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Holocaust remembrance places an overwhelming focus on the millions of lives lost to the Nazi extermination scheme. This is not just natural, but right, as Jewish law teaches us there is nothing more valuable than human life. Nonetheless, in so doing, remembrance projects risk overlooking what else was lost: centuries of European Jewish culture, exterminated in a matter of months, the remnants banished to far-off frum communities in London, New York, and Jerusalem.
In “My Great-Grandfather the Bundist”, a new essay in the New York Review of Books, artist and journalist Molly Crabapple explores her roots in the Jewish socialist Bund, an organization almost entirely wiped out by the Nazi genocide.
The Bund was commited to doikayt – hereness – the notion that Jews had the right to exist and the right to be citizens of the countries they were born in: the right to be Jewish and German, Jewish and Polish, and so on. Bundists were fiercely anti-Zionist. To rebuff Zionists who called for a Jewish return to the ancient homeland in the Levant, they cried out their slogan: “Wherever we are, that’s our homeland.”
Then the war came, and the ghettos, the camps, the Einsatzgruppen. Crabapple writes, “Once, thousands of Jewish communities were laid like lace across the map of Eastern Europe. They had made the “here” in the Bundist concept of Hereness. By 1945, this world had vanished, along with its inhabitants.”
The popular historical view is that doikayt is what got the Bundists killed. By rejecting exodus and insisting on remaining in countries where the gentile populace by-and-large hated them, Bundists needlessly endangered themselves. When the Holocaust came, well, that was only to be expected now, wasn’t it?
That is a defeatist view of Jewish history. There will always be anti-Semites and there will always be a slightly safer place to flee to. But the story of Jewish history is not one of fleeing, fear, and annihilation – it is a tale of perseverance. Jews survived Egypt, survived the Romans, the Crusaders, and yes, even the Nazis.
Doikayt is a repudiation of everyone who has tried to kill off the Jews. It is also a deeply optimistic ideal: that despite the lingering of anti-Semitism, Jews can coexist alongside gentiles.
In her essay, Crabapple relates a passage from a Bundist’s memoirs. It is the eve of the war, and Goldstein has snuck into a Polish city where police have just led a pogrom against the Jewish community. Wandering the streets of the ghetto, Goldstein finds a Pole – a gentile, but a fellow socialist – who agrees to help plan for the defence of the city’s Jews. As the two strategize, they see Shabbat candles gleaming through a window.
“I explained to Dąbrowski the meaning of the Sabbath candles,” Goldstein wrote. “Deep in somber thought, we both walked silently through the pogromized, empty streets… a Jewish and a Polish Socialist. Perhaps, I thought, hope resides in this, that we two, Dąbrowski and I, walk here together with a single purpose.”
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