Hope for a different future on Warsaw’s streets

IMG_9396Warsaw 19th April, 2019, 12 noon. Crowds gather either side of the 11 metres high Ghetto Fighters’ monument made of granite that, ironically, was sourced by the Nazis. They intended to build a monument to mark their victory in Warsaw. They never did. Warsaw was a city of resistance. They would have had to build it on rubble in any case. Their only way of suppressing the people of Warsaw, ultimately, was by destroying large sections of it. They ghettoised the Jews who had made up a third of the city’s pre-war population, and deported most of them to the death camp at Treblinka. They put down a remarkable, three-week long guerrilla campaign by hundreds of barely-trained fighters aged from 13-40 years of age. They terrorised Warsaw’s non-Jews, defeating the uprising they led 16 months later. Small numbers of Jews who survived the burning of the ghetto in 1943 were hidden but emerged to fight in the ’44 city uprising.

Sirens blast out for one minute, during which we are united in silence, but the ceremonies on either side of the memorial are remarkably different.

On one side, armed soldiers, uniformed choirs, and the national flags of Poland and Israel, two countries whose current governments are themselves part of a tide of ultra-nationalism that threatens to bring back the dark days of the 1930s.

On our side of the memorial, the hope for a different future manifests itself. A bright IMG_9418pink/purple banner has the slogan “We will outlive them!” in several languages including Yiddish – the mother tongue of Warsaw’s Jews that Hitler’s forces tried to to bury with the Jews. But on this day, nearly 75 years after Hitler died, Yiddish words are again sung on Warsaw’s streets.

Our flags and banners are internationalist and anti-nationalist. Red flags with the symbols of the Jewish Socialist Bund, who fought for better lives for oppressed workers from their inception in 1897, and who, together with other left-wing currents, were the backbone of IMG_9414resistance in Nazi-occupied Poland. Alongside the Bund flags is one with the International Brigade colours celebrating those who left Poland to fight Franco’s fascists in Spain. One side of the banner is in Yiddish – underlining the role played by internationalist Jews in the Naftali Botwin company of the Dombrowski Battalion.

I am there myself as part of a contingent of the Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) in Britain acting to express international solidarity and to strengthen our own links to the Bundist past and present. We have spent a study week in Warsaw, choosing this particular week so that on the Friday we could be part of this alternative ceremony.

After a short initial speech from Zuzanna Hertzberg – one of the key organisers – a choir IMG_9417 (1) from a Warsaw school that emphasises its multicultural curriculum, sings resistance songs in Yiddish. Few, if any of them, are Jewish but their diction is perfect and their identification with the meaning of what they sing shines through. Some songs are familiar, others new to us. We had spent the previous evening  with  “Warszawianka” – a revolutionary choir who led a workshop with us in the working class district of Praga.

Britain’s Jewish establishment disdain Yiddish in favour of Hebrew, representing Israel’s national culture as “Jewish culture” in the diaspora too. They help to repress the fighting history of the Bund in favour of “heroic” Zionist narratives. But we return to Britain with new Yiddish songs, learned in Poland from the revolutionary choir and the school choir.

In contrast to the strict and militaristic order being maintained by the more static “official” commemoration, ours is free-flowing. When we move, it is like a gently moving wave, which flows outwards then together again along our route to several stopping points. People, young and old, are wearing ordinary clothes. Friends greet each other warmly. Our own improvised JSG placards, made an hour before the ceremony, attract lots of positive attention.

We stop on the corner of the square that holds the Fighters’ Monument, for more songsIMG_9412 before we move over to the sculpture of a shattered world to represent the courageous Bundist, Szmul Zygielbojm who committed suicide in London as a political act, having read of the final destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the allies’ failure at the Bermuda Conference to propose drastic rescue action. This monument is particularly poignant for us, as it was our group working together with Bundist survivors, who established a plaque for Zygielbojm in London in the 1990s. Here the cracks in the shattered world are soon crammed with daffodils, the flower resembling the Yellow star in bloom, which Nazis made Jews wear in Germany, and some other lands under Hitler’s regime. The Bundist, Marek Edelman, the last surviving member of the command group that led the Ghetto Uprising, brought daffodils to such ceremonies until he died in 2009

There are poems and readings in Polish. A young choir performs “Es brent” – “It is burning”: a call to arms, written by the Krakowian songwriter, carpenter and socialist, Mordkhe Gebirtig, in the wake of pogroms committed by Poland’s National Radical Camp in  the 1930s. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is today working to rehabilitate the reputation of the National Radical Camp of the 1930s. And here by Zygielbojm’s monument the authorities have placed the flags of Poland and Israel. Zygielbojm was as fierce a critic and opponent of Jewish nationalism as he was of Polish nationalism. He would be turning in his grave if he could see them.

From there we move towards the stark monument on a small hill at Mila 18, where most of the exhausted and hungry survivors from nearly three weeks of battles with the most powerful of armies, were trapped in a bunker surrounded by the Nazis. They did not let the Nazis have the pleasure of killing them: they killed themselves, but a group led by IMG_9229Marek Edelman dissented and sought to escape through the sewers. As we walked towards Mila 18 we were found among the crowd by Hania Szmalenberg,  who earlier in the week walked us through the memorials and showed us how she had re-landscaped the original memorial and and added one in English, Polish and Yiddish closer to the road.

