“Those who were killed in action had done their duty to the end, to the last drop of blood that soaked into the pavements of the Warsaw Ghetto. We, who did not perish, leave it up to you to keep the memory of them alive – forever”
(Marek Edelman, The Ghetto Fights)
Today on the 77th anniversary of the beginning of the three-week long resistance known as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, I want to pay tribute to a Polish-Jewish, working class activist, who was in the same organisation as Edelman – the Jewish Workers’ Bund. This activist came to Britain as a refugee after the war, and did more than most to keep the memory of the ghetto uprising and the spirit of resistance that existed among Polish Jews alive.
His name was Majer Bogdanski, a tailor, born in Piotrkow in 1912, where he became active as a trade unionist and a Bundist by his late teens. He moved to Lodz in 1935. After the war he continued to work in London as a tailor. He lived in the East End, at first, just off Brick lane and later behind Cable Street. He was active in the Labour Party and, from the mid-1980s, also in the Jewish Socialists’ Group, where he was a living link with the political tradition we were closest to.
I first encountered Majer in the early 1980s at an incredibly moving Warsaw Ghetto commemoration in the East End, which he was chairing, conducted entirely in Yiddish. Yiddish was the mother-tongue of most of those incarcerated into the ghetto, the first language of most of those deported from there to the death camp at Treblinka, and the language of most of the resistance fighters. This annual commemoration, organised by the Friends of Yiddish – a group he chaired for around 20 years – was the only regular Ghetto commemoration in Britain conducted in Yiddish.
At the time, I was one of a small number of young people there in our 20s. My Yiddish was fairly rudimentary then, but developing. There were some people in their 40s and 50s and several who were Majer’s age (he was 70 at the time), or older. Like Majer, they were post war refugees who had grown up in Poland and were in their 20s or 30s when the Nazis invaded.
Some were Holocaust survivors, others had a different trajectory like Majer himself, who had been conscripted to the Polish army when he was 21, in the early 1930s, and called up again as war broke out in 1939. Stationed in the part of Poland that was taken over by the Soviet Union, he spent a year and a half in a labour camp in Siberia, the fate of many Poles both Jewish and non-Jewish, before an agreement was eventually signed that freed the Poles and enabled them to form army units that subsequently took part in many battles against the Nazis during the rest of the war. Majer arrived here with other Polish soldiers in 1946.
In the photos above, you can see Majer with handwritten notes. Each year, he would write something new for the Friends of Yiddish ghetto commemoration, and later also for annual ghetto commemorations organised by the Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG), as well as giving talks to other groups about anti-Nazi resistance in the ghetto. He joined the JSG in the mid-1980s and remained a member until he died in 2005.
Although he always added new insights and reflections to his talks each year, certain strong themes and formulations always returned. I remembered from that first event I attended onwards, he would close his talk with a series of individuals and groups he especially wanted to mention, beginning each sentence “Mir gibn op koved…” (We honour..), and unlike some of the bigger more establishment-oriented commemorations in the Jewish community, he would always include koved for Gypsies whom, he said, “were murdered in the same way and for the same reason as the Jews”. He would always include the fighters themselves, all who engaged in cultural resistance, and he would give a special mention to a courageous individual Bundist, with whom he used to have daily contact in late 1930s Lodz – Szmul ‘Artur’ Zygielbojm – who committed suicide in London as a protest when he knew that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising had been finally crushed.
Majer would also talk with rage at those such as the “historian” David Irving who sought to minimise or even deny the Holocaust. To Majer, who had lost his wife, Esther Wolstan, almost his entire large extended family, so many close friends and comrades, and neighbours, it was unbearable. In 1935 he had married Esther Wolstan, also a Bundist, and from a family of prominent Bundist activists. They upset many of their more religious relatives by getting married in a secular civil ceremony. They were committed atheists and didn’t want either rabbis or God to be present at such an occasion. Under family pressure, they eventually had a second ceremony in a synagogue.
While Majer was incarcerated in Siberia, Esther was part of the underground resistance in Lodz. Majer later found out after the war that she had been murdered at Auschwitz. Prior to that she had been arrested and tortured but had not betrayed her fellow Bundist resisters.
Another devastating theme that recurred in Majer’s Ghetto commemoration talks was about children. He emphasised that among the 6 million Jews who were exterminated there were more than a million children. The Bund had a youth movement in Poland – Tsukunft (Future), and a children’s movement, Sotsialistisher Kinder Farband (Socialist Children’s Union/Association), known as SKIF. Majer had been a group leader at SKIF camps, known as Socialist Children’s Republics, and once wrote a beautiful piece in Jewish Socialist magazine, about being part of this evolving project of helping to nurture young people with secular, socialist, internationalist and humanitarian values. When he was active in the Labour Party here, he became a school governor and visited schools frequently.
His own childhood had been a terrible struggle against poverty. He told me once that he attributed his survival in the Siberian labour camp to the fact that in his younger life he endured weeks where his family had gone without food sometimes two or three times a week. He was used to great hardship so he developed exceptional resilience.
He had been apprenticed as a tailor when he was 13 years old, and had some income, but it was meagre. His family were worried that he might pick up the habits of other young people facing great hardship and get into pickpocketing or other petty crime, to enhance his income. As a moral counter to this, they insisted he went to evening classes at a Yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary). He went for a year. He told me that, of a class of 30 children, by the end of the year, almost none of them believed in God, quite a few became communists, some became Zionists and he gravitated towards the Bund!
His exposure to very religious Judaism, though, had an unexpected product. He was always interested in singing and music. Post-war he undertook adult education classes in music theory and learned to play the violin. He also had a magnificent singing voice which he illustrated in songs he sang at ghetto commemorations, usually songs written by Yiddish-speaking Jews under Nazi occupation He remembered many cantorial tunes from his time at the Yeshiva. After the Holocaust many of those melodies were simply lost. A culture was destroyed as well as people. But he transcribed more than 50 of the tunes he remembered and deposited them with YIVO, the Yiddish Institute in America; deeply religious tunes salvaged by the most secular of Jews. He also self-published via the radical/anarchist Freedom Press in Aldgate East, four volumes of melodies he had put to Yiddish poems.
His telling of the events of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was also enriched by his personal experience in Poland of the fight against antisemitism especially in the decade before the Nazi invasion. He was very proud that the Bund had led this fight, and also deeply appreciative of the cooperation they were able to develop in this struggle with the mainly non-Jewish socialists of the left-wing of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). He also retained a strong anger and disappointment at those who didn’t take part in this struggle, including both the ultra-orthodox, who believed God would intervene, and the Zionists, who, apart from a small very left faction, “Left Poale Zion”, did not believe that antisemitism could be combated and were concentrating more on training young people to emigrate to Palestine.
Majer’s fundamental opposition to nationalism, including Zionism, stayed with him throughout his life. And while he recognised that in the ghetto itself, Zionists, Communists and Bundists cooperated in a united fighting organisation, he was very keen to emphasise the consistent role of the Bund of militantly combating antisemitism throughout its history, from its self-defence squads against pogromists in the early 1900s, through to the efforts of its militia in the maelstrom of 1930s Poland, and then its later physical resistance in the ghettoes and in partisan units. He praised the Bund also for its work to promote secular Yiddish culture and for its continued determination to build a world free of nationalism and oppression.
And so today, on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, we should remember those who resisted in so many different ways in the ghettoes, physically, culturally, spiritually, and we should be remembering those like Majer who gave so much to the task of keeping their memory alive.