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The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

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Esther Frumkin

1880–1943

by Tamar Kaplan Appel

Educator, writer, and revolutionary Esther Frumkin in the audience at the first conference of GEZERD (The Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land), Moscow, 1926.

In Brief

Esther Frumkin became active among the Social Democrats in Minsk in 1896; she joined the Bund in 1901 and engaged mainly in disseminating propaganda. During the inter-revolutionary period, 1905 to 1917, Frumkin 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. She was later the primary spokesperson for official position of the Central Board of the Jewish Sections of the Communist Party in the USSR. Frumkin advocated for the assimilation of the Jewish masses and insisted that Jews acknowledge their own assimilation into their surrounding culture as a very real and even desirable possibility.

Esther (1880–1943) was the pseudonym of the Jewish educator, writer, and socialist-turned-communist, Malkah Lifchitz. Her married names were Frumkin (feminized in Russian as Frumkina) 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.

Early Life

Esther was born in Minsk into a well-to-do family of businessmen. Her father, a female/sing.: Member of the Haskalah movement.maskil educated in secular subjects, was also very learned in classical Jewish texts and served as a ba’al kore (Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)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 Jewish Enlightenment; European movement during the 1770sHaskalah. Until she was eleven years old, she received a Jewish education at home, studying Bible and Hebrew language as well as works of the female/sing.: Member of the Haskalah movement.maskilim and Zionists. She then entered the Minsk gymnasium and continued her secular studies in St. Petersburg and Berlin.

Political Work

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. Esther was central in the struggle to establish Yiddish as one of the national languages of the Soviet Union and to create Yiddish schools. Her essay "Gleikh Berekhtigung fun Shprakhen”, published in 1910, outlines her position, especially during her early political work, on national and cultural identity.

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.

Ideologies and Belief

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. She also played a critical role in the anti-religious campaign under the Bolsheviks, as illustrated by her 1923 pamphlet Doloi ravvinov (Down with the rabbis). However, since her work was written in Russian, the motivation behind her attacks on the Jewish establishment should be considered.

Later Life

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.

Selected Works

A Yiddish translation of Lenin’s Yorn fun der kontr-revolutsye (Years of counter-revolution). vol. 3 of Oygeveylte verk (Selected works). Moscow: 1929.

Doloi ravvinov. Ocherk antireligioznoi bor-by sredi evreiskih mass (Down with rabbis: Sketch of the antireligious struggle among the Jewish people). Moscow: 1923.

Fuftsen tsuzamenfor fun al. k. p. (b), vegn der opozitsye (Fifteenth convention of the All-Russia Communist Party [Bolsheviks], on the opposition). Moscow, 1938.

"Gleikh Berekhtigung fun Shprakhen.” Tseit-Fragen 4, August 1910. Tseit-Fragen 5, September 1910)

Hirsh lekert (Hirsh Lekert). Moscow: Yungvald, 1922.

Lenin un zayn arbet (Lenin and his work). Moscow: Tsentr farlag, 1925.

Mit lenins veg (On Lenin’s path). Moscow: 1925.

Shul-fragn (School issues). St. Petersburg: 1917.

The forward to Yidn in f. s. s. r. (Jews in the USSR) by A. Brakhman and Y. Zhiv. Moscow: 1930.

Tsu der frage vegn der yidisher folksshul: di muter-shprakh un di folksshul, di fremde shprakh in der yidisher shul, yidish, di yidishe folksshul un dos yidishe folk (On the question of the Jewish public school: the mother tongue and the public school, foreign tongue in the Jewish school, Yiddish, the Jewish public school, and the Jewish people). Vilna: 1910.

Oktyabr-revolutsye (October revolution). Moscow: 1928.

Bibliography

Congress for Jewish Culture. Leksikon fun der nayer Yiddisher literature. New York: 1956.

Loutfi, Anna. A Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms: Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries. Edited by Francisca de Haan and Krassimira Daskalova, 140-143. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2006.

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.

Shepherd, Naomi. A Price Below Rubies: Jewish Women as Rebels and Radicals. Harvard University Press, 1998. 

Szapor, Judith, Andrea Petö, Maura Hametz, and Marina Calloni, eds. Jewish Intellectual Women in Europe, 1860-2000: Twelve Biographical Essays. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2012. 

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How to cite this page

Appel, Tamar Kaplan. "Esther Frumkin." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 25, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/frumkin-esther>.