Skip to main content

Border Lessons

Reflections after the 2014 Helix Project

by Mandy Cohen

Written for “Singing Against the Bad Times: An Evening of Jewish Radical Arts & History” Held at the UC Student Workers’ Union Hall, in Berkeley, August 12, 2014.

Last month I was in Warsaw. I was on my way home to L.A. after two weeks traveling with the Helix Project through places that Yiddish-speaking Jews once called Líta (Lithuania). Jews from this area are called Litvaks (Lithuanians), they have distinctive dialects of Yiddish, and a reputation as intellectuals, given that Líta was the home of the greatest yeshivas in Jewish Europe.

Today, cities and towns that once belonged to the same cluster of Russian Empire provinces are now separated not only by the borders of nation-states, but by the border of the EU, which feels like it has re-concentrated all of the energy displaced by the Schengen Area’s open borders. All of the stress of border crossing that has disappeared between, say, Poland and Germany feels manifested on Poland’s eastern border with Belarus. In order to travel through the places that were part of the 16th century’s largest state in Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, we now travel between Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania, moving between time zones, currencies, alphabets, languages, and the legacy of the Soviet Union and her satellite states.

We encourage our students to ask: why is our history skewed toward the study of the means of genocide and away from periods of coexistence?

I am an instructor in this program that offers students—Jewish and non-Jewish—an opportunity to learn about the rich intricacies, complexities, and variety of Jewish life in Europe in its 1,000-year history, focusing on Yiddish culture, literature, and daily life in the great blossoming of that culture beginning towards the end of the 19th century.

Necessarily we confront the Holocaust, as we face the reality of towns that were once 60-90% Jewish and are now 90-100% Polish, or Lithuanian, or Belarusian. But we try to contextualize the Holocaust by giving equal attention to the long history preceding it and the history that continues to be written.

Exploring creativity in the places where writers and artists lived for centuries

Exploring creativity in the places where writers and artists lived for centuries

Think about how much time was dedicated to the Holocaust in that survey of Jewish or modern European history you took in college. And how much time was devoted in that same course to the almost 300 years of relative peace and prosperity for Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian state?

How much do you know about how Jews were killed during the Holocaust? And how much do you know about the jobs those Jews had, the songs they sang, the books they read, the political parties they belonged to, the summer camps their children attended?

This imbalance in Jewish and U.S. education toward death and away from life is a focus of our program, and we encourage our students to ask: why is our history skewed toward the study of the means of genocide and away from periods of coexistence? Who writes that history, who presents it that way?

Much of what we see on our program defies our expectations and what we have been taught about Jewish life and legacy in Europe. To give just a few examples: Lithuania is home to both the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, an esteemed site for Yiddish scholars in the world, and to a state policy of teaching the “double genocide,” according to which the crimes of Communism must be given equal status to the crimes of the Nazis. Poland has the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow and, now, Warsaw’s new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened last year in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Both the Festival and the Museum, and dozens of other initiatives related to honoring the Jewish past and present in Poland, receive government support. In Belarus, our state tour guides, often young women the same age as our students, express genuine pride in Belarus’ legacy as a multiethnic state.

The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) remains the only state where Yiddish was an official state language (along with Polish, Russian, and Belarusian), and the post-war Jewish communities in cities like Minsk and Grodno were larger than in many other places, perhaps in part because Belarus has never had a nationalist movement on the scale of those of Poland, Lithuania, Germany, or, for that matter, of Zionism.

The legacy of nationalism looms large over our program, and over my own studies of Yiddish literature and culture. We learn about Józef Piłsudski, who at the founding of the Second Polish Republic in 1918 was seen as a hero to many Jews because he stood for a vision of a multiethnic Polish state, in which all citizens would have equal rights and minorities would have protections. And we learn about Roman Dmowski, the leader of the right-wing National Democratic movement that believed in a Poland for Catholic Poles and gained ground during the 1930s just as the Nazis were gaining ground in Germany.

We learn about the Bundists, the largest and most influential Jewish socialist movement both in Czarist Russia and in interwar Poland that sought to walk the fine line between celebrating and fostering Jewish workers and their culture (meaning especially Yiddish), while remaining a part of the international socialist movement and opposed to nationalism.

The Bund deeply opposed Zionism. It believed that Jewish workers should be empowered in the places where they lived, where their families had lived for generations.

Helix 2014 students stand on the site the Bund was founded in 1897, in the shadow of the (still-operating) central prison.

The Bund deeply opposed Zionism. It believed that Jewish workers should be empowered in the places where they lived, where their families had lived for generations, to fight for equal rights and a fair economic and political system, the same as every other person who called Russia or Poland home. The Bund believed that nationalism turned workers against their neighbors, rather than focusing on the true enemy: an authoritarian government that denied citizenship (let alone rights) to the residents of its territories and the capitalist system that thrived on the exploitation of working people.

