Bernard Goldstein’s memoir describes a hard world of taverns, toughs, thieves, and prostitutes; of slaughterhouse workers, handcart porters, and wagon drivers; and of fist- and gunfights with everyone from anti-Semites and Communists to hostile police, which is to say that it depicts a totally different view of life in prewar Poland than the one usually portrayed. As such, the book offers a corrective view in the form of social history, one that commands attention and demands respect for the vitality and activism of the generation of Polish Jews so brutally annihilated by the barbarism of the Nazis.

In Warsaw, a city with over 300,000 Jews (one third of the population), Goldstein was the Jewish Labor Bund’s “enforcer,” organizer, and head of their militia—the one who carried out daily, on-the-street organization of unions; the fighting off of Communists, Polish anti-Semitic hooligans, and antagonistic police; marshaling and protecting demonstrations; and even settling family disputes, some of them arising from the new secular, socialist culture being fostered by the Bund.

Goldstein’s is a portrait of tough Jews willing to do battle—worldly, modern individuals dedicated to their folk culture and the survival of their people. It delivers an unparalleled street-level view of vibrant Jewish life in Poland between the wars: of Jewish masses entering modern life, of Jewish workers fighting for their rights, of optimism, of greater assertiveness and self-confidence, of armed combat, and even of scenes depicting the seamy, semi-criminal elements. It provides a representation of life in Poland before the great catastrophe of World War II, a life of flowering literary activity, secular political journalism, successful political struggle, immersion in modern politics, fights for worker rights and benefits, a strong social-democratic labor movement, creation of a secular school system in Yiddish, and a youth movement that later provided the heroic fighters for the courageous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

About the Author:

Bernard Goldstein

Bernard Goldstein dedicated his life to the Jewish labor movement in Poland. An ordinary worker, he rose to a position of prominence in the Jewish Labor Bund, the premier political representative of the Jewish working class in pre-WW II Poland. His life and work were intimately entwined with the Bund. He was its chief trade union organizer in Warsaw, and its militia organizer and commander. He wrote two books, this one and The Stars Bear Witness.

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Why didn’t he come to America, where, for the first time in Western history, Jewish folks would not only think that they were part of the Society around them, but their neighbors thought that they (Jews or Poles- who cares?) belonged too. My grandparents came from Ireland in the 1890’s to become Americans, a sure thing because there were lots of folks like them who’d already pulled it off. Same for a Jew from Warsaw in the 1930’s

    • He didn’t came to America because special laws where enacted specifically to limit / prohibit Jewish immigration in general and from Eastern Europe in particular. Only people with special permits / visas received permission to come in. That is why the St. Louis had to sail back to Germany.

      • I stand corrected, and ashamed. I understand that most Jewish immigration occurred in the first 25 years of the 20th Century. I didn’t know that it was artificially halted.

        My four grandparents came from Ireland in the 1880-1890 era. One of the advantages of being of Irish ancestry is never getting into a bar fight by asserting ethnic superiority. Just the ability to have fun and mercilessly torture the English language to the point of blarney.

        In contrast, no ethnic group has contributed more to America, pound for pound, than Jewish folks. This extends from the arts to business to social justice to the moral decency underpinnings of the Democratic Party. I have no idea why this is true; it is just obvious.

        This is why, as a patriotic American, I consider Israel as our chief rival for talent. Anytime the folks there, mostly one generation or two from Europe, get tired of being hated by the natives and neighbors, they are welcome to come to America. They will become Americans like everybody else, including their relatives who got on the right boat.

        Joe Martin