Jewish women played leading roles in the formative years of the General Jewish Workers’ Bund, which was established in the Tsarist Empire in 1897, and initially participated in the movement in large numbers. However, the Bund seems to have had somewhat less success in mobilizing women in independent Poland between the two world wars than it had during the Tsarist era.
The Bund had its roots in organizing work conducted in the Pale of Settlement in the late 1880s and early 1890s. At the end of the nineteenth century, the establishments in the Pale which produced items such as cigarettes, matches, stockings, gloves, and envelopes, and the tailoring industry, tended to employ high proportions of Jewish women. Moreover, the first efforts at organizing Russian Jewish workers took place precisely in those fields in which many of the employees were female. In 1887, for example, a strike was conducted by the stocking-makers of Vilna (the city in which the Bund was later created), at a point when stocking making was the most common job held by Jewish women in the region.
Not only among the stocking-makers but also in other trades which employed Jewish women, female “half-intellectuals” (who had received some education but who did not have advanced degrees) proved to be particularly ripe for organizing. A. Litwak (pseudonym of Khaim-Yankev Helfand, 1874–1932) who was active in the Bund in its early years, has argued that precisely because Jewish men were more likely than Jewish women to have received extended, formal, training in Jewish rituals and tradition, Jewish women found it easier than did their male counterparts to break with tradition and to join the socialist movement.
A small number of the earliest Jewish socialist women in the Russian Empire were not workers, but rather women who had succeeded in obtaining higher education and who had become attracted to radical ideas. Pati Kremer (Matla Srednicki, 1867–1943), who graduated from a gymnasium in Vilna and trained as a dentist in Petersburg, and Liuba Levinson (1866–1903), who studied at the University of Geneva, were actively involved in the illegal social democratic circle which crystallized in Vilna in 1889, and which eventually stimulated the formal establishment of the Bund.
The Bund was built on and grew out of both the union organizing work conducted among (female and male) Jewish workers, and the early efforts of intellectuals, including Srednitsky and Levinson. At least two women—Marya Zhaludsky, a seamstress and long-term political activist, and Rosa Greenblat, a weaver—were among the thirteen individuals who attended the meeting at which the Bund was founded.
When, in 1898, all three members of the Bund’s first Central Committee were arrested, Zhaludsky and Tsivia Hurvitch (b. 1874), a glove maker, were among those who replaced them. In addition to Zhaludsky and Hurvitch, two seamstresses, Shaine Raizel Segal of Lodz (d. 1905), and Liza Epstein of Kovno, attended the Second Congress of the Bund, which was held in 1898, so that women made up at least one third of the delegates to this congress.
In the first years of the Bund’s existence, women spoke at Bundist gatherings, distributed literature, and worked in the movement’s illegal printing shops. Yulia Abramowicz (d. 1916), Gita Lipshits (d. 1917), and Cipe Edelman (1887–1937), among others, smuggled literature or arms for the party. Anna Heller Rozenthal (1872–1940/1941) was coopted onto the first Vilna City Committee of the Bund. Zhenia Hurvitch (Evgeniia Adolovna Gurvich, 1861–1940) was a major figure at the Fifth Congress of the Bund, which was held in Zurich in June, 1903. Ruta (Mina) Batkhan, (d. 1942), an eloquent speaker in both Russian and Yiddish, was a well-known representative of the Bund among Jewish socialists in Dvinsk, Bialystok, and Lodz. Esther (Eza) Lipshits, who had studied in both Berne and Berlin, and who was widely acknowledged to be exceptionally erudite, became a member of the Lodz Committee of the Bund. She was arrested in 1903, tortured in Piotrkow prison, and died later that year as a result of her treatment while incarcerated.
During the 1905 revolution, Bundist women came to the fore at a number of different points. Anna (Gaponsha) Lipshits (c. 1881–1926), for one, served as a member of the Odessa Committee of the Bund, and was among the most popular speakers during the Potemkin uprising. Several Bundist women were killed in the course of street demonstrations that took place during this tumultuous period. Fruma (Vera) Grabolski (c. 1881), a member of the Bund’s Warsaw Committee at the time of the Revolution of 1905, died as a result of wounds she received during a mass protest organized by the Bund that was attended by thirty thousand people. Sonie Glikman Peysakhzon was trampled to death in Pinsk by the horses of Tsarist Cossacks who were breaking up a demonstration in which she was a participant. Esther (Hinda, a.k.a. Tamara) Riskind (c. 1877/1880–1905), a leader of the Bund in Bialystok at the end of the nineteenth century, Gitl Zakhaym, a twenty-one-year-old Bundist, and Ester Vaysvol were also killed in the course of 1905.
