Jacob’s Grandfather

In The New York Times (where else), one Jacob Mikanowski pens “My Grandfather, the Secret Policeman”. After describing his family’s multi-generation love affair with Communism (“The family romance with Communism began with my great-grandfather Solomon…”), the piece focuses on the WWII (and post-War) exploits of his grandfather Jakub:

His story fits into a pattern. My grandfather belonged to a generation of Polish Jews that grew up with the revolution and put all their faith in it. If they survived long enough, they lived to see that faith betrayed.

For Polish Jews in the 1920s and ’30s, joining the Communist movement represented the “most radical of all possible rebellions,” in the words of the Swedish sociologist Jaff Schatz, who wrote the defining work on this generation. It was a rebellion against one’s parents and the traditions of Jewish life. It also meant participating in an illegal organization, which brought with it the constant possibility of imprisonment.

To the members of my grandfather’s generation, Communism was a way to be modern and a way to escape the shtetl. It was a way to fight anti-Semitism and oppose fascism, both in Poland and worldwide. And perhaps most important, it was way to build the future and be a part of something larger than themselves. Being a Communist was a life of total commitment, persecution and permanent insecurity. But becoming a Communist also meant an intense sense of participation in the movement of history and in the revolutionary upheaval of the world. That upheaval would come soon enough — just not in the way they expected.

Ignored is the pivotal role Jews had in suppressing Polish nationalism (that is, the desire for independence by the indigenous Poles.)

Mikanowski quickly and immediately issues the timeworn ‘get out of jail free’ card:

The participation of Jews in the Polish Communist movement eventually crystallized into a widespread stereotype. The term for it is Zydokomuna, Polish for Judeo-Communism. Usually, the word is meant as a slur, a way of equating Jews with terror and foreign usurpation. The historian André Gerrits describes it as “a xenophobic assertion, a myth, a delusion.” And indeed, it doesn’t stand up to closer historical scrutiny. Numerically, Communists were a tiny proportion of the larger Jewish community. Within the Polish Communist movement, Jews were a significant and overrepresented, minority — but still a minority. It remains a pillar of anti-Semitic discourse in Poland to this day.

On the whole, Zydokomuna — the equation of Communism with Judaism — is a delusion and, in common usage, a slur. But for my family at least, it carries a kernel of truth. My grandfather (both of them, actually) belonged to a generation caught between fascism and communism with very little room to maneuver between the two. Before the war, joining the Communist Party meant rebellion. During it, it meant survival.

Yes, it’s an ethnic slur! It’s anti-Semitism! And, even though it never happened, if it were to have happened, it “meant survival”!

Yuri Slezkine’s book The Jewish Century delves quite a bit into this. In his critical review of Slezkine’s book, Kevin MacDonald notes:

Slezkine uses Franz Boas to illustrate his patricide theory, because Boas was a radical Jew who recognized “the shackles of tradition” (p. 98). But he fails to note that Boas was hardly in rebellion against his own family. Boas was reared in a “Jewish-liberal” family in which the revolutionary ideals of 1848 remained influential, and there is ample evidence of his strong Jewish identification and concern with anti-Semitism.

Besides a few individual cases like Lukács and Boas, the only general evidence that Slezkine provides for the   patricide thesis comes from Jaff Schatz’s study of the generation of Jewish Communists who dominated the Communist movement in Poland beginning in the 1930s. But he provides a mangled account of Schatz’s work. These Jews did indeed reject their parents’ religion, but the result of their Yiddish upbringing was “a deep core of their identity, values, norms, and attitudes with which they entered the rebellious period of their youth and adulthood. This core was to be transformed in the processes of acculturation, secularization, and radicalization sometimes even to the point of explicit denial. However, it was through this deep layer that all later perceptions were filtered.” Most of these individuals spoke Yiddish in their daily lives and had only a poor command of Polish even after joining the party. They socialized entirely with other Jews whom they met in the Jewish world of work, neighborhood, and Jewish social and political organizations. After they became Communists, they dated and married among themselves, and their social gatherings were conducted in Yiddish. Their mentors and principal influences were other ethnic Jews, including especially Luxemburg and Trotsky, and when they recalled personal heroes, they were mostly Jews whose exploits achieved semimythical proportions.