In Warsaw last month, I heard Israeli Hebrew in the lobby of my hotel and saw groups of Israeli teenagers on the street. Warsaw is one of the hubs of Holocaust tourism, which consists largely of American and Israeli Jews coming to Poland to visit sites of atrocity associated with the Holocaust. I visited the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which shares a square with the monument to the Ghetto Heroes. The core exhibit of the museum is still not open, so my tour of the building consisted of just me and an Israeli couple. We chatted after the tour, each curious about what the other was doing there. I tell them about the program I work with, and mention that I’ve never been to Israel. The man says, “How can you teach about the history of Jews in Europe and not come to Israel?” I mirror his puzzled tone, “Because…we learn about it here, in Europe.” He shakes his head at me, “But Israel is where it all comes from. You must come. You must.” I shrug, and this effectively ends our conversation. I tell them my favorite places to visit in Warsaw, and say I hope they enjoy it.

In the ruined, vast Jewish cemetery in the former shtetl Amdur (Indura, Belarus) horses graze where few — if ever — visit.

It ends our conversation because none of the poets I study come from Israel. None of the political movements. None of the folktales and songs. None of the food. And especially not the language. Yiddish is not a good language for a nationalist movement, as its detractors used to say to insult it and some now say in celebration: Yiddish is a mongrel language. It has mixed blood: Semitic, Germanic, Slavic, Romance. Yiddish reflects the exchange between Jews and non-Jews over those hundreds of years among German and Slavic-speaking neighbors. Berries tend to have Slavic names. Bentshn-likht, Yiddish for lighting Shabes candles comes from the Latin root of benediction and the Germanic root of light.

And more importantly, because his assertion of what I “must” do to understand Jewish history is a nationalist one. But when I study Jewish history, when I confront the Holocaust as I do every time I enter the ruins of a beys-oylem (cemetery) in small towns throughout what used to be Líta, I see the victims of nationalism. When I study Jewish history, I study people who believed that Jews and their neighbors were capable of looking beyond the differences in their religious practices or languages, to see the commonality of their shared history and struggles. They believed, and had evidence in history, that different ethnic groups could live together, and some even believed they could find ways to live together without erasing difference.

Walking through Warsaw, stepping over the brass plating embedded in the sidewalks of the city inscribed “Mur Getta • Ghetto Wall, 1940-1943,” I thought about so many borders, and the violence that they mark, whether in the partitioning of Poland, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Polish-Soviet and Polish-Lithuanian Wars, the Berlin wall, inside and outside the ghettos. And here, in the U.S.: in redlined neighborhoods, shantytowns, today’s economic ghettos. And in Israel-Palestine—in the walls, in the checkpoints, in the settlements. Standing on the site of the Warsaw ghetto, hearing Israeli Hebrew spoken around me, I thought about Gaza. And a deeply cynical, deeply hurt, deeply hopeless voice within me thinks: do Israelis and Americans really need to come all the way to Warsaw to learn about ghettos? And a more hopeful voice, the voice of a student and a teacher wonders, what if more of us came to Warsaw not to reinforce a history of oppression, but to study the legacy of those proposing ways to eradicate it?

I’d like to end with a few paragraphs from an essay by a Bundist leader named Leyvick Hodes, written in 1947—in the direct aftermath of World War Two and a year before the establishment of the State of Israel. In it, he discusses the need to maintain hope:

“The great Jewish catastrophe has weakened the position of the Bund. In Poland, in the land of greatest Jewish creativity, one cannot find those millions of Jews, those hundreds of thousands of workers, artisans, regular people, from the fertile soil of whose lives and struggles the Bund drew the juices of growth and development. That is a tragedy not only for the Bund, but for the entire Jewish people. One cannot speak of ‘victors’ and ‘losers’ on the Jewish street. War has left all parts of the Jewish people defeated.
The idea of the Bund is a profound belief in mankind. The tendencies that are hostile to the Bund are based on the lack of this belief. The idea of belief in mankind is not popular today. In these last years we have all seen it become deeply debased, despoiled, and spat on. But if man is at heart a beast, no amount of running away will help. If there is no tikun, no redemption for mankind, then there is no redemption for the Jews. The beast will hunt those who run and meet them everywhere. If the belief disappears, then every hope disappears. The victory of the Zionist idea is a victory for the failure of belief in humanity, it is a complete victory for hopelessness.
The Bund has always put its cards on socialism, which means a better future for all humanity—and for all the peoples that make it up. If the dream of socialism becomes true, then there is no one to run from; if the dream dissipates, like so many other of mankind’s better dreams, then there is nowhere to run to. The mirage of a little ‘statelet’ surrounded by enemies is no amulet against anti-Semitism and extermination.
The Bund has always fought for continuity, for creative national life, for doïkayt (hereness), for the right to remain rooted in the ground where the Jewish masses live and fight. This idea received from Nazism the most painful blow. The remnants of the Jewish masses lurch through the camps, wander around homeless, or float like splinters on the foaming waves of the stormy post-war world. But with every day, it becomes clearer that the pathway to healing these wounded is not through increasing the number of helpless wanderers, not through increasing the number of uprooted refugees, but through building and rebuilding…
For more than 50 years, [since the founding of the Bund and Zionism] a battle of ideas has been conducted on the Jewish street: on one side, tendencies that spring from lack of belief and despair; on the other side—the Bund—which remains faithful with its gaze fixed on the horizon of a new and liberated world.”

Los Angeles • August 2014