Here, the choir sing Zog nisht keynmol as du geyst dem leytstn veg, (Never say you are going down the last road), and powerful poems and readings are performed. The crowd probably some 400 or 500 strong by now winds round into Stawski Street and ends its walk where thousands upon thousands of ghetto Jews of 1942 were forced to assemble – at the deportation point, the Umshlagplatz – whose beautiful memorial was also designed by Hania. More songs and meaningful words fill the air, including a recording of Marek Edelman reading Zygielbojm’s suicide note, before the crowd gradually disperse.

It had been the most incredibly powerful act of remembrance, empathy and solidarity. To see the symbols of the Bund on flags and t-shirts and hear the words of Bundists sung and spoken by a new generation of activists, 70 years after they finally disbanded their organisation in Poland under pressure from its new rulers, was truly moving and uplifting. As one of our placards read: Zol lebn der Bund! Long live the Bund!
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Speak for yourself, not for us

It is bad enough that the “Jewish Labour Movement” (JLM) falsely proclaims itself the sole representative of Jews in the Labour Party. Most of the many Jews I know in the Labour Party are not members of JLM and disagree with them on many issues. But if its AGM today is anything to go by, its delusions of grandeur are becoming  even bigger, even as the size of its AGMs get smaller (I noticed that one of its votes was carried by 81-67. OK some may have abstained but that’s barely 150 people form an organisation claiming to have 2,000 members). One of its resolutions declared that “a Labour Government led by him (Jeremy Corbyn) would not be in the interests of British Jews.”

So we all have one common set of interests now? That’s interesting. And the JLM knows what it is, so it says.

Of course they are not the only ones who make such claims. In official figures the BritishScreen Shot 2019-04-07 at 20.25.32  Jewish community, mainly based on synagogues and involvement in official Jewish institutions, plus guestimates, comprises around 290,000 people. Unofficially it is surely bigger, but the Jewish Chronicle regularly proclaims what “the Jewish community ” thinks, wants, or condemns. Yet it is in serious decline from a circulation of 80,000+ less than 20 years ago, its 2018 circulation were little more than 21,000 and a third of those were free copies.

At a basic political level the JLM might speak for pro-Zionist and increasingly right-wing  Jews in the Labour Party, at a time when the party has swung to the left, but it certainly doesn’t speak for the many non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish Labour Party members I know. And by the relative absence of the JLM from most anti-racist and anti-fascist mobilisations in recent years, it certainly doesn’t “represent” those Jews most actively engaged in this area of work. I have far more frequently seen Jewish Voice for Labour members on such mobilisations, or Labour members who are also members of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, both marching and speaking on platforms.

I would not presume to proclaim what is in the interests of “the Jews”, but I really cannot imagine that the person who drafted this resolution had any real experience of meeting unemployed Jews, Jewish pensioners and single mothers just scraping by, or Jews who are struggling as they use under-resourced mental health services. I have known many of them.

48D7973A00000578-5347705-image-a-4_1517664725238Would it really be accurate to describe a Corbyn-led Labour government as not in the interests of many Jews who work in the NHS, social work or social care sectors, or the education services, where all such workers have been struggling with the double whammy of Tory cuts and privatisation. And what about self-employed Jewish shopkeepers  struggling to keep their businesses afloat under a government that favours big capital over small?

It strikes me also as the arrogant kind of statement made by someone who actually accepts the antisemites’ stereotypes that all Jews are rich.

A few months ago I was privileged to attend a book launch in the East End where the author had interviewed several elderly locals about their experience as women in the East End in the 1930s and ’40s. Most of the women who spoke at the event were Jews who had lived in the East End all their lives. It was very clear from their presentations what their values and concerns were. What kept them awake at night was not an over-the-top social media tweet or Facebook post someone had written about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, but whether they will get the repairs they need to their council accommodation, whether they can expect to continue getting the same level of NHS support, whether they could afford to keep up with the cost of living – in other words the same set of concerns that their non-Jewish working class neighbours were facing.

Of course they had some additional concerns. Those who lived there through the 1930s and the terror brought by Mosley’s movement are aware that the far-right are becoming a growing menace again. They certainly know that they won’t find the answers to that on the right-wing of British politics. For them Labour has always been the party of equality. But why doesn’t the JLM care about them?

Jeremy Corbyn and the people around him have already created a revolution in the Labour Party, moulding it into a consciously anti-austerity force, trebling its membership and putting equality, health, education, housing, workers’ rights and anti-racism at the very centre of the Labour Party’s concerns. They are not satisfied to be just a little nicer than the Nasty Party. The gap between the parties has widened under Corbyn’s leadership, and it is surely Labour that is clearly on the side of the people most in need of economic security and social support. That may not include every Jew – probably not Jewish Tory-supporters, or the very comfortably off such as Lord Levy or Alan Sugar – but it includes a hell of a lot of other ordinary Jews.

