About Covenant
Previous Issues
Letters to the Editor
Contact Us

Volume 1, Issue 3 (October 2007 / Cheshvan 5768)
Article 2/10

Jews, Communists and Jewish Communists, in Poland, Europe
and Beyond
By Stanislaw Krajewski

Abstract: This paper studies the problem of Jews, communism and Jewish communists, primarily with a Jewish audience in mind.. Despite there having been Jewish communists, who like other communists may have been victimizers, there was no such phenomenon as Jewish communism. The Jews who remained in Eastern Europe were often victims rather than victimizers. The number of Jewish communists was important, but not as large as antisemites asserted. The problem lies in the quasi-religious zeal of communists who were Jews. The message is that communism does pose a moral problem to Jews.

Ten Theses

  1. Marxism, radical leftist ideologies, and “real socialism” constitute not only a fragment of world history, and of Polish or Hungarian histories, but also a chapter in Jewish history.
  2. Antisemites have grossly exaggerated the Jewish involvement in communism, distorted the facts, and interpreted them according to mythical conspiracy theories. Jews were also victims of communism.
  3. Jewish communists rarely cared about Jewish concerns and often virtually stopped being Jewish.
  4. Some of those who had abandoned Jewishness later came back. The number of Jewish communists, and their role, was so important that other Jews must not ignore it.
  5. The deepest problem is posed by the quasi-religious character of the communist involvement of some Jews.
  6. There is no distinctive Jewish radicalism. There is no “Jewish Communism.” Jews became communists because of general social trends.
  7. It was not Judaism or Jewish traditions but the social situation that led Jews to communist involvement.
  8. Participation in evil can begin with noble and selfless intentions.
  9. Moral responsibility can be indirect. Re-emerging Jewish communities in Eastern Europe should face the legacy of Jewish participation in communism. However, accepting a Jewish share of moral responsibility does not make non-Jews less responsible.
  10. Objective research is needed to clarify the extent and the nature of the Jewish participation in communism. The tragic consequences of the antisemitic myth of “Jewish Communism” should impose no taboo. .

Introductory remarks

The phrase “Jews and communism” brings to mind to two sets of immediate associations.
The first image, common in the West, is that of the persecutions of Jews in communist countries: the destruction of religious traditions; the doctors’ plot, and more generally Stalin’s antisemitism that almost led to large scale murder of Jews; the fate of refuseniks and discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union; official antisemitism in Poland in 1967-68.

The second set of associations, popular in East Central Europe and beyond, is expressed as the image of “Jewish Communism”: Jews as the founders of the leftist movements and as communist leaders in the states that were governed by communist parties; persecuting Christian religions, pre-eminent in the bloody communist dictatorships.

Now, the first image is true but it does not represent the total picture of the relationship of Jews with communism. The second image is false but it does point to certain facts, specifically to the large number of Jews among active communists. As Andre W.M. Gerrits put it, the power of the association of Jews with communism comes from the fact that “it was based on elements of fiction and reality.”[1]  The myth of “Jewish Communism” is only a myth. What is real is the existence and importance of Jewish Communists. The distinction made by Gerrits had been made earlier by Jaff Schatz in the most important book-length study of the topic,[2] and also by myself.[3] This reality has been subjected to surprisingly little research.

The neglected topic--which I propose to consider now--is then not so much “Jews and communism,” or “Jews under communism,” and certainly not “Jewish Communism,” but rather “Jewish communists.” In addition to seeing this topic as a subject for scholarly research I propose its less objective variant: “Jewish communists as a Jewish concern.”

My remarks can serve only as an introduction to a problem that in my opinion deserves study by scholars and reflection by Jews, even those who have never met a communist.[4]

It should be also mentioned that my interest is not devoid of personal motivation. In the 1970s I read a remarkable book of conversations between two great writers, Czeslaw Milosz and Aleksander Wat, Pamiętnik mówiony [Spoken Diary], in Polish. Wat recalled that a certain communist leader functioned as a “Tzaddik” to his followers. That leader, Adolf Warski, one of founders of the Communist Party, later member of Polish parliament, murdered in Russia during Stalinist terror, happened to be my great-grandfather.

Comments on the theses

1.   Marxism, radical leftist ideologies, and “real socialism” constitute not only a fragment of world history, and of Polish or Hungarian histories, but also a chapter in Jewish history.

Communism constitutes a relatively important fragment of recent Polish or Hungarian history, as well as of the Russian or, say, Chinese histories; clearly it will always remain a chapter in European history, and indeed in the history of our civilization. I propose to consider communism as a chapter of Jewish history, too. 

Speaking about communism I mean, first, Marxism and a broader field of left wing radicalism, and, second, the “real socialism” in the countries governed by communist parties. It is the second element, the participation in communist rule, and the resulting responsibility for its activities, that makes the issue of the role of Jewish communists in the framework of the Jewish history highly emotional. If the phenomenon of Jewish communists is seen as part of the comprehensive Jewish history, it follows that in our century, in Eastern Europe, Jews were not only among the oppressed, but were also among the oppressors. Because we Jews were the victims of the most horrible persecutions, the very idea that some of us were among the victimizers sounds dramatic and is hard to accept. Yet it is clearly a fact.

