Majer Bogdanski was born in Piotrkow-Tribunalski in Poland on 4 July 1912 and died in London on 4 September 2005. He was a member of the Bund, a Jewish socialist organisation which saw the future for Jews as being in the countries where they had been living for centuries.
Majer remembered the conflicts with young Zionists who argued that Jews had their future in Palestine. This idea was grotesquely paralleled by the anti-Semites’ slogan, “Kikes to Palestine”.
By the mid-1930s the Bund was the dominant Jewish organisation in Poland. It resisted anti-Semitism on the streets and its work in the trade unions meant it could call a general strike in March 1936 in response to the pogrom against Jews at Przytyk.
The Bund worked closely with the Polish Socialist Party in inter-war Poland. Majer recalled the solidarity shown on May Days in Lodz, “Between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish workers would march.
“There would be about 10,000 Jewish workers. We would be together for the final rally. The Bund would have a speaker in Yiddish as this was very important to us. The non-Jewish workers would listen patiently until he had finished, not understanding a word.”
In addition to its work in the trade unions and standing for elections, the Bund organised sports events, activities, political meetings and a youth section.
Majer was a youth leader, leading walks in the mountains of Zakopane and discussing socialist ideas with groups of young people.
By 1935 he had moved to Lodz with his wife Esther. Women equal to men in the Bund and although Majer was sometimes unhappy that Esther organised illegal political meetings in their home, he told me, “We always had to make up, we only had one room.”
Drafted into the Polish army Majer was commended as a first class soldier in the heavy artillery regiment.
In 1939 Poland was attacked by Germany in the west and Russia in the east. Majer was captured by the Red Army and sent to a labour camp above the Arctic Circle. He spent nearly two years in sub-zero temperatures. Unlike many others, he survived.
After the Nazis invaded Russia, Poles were freed and Majer joined the Polish army under general Wadyslaw Anders to fight against the Nazis.
They travelled through Palestine where Majer argued with other Jews not to desert and settle but to join the fight against Hitler.
He went through Italy and fought at Ancona and Monte Cassino, where he was rewarded for his bravery.
On returning to Poland at the end of the war he found that his father and wife and died in Auschwitz. Despite severe torture, Esther had not betrayed her fellow Bundists.
The Holocaust had put an end to Polish Jewry—hundreds of years of life and a rich and vibrant culture.
Majer settled in London and worked as a tailor, a trade he had taken up at 13 to support his younger siblings.
Following the Bundist principle of doikayt, or “hereness”, a commitment to the here and now, he joined the Labour Party and fought racism alongside his Bengali comrades.
He played a central role in keeping Yiddish culture and language alive. He read nine languages and spoke five fluently.
He played and sang Yiddish and Jewish melodies to audiences for 40 years, preserving many ancient tunes by transcribing them from memory, composing hundreds more and publishing four anthologies.
He spoke brilliantly on Yiddish culture and on the Holocaust. I remember an SWP rally where a packed hall rose to their feet inspired by his account of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
He always spoke from firmly held principles, with wisdom, experience and authority, never treating ideas as playthings or trying to impress.
During his last days in hospital he was still immersing himself in discussions on Dostoevsky, Wagner and Shakespeare.
A secular Jew, Majer attended synagogue and Talmud classes regularly for the love of music, knowledge and culture. His council flat in Tower Hamlets, east London, was full of books and music.
He was a wonderful man, held in great esteem by all who knew him.As his friend Esther Brunstein attests, “To his last day he remained devoted to the ideals of Bundism”.
Yidishe Lider, Majer Bogdanski’s recordings of Yiddish songs, is available from Jewish Music Heritage Recordings, PO Box 232, Harrow HA1 2NN or phone 020 8909 2445.