Socialist Sports in Yiddish:
The Bundist Sport Organization Morgnshtern in Interwar Poland
The Morgnshtern, ("Morning Star" in
Yiddish, also known by its Polish name Jutrznia), was the sport organization
of the Jewish Labour Bund in Poland between the two World Wars.
Founded in 1926 as the Polish-Jewish section of the Socialist Workers'
Sport International (SWSI), the Morgnshtern achieved immediate popularity,
boasting 5,000 members and more than 170 branches in cities and towns
throughout Poland. In the 1930s, it was the largest Jewish sport
organization in Poland. The aim of the Morgnshtern
The Morgnshtern's activities were inspired by the theory of workers' sport formulated by the Austro-Marxist Julius Deutsch, at the time chairman of the SWSI. In 1928, Deutsch published Sport and Politics , a manifesto of workers' sport, soon translated into Yiddish and most other European languages. Deutsch was a Marxist, but he was neither deterministic nor overly optimistic: he believed that socialists must organize the masses of workers, especially the proletarian youth, and prepare them for the class struggle through education. For Deutsch, there was no greater error than to believe that the proletariat would bring the class struggle to a victorious end regardless of its moral and cultural situation. Thus, the first tasks of the socialist movement were to free the proletariat from the prison of ignorance in which it was kept by the bourgeois order, and to counteract the influence of bourgeois values transmitted through the media, the compulsory school system, the arts, etc. The beneficial effects of sport activities on a mass scale would have a significant impact on the ongoing class struggle in society.
Class contradictions were evident
in sport just as in the rest of society. Deutsch stressed that bourgeois
sport reflected bourgeois culture and bourgeois ethical principles.
Under bourgeois hegemony, sports were
Deutsch did not condemn professional
athletes as individuals; on the contrary, he believed that they might
be honest people earning their living in an honourable way, like artists
or musicians, but that their performance was meaningless. The professional
athlete could impress the audience, but not act as its role-model, since
his or her achievements resulted from exceptional physical characteristics
and specialized training, and this special training was not desirable
for everybody, since most professional
Thus, Deutsch concluded, it was imperative
to create separate proletarian sport organizations that would develop
sport activities under completely different principles: workers' sport
must be "collectivist," and seek
The Morgnshtern tried to organize its activities according to Deutsch's principles in the context of Polish Jewry. Though decidedly Jewish, the Morgnshtern was a secular institution. Many of its activities were held on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, which was understandable in an organization of workers with little leisure time during the week.
Bundists rejected any nationalism, including Jewish nationalism. Throughout its existence, the Morgnshtern produced no formulation equivalent to Max Nordau's famous call for a Muskuljudentum (muscular Judaism). The Morgnshtern membership-male and female Jewish workers engaged in physical work- did not need to prove their muscular and physical skills to counteract an abstract conception of Jews as spiritual or intellectual persons with weak bodies. Moreover, neither the Morgnshtern nor the Bund wanted to transform the Jews into a warrior-people: they rejected both nationalism and war, promoting international solidarity and the creation of a healthier and fairer society for both Jews and non-Jews.
Bundists saw Zionism as a manifestation
of bourgeois nationalism and thus refrained from any collaboration with
its organizations. The Morgnshtern was openly hostile not only toward
the (Zionist) Maccabi, but also toward the (Labour-Zionist) HaPoel. The
Yiddish editor of Deutsch's Sport and
The Morgnshtern emphasized participation in non-competitive activities, and the majority of its membership belonged to its non-competitive sections. The most popular activity was gymnastics, and after it, the overwhelmingly female-dominated eurhythmics [ritmika]. The incentive for the participants in these activities was not competition but self-improvement. The ritmika report for 1937 stated its main aim as the democratization of physical activity by giving children who could not otherwise afford it access to physical education. In the summer, the Morgnshtern rented a swimming-pool during certain hours to offer swimming lessons to its members. A popular winter activity was glitshn (ice-skating), and lessons were also offered at accessible prices, especially for children. Every year from 1933 the Warsaw Morgnshtern rented a skating-rink for its members.