Of course, this thesis about Jews being also among the oppressors can be accepted only if we admit that communists did oppress and persecute. I suppose that very few people deny this. It is, however, true that the early communists, the revolutionaries from the period of illegal activities, were motivated by the rejection of social injustice. They wanted to create a just society and eventually produced a system of organized terror.

Let me mention just some examples – and these are facts, not myths – showing that communism, and more generally left wing radicalism, was relatively widespread among Jews, especially in Eastern Europe.

Most Jews who left closed traditional communities tended to support radical political ideologies. If they did not choose Zionism they supported the revolutionary left and sometimes both at the same time. The secular Yiddish culture was predominantly leftist.

What is even more relevant, Jews were important in communist movements. Jews were very prominent among revolutionary leaders, both before and after the seizure of power. Occasionally, other leaders praised Jews for this; Engels and Lenin for example.

Reproaching Jews for their radicalism has been common among conservatives. To give less well known examples: in the 1920s, some Swedish experts on Russia had no doubt about the role of Jews. Alfred Jensen (neither pro-Jewish, nor antisemitic) wrote in 1921: “approximately 75 percent of the leading Bolsheviks are of Jewish origin.”[5] The Russian Tsar Nicholas II said that “nine-tenths of the troublemakers are Jews.”[6] I have no idea how close to or far from the truth this is. Antisemitic usage of such statements has made it very difficult to know whether they refer to facts.

Of course, there is a deep difference between those who became revolutionaries in order to fight injustice and those who supported communist oppression, another form of injustice. Yet usually idealistic radicals became functionaries of the system when the opportunity came, or supporters of the new rule, if they lived elsewhere. For instance, both Jewish activists in Eastern Europe and in Israeli kibbutzim were eagerly pro-Soviet in the period of terror in the later years of Stalin’s life.

In Poland, immediately after World War II, most Jewish organizations were pro-communist; they saw communists as the force that could bring security and stabi­lization. To be a Jew was sometimes an advantage for those ready to make careers in the emerging communist system. (Though it could be a burden; I know examples of the returning individual Jews who were offered career opportunities, and examples of those who were denied them--in both cases Jewishness seemed essential.)

I wish to avoid a misunderstanding. I am not saying that Jewishness was ever sufficient for a career.  Not Jews, but loyal persons were needed, preferably those with no family ties. Jews were often perfect candidates; isolated, with no families, not connected to pre-war power elites, dreaming about normal lives and protection by state authorities.

Some Jews in post-war Poland tried to punish those guilty of murder of their families. This is mentioned in some literary works by Jewish survivors, such as in the remarkable recent book by a Polish Jewish survivor Wilhelm Dichter;[7] his mother in Lvov asked a Soviet Jewish officer to send a Polish neighbor who had reported her family to the Germans to Siberia. The most dramatic example is provided by the story of Solomon Morel, sadistic head of a concentration camp for Germans in Poland, immediately after World War II.[8]

I am aware that antisemites have abused those facts, distorted them and built on their basis a mythical picture of Jewish conspiracy. 

2.   Antisemites have grossly exaggerated the Jewish involvement in communism, distorted the facts, and interpreted them according to the mythical conspiracy theories. Jews were also victims of communism.

The view that the phenomenon of Jewish communists must be seen as part of the comprehensive history of Jews is accepted neither by average Jews nor by many authors. They point to the fact that the existence of Jewish communists was a pretext for antisemites, who used it in their conspiracy theories. It is true that the myth of “Jewish Communism” (“żydokomuna,” or “jewcommies” in Polish) has been one of the most sinister ideas that shaped European politics; it was used to justify aggressive and violent antisemitism, and eventually led to mass murder by Nazi Germany. And it is still used, in Poland and elsewhere, by demagogue politicians.

It is imperative to remember then all the facts that contradict the idea of “Jewish Communism.” Let me mention just a few.

Most Jews were never communist or pro-communist and most communists were never Jewish. Various minorities were over-represented among communists. This was, by the way, a paradox because communists believed they represented the working masses, the national majority.

Most Jews did not support communism. Even in post-war Poland when the choice for Jews was limited (this is also true of Hungary) the majority of Jews were not pro-communist and they mostly left Poland.

Jews were also victims of communism. Some facts, like the doctors’ plot, are well known. But the anti-Jewish practice of communism was much more fundamental. Despite possibilities of individual careers, all Jews who wanted to continue specifically Jewish activities, whether they were religious, political, or Zionist, were seen as enemies by communists, including the Jewish communists. Traditional Jewish communal life was destroyed by victorious communists.

What is more, communism created its own myth of “Jewish (Anti-)Communism” in the world Trotskyite/Zionist conspiracy. As a matter of fact, the picture of “rootless cosmopolitans” was used by communists and anti-communists alike.

The persecutions of Jews took place not only when large campaigns against “Zionists” were mounted. In the late 1940s in Poland, when the Jewish communists were most influential, many Jews were sent to prisons, for example for “speculation,” that is economic activities. And those who really tried to be active as Zionists could become “prisoners of Zion” in all communist countries.

