Media Watch: PBS Looks At Stalin’s Jews In The Bronx
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Media Watch: PBS Looks At Stalin’s Jews In The Bronx

Associate Editor

Everyone agrees that the German-American Bund in the 1930s was horrendous, even if they weren’t violent like in the fatherland. The New York bundists were harassed into oblivion at the beginning of the war. Nevertheless, their parading of the swastika through Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1939 still sends chills through the witnesses still among us.

What about the Stalin-American Bund? No, they were not called that, but there were New Yorkers who supported Stalin, a dictator who killed an estimated 20 million of his own people – and many of our people, Jews, as well. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that by 1938, more than 40,000 people were shot per month. He wrote of Stalinism, "people are groaning and dying… in psychiatric hospitals. Doctors are making their
evening rounds, injecting people with drugs which destroy their brain cells."

Jews love ideas. To Stalin, ideas were a crime. "We don’t allow our enemies to have guns," he said, "why should we allow them to have ideas?"

Nevertheless, the leading "Stalin-American Bundists" were Jews, athiest Yiddishists to be more exact. They even supported the Hitler-Stalin Pact that led to the evisceration of Jewish Poland. But whereas German-American Bundists are reviled in 2009, the Yiddishist-Stalinists, rather than being reviled, are consistently romanticized by the media as cuddly sweethearts, messianists, a quaint Yiddish folktale told to the clarinets of klezmer.

The latest whitewash is the new, well-crafted documentary, "At Home In Utopia," the story of a cooperative housing experiment in the Bronx known as "the Coops," as in "loops." The Coops, highly advanced in its architectural design and cultural opportunities, particularly appealing for residents coming out of Dickensian tenements, were founded by the Yiddishist-Stalinists of the United Workers Cooperative Colony. They were the most "progressive" of the four predominantly Jewish workers’ cooperatives that rushed, like Oklahoma Sooners, into the vacant lots of the Bronx that were suddenly made accessible by the new elevated subway lines.

The film, by Michal Goldman with Ellen Brooks, premiered last week on PBS and is being repeated in the days ahead on the different PBS outlets. (Excerpts and more information can be found here.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, the time span of the film, millions died in the gulag under the red flag’s hammer and sickle, arguably as many as died under the swastika. But while no one would think it cute or quaint to see a swastika in bas-relief above the entry to a Bronx apartment building, old men who once were kids in the Coops are filmed, grinning, as they point to the hammer and sickle embossed in the concrete above one of the Coops’ main doorways.

We’re told by a PBS press release that these Stalinists of the Coops were "committed to equality, justice and beauty," as if those words could apply to supporters of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact.

Boris Ourlicht, whose family was one of the earliest residents in the Coops, told the filmmakers that although his mother thought the pact with Hitler was a "betrayal," it was considered perfectly acceptable in the Coops for Boris and other young men to set up a soapbox in the early evening as people would be getting off the subway, explaining to them why it was good to be on Hitler’s side.

"We would get up on the stand and start talking about how wonderful the pact was," said Boris. The treaty with Hitler, he said, was good for "peace."

Amy Galstuck Swerdlow’s father, a Coop leader, supported the pact, too: "I remember my father saying, ‘Shveig, don’t say a word. You don’t know what they know in the Soviet Union. Just be quiet or you’ll end up in the gutter with the Trotskyites.’" Swerdlow, who went on to become a professor of history and women’s studies at Sarah Lawrence College, adds, "I never got over that."

The narrator of the documentary, Linda Lavin, says the Hitler-Stalin pact forced the people in the Coops "to chose between being a good Jew or a loyal communist."

How were they good Jews?

They had Yiddish libraries and after-school classes, but no Jewish education.

Communism, after all, was for athiests. Shulamit Ourlicht Miller, once a girl in the Coops, recalled her teacher asking if she was Jewish. "I said yes. She said, well, why don’t you stay out on the Jewish holidays? I said my holiday is May 1st," the international workers’ day.

Filmmaker Michal Goldman told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview that the people in the Coops "believed that the religion of their parents and grandparents was a form of ignorant, irrational superstition and they wanted to be free of it – they wanted to be part of a rational enlightenment. They believed that being Jewish was about being progressive, seeking justice and enlightenment, and loving the mama-loshen -Yiddish."

How much did they really love it? As intermarriage came to the Coops, were the non-Jewish grandchildren of these Yiddishists inspired to study Yiddish? The Coops’ Yiddishist supplementary schools withered over time.

They loved "social justice," but somehow justice for Jews didn’t count. The Coops turned out in force to support Paul Robeson, the black radical; for "the Scottsboro boys," young black victims of Southern injustice, and for rallies about economic issues. But for all their alleged love of Yiddish and justice there was no apparent reaction to Stalin’s "Night of the Murdered Poets," Yiddish poets.

Nothing was heard from the Coops during the Doctors’ Plot, when the Kremlin targeted Jews yet again. The dramatic struggle to establish the State of Israel apparently meant nothing in the Coops, either.

They claimed to love "the worker" but did they love or help the Jewish worker during the Depression? A letter to The New York Times (June 1, 1934) told of 10,000 unemployed Jews going to the Young Israel employment office down at 120 Wall Street. How many Jews were helped by the Coops’ "workers" party in 1934?

The film doesn’t tell us. You’d think if they did even half as much as Young Israel we’d have heard about it.

Without any Judaism or allegiance to Jewish peoplehood, one wonders how the filmmakers could define any of these Bronx Stalinists as a "good Jew," under even the most elastic of definitions. A klezmer soundtrack is not enough to make someone a "good Jew."

Goldman claims, via e-mail, that there was a Jewish feeling in the Coops that didn’t make it into the film. They had an awareness and discussions about the Soviet repression of Jews, she says, though many in the Coops wanted to believe that the Soviet Union was "anti-racist."

Yet they wanted to believe that Israel was racist. While there was some pride in Israel, writes Goldman, many "were deeply opposed to founding a state that privileged one race or religion above others: they believed that a truly egalitarian and democratic state had to be absolutely non-sectarian. And so they were opposed to the founding of a Jewish state." Russia, you see, was democratic.

Within three generations the Coops was finished. The cooperative was an economic failure, losing the buildings, and the young moved away. It had become obvious, writes Goldman, that the old Stalinists of the Coops had finally lost their influence and bite "when more and more" of their grandchildren "became bar mitzvah."

She left that out of the film, but that e-mail told me, in the end, that this was a very Jewish story, after all. Covered with cement, the grass pokes through. As we sang at Soviet Jewry rallies, "The Jewish people live."

E-mail: jonathan@jewishweek.org

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