1880 – 1943
Esther (1880–1943) was the pseudonym of the Jewish educator, writer, and socialist-turned-communist, Malkah Lifchitz. Her married names were Frumkin and later Wichmann. An independent thinker and a unique woman in the Jewish labor movement, Esther devoted her life to leftist political activity in Russia and later the Soviet Union.
Esther was born in Minsk into a well-to-do family of businessmen. Her father, a maskil educated in secular subjects, was also very learned in classical Jewish texts and served as a ba’al kore (Torah reader) in the city. He also wrote Jewish poetry and prose. Her mother descended from the Katzenellenbogens and the Romms, well-known Vilna families steeped in Haskalah. Until she was eleven years old, she received a Jewish education at home, studying Bible and Hebrew language as well as works of the maskilim and Zionists. She then entered the Minsk gymnasium and continued her secular studies in St. Petersburg and Berlin.
Esther became active among the Social Democrats in Minsk in 1896; she joined the Bund in 1901, four years after its establishment in Russia, and engaged mainly in disseminating propaganda. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 Esther began to play a very active role in the Bundist movement, including her position as editor of Bundist periodicals. A participant in the Czernowitz Yiddish Conference in 1908, Esther was firmly in the extreme Yiddishist camp. Within the Bund she strongly promoted Yiddish education for Jews. In 1910 she published her work “On the Question of the Yiddisher Folkschul,” in which she dealt with issues of language instruction and other pedagogical matters relevant to this educational setting.
During the inter-revolutionary period, 1905–1917, Esther was imprisoned numerous times for her revolutionary activities. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, she became a member of the central committee of the Bund as well as the Minsk municipal and community councils. When the Bund split apart in April 1920, Esther became a leader in the KOMBUND; this group was liquidated in 1921, and from then until 1930 she was a leader in the Yevsektsia, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party. During this period she also edited the Moscow Yiddish newspaper Emes, which dealt with issues of culture and education. Among her own publications were a Yiddish biography of Lenin and an eight-volume Yiddish edition of Lenin’s writings.
In 1924 the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR founded the Commission for the Rural Placement of Jewish Toilers, or KOMZET. As a member of KOMZET, Esther contested a plan devised by its other members to have one-quarter of the Jews in the Soviet Union involved in agricultural occupations. While she agreed that agrarianization would be beneficial for people not engaged in any productive occupation, she did not view agricultural occupations as the only proper ones for Jews in the USSR; those who already had occupations, she maintained, should by no means be compelled to abandon them for agriculture.
Esther was the primary spokesperson for articulating the official position of the Central Board of the Jewish Sections of the Communist Party in the USSR. The Sixth All-Union Conference of the Jewish Sections of the Community Party convened in Moscow in December 1926. There Esther declared that there should be no “Jewish Soviets,” and that the Jewish proletariat had no right to dictate activities or ideas to the Jewish bourgeoisie. These, rather, were the purview of the Soviet Union as a whole. Also during this conference and in its resolution, Esther expressed her rather nuanced view of the proposed autonomous territory for Jews. She said this independent Jewish territory would be very important for Jewish people outside the national territory, but that this approach did not contradict the essentially anti-national stance that Jewish Sections had adopted and that she herself espoused. Esther insisted that the Jewish Sections aim to attract the nationalist intelligentsia, but also that “the nation” be defined as the great masses of working people. She contended that the proper inspiration for the enthusiasm of the Jewish Sections was the anticipated triumph of the proletarian revolution, and in turn the development of socialism.
Esther was among the leaders of the Jewish Sections of the Communist Party who were not at all perturbed by the potential assimilation of the Jewish masses, or even by the possible eradication of all remnants of Jewish national or cultural identity. On the contrary, she overtly attacked Jewish nationalistic ideologies. In Esther’s view, assimilation was a probable, perhaps inevitable, result of industrialization. She insisted that Jews acknowledge their own assimilation into their surrounding culture as a very real and even desirable possibility. Industrialization, she believed, was an essential goal and accomplishment, to the extent that it must be achieved even if it does not follow the path of Jewish national consolidation, and indeed regardless of the assimilatory effects it may have upon Jews.
Despite her public expression of these pro-assimilation, anti-nationalist views, Esther was among those liquidated in the Soviet purges of 1936–1938 as “unreconstructed Bundists” and “counterrevolutionary nationalists.” (Schwarz) She was arrested and imprisoned in January 1938, all the while denying the charges against her. Two and a half years later, in August 1940, she was sentenced to eight years in detention. She died in the detention camp Karaganda in 1943.
Congress for Jewish Culture. Leksikon fun der nayer Yiddisher literature. New York: 1956; Raizin, Zalman. Leksikon fun der Yiddisher literature presse un filalogiye. Vilna: 1928; Schwarz, Solomon M. The Jews in the Soviet Union. Syracuse, New York: 1951.