“The History of the Bund” by Esther Rechtschafner

Reference: Museum of Family History
A Bundist rally, 1917

A Bundist rally, 1917

BUND is an abbreviation of Alegmeyner Yiddisher arbiter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland (General Jewish Workers’ in Lithuania, Poland and Russia).

The Yiddish word BUND means treaty, alliance, covenant. It was founded in a secret meeting, in Vilna in 1897. The BUND was a worker’s association and an active political party (as much as was possible) from the 1890’s through the 1930’s. After a short time the organization was known as the BUND. Its’ members were called “Bundisim” or “Bundaim”. Most of the members were from the Jewish working class, but there were also supporters from the Jewish intellectuals. All of the BUNDISTS were very loyal and attached to their organization.

The original goal of the BUND was to organize and represent all the Jewish workers in the Russian Empire (Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and most of Poland [the majority of the Jews was then located in this area] of the Jews this area) in one political party and encourage their involvement in the Russian Socialist movement (the Social Democratic party). This was to help Russia become a socio-democratic state, which would consider the Jews a nation with a minority legal status. It called for equal rights for Jews within a Socialist framework in which Jews would be given cultural freedom.

At first Hebrew was the official language of language, but this changed to Russian and then to Yiddish to make communication easier. Yiddish was considered the national language of Eastern European Jewry and thus the language of the BUND. The Bund was Jewish Socialist secular party; however a few of the members were religious Jews. The BUND completely opposed Zionism and Hebrew culture and language. Zionism was related to as escapism (however many BUND members became Zionist-Socialists and came on Aliyah. This was a big loss to the BUND). The BUND considered itself foremost   Socialist and then Jewish; but the program was for obtaining a cultural Autonomy for the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. The BUND was not willing to change from this belief and goal. Therefore the BUND had many enemies both inside and outside of the Jewish people.

Members of the Jewish Bund with  bodies of their comrades killed in Odessa  during the Russian revolution of 1905

Members of the Jewish Bund with
bodies of their comrades killed in Odessa
during the Russian revolution of 1905

The BUND left the Russian Socialist movement party in 1903, after not receiving recognition as only representative of the Jewish workers. Bundists were active in Russian socialist circles, and the party was an important participant in the 1905 revolution. Then the BUND had 35,000 members, of which  4,500 were political prisoners in Russia and Siberia. The BUND joined forces with Poéli Zion and other groups in order to form and lead a united defense front against the pogroms and riots of 1905.The BUND led the defense front in the Jewish villages, in the area that is now Belarus.

After this First Russian Revolution, the BUND became legal due to political reforms. Some members of the BUND sided with the Communists and this fact was destructive to the promotion of the BUND as a Jewish organization.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the BUND split; for most of the members joined the Communist party, officially in 1921, and the others remained in the BUND. The BUND became illegal again in Russia. The Communists wanted to destroy the BUND, even more than they wanted to destroy Zionist orgamizations.  The BUND continued to operate in independent Poland and Lithuania mostly in places that had a large Jewish population. The center shifted to Poland, where it built up a large following with its extensive network of social and cultural organizations. The Polish BUND flourished after World War I and became an important force among Poland’s Jews. The Polish BUND’s propaganda was that Jews should stay and fight for socialism and not seek refuge elsewhere.

Between the Wars, the BUND published more documents and propaganda than the Zionist organizations The BUND charged Jabotinsky (leader of the Revision lists) as Anti-Semitic. Then small branches were also active in Lithuania, Romania, Belgium, France, and the United States (first in New York).

The BUND fought Anti-Semitism in Poland before WWII, and even organized Jewish self-defense units. BUND members also became members of Polish city councils. Before WWII, the BUND was one of the most popular organizations on the Jewish street. It included youth organizations, women’s organizations, sports, and was the strongest force in the founding of the Yiddish school organization.  It joined the Soviet International and was associated with other Polish socialist parties.

The BUND leaders fled when World War II broke out, for many members were arrested, exiled, or murdered. At the beginning of WWII the BUND went underground. During the WAR the Bund was active in the underground and as partisans in ghettoes and camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, and also sought to publicize the atrocities to the western world. It published the largest number of newspapers in Warsaw, which contained important information about the War, calls for a revolt, and even cultural information. As understood, this was very dangerous and many workers lost their lives doing so. The party elders of Warsaw refused to join the Zionists in order to form a united Jewish fighting alliance. They claimed they had ties with the underground outside the Ghetto. Younger leaders did support Jewish unity.  All the Jews united after the major deportations from Warsaw in October 1942. There was a similar occurrence in Vilna, when the younger members joined the United Partisan Organization. Four BUND squads participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943.

The BUND leader Samuel Zygelbojm, who had fled to the US, was appointed to the Polish National Committee in London in 1942. After receiving reports of the mass murder of Polish Jewry, Zygelbojm desperately tried to enlist the help of international and Jewish organizations. He was shocked by the way the rest of the world reacted (didn’t react) to the Jewish Holocaust. After failing to receive support, Zygelbojm committed suicide in 1943.

The BUND leaders who got to the USA founded a support group. The BUND leaders of this period worked very hard for our people and their organization.

The Holocaust caused an end to the greatness of the Polish BUND. The Communist government in Poland saw to the final liquidation of the BUND in 1948. At the end of the War, in 1945, the number of Bundists in Europe dwindled greatly. The BUND became a small Jewish organization in Jewish communities in the USA, Canada, and Australia.

The BUND did not return to its previous position; but did have a role in Jewish communities around the world. The World Coordinating Committee of Bund Organizations, was founded in 1947 and then the BUND became a transnational movement. The BUND Archives  was transferred to YIVO, by the BUND, In 1992. Afterwards, YIVO had an exhibition about the BUND.