Some other Jews have made it very clear they do not welcome a Corbyn-led government; MMB5JI4WKWTTSXH437BOthose such as Luciana Berger, who have turned their backs on Labour, joined with those who voted for austerity, and work explicitly against Labour now. Is it any wonder that at the same JLM conference where they showed such contempt for working class interests, that they praised the turncoat Luciana Berger?

The Tories’ days are numbered. They are split and severely weakened. Labour has won several parliamentary victories over them. This is the time for maximum Labour Party and Labour Movement unity and for all who want a better and fairer society after years of austerity, to keep our eyes on the prize. Maybe nobody told the JLM. Unfortunately their antics will simply produce a couple of days of more anti-Corbyn headlines to take the heat off the Tories. It won’t be those who need a better and fairer society, including many Jews, who will be thanking them.





Let’s learn our histories and reclaim this city


Ash Sarkar. Photo: Neda Radulovic-Viswanatha

In her foreword to the new edition of my book Rebel Footprints, Ash Sarkar, senior editor at Novara Media, writes that “London has always been a city of thieves… but of collective struggle too. Our city belongs to the tailors and bakers, the matchwomen, rioters and rent strikers – and perhaps if we draw inspiration from these repertoires of organising and insurrection, it could belong to us too.”

She elaborated on these themes at the official launch of the book in the Brockway Room at Conway Hall, a room named after a radical socialist, humanist, pacifist campaigner, who himself features in two of the chapters. it was fitting, given the many stories of women organising for equality that the book covers, that the room itself was decorated with an exhibition of feminist posters from the struggles of recent decades.

Four years ago, when the first edition was launched, the then longstanding backbench

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photo: Neda Radulovic-Viswanatha

Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, who has a great enthusiasm for radical history, spoke eloquently about the importance of learning from those “peoples’ histories”. Three months later he threw his name into the hat to contest the Labour leadership.

His busy diary has become even more busy in those last four years but he once again gave such a passionate speech recalling the Chartists’ armed uprising in Newport and  rent strikes in Glasgow, emphasising how important it is that these histories are known about especially by younger campaigners, and how every gain that has been made has been achieved through struggle.

The new edition has two brand new chapters with maps and annotated walks. I read excerpts from both. One of the new chapters “Writers and rioters in the Fleet Street precinct” discusses the birth of the innocuously named London Corresponding Society (LCS) in the repressive decade of the 1790s that followed the French Revolution and the role of the right-wing press (with its echoes in the present):

“Encouraged by government ministers, the right-wing press attacked the LCS as ‘a motley crew of pickpockets, seditionists, modern reformers, housebreakers, and revolutionists’.
Newspaper cartoonists ridiculed them in the press and incited violence against their leaders. Hardy’s heavily pregnant wife escaped a baying mob by climbing awkwardly out of a back exit of their home when it was surrounded. Her child was stillborn.

I spoke about an open air meeting they held in Copenhagen Fields, Islington in 1795 attended by many tens of thousands.

“The chair of the meeting, John Binns, spoke of threats and insults to the society’s members and the cruel and unjust treatment they had received, but he urged ‘every true and sincere friend of liberty’ to ‘boldly deliver his real sentiments’. He warned: ‘When the citizens of Britain become careless and indifferent about the preservations of their rights, or the choice of their representatives . . . arbitrary power is essentially introduced, and the utter extinction of individual liberty and the establishment of general despotism are inevitable.’

I also read from the other new chapter about housing struggles in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green from the 1880s to the 1930s. Two early campaigners were Charles Mowbray and Frank Kitz, who both lived in the Old Nichol, considered one of London’s worst slums. They established a cooperative “printery” there. Its furnishing and resourcing was described beautifully by Kitz:

Our seating accommodation was made of packing cases. A paving stone was our marking up stone and ink slab combined. Candles stuck in the composing cases was our lighting installation, and a roller handpress our machinery…
Mowbray and Kitz raised money for printing materials through
concerts and lotteries. Additional materials, Kitz recalled, ‘were supplied by involuntary contributions from printing firms where some of our members were employed . . . a well known firm of
government printers furnished us with some excellent ink, paper and other requisites for printing our revolutionary manifestos and addresses.'”


Robb Johnson. Photo: Neda Radulovic-Viswanatha

The launch event also featured singer/songwriter Robb Johnson, who finished with a rousing version of his rebellious song Be Reasonable and Demand the Impossible Now.

In addition to the new chapters all the existing chapters have had some reworking but the book retains an important theme from the first edition of highlighting especially, the role that transnational migrants have played in the struggles for equality for all. In the concluding chapter I quote the London-born Cypriot poet and writer Anthony Anaxagorou who says: ‘Rebellion is when you look society in the face and say I understand who you want me to be, but I’m going to show you who I actually am.’ I comment that Anaxgorou “captures the spirit of defiance, the refusal to accept second-class status, and the drive for change that has animated movements for better lives in London over the last 200 years.”

Copies of the new edition of Rebel Footprints will be in the shops this week. You can also order it directly from Pluto Press on this link: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745338552/rebel-footprints-second-edition/