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Berman, Jakub

(1901–1984), activist in the interwar Communist Party of Poland; brother of psychologist and Warsaw ghetto leader Adolf Abraham Berman (1906–1978). Among the leaders of postwar Stalinist Poland, Berman was responsible for overseeing both cultural policy and the security apparatus.

As a student, Jakub Berman joined the Communist Youth Union. He received his law degree from the University of Warsaw, where he also studied history and sociology with Marxist sociologist Ludwik Krzywicki. In 1926, Berman published “Di oyfgabn fun der historisher sektsye fun yidishn visnshaftlekhen institute” (The Duties ofthe Historical Section of the Yiddish Scientific Institute) in the Yiddish historical journal Yunger historiker, citing the need for YIVO in Vilna to popularize its work and expand its contacts with the masses. In 1928, he joined the Communist Party of Poland and was assigned work among the intelligentsia.

When Germany attacked Poland in September 1939, Berman fled east to Białystok. In spring 1941 he moved from there to Minsk, and served as an editor of Sztandar wolności (The Banner of Freedom), the Polish-language newspaper of the Belorussian Communist Party. With the onset of Operation Barbarossa and the German bombing of Minsk, he fled still further east, teaching at the Comintern school in the southeastern Russian city of Ufa, and training activists who would form a new party for Polish communists, the Polska Partia Robotnicza (Polish Workers’ Party).

After World War II, Berman was one of the most powerful figures in the new communist regime in Poland, second only to Bolesław Bierut, the country’s postwar Stalinist president. Berman was charged with the oversight of culture and ideology. The security apparatus (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa) was also under Berman’s jurisdiction during these bloodiest years of Polish Stalinism. Nonetheless, as a Jew, Berman was himself especially vulnerable to purging during Stalin’s “anti-cosmopolitan campaign.” That Berman avoided the fate of Rudolf Slánský was most likely due to Bierut’s support.

Following Stalin’s death in 1954, the security apparatus was removed from Berman’s supervision. Two years later, Bierut died in Moscow, shortly after Khrushchev’s “secret speech” acknowledging Stalin’s “excesses.” After Bierut’s funeral, Berman submitted his resignation from the Politburo, which was accepted. In the following year, 1957, the Central Committee of the United Polish Workers’ Party revoked his party card.

In an appeal to the Central Committee, Berman acknowledged that he felt “co-responsibility” for an “insufficiently penetrating and harsh superintendence over particular elements of the security apparatus.” He insisted, however, that he had acted with the best of intentions and had not known about “inhuman practices” employed by security. “I cannot reconcile myself to the thought of exclusion from the party,” he wrote, “to which I have been joined for 34 years. I did commit errors, but from the time I became a communist I have lived only with the desire of serving our cause.”

Having been cast out of the government, Jakub Berman served as an editor at the publishing house Książka i Wiedza. He retired in 1969, following the “anti-Zionist” campaign of the previous year. In the early 1980s, he took part in a series of interviews with Solidarity journalist Teresa Torańska. He remained convinced both that history would someday come to appreciate Stalin as the stage director of the Nazis’ defeat and that communism would one day bring a brighter, just future for all. He died in Warsaw in April 1984.

Suggested Reading

Krystyna Kersten, The Establishment of Communist Rule in Poland, 1943–1948, trans. John Micgiel and Michael H. Bernhard (Berkeley, 1991); Marci Shore, Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918–1968 (New Haven , 2006); Marci Shore, “Children of the Revolution: Communism, Zionism, and the Berman Brothers,” Jewish Social Studies 10.3 ( 2004): 23–86; Anna Sobór-Świderska, Jakub Berman: Biografia komunisty (Warsaw 2009); Teresa Torańska, Them”: Stalin’s Polish Puppets, trans. Agnieszka Kolakowska (New York , 1987).