Female Figures in the Bund

Anna Rozental


Women have always played a noticeable role in the Bund movement. Even at the dawn of the Jewish labor movement they were distinguished by their number and activity. The mass movement in Vilna began with the strikes of female tobacco workers, stocking makers, and others. The passive female masses were roused and individual female workers proved capable activists and occupied responsible, dignified posts in the movement’s leadership. Marie Zhaludski, Tsivie Hurwitz, Mirl Goldman, and others were strong personalities with sharp and clear heads, with ardent temperaments.

And a curious thing: the illegal movement attracted female activists more so than today, when the movement has emerged from the underground. How is this to be explained? Do female Bundists have a distinct inclination towards illegality? Surely not. There are deeper reasons.

Illegal work demanded a lot of faith, devotion, self-sacrifice. To work in a secret publishing house, distribute literature, appear at labor assemblies, ignite the masses with ardent feeling of enthusiasm—these were the tasks of the Bund’s female activists. The legal movement demands speakers, writers, political activists, and wide-ranging organizers. Life has not prepared women of this kind in great numbers. Gradually, with effort, the masses of women are adapting to the new forms of the movement.

In the solemn days of our anniversary, I wish to talk about the past and cite the glorious female figures with which our party was so rich. A whole line of such women runs through my memory and it is hard to decide which of them should be immortalized in the pages of the anniversary edition. I wish to select those who were emblematic, representative, who embodied a whole school of thought. And may their sisters forgive me, both those who have passed away and those who are still living, if my choices are not objective: personal relations must influence my selection.

In chronological order, there proceeds out before my eyes a quiet, unassuming girl—Taybetshke Oshmianska—later Mrs. Zeldov. She came from Wilkomir, Kovno province—a city from which Avrom Mutnik, Sender Zeldov-Niemanski, Roza Levit, Sonia Leibowitz, and others also came. In that circle she became a fighter. She arrived in Vilna at the very beginning of the movement. Starved. Having educated herself, she gives workers lessons in reading and writing in the late evening hours, when they are freed from the fourteen-to sixteen-hour workday. She is always occupied with the movement, carries around literature to disperse, houses the storehouse at her own home, is constantly with workers, agitates, encourages, communicates with the center, relays decrees.

Such girls were in every city. Who remembers them? These are the unknown soldiers, whose names history did not even register.

Taybetshke died in 1935, in Leningrad. In her last years she worked as a dentist in a textile factory. Held the same wholehearted relations with female workers, who used to confide all their secrets and pour their hearts out to her. She remained a Bundist until her last breath.

Ludwig Börne exclaims in his article on Poland: “Hats off! I am going to speak of the Polish women!” In the Bund, people don’t love fervor and tall phrases, but perhaps Börne’s words would fit this name: Esther Riskind.

A legend was woven around her life and tragic death. A Hasidic daughter from Liady, the seat of the Hasidic Shneerson rabbis, a descendant of their dynasty, she was brought up as a kosher Hasidic daughter. At the age of sixteen—betrothed to a Hasid. On the eve of the wedding she runs away from home, arrives in Kharkov, learns a trade, and falls in with the circle of the propagandists, which was managed by Pavel Rozental-Anman, at that time still a student of medicine.

When Pavel settles in Bialystok, she goes there as well and takes her first steps in the labor movement. Her entire physical appearance is original and enchanting. One is immediately struck by it—a tall, slender girl. B. Vladek writes about her:

Esther was dark as a gypsy woman. Her eyes burned with a moving fire. Her dark countenance was set in a frame of pitch-black hair. And when she spoke, it seemed to me that she knew something more, something deep, secret, hidden.1

From the first day of her arrival in Bialystok, she enters the movement heart and soul. A person with a strong intellect, with fine literary and aesthetic taste, she merges with the working masses. She soon becomes especially loved by the workers, lives a common life with them. She imparts Hasidic fervor to the movement. From Bialystok, she travels to Warsaw, where she finds a broad field of work and can also satisfy her literary and artistic inclinations. She approaches the circle of young writers who gathered around [I. L.] Peretz. There, too, she becomes loved and respected. Avrom Reisen dedicates enthusiastic pages to her in his memoirs. Here is what he writes of his first acquaintance with her:

Esther, a well-known Bundist, who around 1902 had just recently come to Warsaw, made an impression in our circles. . . . Before I met her myself, Nomberg told me of an interesting socialist activist, who possessed great intelligence and even had a refined taste for literature.2

In Warsaw she is arrested several times and sent off to Siberia. She escapes abroad. At the first thunders of the revolution of 1905, she returns. She works in Vilna, in Bialystok, where she meets her dreadful and senseless death (August 1905).

