Khaye Malke Lifshits (Ester Frumkin) in the audience (front row, fourth from right) at the first conference of GEZERD (The Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land), Moscow, 1926. (YIVO)

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Lifshits, Khaye Malke

(1880–1943), Bundist and Communist leader. Khaye Malke Lifshits (known variously as Ester; Ester Frumkin; Maria Iakovlevna Frumkina; and Ester Aronova) was the most prominent female leader of the Jewish Labor Bund in Russia (until 1921) and then a leader in the Evsektsiia (Jewish section) of the Russian Communist Party (RCP). In contrast to most other members of the Jewish revolutionary intelligentsia in Russia, Ester Frumkin receiveda strong Jewish education at home and was fluent in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Originally from Minsk, after graduating from high school in her hometown Frumkin continued her studies in philology and Russian literature at the Pedagogical University in Saint Petersburg.

While in Saint Petersburg, Frumkin expanded her knowledge of Marxist theory through her involvement in revolutionary circles. Returning to Minsk after university, she became an important Bundist leader during the 1905 Revolution. She was persecuted by the tsarist police and arrested in September 1907, but was released after a short time. In 1908, she went into exile in Austria and Switzerland.

Dais at the first conference of GEZERD, Moscow, 1926. (Seated, first from right) Khaye Malke Lifshits (Ester Frumkin). (YIVO)

Within the Bund, Frumkin was a vocal advocate of the promotion of Yiddish among workers, thus opposing the idea of “neutralism” advanced by Vladimir Medem. Between 1905 and 1914, she frequently wrote and lectured on Jewish education, and her views were influential in shaping Bundist positions on this subject. She stressed the need to impart elementary education in Yiddish in secular schools for the children of Jewish workers. For Frumkin, only the existence of a Jewish national culture could justify the Bund’s demand for national-cultural autonomy. She assumed that Russian Jewish workers could not build such schools by and for themselves and would only achieve the goal by collaborating with Jews of other economic classes. Yet the function of the Jewish proletariat was to ensure that schools would not become a tool in the hands of “nationalist reactionaries.”

Frumkin was a delegate at the conference on Jewish national languages in Czernowitz in 1908. She strongly opposed Y. L. Peretz’s proposal to create a worldwide Jewish cultural organization; her views on this matter were in keeping with the Bundist rejection of the idea that Jews all over the world constitute a single nation, and she claimed that the cultural interests of the Jewish working class were different from those of the Jewish bourgeoisie. Frumkin’s intransigent demand that the conference declare Yiddish as the only Jewish national language was not accepted by the majority, who adopted a resolution declaring Yiddish as “a national language of the Jewish people” (implying a similar status for Hebrew). After the conference, Frumkin remained in Czernowitz, helping to organize a group known as Orgnroyt, a predecessor of the Jewish Social Democratic Party of Galicia and Bucovina, often referred to as the Austrian Bund.

Frumkin returned illegally to Russia in late 1909, where she collaborated with other Bundist leaders in the production of Di tsayt, a Bundist organ published in Saint Petersburg, to which she contributed articles on Jewish culture. After the tsarist government renewed the persecution of socialist activists in late 1912, she was arrested again and banished to Siberia. However, she managed to escape and spent most of World War I in hiding. Following the February 1917 Revolution, Frumkin returned to Minsk, where she was soon elected to the Bund Central Committee and was one of the editors of Der veker.

In 1919–1921, Frumkin took a centrist position in debates over the Bund’s adoption of the program of the Communist Party. In April 1920 at the Russian Bund’s Twelfth Conference in Moscow, the party split between the Communist Bund (or Kombund), led by Frumkin and Rakhmiel (pseudonym of Aron Isaakovich Vainshtein), and the Social Democratic Bund, which remained connected to the Mensheviks and was subsequently outlawed in the early 1920s. In the following months, the Kombund opened negotiations with the RCP regarding the unification of the two parties. Frumkin and the other Kombundists failed to convince the RCP to accept the Bund as an autonomous Jewish section with organizational independence. In March 1921, the Kombund was forced to dissolve at its Thirteenth Conference, in Minsk, and many Kombundist activists joined the ranks of the RCP as individuals. At that conference, Frumkin declared, “Bundism will continue to exist as long as there is a Jewish proletariat.”

Frumkin held a number of important positions in the RCP, Evsektsiia, and the Soviet administration. Between 1921 and 1936, she was the vice rector of the University for Western National Minorities in Moscow, whose purpose was to transform Western “nationals” (both from the western regions of the Soviet Union and from Western Europe) into “revolutionary cadres.” She led an advanced seminar in which she lectured on Leninism; students were invited to propose policies addressing the basic problems of Soviet society. A measure of her stature as a Communist scholar and theorist during this period is the fact that the seventh volume of the Yiddish edition of Lenin’s Selected Works, on the national and Jewish questions (1927), is bound together with her long treatise Lenin un zayn arbet (Lenin and His Work).

Even as a Soviet Communist, Frumkin continued to promote Yiddish culture and argued that the RCP should make a concentrated effort to organize political activities and propaganda in the Jewish street. At the same time, she played a central role in the campaign against Jewish religious organizations (resulting in the forced dissolution of rabbinical institutions) carried out by Evsektsiia in the early 1920s. Frumkin was instrumental in establishing a network of Yiddish schools and in the official recognition of Yiddish as one of the national languages of the Soviet Union.

Like many other committed socialists and Communists, Frumkin fell victim to Stalinist repression. In 1930 the Central Committee of the RCP decided to liquidate the national sections, including the Evsektsiia. In 1936, the University for Western National Minorities was closed, and Frumkin was transferred to the Institute of Foreign Languages, only to be expelled from it a year later. She was arrested and spent the next three years in prison, and in August 1940 was condemned to eight years in a forced labor camp for political prisoners in Kazakhstan, where she died on 8 June 1943. The Soviet Union rehabilitated her in 1956. The Bund did not, however, and she was not listed among the hundreds of activists whose biographies were included in the commemorative work Doyres Bundistn (Generations of Bundists, 3 vols.; 1956–1968).

Suggested Reading

Roni Gechtman, “Yidisher Sotsializm: The Origin and Contexts of the Jewish Labor Bund’s National Program” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 2005); Arye Gelbard, Sofo shelo ki-teḥilato: Kitso shel ha-Bund ha-rusi (Tel Aviv, 1995); Jacob Sholem Hertz, Gregor Aronson, Sophie Dubnow-Erlich, E. Mus (Emanuel Novogrudski), Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, and Emanuel Scherer, eds., Geshikhte fun Bund, 5 vols. (New York, 1960–1981); Naomi Shepherd, A Price below Rubies: Jewish Women as Rebels and Radicals (Cambridge, Mass., 1993).