Antisemitism has always existed on the left. Some revolutionaries, not excluding young Marx, were ready to treat capitalism as an essentially Jewish phenomenon. In fact, the specter of “Jewish Communism” haunted the communist parties from the very beginning. The overrepresentation of Jews caused “an embarrassment and a political liability” to communist parties. This is a largely neglected story.[9] To give a specific example: in 1948, a short time before his (temporary) removal from the chairmanship of the communist party, Władysław Gomulka wrote a letter to Stalin in which he stated that he saw “the necessity to not only stop increasing the percentage of the Jewish element in the state and party apparatus but rather to gradually decrease this percentage.”[10]

Sooner or later in most communist parties there were antisemitic purges with the hope of achieving the “national purification” of the party. That could reveal a deeper phenomenon. As Adam Michnik rightly observed, in Poland, the antisemitic and anti-intellectual campaign of 1968 was the culmination of an attempt to legitimize the regime by appropriating for itself the Polish fascist traditions, together with their virulent antisemitism.

3.   Jewish communists rarely cared about Jewish concerns and often virtually stopped being Jewish.

The view that the phenomenon of Jewish communists must be seen as part of the comprehensive history of Jews is not accepted by average Jews for another important reason. Jewish communists were so unrepresentative, so far away from the mainstream current of Jewish life that – say many Jews – their activities do not deserve to be part of the Jewish history.

Communists of Jewish descent were alienated, tried to be more “more Catholic than the Pope.” They were generally “not especially interested in the Jewish issue.”[11] For non-communist Jews the government was never free of antisemitism, even in the presence of Jews in power. One emigrant, Bernard Goldstein, complained that Jews who like Minc, Berman, Zambrowski or Borejsza, occupied the top posts in the communist ruling elite, did not bother to help the Jewish community. “They were hired servants of the dictatorship,”[12] he wrote. Among the most significant features of Jewish communists was their desire to leave the Jewish world, often to stop being Jewish, so that at least their children would have no Jewish sentiments, and no Jewish problems. I, as well as many of my friends, know this from our own experience.

What is even more important, communist practice was invariably directed against Jewish traditions and communal life, and it may rightly be called antisemitic. Antisemitic expression was forbidden but Jewish life was restricted as much as other traditions and eventually even more.  It is undeniable that Jewish communists acted not as Jews but as communists; they did exactly the same things that all other communists did in similar positions, and specifically Jewish concerns could not influence their decisions. Even traditional Jews could understand that point. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote that Jewish Bolsheviks “wanted to convince Stalin that they were first and foremost communists rather than Jews.”[13]

The only exceptions were the communists active among Jews. They stressed their Jewishness but fought against Jewish traditions. The rare Jewish communists who in post-war Poland wanted to be active as Jews referred to “the progressive Jewish nation under the auspices of Comrade Stalin.”[14] They expressed Stalinist ideas in the Yiddish language. But even they wanted to finish with Jewish distinctiveness in the long run. They seemed to assume that in the future ideal world there would be nothing specifically Jewish. As proof, they raised children unaware of their Jewishness. In post-war Poland they were also “unhappy about the government’s policy to allow Jewish emigration in 1949-1950” and tried “to sabotage it by delaying and otherwise obstructing the issuance of documents required for exit applications.”[15]

Communism was, among other things, a form of assimilation. To some, this “red assimilation,” to use the phrase of Ozjasz Thon, “that repulsive red assimilation – spiritual desolation among the youth,”[16] seemed to be the most promising way. It was often efficient – to a point. When the young felt rejected or just disenchanted they often “regressed” into Jewishness.

4. Some of those who had abandoned Jewishness later came back. The number of Jewish communists, and their role, was so important that other Jews must not ignore it.

For antisemites the number and visibility of Jewish communists means that communism was Jewish and that Jews were ruling. This is nonsense. In fact, it is easy to show that the presence of Jews was politically inessential, be it in Poland or in Hungary or in other countries. I think it evident that even if there had been no Jews in these countries after the war, the political developments in the post-Yalta world would have been the same. 

If so, is the presence of Jews among communists a noteworthy occurrence? And why should we care now? From the perspective of the contemporary Westerner the story of Jewish communists seems rather exotic, an unimportant dead end of Jewish history.

I disagree. True, they were mostly strongly un-Jewish, that is, they tried hard to abandon Jewishness. Some authors maintain that no relationship existed between their origins and their communism.[17] After all, they clearly did not act as Jews; though many of them later, when the communist world rejected them, came back to the Jewish world. Also, they had Jewish family members. One striking example is Jakub Berman, the second most important person in Stalinist Poland, and very far from Jewish concerns; at the same time his brother, Adolf, was a left-wing Zionist and emigrated to Israel.

Also, many Marxist Jews had a strong Jewish identity and were Jewishly active. Bundists and left wing Zionists believed in socialism and in revolution similarly to communists. 

Above all, the size of the phenomenon should not be underestimated. Isaac Bashevis Singer recalled how in 1920s Warsaw, in the coffee shops attended by Jewish writers and journalists “everyone” was looking forward to revolutionary changes, and he alone was “living in the past.” We are not speaking about a handful of individuals. It was a social phenomenon; radical leftist alternatives were dominant in some Jewish circles.