As always and everywhere, her position is amid the crowd—in the most perilous places. At the exchange, on Surazher Street, the police are whipping up the crowd. The anarchists throw a bomb at a police patrol so clumsily that it strikes Esther and rips to shreds the most beautiful and glorious person that the labor movement had produced.

She left in everyone an impression of something violent and radiant, which had passed over the dark labor movement and was suddenly extinguished.

The female figure I will now present is perhaps not so dazzling and colorful, but no less deep and appealing, and her fate no less tragic. This is our beloved Rosa Levit-Frida.

If my lines should miraculously reach her, let her not be offended by my presuming to write about her. But miracles do not happen in our time and this grants me courage and boldness for the description.

Who of the elder generation of Bundists did not know Frida and who did not work with her? A few biographical notes:

She is from Wilkomir. Stems from wealthy parents, great aristocrats. The one daughter among several sons, she is raised and pampered as a cherished only daughter. She travels abroad to study and there she comes to be a ripe revolutionary. Despite her upbringing, she is a people’s person, rapidly grows accustomed to life in the labor environment.

At that time, personal relationships with the workers played a colossal role. She is very gifted and full of revolutionary zest. She knows Yiddish well and writes proclamations, articles in the illegal press, translates. In 1907, in Vilna, she publishes Der shnaider, the organ of the needle-workers. Still, today, one cannot read the proclamations that came from beneath her pen without excitement, as, for example: “55 Casualties” published . . . after the trial of the followers of the Romanovs.

She is a good speaker. Her speeches inflame because she, herself, always burns with the holy fire of belief and enthusiasm. She works in all the great centers of the Bund movement. She knows people in Warsaw, Lódz, Vilna. She works as if intoxicated, runs from one assembly to another; nothing is too hard for her. She doesn’t eat, doesn’t drink, today spends the night here, tomorrow there. She is so busy, so absorbed in the movement, that she cannot, organically, think about conspiracy. Her briefcase is always full of little papers. Her whole being is so classically revolutionary that she immediately attracts the eyes of the spies and is often captured. As soon as she is released, she is instantly on the job somewhere once again. Her strongest defining trait is that she constantly strives for the most dangerous positions.

The revolutions of 1917 found her in Russia. From the year 1921 on, she is never free of Soviet prisons and exile. She remained a convinced Bundist. Such people do not bow.

(Comrade Leybetshke [Berman] gives a wonderful depiction of Comrade Frida in his book In loyf fun yorn.)

I want to end with a female figure of a different cut. A worker with a sharp intellect, a great deal of knowledge and of broad political scope. This is the one so unknown to many of us: Sora Fuchs.

A worker, a stocking maker, she educates herself. Travels abroad in 1909 (Switzerland, Germany), where she works in a factory and studies as well, becomes acquainted with the German labor movement. Returns with great intellectual baggage and a lot of experience. She works in the great centers—such as Lódz, Warsaw. In the war years we see her in southern Russia. The revolution sends her out to the front. At the tenth conference of the Bund, in April 1917, just after the revolution, she gives a lecture.

At the Jewish convention in Kiev of the same year, she is the only woman among hundreds of delegates, and how great is the terror and discomfit of the rabbis, when she appears on the stage! The petite, unassuming girl stands calm and self-assured, and she attracts the general attention of the audience with her logical and to-the-point presentation. She manages the election campaign for the city councils in Ukraine. She appears at assemblies attended by thousands and soon becomes enormously popular in Kiev, Berdichev, and other cities.

The Bolsheviks’ October uprising cuts her activity short. She has a different view of the course of the revolution. In December 1918, she writes in a letter to a friend: “I do not imagine any social democracy without democracy and it becomes awful at the thought of what sort of a long hard road is still in store and if the S.D. will be able to begin anew.”

She is sincere and straightforward. With disgust she observes how people rapidly conform, how they change their convictions, like gloves. She feels alone and useless in life. In the same letter she writes: “I know that people with opinions and spirits such as these will now be stoned or (in the best case scenario) spat upon. I know that there is no place among the living for people of my type, they are superfluous. . . .”

The last blow was her arrest. She, the revolutionary from head to toe, is accused—of “Counter-Revolution.” She did not have any personal life; she devoted everything to the labor movement. Without it she couldn’t live and on 24 June 1919 she went to Kiev and threw herself into the Dnieper.

So lived and fought our elder generation of female Bundists.

Translated by


B. Vladek, In lebn un shafn: Esther Riskind (p. 111).

Avrom Reisen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn, second part, 64–65.


Anna Rozental, “Froien–geshtaltn in ‘Bund’” [Female Figures in the Bund], from Naye Folkstzeitung (19 November 1937), in Unser tsait, vol. 10–12 (October– December, 1972), pp. 78–81.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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