There were women in the Bundist self-defense groups that were founded during this era. Nadia (Frume) Kenigshats Grinfeld (1887–1918), for example, who had already established a reputation as a Bundist speaker in the pre-revolutionary period, was the head of the Bundist self-defense group in Odessa.
The defeat of the revolution of 1905 resulted in a dramatic contraction in the size of the Bund (and of all other socialist organizations operating in the Russian Empire). There were four major responses to this new situation. A relatively small number remained actively involved with Bundist affairs. Esther Frumkin (Malke Lifshits, 1880–1943), who wrote regularly for Bundist periodicals, was a delegate to both the Bund’s Eighth Conference in 1910 and the (modest) Ninth Conference of 1912. She was among the most prominent Bundists, male or female, during these years. Despite the downhill slide of the movement, Roza Eichner (d. 1943) led circles of workers in Lodz. Many Bundists emigrated, often to the United States. Others, representing a third response to the defeat and the oppression that accompanied it, became politically inactive. Zhaludsky, for one, withdrew from involvement with the Bund in 1908. A fourth category was made up of those who were forced to halt activities because they were imprisoned. Rosa (Fride) Levit was active in the Bund in Lodz in 1907, but was eventually arrested and incarcerated. She returned to active engagement in Bundist affairs after her release. Gina (Genie) Birentsvayg Medem (1888–1965), who was also active in and around Lodz until she was arrested (in November 1907), left Poland for Switzerland after serving a prison sentence. She married the Bundist theoretician Vladimir Medem (1879–1923), who discouraged his wife from returning to Poland in order to continue her political activities. In 1913, however, Gina insisted on returning to the Empire, and in fact did so.
According to one memoir, love was initially thought of in Bundist circles as a weakness that interfered with the revolutionary movement, and Bundists who married were looked on as lapsed revolutionaries. However, this attitude appears to have shifted somewhat in later years.
Indeed, any number of female Bundists married, choosing politically compatible male counterparts as their mates. Pati Srednicki was already romantically involved with Arkady Kremer (1865–1935)—often called the “Father of the Bund”—in the 1890s. Anna Heller married Pavel Rozental (1872–1924), a leading Bundist, around 1899. Marya Zhaludsky married Dovid Katz, who was a member of the Central Committee of the Bund from 1898 to 1901, and one of the most important activists in the Bund until 1908. Liza Grinblat Amsterdam apparently became particularly active in the Bund in the wake of the death of her husband, the Bundist Avrom Meyer Amsterdam (1871–1899). The Bundists tended to insist on marrying without the aid of matchmakers or the use of dowries, on marrying for love, and on modest weddings, with few guests and without klezmerim or badhanim (wedding entertainers).
In specific cases, activity in the Bund was accompanied by revolutionary asceticism, which probably had more to do with indigenous Russian revolutionary traditions than with the Bundists’ commitment to Marxism. Liuba Levinson, who was sent into exile together with her husband, Isai Eisenstadt, gave birth during the course of her sentence. At the conclusion of her term in exile, she decided to separate herself from her child in order to be able to devote herself to the movement. Levinson brought her baby to New York, intending to leave the child with her sister, but died before she could return to Europe.
The Bund was reinvigorated during the revolutionary upsurge that occurred during the course of World War I. Esther Frumkin rose through the ranks during this era, and was elected to the Central Committee of the Bund at the Bund’s Tenth Conference, which was held in April, 1917. Though she attempted to steer a centrist course following the Bolshevik Revolution, she ultimately sided with the left-wing majority when the Bund split, in 1920, into two distinct organizations, one Communist (the Kombund) and the other Social Democratic. Not long afterwards, the Kombund was absorbed into the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Bund declared illegal, thereby bringing the history of the Bund in Russia to an end.
Since the conditions under which the Bund operated in the Russian Empire made it inadvisable to maintain lists of members, there are no definitive statistics on the total number of women who were in the Bund, or on the percentage of Bundists in the Empire who were female. However, according to one scholarly estimate (which appears to refer to the Bund in its Russian period), approximately one third of all of the members of the Jewish workers’ movement were female. If this estimate is correct, it would suggest that the proportion of women in the Bund during the Tsarist years may have been higher than the proportion of women in those contemporaneous radical movements in the Russian Empire which were not explicitly Jewish (e.g. the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party). This is all the more remarkable because the Russian radical movement had a higher rate of participation by women than did other movements, in Russia or elsewhere.