Also, it is a fact that Jews holding high official positions in post-war Poland, and also in Hungary, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, were, relatively speaking, very numerous. Not as numerous, though, as the antisemitic stereotype, “they were all Jews.” In 1945, in the bulletin of the London-based Polish Telegraphic Agency, it was stated that “all official positions in ministries and state offices were filled with Jews.”[18] Krystyna Kersten reports a private note by Bierut, the leader of Stalinist Poland, who recorded that while there were 438 Jews among 25,600 employees of the state security forces (1.7%) among the top 500 security officers there were 67 Jews[19] or 13.4%. According to internal statistics in the Polish Ministry of Interior, made available by Andrzej Paczkowski, in the period 1944-1956 almost 30% of top officers were Jewish.[20] In 1953, Ostap Dłuski wrote that in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs there were “8 directors of departments of which 5 were Jews, for the 12 available posts of deputy directors only 4 were nominated, among which 3 were Jews, and of 28 division managers 18 were Jews.”[21]

In Poland, “Żydzi w UB”, that is “Jews in the security forces” has become a standard image. It does express antisemitic attitudes. There is no reason to believe that those posts were occupied by those Jews because they were Jewish. But even rejecting the stereotype and the generalization it is wrong to ignore the above-mentioned figures as irrelevant.  The “rule of Jews” was perceived – and continues to be seen – also by persons who were far from antisemitism. In 1996, posthumous diaries of two important personalities were published in Poland: the widely respected major writer Maria Dąbrowska, and another well known writer and journalist, Stefan Kisielewski. Anti-communist Kisielewski wrote both that “Jews have always loved communism” and that “Poland without Jews is the saddest possible Poland.”[22] Both writers mentioned “the ruling Jews” as an obvious fact of Stalinist Poland.

Probably part of the impression came from the fact that during World War II Jews were seen as victims, only victims and nothing but victims. And suddenly they were important, the “resurrected Judas.”[23] The image of Jews participating in the power elite, and as a matter of fact participating in state administration incomparably more than had been the case in pre-war Poland, was so strange to Poles that it was seen as suspicious.[24] Despite all those reservations, the fact remains that communist Jews were numerous and influential. I believe that this fact should be incorporated into the thinking on Jewish history by scholars and by average Jews, though to me the sheer number of communist Jews is not the only and not even the most important aspect of the problem.

5.   The deepest problem is posed by the quasi-religious character of the communist involvement of some Jews.

I can certainly understand Jews being pro-communist in certain periods. In the polarized Poland of 1946 they had unfortunately little choice of allies. Communists could be seen as the only force that could efficiently defend Jews against antisemitism. This resulted in a vicious circle: the more Jews were afraid, the more they relied on communist authorities – and at the beginning of the post-war period on the Red Army itself[25] - the more they were threatened, and the more afraid they became. It was hard to step out of the circle. What then is the problem (that I see as a Jewish problem)?

The character of the alliance of Jews with communist rulers was not predetermined. The cooperation of Jewish leaders with victorious communists was rather natural.[26] What they could have avoided was the quasi-religious zeal with which so many of them assumed the communist positions. For some this had began much earlier. 

Revolution was perceived in quasi-messianic terms by some Jews. The fanaticism of the early revolutionaries was not weaker than in the most extreme religious sects. The party became their family, and Stalin their Messiah. To understand the phenomenon of communism, we must perceive it as a quasi-religious movement. Jewish leftist intellectuals produced commentaries to Marx, treating his work much as “holy” scripture. According to testimonies gathered by Schatz, in pre-war prisons they formed communist “yeshivot,” adapting Talmudic dialectic “pilpul” methods to the study of their literature.[27] After World War II the pre-war communists entered the state of “holy madness.” Even those who survived in Russia were not shaken in their faith. Messianic anticipation was transformed into enthusiasm. Politics was perceived “in truly mystical terms. . . . They saw themselves as active in . . . a practical beginning of the new era.”[28] 

Ex-communists often presented their experience using the metaphor of the “God who failed.” Sergey Bulgakov described revolutionaries as adherents of “religion founded on atheism.”[29] Nicolay Berdyaev was among the first who showed that secularized messianism is the key to understanding modern revolutionaries; modern – and obviously not only Jewish.

It must be stressed that fanaticism was characteristic of all “believing communists” (as distinct from pragmatic career communists in the period of communist rule) and not just Jews (let me remind the reader of North Korea). Those who were Jewish expressed their quasi-religious zeal in a Jewish style. The messianic-like intensity, and the uncritical belief that communists would finish with antisemitism as well as with all discrimination against anyone, made them ready to use any means to make possible the building of the new communist order. That is why even well-meaning and humane people could participate in the system of terror.

I see a deep problem here, and a matter of concern for Jews, because it shows the dead end of the Jewish religious fervor and messianic yearnings when directed to false gods.

One can ask, however: how important is the Jewishness of those leftists and communists? If this is just a matter of style, is it perhaps irrelevant?

6.   There is no distinctive Jewish radicalism. There is no “Jewish Communism.” Jews became communists because of general social trends.

Is the Jewishness of Jewish communists relevant? My answer is that it may be irrelevant but we have no right to assumeit. It needs proof; otherwise we would do in reverse just what antisemites do when they assume that communism has a Jewish nature. What must be recognized is the existence of a genuine problem here.

Have some elements of Jewish tradition or Jewish condition influenced the ideology and practice of communism? A full answer can be given only as a result of the pursuit of a comprehensive research program.

