The Last of the Bundists: A Farewell to Yitzhak Luden

Yitzhak Luden, the last member of the Israeli Bund, the Jewish socialist movement, has died at 95

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Photo of Yitzhak Luden's memorial service.
Photo of Yitzhak Luden's memorial service. Credit: Eran Torbiner
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Yitzhak Luden, the last of the surviving activists in the Israeli branch of the Bundists – the landmark Jewish socialist movement founded in the days of the Russian Empire in 1897 – and longtime editor of their newspaper has died at 95.

He died on November 4 from his injuries after falling in the street a few days earlier.

As editor of Lebns Fragn, a monthly newspaper of the movement in Israel, he believed to his last day in the Bundist principle that the fate of the Jewish worker was linked to the fate of all workers in the country he lived in.

One after another, the aging members of the Israeli Bund have been dying. Luden was the last of the activists in this small group, which used to convene at their meeting house on Kalisher Street in Tel Aviv. The Workman’s Circle is its sister movement in the United States.

In an article he wrote in 1977, Luden explained what the Bund believed in. He wrote that while the Zionist movement etched on its flag slogans extolling the departure from Europe, the demolition of the Diaspora and the gathering of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland, Bundists argued that the fate of the Jewish laborer was linked to the fate of all laborers in the country he resided in.

For this reason, he continued, “Jews must fight for equal rights and for their national rights in every location in which there are Jewish communities.”

When asked to explain in simpler language what the difference was between the Zionist movement and the Bund, he used to say that Zionism was created in a fancy casino in Basel (the Swiss hall in which the first Zionist Congress convened in 1897), while the Bund was created that same year in a secret meeting in the attic of a building in a poor neighborhood of what was then Vilna (now Vilnius, in Lithuania), a center of Jewish culture before World War II.

Luden was born in Warsaw in 1922. He studied at a school belonging to the Zisha network of schools, which gave its pupils a Jewish-secular-socialist education in Yiddish. He was active in the Bund’s youth movement, SKIF (the Socialist Children’s Union).

Between the two world wars, the Bund was the largest Jewish political movement in Poland, but it was wiped out during the Holocaust.

With the outbreak of World War II, Luden escaped eastward, on the run as a refugee. After the war, he returned to Poland and found that of his entire family, only he and his brother Joseph had survived.

In 1948, he immigrated to Israel and joined the Israeli branch of the Bund. In addition to publishing Lebns Fragn (Yiddish for “Life Questions”), the group ran a Yiddish library, a choir, a drama circle and a nonprofit group for mutual aid.

In their earlier days, they also operated summer camps for children and a Yiddish school.

Luden began his extensive journalistic career at the Yiddish weekly Letzte Nayes (Latest News). “For Holocaust survivors like ourselves, this newspaper was a new beginning,” he said.

He also wrote for the weekly Ferverts, the original Yiddish version of The Forward. In 1971, he became editor-in-chief at Lebns Fragn. He worked as its editor for 43 years, until it shuttered in 2014. During his final years there, it was the only Yiddish paper to be published in Israel.

The newspaper’s articles were written in a humanist and democratic spirit, dealing with contemporary issues such as the Israeli occupation over Palestinian lands.

“He talked of a Judaism that doesn’t demand extra privileges for itself, but one that wishes to blend in and maintain equal rights, not expand and occupy more territory,” said Eran Torbiner, a film director who interviewed Luden for his film “Bunda’im.”

“He fought for a democratic socialism and a secular Judaism that rejects the principle of a Chosen People,” added editor and author Benny Mer.

“We kept up-to-date, but we were a movement of immigrants, bearing that name [The Bund] and living in the world of yesteryear, which was our model,” Luden said in an interview with Gali Drucker Bar-Am, who researches Yiddish culture and literature, including in Tel Aviv.

He was sad at the decline of Yiddish in Israel, but was proud of his role in trying to preserve its culture while others were “yielding,” as he put it, to the rule of the Labor Party, which he described as undemocratic toward those who were not included in its ranks – such as Jews from Middle Eastern countries, Arabs and non-Zionist Jews such as the Bundists.

“Children grew up in the first years of the state in an atmosphere of rejecting the Diaspora and hating the past. The government took possession of the material assets of those who were murdered in the Diaspora, while adopting spiritual assets only from the Orthodox camp,” he said. “We, who led the campaign to preserve Yiddish, were told that we were anti-Israeli,” he added.

He pursued Yiddish while on other journalistic ventures. In 1978, when he visited Egypt after the signing of the peace agreement, he located four elderly ladies who were survivors of the Ashkenazi community in Cairo, with whom he had a conversation in Yiddish.

“As a journalist, I chase transitory moments without knowing in advance what lurks there. Such a moment may be an exceptional event, a paradox or some intriguing occasion. When this moment takes on momentum, it becomes history,” he wrote in a book he wrote in Yiddish, “Chasing After Moments.”

In 2007, he was asked what would remain of the Bundist heritage in Israel a decade hence. “Its spirit,” he replied.

Luden is his survived by his wife Esther, two daughters and two granddaughters.

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