Bundist women in the Russian Empire appear not to have been interested in forming groups that were made up exclusively of women, or which worked primarily on causes of particular interest to women, and seem to have believed that struggle for the general goals of the Bundist movement was of greater importance than struggle for the specific needs of women. Precisely because they were Marxists, Bundists would have been likely to argue that the oppression of working women was a result of the existing relation of production, and that the only way to overcome this oppression was by creating a socialist society. Dina Blond (Sheyne-Feygl Szapiro Michalewicz, 1887–1985), who was a prominent Bundist in inter-war Poland, reports that in the early years of the Bund “the Jewish women were fighters for others. There was no difference between them and the men.” The first individual known to have proposed that Bundist women make demands on behalf of their own needs, A. Litwak was male, and did not make this suggestion until 1915. There is one document which indicates that there was a “women’s division” of the Bund created in 1917, but no information on the work of this division has thus far come to light.
Litwak’s suggestion was ultimately taken up by the Bund in inter-war Poland, which operated under conditions that were quite different from those under which the Bund had operated in the Russian Empire. The single most important change in conditions lay in the fact that the Bund, which had been illegal for most of the period during which it conducted work in Tsarist Russia, was a legal movement in independent Poland. As a result, the Bund no longer had a need for individuals to play certain of the roles that had earlier been played to a significant degree by women. For example, there was rarely need for the Bund to maintain illegal print shops in inter-war Poland, and no need for it to smuggle contraband into or out of the country.
There were few women in the Polish Bund’s countrywide leadership. Indeed, there is only one major exception to this generalization: Pesl Katelianski (Sara Szweber, c. 1875–1966), a leading trade unionist, who was a member of the Central Committee of the Bund, and helped to develop the Bund’s political tactics. In 1938 she was one of sixteen Bundists elected to the City Council of Warsaw (and the only one of these Bundists who was female).
Nonetheless, a number of women played leading roles in the Bund in specific cities. Esther Alter Iwinska (d. 1963) was elected to the Warsaw City Council on the Bundist ticket in 1919 and in 1927. Bela Szapiro (Esther Beyla, c. 1891–c. 1941) was the head of the Bund in Lublin—a city of considerable importance—and served on the City Council there. Similarly, Anna Heller Rozental served as head of the Vilna Bund for a portion of the inter-war years. Roza Eichner, a member of the City Committee of the Bund in Lodz, was elected to Lodz’s City Council in the elections immediately preceding the beginning of World War II, as were seven male Bundists. Rifke Antman (b. 1908) was elected to the City Council of Bialystok on the Bundist list in 1938. Nevertheless, the number of women who played prominent political roles in the organization was small. One Bundist, writing in the Bundist press in 1939, estimated that females constituted approximately ten percent of those who had participated in conferences of the party or of affiliated trade unions at which he had been present. A list of activists who had served as contacts for the Polish Bund in the pre-World War II era, created in 1950, contains 293 names, fewer than twenty of whom are female. To be sure, the proportion of women in the party as a whole was larger than was the proportion of women who were activists or party leaders. Nevertheless, the proportion of the Polish Bund made up of women—no more than 26.6 percent in 1930—appears to have been significantly smaller than had been the proportion of women in the Russian Bund. However, it should be noted that somewhat comparable non-Jewish parties—e.g. the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Communist Party of Germany—had even lower proportions of female members during this period than did the Bund.
In the mid-1920s, the Polish Bund created a number of organizations for specific constituencies, e.g. a movement for children, SKIF (Sotsialistisher kinder-farband), Socialist Children’s Union, and a movement promoting physical education and athletic activities (Morgnshtern). One such organization, YAF (Yidisher Arbeter Froy), was initiated by the Central Committee of the Bund, and was intended to organize Jewish women, and, in particular, the wives of Jewish working men. From the outset it was admitted that the Bund believed such an organization to be necessary because it considered that too few working women were actively participating in the activities of the party.
While the decision to form an organization of and for Jewish working women, made in 1925, originally encountered sharp opposition from women who were already active in the Bund who saw no need for it, their opposition was soon overcome.
YAF’s chairwoman was Dina Blond. Cipe Edelman served as the organization’s Secretary for most of the inter-war era. Szapiro and Rozental were among YAF’s founders. Other activists included Roza Eichner, who chaired the Lodz YAF, Ruta Batkhan Berman, Ruta Rutman Perenson (1905–1943), and Gitl Skutelski.
In a statement issued in 1926, “What does the Society of Jewish Worker-Women (YAF) Want?”, the new organization maintained that it had three goals: 1. Improving the intellectual and moral status of its members; 2. Interesting its members in the life of the community; and 3. Providing its members with a useful way to occupy themselves in their free time. YAF devoted considerable energy to the creation of day-care centers and summer day camps, and succeeded in establishing such institutions in several cities. For example, there were three day-care centers operating simultaneously in Vilna under YAF auspices in the late 1930s. YAF also advocated dissemination of birth control information, supported campaigns for equal pay for women, conducted numerous meetings at which general political affairs and questions of interest to women were discussed, organized International Women’s Day celebrations, and attempted to mobilize its constituency to vote for Bundist candidates.