Antisemites in Europe have often said that Jews created communism and that communism is Jewish. Already in 1879 a report written by Prussian police contained the conclusion that “Jewry is by nature a revolutionary movement.”[30] Also Kisielewski, who never was antisemitic, wrote that Jews “created communism.” He added that they “should be punished for this” but the ruling communists “punished them for alleged treason against communism.” Is there a sense in which communism can be reasonably seen as a Jewish creation? Clearly, Jews as a group did not create communism, even if Jews were prominent among its founders. Also, organized Jewish communities were not lovers of communism, even if some individual Jews were.

A comparison will be instructive. Christianity is really a Jewish creation, or rather it was at the beginning. All its founders were Jewish; it started as a Jewish sect. Communism has never been a Jewish sect in any of its forms. In addition, Christianity depends on its Jewish, or Hebrew, roots, and must always ponder their significance. Nothing like this has ever been the case with socialism or its many currents. If we look at the sources of communism we see a highly complex picture. We can find its forerunners as far back as the states of ancient Egypt or China, and the political philosophy of Plato. The other sources were listed by Erich Fromm: “Marxist and other forms of socialism are the heirs of prophetic Messianism, Christian Chiliastic sectarianism, thirteenth-century Thomism, Renaissance Utopianism, and eighteenth-century enlightenment.”[31] It makes no sense to call communism a Jewish creation even in the sense that applies when Christianity is called Jewish.

Still, it is possible to ask whether there are features of communism that make it “Jewish” in some sense. How deep were the similarities of Judaism with communism, and more generally ideologies based on Marxism? Some authors stress the importance of Jewish cultural heritage, especially messianism, the prophetic traditions, the stress on social justice, the imperative to mend the world. Melvin Lasky believes that a line can be drawn “from the anger of the Biblical prophets to the modern storminess, associated with 1917.”[32]

To understand the phenomenon of communism we must see it as a quasi-religious movement. Abraham Kaplan noticed that the Communist Party became “in effect, a priesthood.”[33] One can be even more specific. According to Kaplan, “the communist myth of human history begins with the Eden of what they call primitive communism; man is then cursed with class differences and the class struggle, moves through the trials of a feudal and bourgeois period, enters the purgatory of Socialism, and is redeemed at last in the heaven of communism. Production takes the place of Providence, ownership is sin, revolution is redemption.”[34] What is apparent in this elegant parallel is not so much similarity with Judaism but rather a structural affinity to Christianity. The result of the analysis is completely different from the intent of those who maintain that the nature of communism is Jewish. There is no objective reason to stress its Jewish elements rather than the Christian ones. This reminds me of an elderly Jew from the Warsaw synagogue who said he was communist in the sense Jesus was a communist!

Those who practice the Jewish religious tradition rarely become radicals or revolutionaries. The Jewish ideal of tzedek is inconsistent with the revolutionary ethos. The cultural heritage is not sufficient by itself to explain the choices of Jewish communists; while some elements of tradition support leftist and radical approaches, others favor conservatism. The tradition is comprehensive enough. The problem remains why one is selected and not the other.

According to some, there exists a Jewish tendency to extremism, or radical solutions. Perhaps so, but this is not sufficiently specific. Similar characteristics are attributed for instance to Russians (Bierdyaev: “Communism suits the Russian soul.”) and to the French (Proudhon: Jacobinism is “a kind of moral pestilence special to the French temperament.”[35]

My opinion is that although there are similarities between the Judaic tradition and the communist thinking, they are not deep. The connection between Jews and leftist ideas and practice is not of an absolute character but is limited to specific time and place.  The communist fanaticism of Jews often contained Jewish ingredients but there has been no specifically Jewish radicalism.

I completely agree with Jaff Schatz’s solution to the “riddle of radical Jews”: there is no “Jewish radicalism”, there are only radical Jews.[36] Individuals become radical in result of a process, governed by general mechanisms, and functioning in their specific situations. For Jews it was a Jewish situation, and Jewish heritage played a role.

Communism is not a Jewish product. Or rather, it is certainly no more Jewish by origin than many other ideas of Western civilization, including Christianity. At the same time it is true that Jews were prominent among European and American (but not Asian) communists. The correct question is not “Why did they create communism?” or “Why is communism Jewish?” but rather “Why was communism attractive to Jews?”

7.   It was not Judaism or Jewish traditions but the social situation that led Jews to communist involvement.

There is no distinctive Jewish radicalism. There existed, however, processes leading Jews to leftist radicalism. They had little to do with Jewish traditions but very much to do with the situation of the Jews. The Biblical tradition of social justice only sometimes led to revolutionary involvement. It all depended on the social situation of Jews.

The mechanisms responsible for communist involvement were universal. For example, feelings of hopelessness always lead to radical attitudes. In the case of Jews, lack of hope for satisfactory careers in a society permeated by antisemitism resulted in the belief in the necessity of a revolutionary change of the social order. Hopelessness was widespread in pre-war Europe and led to political radicalism. For Jews only the left wing radicalism was available, as the right wing radicals were deeply antisemitic. Only Zionism provided Jews with a way of being both radical and right wing.

In Poland before World War II there were very limited career prospects for bright Jewish youth. These young men and women were not socially accepted. The reds were an exception. This led to a paradox: while communism was to some Jews, and other minorities, a way to assimilation, they remained mostly among people similar to themselves, thereby perpetuating a minority status.

