Requiem for the Bund

Marek Edelman was laid to rest in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery alongside his comrades from the Bund. That is were he had asked to be buried. The last of the Bundists.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 20, 2009.)

Marek Edelman was laid to rest in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery alongside his comrades from the Bund. That is were he had asked to be buried. The last of the Bundists.

It was a grand funeral, attended by the leading personalities of Poland, including President Lech Kaczynski and former president Lech Walesa. It started at the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto fighters, erected over the bunker at Mila 18, where Edelman’s commander Mordechai Anielewicz and many of his fighters perished on May 8, 1943, and continued in a procession thousands strong, led by a jazz band, to the Jewish cemetery.

It was not only Edelman who was buried that day. The Bund, which commanded his loyalty to his dying days, was also laid to rest. Edelman’s coffin was draped with a Bund banner, which stated in Yiddish, “Bund – Yidisher Sozialistisher Farband,” and the Bund anthem, “Di Shvueh,” was sung by a choir while all stood at attention. It was a farewell to a great movement, which had a massive following among Polish Jewry before the war, and had led all other Jewish parties in the last Polish municipal elections held before the war.

It was a time when many in the world believed in the solidarity of the working classes. The Socialist Zionists believed in the solidarity of the Jewish and Arab working classes in Palestine. The Bund believed in the solidarity of the Jewish and Polish working classes. Along with the Polish Socialists, a Socialist Poland would be built, they insisted, and there the Jews of Poland, maintaining the Yiddish culture and the Yiddish language, would find their rightful place. Zionism and emigration to Palestine was anathema to them. And so was the religious Jewish community. They reserved special hatred for Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who called on the Jews of Poland to leave for Palestine in the years before the war, and negotiated with the Polish government to achieve that goal. Addressing Polish Jewry in 1938 he said, “I warn you without respite that the catastrophe approaches.” They, like many others, did not believe him. They called him a Fascist and a “paper general.” The Bund’s lofty ideals took precedence over reality. And cruel reality put an end to the Bund.

Wiktor Alter and Henryk Erlich, the leaders of the Polish Bund, fled Warsaw and reached the Soviet Union as the German army approached in September 1939. There they were shot on Stalin’s orders. The Bund continued its educational and cultural activities in the ghettos of Poland. In the Warsaw ghetto they refused to join Jewish resistance organizations at first, their leadership insisting that resistance to the Germans had to be based on a united front with the Polish Socialists. Only after more than 270,000 Jews, including many of their followers, had been sent to Treblinka, and Polish Socialists showed no willingness to assist an uprising in the ghetto, did they join the organization led by Anielewicz, nevertheless insisting that they could not join the political committee overseeing the activities of the military organization, but rather would participate in a special coordinating committee set up to meet their demands. Their dislike for Jabotinsky’s adherents probably was decisive in preventing the two Jewish resistance organizations in the Warsaw ghetto – one led by Anielewicz, and one led by Pawel Frenkel – from uniting. Years later Edelman insisted that Frenkel’s organization was no more than “a gang of porters, smuggler, and thieves” – “fascists.”

In the end, Zionism prevailed over the Bund. That was not because most Polish Jews deemed its ideology superior, but because the human base of the Bund was exterminated, along with the rest of Polish Jewry, by the Germans during World War II. Those very few who survived, like Edelman, remained fiercely loyal to the Bund, an organization that had ceased to exist, a loyalty that sustained them during the war years, and gave them the courage to heroically fight the Germans along with other Jewish fighters, outnumbered and outgunned, in the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

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