The solidarity of organised leisure

This essay presents a series of photographs taken mostly in Poland between 1917 and 1936, depicting the organized leisure and recreational activities of left-wing Jewish youth movements in various towns and cities throughout the Polish countryside. If solidarity is, according to a free internet dictionary, “a union of interests or purposes or sympathies among members of a group”, these photographs depict young people in the thralls of it, even as their community, their country, and their continent, famously descended into its sheer lack thereof.

Brok 1930 – A Tsukunft group from Warsaw poses on the sand on an outing in Brok

Kazimierz Dolny, 1929 – A group from Warsaw visiting the Kultur Lige Colony

Kazimierz Dolny, 1936 – The Warsaw Library League on an outing

Kazimierz Dolny, 1936 – Members of Tsukunft pose in bathing suits in a lake on an outing

Kazimierz Dolny, c 1920s-30s – Young men and women from Warsaw in bathing suits pose in a boat on the lake on an outing

Poland, 1934 – While on a sailing trip from Warsaw to Gdynia – members of Morgnshtern posing for a group portrait at the end of the pier

Radom, year unkown – A group of young Bundists pose with bicycles

Poland, date unknown. Three young people pose on a hill during an outing

Poland, 1935 – A coed group of young Bundists on an outing. A hike in a valley

While their rival Zionist youth organisations emphasized competitive sports like Soccer and Boxing, Morgnshtern, the popular sports organization of the Socialist ‘General Jewish Labour Union’ (the Bund, as it was known in Yiddish), preferred to promote non-competitive activities, such as Gymnastics and Hiking. These activities, with fewer opportunities for individual glory, better represented the ideals that the organization hoped to impart on its largely poor and working class members.

In addition to the potential for political awakening, these activities also offered its participants with a more basic appeal: the promise of spending time outside, with friends, with members of the opposite sex, and away from the rigors and realties of everyday life.  For many members, the politics were an afterthought.

In 1939, an 18-year-old Jewish boy using the pseudonym J. Harefuler, eloquently summarized the effect of such an outing, writing in Polish for an autobiography contest sponsored by the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO), then based in Vilnius:

This camp seemed to be a completely self-contained period in my life. When I returned to Warsaw, I was constantly amazed by how things appeared.  I now saw the dark, narrow streets with different eyes. A person who is used to darkness doesn’t recognize the gloom he lives in until he returns there after being in the light.  I didn’t recognize what a teeming maze of narrow streets my youth had been crammed into until I retuned from broad, unlimited spaces.  Now my apartment, which I’d forgotten about, also looked strange…
Only now I saw my great poverty, which I hadn’t noticed out of habit….I’ve since been on a few similar camping trips and outings, and they’ve all had the same effect on me. I returned satisfied from each one, and each one left me with a wealth of memories.

These photographs, along with J. Harefuler’s autobiography, one way or another found their way into the dusty collections of the thoroughly-Eastern-European YIVO archives, now located in New York City.  A handful of the hundreds of autobiographies written by Polish-Jewish adolescents for YIVO contests held in 1932, 1934, and 1939 have been translated into English and were published in the fantastic collection Awakening Lives (Yale University Press, 2002).

Images courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.


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