Speaking about the hopelessness I do not mean poverty. Poor people never supported communism only because of poverty. Many remained conservative. On the other hand, it is extremely significant that some children from wealthy families became Marxists or even professional revolutionaries. They did not have to escape poverty, rather they believed in a mission to help others escape poverty. Jews figured prominently among those idealists.

Another general mechanism was the attraction of radical views for marginalized intellectuals. They were important in cultural life, and in radical politics. According to Isaac Deutscher, the revolutionary “non-Jewish Jews” transcended the particularistic and strove for the universal. Before the two world wars the alienation of assimilated Jewish intelligentsia was often painful. They were neither part of the traditional Jewish community nor were they accepted in Gentile society. Marginality led to self-hatred, an internalization of antisemitism. The double marginality, ethnic and religious, produced revolutionaries who “seek to have the non-Jews become like them, alienated from traditional religious and national values. Only then will these revolutionaries cease to feel alienated.”[37]

There is a simple proof that it was the situation rather than tradition that led Jews to communism. In contemporary Israel, though not in the first decades of the state, the communist party has been predominantly Arab. Again, this was caused by their social situation and not by any fundamentally Islamic or Arab characteristics of communism.

While the mechanisms that caused Jewish participation in communism were general, the whole phenomenon does constitute part of modern Jewish history. Every radical, revolutionary, or fanatic has his or her own reasons for this attitude. They are partly personal, and can partly reflect one’s condition or status resulting from belonging to one group or another. For Jews those reasons reflected the Jewish condition. In this sense they were Jewish.

Those Jews had Jewish reasons, even if shallowly Jewish, and brought a Jewish color to the leftist revolutionary movements.

8.   Participation in evil can begin with noble and selfless intentions.

One could still ask: why should one remember the Jewishness of those communists, especially of those who did not want to be part of the Jewish people, as part of Jewish history? My answer is that what Jews did is usually taken as part of Jewish history, even if they did not act asJews. Lists of outstanding Jewish sportsmen are compiled for Jewish encyclopedias; why not make one of the top Jewish communists? Jewish communists did not represent Jewish interests (and Jewish Olympic medal winners did not represent Jews) but they were perceived as Jews by others, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Even if the above is accepted one could still say that these facts belong to history and there is no reason to remember them. I disagree. My answer is that the story first poses a most important moral problem. This is my personal motive for thinking about the subject. I am not a historian. But I am a committed Jew and I have ancestors who were communist leaders.

Leftist radicalism contained an inherent evil. Jewish communists took part in a system of terror. I do not say that they had sinister intentions. The intentions were often pure, and sometimes very noble indeed. I, for one, have ancestors who were communists, and I know that they did not want to do evil. In fact this is precisely the reason why the lesson offered by their story is significant. It can be instructive to all.

Their history can teach us something about the traps that not only Jews can encounter. The danger is universal. We have seen many idealists-turned-terrorists or fighters-with-oppression-turned-oppressors.  Any case study can help us understand the mechanism of that change. And the story of Jewish communists provides some excellent material for study.

If communists had not seized power we would have seen them mostly as idealists, fanatics, but essentially harmless. The innocence of the early revolutionaries is best illustrated by a story that happened in Kałuszyn in the Russian part of Poland, in 1905. Three young revolutionaries came to the rabbinical court of the town; one shot a revolver into the cupboard and demanded “the money that the bourgeoisie entrusts when they come to settle disputes.” They were shown a little money entrusted by poor orphans, brides and widows as their inheritance or dowries. Wealthy people left promissory notes, which were of no use for the intruders. Then the youths said: “Listen, Rebbe, we won’t take money from poor orphans and widows, although we’re desperately in need of money.” They also said that they would send one of their men the next day to fix the hole made by the revolver. Shortly afterward they left, shouting “Long live the revolution!” And then the rebbe said to his colleagues: “You see? A Jewish soul cannot be fathomed. Even their path includes pity toward widows and orphans, and on account of that God will forgive them.”[38]

This Romantic view of revolutionaries is still shared by some of my American and Western friends who remember the idealistic leftists who cared about justice. Because, however, communists took power, and created a system of terror and oppression, even those communists who themselves did not participate in the power elite – like the Western communists or those who had died before – have been included in the universe of evil perpetrated by those communists.

This is clearly a challenge to all communists, not only to the Jewish ones. To me the drama of the Jewish revolutionaries is closer and more relevant. I can sympathize with their dilemmas. I can understand the feeling that only a radical reconstruction can mend the world that produced Hitler and the Shoah. At the same time I am horrified by the consequences of their choices and I feel ashamed. What is more, I believe that all Jews should understand the drama and share the feeling of uneasiness.

9.   Moral responsibility can be indirect. Re-emerging Jewish communities in Eastern Europe should face the legacy of Jewish participation in communism. However, accepting a Jewish share of moral responsibility does not make non-Jews less responsible.

Of course, I am not responsible for the bad things done by Jewish communists, even if some of them happened to be my ancestors. The same is true of an overwhelming majority of Jews. American or Sephardic Jews cannot be held responsible, and most of them have had no personal connection to Jewish communists.