Although there were YAF-affiliated groups in nine Polish cities by March of 1927, YAF remained modest in size, with a total of 616 members in 1929. Moreover, the number of YAF members who formally joined the Bund was smaller still. At the beginning of 1939, at which time the Bund’s branch in Warsaw had 3,159 members, there were sixty-two members of the Warsaw YAF who were members of the Warsaw Bund per se. Though YAF grew in the late 1930s, and though the total number of members of YAF on the eve of World War II was certainly a large multiple of the number of YAF members who were in the Bund, it is telling that YAF, unlike SKIF or Morgnshtern, never published a periodical of its own, and is known to have convened a Poland-wide conference of female Bundists on only one occasion.
One reason why the Bund had more difficulty in organizing women in inter-war Poland than it had had in Tsarist Russia revolved around the constituency which YAF approached. The women whom the Bund succeeded in organizing in the Russian Empire were generally young, single, and employed. YAF aimed, in part, at attracting women who were married, who were mothers, and/or did not work outside the home. Though it made use of volunteer organizers who went from household to household, YAF found that the women it approached, who were generally very poor, and who had not had a great deal of exposure to the culture of the world at large, were often overburdened, or had difficulty grasping YAF’s purpose.
But stay-at-home mothers were not the only group of women that YAF (and the Polish Bund) had trouble attracting in significant numbers. Leaders of the Bund and of YAF debated the reasons why there were so few women in leading positions in the party. Dina Blond argued that the characteristics required of leaders of a legal political party—i.e. ambition and a willingness to project oneself—did not reflect the “essence” of women as much as did the characteristics which had been needed by party workers when the Bund was an illegal movement. Ruta Batkhan Berman contended that over the course of generations women had come to underestimate themselves and conversely, had come to believe too much in the abilities of their male counterparts. She also noted that women sensed that male comrades did not have much faith in the abilities of women, and that this reinforced women’s sense of inferiority. In Berman’s opinion, it was precisely because of this problem that YAF was needed. She argued that when women are in their own organization, they feel themselves to be among equals, and this begins the process of increasing belief in oneself. Over time, she concluded, as a result of their experience in YAF, women would take more active roles than they had taken in the past. The outbreak of World War II cut this debate short.
In the wake of Warsaw’s occupation by the German military in 1939, the Bund regrouped and began to operate underground. A new central committee was organized, on which Sheyne Gitl (Sonia) Czemelinski Nowogrudski (1893/4–1942) was the only woman. Ruta Berman and Gitl Skutelski initially represented YAF in the body that reported to this central committee. Neither survived the Holocaust. Miriam-Royze [Maria] Salomon Klepfisz served on the central council of trade unions as a representative of the teachers. Bela Szapiro was a member of the Party Council that represented Bundists who were outside Warsaw. Szapiro was arrested in Lublin in 1941. She died in captivity. In addition to Berman and Skutelski, the members of the YAF Committee of the Warsaw Bund during the period of the occupation included Liuba Belitski and Waks.
As in the Tsarist era, Bundist women once again became active in distributing literature and as couriers when the movement was forced to go underground. They also took up arms against the Nazis. Tsipore Aynshtayn (c.1915–1943), Asie Big (d. 1943), Gute Blones (d. 1943), Tobcie Dawidowicz (1924–1943), Miriam Szyfman Fainer (c.1915–1943), Hannah Krystal Fryshdorf (1920–1989), Bluma Klog (d. 1943), Feigel (“Wladka”) Peltel, Sore Rozenboym (1922–1943), Leah Szyfman (c.1922–1943), and Chaike Belchatowska Spiegel (d. 2002), some of whom had been active in the Bundist children’s group SKIF or in the Bund’s youth group Tsukunft before the War rather than in the Bund itself, were among those who participated in the resistance movement. The overwhelming majority of the members of the Bund, of SKIF, of Tsukunft, and of YAF were murdered, or died, during the period 1939–1945.
Immediately following World War II, Bundists attempted to reorganize yet again. There were YAF chapters in Legnica, Lodz, and Szczucin in 1947, and a childcare center named for Ruta Berman and operated under the auspices of YAF in the last of these three locations. However, the Bund in Poland was forced to liquidate itself as a result of pressure put on it by the Communists, and YAF, as an affiliate of the Bund, also folded. In the decades following the Holocaust, female Bundist survivors participated in the activities of the Bundist groups that continued to operate in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere. However, following the dissolution of the Polish Bund, these women did not recreate a centrally run Bundist woman’s group.
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