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Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund: A Memoir of Interwar Poland

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Bernard Goldstein’s memoir describes a hard world of taverns, toughs, thieves, and prostitutes; of slaughterhouse workers, handcart porters, and wagon drivers; and of fist-and gunfights with everyone from anti-Semites and Communists to hostile police, which is to say that it depicts a totally different view of life in prewar Poland than the one usually portrayed. As such, Bernard Goldstein’s memoir describes a hard world of taverns, toughs, thieves, and prostitutes; of slaughterhouse workers, handcart porters, and wagon drivers; and of fist-and gunfights with everyone from anti-Semites and Communists to hostile police, which is to say that it depicts a totally different view of life in prewar Poland than the one usually portrayed. As such, the book offers a corrective view in the form of social history, one that commands attention and demands respect for the vitality and activism of the generation of Polish Jews so brutally annihilated by the barbarism of the Nazis.In Warsaw, a city with over 300,000 Jews (one third of the population), Bernstein was the Jewish Labor Bund’s “enforcer,” organizer, and head of their militia—the one who carried out daily, on-the-street organization of unions; the fighting off of Communists, Polish anti-Semitic hooligans, and antagonistic police; marshaling and protecting demonstrations; and even settling family disputes, some of them arising from the new secular, socialist culture being fostered by the Bund.Goldstein’s is a portrait of tough Jews willing to do battle—worldly, modern individuals dedicated to their folk culture and the survival of their people. It delivers an unparalleled street-level view of vibrant Jewish life in Poland between the wars: of Jewish masses entering modern life, of Jewish workers fighting for their rights, of optimism, of greater assertiveness and self-confidence, of armed combat, and even of scenes depicting the seamy, semi-criminal elements. It provides a representation of life in Poland before the great catastrophe of World War II, a life of flowering literary activity, secular political journalism, successful political struggle, immersion in modern politics, fights for worker rights and benefits, a strong social-democratic labor movement, creation of a secular school system in Yiddish, and a youth movement that later provided the heroic fighters for the courageous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


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Bernard Goldstein’s memoir describes a hard world of taverns, toughs, thieves, and prostitutes; of slaughterhouse workers, handcart porters, and wagon drivers; and of fist-and gunfights with everyone from anti-Semites and Communists to hostile police, which is to say that it depicts a totally different view of life in prewar Poland than the one usually portrayed. As such, Bernard Goldstein’s memoir describes a hard world of taverns, toughs, thieves, and prostitutes; of slaughterhouse workers, handcart porters, and wagon drivers; and of fist-and gunfights with everyone from anti-Semites and Communists to hostile police, which is to say that it depicts a totally different view of life in prewar Poland than the one usually portrayed. As such, the book offers a corrective view in the form of social history, one that commands attention and demands respect for the vitality and activism of the generation of Polish Jews so brutally annihilated by the barbarism of the Nazis.In Warsaw, a city with over 300,000 Jews (one third of the population), Bernstein was the Jewish Labor Bund’s “enforcer,” organizer, and head of their militia—the one who carried out daily, on-the-street organization of unions; the fighting off of Communists, Polish anti-Semitic hooligans, and antagonistic police; marshaling and protecting demonstrations; and even settling family disputes, some of them arising from the new secular, socialist culture being fostered by the Bund.Goldstein’s is a portrait of tough Jews willing to do battle—worldly, modern individuals dedicated to their folk culture and the survival of their people. It delivers an unparalleled street-level view of vibrant Jewish life in Poland between the wars: of Jewish masses entering modern life, of Jewish workers fighting for their rights, of optimism, of greater assertiveness and self-confidence, of armed combat, and even of scenes depicting the seamy, semi-criminal elements. It provides a representation of life in Poland before the great catastrophe of World War II, a life of flowering literary activity, secular political journalism, successful political struggle, immersion in modern politics, fights for worker rights and benefits, a strong social-democratic labor movement, creation of a secular school system in Yiddish, and a youth movement that later provided the heroic fighters for the courageous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

31 review for Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund: A Memoir of Interwar Poland

  1. 5 out of 5

    Inna

    Vignettes from the life of a Bundist labor organizer and head of the Warsaw self-defense militia during the interwar period. The book is pretty amazing, largely since it deals with the Bund culture and with the people of the Bund, meaning largely simple workers. Bund during this period was fighting for the embattled Jewish poor, suffering from both economic and ethnic attacks. In fact, it was encouraging them to fight for themselves, organizing them in unions and in self-defense militias. Goldst Vignettes from the life of a Bundist labor organizer and head of the Warsaw self-defense militia during the interwar period. The book is pretty amazing, largely since it deals with the Bund culture and with the people of the Bund, meaning largely simple workers. Bund during this period was fighting for the embattled Jewish poor, suffering from both economic and ethnic attacks. In fact, it was encouraging them to fight for themselves, organizing them in unions and in self-defense militias. Goldstein does not patronize the people and does not think he knows best. In fact,he clearly considers himself to be one of them. A large part of the story is Bund's fight against Polish antisemitic right-wing parties, against the government antisemitism, and against the Communists, habitually employing violence to force the workers join their own labor unions. While doing that, the Bund also established numerous cultural and self-help institutions and created a whole union-based culture emphasizing self-respect and self-improvement. This culture was not sustained, since the population supporting it was emaciated by the Nazis. Still, it is an inspiring example of poor people organizing themselves in very difficult conditions. While Bund insisted on the right of Jewish workers to cultural autonomy, Goldstein keeps talking in his memoirs about collaboration between Jewish and Polish activists, both in union activism and in fighting the violent right-wing parties. Bund clearly differentiated between its adherence to the value of sustaining cultural uniqueness of the Jewish minority and any sort of ethnicity-based prejudice. I strongly recommend Goldstein's book, as well as his book of memoirs about the Warsaw Ghetto, where he talks about Bund desperately trying to assist the Jews in an impossible situation.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ina Cawl

  3. 5 out of 5

    Inna

  4. 5 out of 5

    Inna

  5. 4 out of 5

    Adam Schragin

  6. 4 out of 5

    G

  7. 5 out of 5

    Craig Bolton

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    Nashat Nimer

  9. 5 out of 5

    Talia

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    Sam

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    Samuel Greenberg

  12. 5 out of 5

    Danielle Urban

  13. 4 out of 5

    Akiva

  14. 5 out of 5

    Harebell

  15. 4 out of 5

    Eva

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    Caroline

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    Jac

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    Sean C

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jay Resnick

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    Kham

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    Mirjam

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    Jake H

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    Jeff

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    Brian

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    Lauryl BC

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    Melissa F.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lior

  28. 4 out of 5

    Camille

  29. 4 out of 5

    Stuart Rosenberg Janssen

  30. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

  31. 5 out of 5

    Andy Friedman

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