'There's an Urgency When It Comes to Trump. I'm Beginning to See What My Parents Saw in 1930s'

Irena Klepfisz, daughter of Holocaust survivors and a second-wave feminist, explains why she joined the Women's March on N.Y.C. against President Donald Trump.

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK — Like a real-life Forrest Gump, the Jewish lesbian poet, activist and academic Irena Klepfisz has had a constant presence in countless historical events since the 1940s: She was born in the Warsaw Ghetto on April 17, 1941 to Michal Klepfisz, a member of the Jewish Labor Bund, and the former Rose Perczykow. Her father died just two years later, on April 20, 1943, killed in the second day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After hiding in Sweden for several years, in 1949 Klepfisz and her mother fled to the United States.

Klepfisz, a second-wave feminist in the 1960s and ‘70s, has been an active participant in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and other struggles for equality and social change in the United States and in Israel. In the late 1980s, she co-founded the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

It was therefore not surprising to find Klepfisz in the Women’s March on N.Y.C., in midtown Manhattan on Saturday, together with hundreds of thousands of people who turned out to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Friday and express support for civil and human rights.

“I grew up in a socialist house, where I was an active participant of the Jewish Labor Bund. I went to their Yiddish summer camp, Camp Hemshekh (Hebrew for “continuation”), where I met other friends and activists who are here with me today,” Klepfisz related in an interview with Haaretz.

How is the struggle against Trumpism different from other social struggles you’ve been involved in throughout your life?

Moishe Rosenfeld, left, and Irena Klepfisz at the March on NYC, Jan. 21, 2017.Credit: Neta Alexander

“I feel a sense of urgency when it comes to Trump and his administration. I’m here today because I’m beginning to see what my parents saw in the 1930s in Europe. I always tried to imagined how it was like for them, but this is the first time in my life when I feel that I’m experiencing something similar. It has enormous echos for me. ‘America First’ is not substantially different from ‘Deutschland über Alles.’ One of the things that scares me is the global rise of right-wing movements in the United States, Europe and Israel. The American alt-right is in dialogue with similar movements in Israel, and this might pose a danger to both Israelis and Americans,” she said, referring to a white nationalist movement, many adherents of which backed Trump in the November election.

At 10:30 A.M. Saturday, Klepfisz, who teaches Jewish history and women’s studies at New York’s Barnard College, assembled with a group of other Bund activists to march as part of the Jewish Resistance. Among them was musical producer Moishe Rosenfeld, who represents Israeli singers such as Achinoam Nini (Noa) and Mira Awad. A self-described “lifelong Bundist,” Rosenfeld plans a Bund revival on October 22, 2017 to mark the 120th anniversary of the Jewish socialist workers party that was founded in Vilnius on October 7, 1897. The Jewish Labor Bund was a secular party active in Lithuania, Poland and Russia in the early 20th century.

“I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, after my parents were able to escape Poland in 1949,” Rosenfeld said, adding, “They were both Bundists, and I went to Camp Hemshekh to learn about workers rights, Jewish autonomy and Yiddish language and culture.”

While waiting for the march to begin, Klepfisz, Rosenfeld and their Bundist friends sang Yiddish songs they learned at Camp Hemshekh, at the age of nine or 10. As the children of Holocaust survivors, they say, they have maintained a lifelong commitment to social and political demonstrations and struggles. When asked why try and revive an 120-year-old Jewish movement instead of joining one of the new Jewish organizations specifically targeting Trump (such as the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council), Rosenfeld says: “I’m all for new forms of activism, but I also wish to preserve the Bund’s spirit and ideals. After all, this is a social movement with a long and rich history, whose members fought against pogroms in Europe, built a secular Jewish education system in Poland, and bravely fought — and gave their lives — in the Warsaw Ghetto. We can all draw inspiration from this historical tradition of social justice, civil rights and Jewish struggle.”

Protesters at the Women's March on NYC, Jan. 21, 2017.Credit: Neta Alexander

Shortly after noon, the joyful group stepped off, marching alongside Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish nonprofit that was founded in New York in 1900 by Yiddish-speaking immigrants as a mutual aid society. Ahead of the groups is a klezmer band. When its members began singing the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” the Bundists joined in.

“I remember the civil rights protests of the ‘60s,” recalled Rosenfeld. “We grew up on the Beatles and [Joseph Heller’s] ‘Catch-22’ was our bible. My wife went to the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. That was many years ago, but our fight is still not over,” Rosenfeld said.

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