Politics and Government: Communism
Jewish women participated in the artistic life of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for over a hundred years. Jewish women artists worked in all styles, from the routine academic to the extreme avant-garde. There were also well-known art patrons, gallery owners, art historians, and art critics.
Rebelling against her privileged upbringing, Angelica Balabanoff embraced socialism and rose to become one of the most celebrated activists and politicians in the early decades of the twentieth century, becoming especially involved in the Italian socialist movement.
Yokheved Bat-Miriam was part of a group of pioneering Hebrew women poets in the 1920s. Her poetry commemorates the religious and emotional lives of Jewish women and frequently focuses on women of the Bible who composed and/or recited poetry.
Formally created in 1938 and 1939, the Baum group was a German anti-Fascist resistance organization. Initially its work consisted of making and distributing anti-Fascist propaganda, but on May 18, 1942, the Baum group joined the effort to set fire to an anti-Soviet exhibit at a public park in Berlin. The damage was minimal and shortly thereafter, the Gestapo arrested hundreds of Jews in retaliation and twenty-two members of the Baum group were executed.
Elisabeth Bergner, born in Austrian Galicia, was one of the most successful and popular stage and screen actresses in pre-World War II Germany, known for her superior artistic skills and wide variety of roles. During the war, she helped actors escape Germany. She was honored with the Schiller Prize of the City of Mannheim, the Ernst Lubitsch Prize, and the Austrian Cross of Merit for Science and Art.
Admired for her darkly comic wit by writers like Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and John Ashbery, writer Jane Bowles became the center of an avant-garde circle in Morocco with her husband, writer Paul Bowles. Her works have garnered critical acclaim long after her death.
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 had somewhat less success in mobilizing women in independent Poland between the two world wars than it had during the Tsarist era.
From poetry to the probing of women’s eating disorders, from autobiography to the story of a voice, from commentary on sexual identity to Israel and Palestine, Kim Chernin’s writing, “writing consultation,” and pastoral counseling practices all arose from the “spiritual politics” and deep examination of self and society that she considered the essence of her Jewishness.
Ambivalent about Judaism, passionately Marxist, charismatic, and courageous, Rose Chernin devoted a great deal of her life to securing the rights of disenfranchised citizens: the unemployed of the Depression, farm workers without a union, Black home buyers thwarted by redlining, and other foreign-born leftists, like herself, who faced deportation in the 1950s.
From the 1920s into the 1950s, the Communist Party USA was the most dynamic sector of the American left, and Jewish women—especially Yiddish-speaking immigrants and their American-born daughters—were a major force within the party and its affiliated organizations. Their numbers included community organizers, labor activists, students, artists and intellectuals. When the communist movement faded in the 1950s, these women carried radical traditions into new movements for social justice and international cooperation.
Friedl Dicker was an artist and educator who studied at the Bauhaus school then led art classes at Terezin. In the ghetto, Dicker taught drawing to hundreds of children, designed sets and costumes for children’s performances, and made an exhibition of children’s drawings in a basement. She also created her own sketches, many of which were discovered in the 1980s.
Berta Blejman de Drucaroff was a prominent activist of the Yiddisher Kultur Farband (YKUF/ICUF) and a communist militant in anti-fascist organizations. She was president of the YKUF Women's Organization (OFI) and the main promoter of the reading circle network (leien kraizn) in Argentina.
Leslie Feinberg was a self-described “anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist.” She worked at the nexus of trans, feminist, lesbian, critical race, Jewish, and class politics. A speaker and author, Feinberg was a gifted activist and political organizer.
Ruth First was a prolific writer and her penetrating investigative journalism exposed many of the harsh conditions under which the majority of South Africans lived. As various restrictions prevented her from continuing her work as a journalist Ruth First became more and more involved with the underground movement that was changing its tactics from protest to sabotage.
Esther Frumkin was the pseudonym of the Jewish educator, writer, and socialist-turned-communist Malkah Lifchitz. Active in the Russian and later Soviet leftist political scene in the early twentieth century, Frumkin was an independent thinker and a unique woman in the Jewish labor movement. However, she drew criticism from both Jewish and Communist leaders and died in a Soviet detention camp in 1943.
Natalia Ginzburg was an Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and political activist. Ginzburg is considered one of the greatest Italian writers of the twentieth century, and her award-winning literary work is recognized for its exploration of family relationships and politics throughout fascism in modern Europe and during World War II.
A passionate idealist, Mire Gola organized anti-German resistance in World War II as a Communist in occupied Poland. She inspired others with her eloquent poetry and her fortitude through imprisonment and torture.
Ray Harmel was a powerful force in the trade union movement in Apartheid South Africa, a committed Communist, an anti-Apartheid activist, and ultimately a member of the African National Congress.
Controversial both during and after her life, Lillian Hellman was one of the leading women of letters of mid-century America and a pioneer woman playwright. Hellman displayed courage not only in writing powerful plays like The Children’s Hour but also in her public refusal to name colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In 1944, when the Germans invaded Hungary, gymnast Agnes Keleti bought fake identification papers and carried the bodies of the dead to mass graves during the battle of Budapest. After the war, she returned to gymnastics; her career highlight was the 1956 Olympics, where 35-year-old Keleti won many medals, including four gold for uneven parallel bars, balance beam, floor exercise and combined exercise-team.
As a member of the General Jewish Workers’ Bund, Helene Khatskels fought to realize socialist ideals about autonomy and liberation. As a Yiddish teacher and writer in Tsarist Russia and later the Soviet Union, she demonstrated a commitment to spreading and inspiring pride in Yiddish culture.
Lía Gilinski de Kogan, known as Leike Kogan (1911-2001), was a prominent activist in the Yiddisher Kultur Farband (YKUF/ ICUF) and its women's movement (Organización Femenina del ICUF, OFI), linked to the Yiddish-speaking section of the Argentine Communist Party. She stood out as a leader and teacher in the schools belonging to this network.