Guilt can only be indivi­dual. Yet I can be ashamed. Even those Jews who were actively opposed to communism can feel shame. From the Jewish religious point of view it is not irrelevant what other Jews do, even non-religious and anti-religious ones. The whole house of Israel, including the rebellious members, is the partner of the Covenant. If one sees the Jews according to a Talmudic principle, assuming all of us to be “responsible for one another” (Kol Israel arevim ze ba ze), then it is hard to deny that communist ideology and even more the communist practice have created a problem for all Jews.

Moral responsibility can be indirect. It is like a family; if a family member does something wrong I feel bad and the stronger the identification, the stronger the feeling. Even from a completely secular perspective the fact that so many Jews lost their minds in their belief in communism can be disquieting.

Also, there exists a logical argument. If one can feel pride because of an accomplishment of a Jew, even of a non-Jewish Jew who did not act as a Jew, then by the same token one can feel shame because of crimes committed by Jews. If someone ever felt pride because of Freud’s accomplishments he should be ready to feel ashamed because of Kaganovich in Russia, or Berman in Poland. One either has the justification for both feelings or neither.

Jewish communists have left a disturbing legacy that needs to be confronted by the re-emerging Jewish communities in East Central Europe. This is not to say that Jews are guilty and non-Jews are not. That is an antisemitic opinion and I have nothing to do with it. Accepting a Jewish share of moral responsibility does not make non-Jews less responsible or less morally involved. The problem of communist crimes remains a challenge for the political left (obviously, I do not propose to ignore the crimes committed by the political right) and for many groups and nations.

It should be evident that I do not try to free anyone from blame; but my theses on Jews and communism sometimes give the impression that I speak about the Jewish moral responsibility in order to absolve Christians, Poles, and everyone else. This is not the case. Communism was the trouble, not the Jews.


10. Objective research is needed to clarify the extent and nature of the Jewish participation in communism. The tragic consequences of the antisemitic myth of “Jewish Communism” should impose no taboo.

I have argued that the Jewish communists, taken together, formed a category that belongs to the history of Jewish people (theses 1 through 4). Jaff Schatz compares the place of Jewish communists within the general history of Jews with that of the followers of Sabbatai Zvi,[39] no more but no less.

There is no simple formula that explains the problem of the relations between Jews and communism, or answers the question “How Jewish were Jewish communists?” Also, there is no simple answer to the problem of the affinity between Jewishness and communism. One must apply a variety of explanations; first, by referring to the cultural and religious background in order to explain the Jewish flavor of communist activities. Second, one must do this by taking into account the social situation of Jews in order to understand how the general psychological mechanism leading to radicalism functioned in the case of Jews (theses 5 through 7).

Only antisemitic myths provide simple solutions; they usually express a vision of a Jewish world conspiracy. According to the notorious book on the “Jewish problem” that had dozens of editions in Nazi Germany, Marxism represented the nature of Jews. The author explicitly referred to the tradition of theological, or rather demonological, antisemitism. He wrote that “The Jew is the devil incarnate.”[40] This, incidentally, shows that theology is as important in the analysis of antisemitism as it is in the analysis of the processes leading to communism.

Antisemitic nonsense should not stop research on the relationships between Jews and communism. It is not right to deny the existence of any relationship, even though it is true that Jewish communists behaved the same as other communists. There are people who denounce as racist any attempt to find out the number of Jews among communists and in communist institutions. They even resent any mention that someone was Jewish (by origin). I believe that they propose a virtual taboo because they have not come to terms either with their own Jewish ancestry or with the collective Jewish moral responsibility for Jewish involvement in communism. If Jewishness is really irrelevant in that story why should it be ignored? Lev Trotsky used to say: “I am not a Jew, I’m an internationalist,” but why should we follow his approach? There was no Jewish communism but there were Jewish communists. Discussing them and their role does not have to lead to blaming Jews for all communist crimes.

I have presented above (in theses 8 and 9) the moral problem posed by the extent and the nature of Jewish participation in the communist enterprise. That activity was not in the name of the Jews, but they were Jews nevertheless. A disturbing legacy has been left for all Jews and in particular for the Jews of East Central Europe and their re-emerging Jewish communities. Talking about it must not be left to antisemites.

Sensitivity and good will is needed to understand the story of Jewish communists.  It is a closed chapter so it can be fully described. And this can be instructive all. As the famous anonymous saying goes: “Jews are just like anybody else, only more so…” 

This paper was presented in various places, and in essentially the present form at the Central European University in Budapest, in March 1997. The final text was modified in May 1999, and published in a CEU annual Jewish Studies at the Central European University, ed. by Andras Kovacs, co-editor Eszter Andor, CEU 2000, 119-133. It is reproduced here by permission of the author, with slight editing. It has since been published as a chapter in Stanislaw Krajewski’s book in English, Poland and the Jews: Reflections of a Polish Polish Jew (Cracow: Austeria, 2005). The article has also appeared in Polish, Rumanian and Hungarian.

About the Author
Stanislaw Krajewski is a professor in the Institute of Philosophy of the University of Warsaw, the Jewish co-chair of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews (continuously since its inception after the changes of 1989), and the Polish consultant to the American Jewish Committee.

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2007


[1] Andre W. M. Gerrits "Antisemitism and Anticommunism. The Myth of 'Jewish Communism' in Eastern Europe." Dialogue and Universalism 11-12(1995),27-51, p.32.

