Solidarity Across Borders and Time: The Jewish Labor Bund

The Bund: A Graphic History of Jewish Labour Resistance

Edited by Paul Buhle, written by Sharon Rudahl, illustrated by Michael Kluckner, with a foreword by David Rosenberg. Between the Lines Press, 2023. (The book can be ordered in Canada at Between the Lines Press and in the United States at AK Press.) A live online interview with the creators of The Bund can be heard on October 22 at the Jewish Community Library.

From its beginnings under Russian occupation in Vilna, Lithuania in 1897, the Jewish labor association known as the Bund faced many of the challenges that are still with us:  state and factory opposition to labor unions, war in Eastern Europe, tyrants suppressing democratic and socialist movements.  The word “bund,” which means “to bind” or “alliance” in Yiddish and German, became the title of an enduring labor and cultural association formed by Jews. (The group’s full title was “The General Jewish Labor Bund of Russia, Lithuania and Poland.”)  The history of this group, and its legacy in contemporary political and cultural activism, are celebrated in a new graphic history book that deserves to be celebrated as well.

The Bund: A Graphic History of Jewish Labour Resistance, edited by historian Paul Buhle, offers a text written by Sharon Rudahl and illustrated by Michael Kluckner.  In subtly colored drawings, Kluckner introduces a bevy of Tsarist soldiers, Bundist organizers, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, farmers, scholars, workers, fascists, and resistance fighters. The men and women in this story almost leap off their pages, as their watercolor and ink images stand out against the white background. While the images are eloquent on their own, Rudahl’s concise and lively narrative moves the reader through a half-century of uprisings, arrests, escapes, suppressed publications, strikes, and underground resistance, along with the cultural and political triumphs  that accompanied Bundist activity.

Much of this history has been told at greater length in scholarly volumes. But The Bund’s highly visual presentation offers a new, inviting perspective on the past and its connection to present-day activism.  A graphic history, much like a graphic novel (minus the fiction), by its very form calls for a new approach–an approach dependent on visual images, an approach well suited to an age in which film, television, and electronic screens often steal prospective readers away from text-heavy books.  The genre of graphic history book, like the graphic novels that preceded it, should not be confused with antecedents in comic books and political cartoons.  The Bund is not a comic book, which is to say the illustrations are not shown in six or eight small boxes per page, but rather through capacious, mostly full-page drawings that offer a lot of detail.  Humor surfaces at times in the words and images; but, in general, the presentation is more panoramic than comic.  

Bund-sample-PDF

Before graphic novels gained a respectable following a few decades ago, comic book artists and cartoonists tended to offer readers worlds of fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and romance. Superheroes and talking animals were the most popular characters.  A significant change in topics and style began in the 1960s as “underground comix” by such artists as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Spain Rodriguez, and Trina Robbins drew on alternative culture and New Left politics.   Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus proved it was possible to explore extremely serious matters such as Holocaust survival and family tragedy through «comic» art.

Paul Buhle has taken the art of graphic book-writing in another, highly adventurous and commendable direction, by editing and commissioning visual histories of radical political figures such as Emma Goldman (in a book by Rudahl), Eugene Debs, Paul Robeson, Che Guevara, and stories about Leftist groups such as Students for a Democratic Society, and now, the Jewish labor Bund. 

As Buhle notes in his epilogue to the new book, the Bund’s continued existence (and resistance to its adversaries) over decades became a sort of collective memory, “a collective past” that “lies hidden within all of us.”  Unknown or underacknowledged by many people, this collective past includes the radical impulses of Jews resisting oppression through organized labor and cultural activities in the first half of the twentieth century, impulses that have resurfaced and taken new form among their descendants and later generations.  

“The Bund actually found a new if limited role in postwar North America,” notes Buhle, as those in its tradition “took part in a revival of the Yiddish schools, choral, and other activities while extending their resources to help other survivors trapped abroad or recently arrived.”  More specific passing along of Bundist tradition is acknowledged in Rudahl’s brief biography of Bundist Charney Vladeck, born in Minsk, an immigrant who became “a Social Democratic giant in New Deal Manhattan.”  Current programs in social justice activism and Yiddish cultural history promoted by Workers Circle branches in Canada and the United States can be considered Bund-like actions, with many Bundist immigrants having joined Workers Circle early in the past century.

The graphic history’s two most lengthy Illustrated biographies confirm the resistant and enduring qualities of Bundism, as the narrative explains how Bernard Goldstein went from prison in Tsarist Siberia to underground resistance in World War II Poland, and from surviving the Warsaw ghetto uprising to a less trying life in the United States; and how one of the Bund’s founders in Vilna, Pati Kremer, survived several arrests under Russian occupation, and later hosted secret Bund meetings in German-occupied Lithuania.  

Some of the Bund’s long and hemisphere-spanning  life might be attributed to Yiddish, once the vernacular language of Jews across Eastern Europe. Bund speakers could be understood by Yiddish-speaking Jews in many countries, and their shared language made the Bund de facto an internationalist organization (although it favored ethnic autonomy too). Yiddish crossed many borders, and moved with its speakers to North and South America when they immigrated.

Of course Bundist ideas can be implemented in other languages, and have been.  The Bund by no means limited itself to Jewish or Yiddish culture, either.  As David Rosenberg notes in his preface to the book, the Bundists “put great stress on culture – not just Yiddish culture … but also the world of culture that other peoples had created – their art, music, literature, education.  Just as the Bund worked for a world without borders, they wanted the borders between cultures to be fluid to enable mutual understanding and appreciation.”  The Bund also sought to improve its communities with schools, dances, choral and theatrical performances, sanitaria, and self-defense units.

The book makes no reference to the Democratic Socialists of America, but it would not be unreasonable to speculate that the Bund’s advocacy of democracy and socialism, and its resistance to fascism and exploitative capitalism, anticipated some current DSA programs. In fact, Bundists were among some of the early members of DSA’s predecessor organizations. The historic Yiddish labor organization’s influence continues; and after reading this colorful and compelling book, it is hard not to want to celebrate and renew its efforts.

__________________________________________________________________