In general, Jews who joined the Communist movement did not first reject their ethnic identity, and there were many who “cherished Jewish culture…[and] dreamed of a society in which Jews would be equal as Jews.” It was common for individuals to combine a strong Jewish identity with Marxism as well as various combinations of Zionism and Bundism (a movement of Jewish socialists). Moreover, the attraction of Polish Jews to Communism was greatly facilitated by their knowledge that Jews had attained high-level positions of power and influence in the Soviet Union and that the Soviet government had established a system of Jewish education and culture. In both the Soviet Union and Poland, Communism was seen as opposing anti-Semitism. In marked contrast, during the 1930s the Polish government enacted policies which excluded Jews from public-sector employment, established quotas on Jewish representation in universities and the professions, and organized boycotts of Jewish businesses and artisans. Clearly, Jews perceived Communism as good for Jews, and indeed a major contribution of Slezkine’s book is to document that Communism was good for Jews: It was a movement that never threatened Jewish group continuity, and it held the promise of Jewish power and influence and the end of state-sponsored anti-Semitism. And when this group achieved power in Poland after World War II, they liquidated the Polish nationalist movement, outlawed anti-Semitism, and established Jewish cultural and economic institutions.

Slezkine also fails to note that in the United States a strong Jewish identification was typical of Jewish radicals and that Jewish support for the left typically waxed and waned depending on specifically Jewish issues, particularly those related to anti-Semitism and support for Israel. The Jewish Old Left was a recognized part of the Jewish community, and American Jewish leftists during the 1960s were the only leftists who didn’t reject their parents—they really were “red diaper babies.”…

Traditional Jewish shtetl culture also had a very negative attitude toward Christianity, not only as the central cultural icon of the outgroup but as associated in their minds with a long history of anti-Jewish persecution. The same situation doubtless occurred in Poland, where the efforts of even the most “de-ethnicized” Jewish Communists to recruit Poles were inhibited by traditional Jewish attitudes of  superiority toward and estrangement from traditional Polish culture. In other words, the war against “rural backwardness and religion” was exactly the sort of war that a traditional Jew would have supported wholeheartedly, because it was a war against everything they hated and thought of as   oppressing them. Of course traditional shtetl Jews also hated the tsar and his government due to restrictions on Jews and because they did not think that the government did enough to rein in anti-Jewish violence. There can be little doubt that Lenin’s contempt for “the thick-skulled, boorish, inert, and bearishly savage Russian or Ukrainian peasant” was shared by the vast majority of shtetl Jews prior to the Revolution and after it.

The Comments to Mikanowski’s NYT piece are choice. The ‘Readers’ Picks’ comments extol the virtues of seeing his grandfather’s life in shades of gray, rather than black and white:

  • “Brilliant. Thank you for the reminder that we lose so much context when we oversimplify.”
  • “A nuanced and fascinating account that does not shy away from difficult questions. It is hard to find such balanced and informed writing about the past that nevertheless manages to communicate effectively with a large audience.”

Such rules never apply if you were a German soldier during WWII or an anti-Communist nationalist after WWII, in which case it is perfectly normal to ‘simplify’.

Other reader comments reflect that universal, overrepresented NYT demographic:

  • “Your story reminded me of my own grandparents who grew up in Russia, organized armed resistance against attacks on the Jewish community by the Czar’s cossacks, and eventually come to America. Here they worked in clothing sweat shops, joined the Communist Party, founded unions and fought against fascism. What communism represented to your grandfather is exactly what it represented to mine. It was a generational experience for European Jews.”
  • “My mother, a Russian Jew who came to American as a teenager met my father a Chinese from Beijing who came to America as a student met when both became members of the Communist Party. My father needing to leave NYC being chased by the FBI went to Moscow and my mother shortly followed. In 1938, my father was arrested and spent 18 years in Siberia as a political prisoner while my mother returned to Cleveland, Ohio where I was born. There are so many stories of those who joined Idealistically the Communist Party in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s who suffered much during their lifetime.”
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