[2]  Jaff Schatz The Generation. The Rise and fall of the Jewish Communists of Poland, University of California Press, 1991.

[3] In an article in Polish "Żydzi a komunizm" [Jews and Communism] published in the underground periodical Krytyka 15(1983), 178-206, under my then pen name Abel Kainer. It was published in English in: From the Polish Underground, Selections from Krytyka 1978-1993, ed.  Michael Bernhard and Henryk Szlajfer, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996, 353-394.

[4]  Of course the topic has been approached by  some scholars, e.g. Jacob Talmon or Erich Fromm, and by writers like Bashevis Singer and Israel Singer, or Polish contemporary writers Julian Stryjkowski and Henryk Grynberg. This is, however, not enough. The theses and many of the comments presented below were published, sometimes in an expanded version, in my book Żydzi, judaizm, Polska [Jews, Judaism, Poland], Warsaw 1997. Additional considerations are contained in the Krytyka article (see previous note).

[5] Kristian Gerner “Degrees of Antisemitism: the Swedish Example,” in: Jews and Christians, Who is Your Neighbour after the Holocaust? ed. Michał Bron Jr., Acta Sueco-Polonica, No 2, Uppsala 1997.

[6] Quote after Jaff Schatz "The Riddle of Jewish Radicalism", manuscript, p.1.

[7] Wilhelm Dichter Koń Pana Boga [God's horse]in Polish, Znak, Kraków 1996.

[8] The story was described by Jonathan Sacks in An Eye for an Eye, New York:Basic Books, 1993.

[9] Wrote Gerrits, op. cit., pp. 42, 43.

[10] The letter was discovered in Russia, and presented to the public by Andrzej Paczkowski (Gazeta Wyborcza December 18-19 1993, p. 17).

[11] Gerrits, op. cit., p. 46.

[12] Quote after one of the most important contributions to the study of our topic, the book by Krystyna Kersten Polacy, Żydzi, komunizm, Anatomia półprawd 1939-1968 [Poles, Jews, Communism, An Anatomy of Half-Truths] in Polish, Warsaw: Niezależna Oficyna Wydawnicza, 1992, p.81.

[13] Midstream, January 1997, p. 40.

[14] Kersten, op. cit., p. 78.

[15] Schatz,  The Generation, p. 252.

[16] In the introduction to the monumental volume Żydzi w Polsce Odrodzonej [Jews in Reborn Poland, in Polish], Warsaw 1928.

[17] This point has been argued by, among others, my father (Warski's grandson): Wladyslaw Krajewski, “Fakty i mity. O roli Żydów w okresie stalinowskim.” in: Więź 5 (1997), 109-122. English translation: “Facts and Myths: on the Role of the Jews during the Stalinist Period” in: Więź Special Issue: Under One Heaven, Warsaw 1998, 93-110.

[18] Kersten, op.cit. p. 79

[19] Kersten, op.cit. p. 83-84.

[20] “Aparat bezpieczeństwa” in: Instytucje Państwa Totalitarnego, research report of the Institute of Political Studies PAN, 1994, p. 61.

[21] Quoted after a manuscript by Dariusz Stola “The Anti-Zionist Campaign in Poland 1967-1968,” note 10, p. 79.

[22] Stefan Kisielewski Dzienniki 1968-1980, Iskry, Warsaw 1996.

[23] Aleksander Smolar “Tabu i niewinność” [Taboo and Innocence] in Polish, Aneks 41/42 (1986), 89-133, p. 110.

[24] This aspect has been stressed by Jan Tomasz Gross in Upiorna dekada [The Horrible Decade],
in Polish,Universitas, Kraków 1998.

[25] This was described by Henryk Grynberg in the novel Zwycięstwo [Victory] in Polish.

[26] Cf. the chapter about the cooperation of Jews with state security in Gross, op. cit.

[27] Schatz, op. cit. p. 138.

[28] Schatz, op. cit. p. 249.

[29] Quote after I. Shafarevich, Le phénomene socialiste, Paris 1977, p. 267.

[30] Jaff Schatz, “The Riddle of Jewish Radicalism”, manuscript, p. 1.

[31] Fromm, Marx's Concept of Man, cited in: Melvin Lasky Utopia and revolution, London 1977, p. 66.

[32] Lasky, op. cit. p. 67.

[33] Abraham Kaplan, The New World of Philosophy, New York: Vintage, 1961, p. 188.

[34] Kaplan, op. cit. p. 173.

[35] Lasky, op. cit. p. 78.

[36] In his the book The Generation and the article“The Riddle of Jewish Radicalism.”

[37] Denis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews? The Reasons for Antisemitism, New York:Simon and Schuster, 1983, p. 60.

[38] Sefer Kalushin. Quoted after: Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin From a Ruined Garden, New York: Schocken, 1983, pp. 118-119.

[39] Schatz, op. cit. p.2.

[40] Theodor Fritsch, Handbuch der Judenfrage, p.236; quoted after Gerrits op.cit. p. 35.



Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya - P.O. Box 167, Herzliya, 46150, Israel
Email: covenant@idc.ac.il - Phone: + 972-9-960-2736 - Fax: + 972-9-952-7236
© 2007 All rights reserved