for it diverted into a fund to support Bund publications.

After the German conquest of Poland, Portnoy made his way via Vilna and the Soviet Union to New York, where he received a warm reception from members of the Bund. He recorded a radio address for the BBC on behalf of the suffering Jewish masses in occupied Poland shortly before his death; it was first broadcast in 1941, just after he died. In his eulogy, Friedrich Adler made it clear that Portnoy was highly respected not only in Polish Jewish circles, but also throughout the international workers’ movement.

Suggested Reading

• Hayim S. Kazdan, “Yekusiel Portney (Noyekh),” in Doyres bundistn, ed. Jacob Sholem Hertz, vol. 1, pp. 68–122 (New York, 1956); Shloyme Mendelson, “Undzer Noyekh,” in Shloyme Mendelson: Zayn lebn und shafn, pp. 437–440 (New York, 1949).



Translated from German by Rebecca Stuart