The biggest event in the Morgnshtern calendar was the turnfest, a sport and cultural holiday in which displays of harmonic movement of hundreds or thousands of gymnasts represented the proletarian force, unity and sense of solidarity. The program of the 1932 turnfest in Kutno offers an indication of what these turnfests might have looked like. During the event, all the different gymnastic groups, from the youngest to the oldest, and alternating groups of males and females, performed gymnastic exercises in various styles. The last groups to perform were the adult men-performing the same program presented by the Morgnshtern one year earlier at the Workers' Olympic Games in Vienna- and adult women, who performed a series of exercises to the rhythm of popular Yiddish songs ("der rebe elimeylekh" and others). In the last part, all groups together performed a gymnastic piece called "der eybiker korbn" ("The Eternal Victim"), which represented "a symbolic image of the struggle between labour and capital." Another major event in the life of the Morgnshtern was the International Workers' Olympic Games, organized by the SWSI.
These massive events are today almost completely forgotten. Still, in the 1920s and 1930s, their popularity matched that of the "bourgeois" or "official" Olympic Games (organized by the International Olympic Committee, or IOC). The Second Workers' Olympiad took place in Vienna in 1931, with the participation of 100,000 worker-athletes from 26 countries. By comparison, in the IOC-organized Olympic Games in Los Angeles one year later, only 1,408 athletes participated. The Vienna Workers' Olympiad attracted 250,000 spectators, and it easily surpassed its rival, the IOC Olympic Games, not only in the number of competitors and spectators but also in the many cultural events it included. Unlike the bourgeois Olympic Games, the Workers' Olympiad stressed workers' internationalism, solidarity and peace, and did not restrict entry on the grounds of sporting ability but invited all athletes, encouraging mass participation. The Morgnshtern sent 300 worker-athletes to the Vienna Olympiad, who proudly marched along the avenues of "Red Vienna" displaying their Yiddish banners. An even more monumental Workers' Olympiad was planned for Barcelona in 1936, in opposition to the Nazi Olympics in Berlin. However, the Barcelona Workers' Games never took place due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War almost exactly at the same time the Olympiad was scheduled to begin. Thus the Third Workers' Olympic Games were rescheduled for the following year in Antwerp. Despite intensive preparations, the Morgnshtern was banned from participation in this event by the Polish government.
In its early years, the Morgnshtern,
while actively opposing competitive or violent sports (in particular boxing
and soccer), had simultaneously to deal with their increasing popularity,
in Poland as everywhere else. In the 1929 Congress of the SWSI,
the Morgnshtern proposed a total ban on boxing in all the affiliated federations,
and, in parallel, proposed that new rules be set for soccer to diminish
its competitiveness and escalating violence. The proposal was that, in
soccer competitions, the winning team
A passionate argument arose in the
Congress around this issue. The opponents of this proposal thought
that soccer in its existing form should be used as a means of bringing
the proletarian masses into workers' sport organizations. Besides,
they claimed, soccer was so popular among workers that if the workers'
clubs did not organize it, they would lose their members to the bourgeois
clubs. Similar arguments took place within the Morgnshtern and eventually,
as many times before and after, purist ideals were set aside under pressure
from below. The "soccer question" was resolved by the Central Organizing
Committee of the Morgnshtern in 1930. In the text of the resolution, the
leaders of the Morgnshtern rationalized
Following this precedent, other competitive
sports were gradually incorporated into Morgnshtern activities, including
ping-pong, handball, basketball, volleyball and even boxing. To be sure,
regardless of these
By the early 1930s there were several
Morgnshtern soccer teams in the Warsaw area alone, some representing different
Jewish workers' unions. In 1929 the Bundist daily Naye Folkstsaitung
sponsored the soccer tournament among the various Morgnshtern teams, offering
as a prize the Naye Folkstsaitung Trophy: a bronze sculpture of a worker
by a famous Polish sculptor. The winner of the tournament was the
Czarny, the soccer team of the union of commerce employees. Two
thousand people came to see this
Regardless of style and aesthetic, the Warsaw Morgnshtern team won 1:0, because they managed to score a goal in a "suicidal" shot at the last minute of the game, when both teams were exhausted, to the great dismay of our unnamed reporter, who as early as the 1920s preferred controlled and tactical play over players' skills. The reporter of the Arbeter sportler concluded with disappointment that the Kraft deserved at least a draw. As late as July 1939, a new soccer team was organized in the Warsaw Morgnshtern, and in the following weeks it played several friendly games with other Morgnshtern teams from Warsaw and Vilna. The team showed great promise. On August 8, 1939, it won two games against the older and strongest Morgnshtern teams, Czarny and Veker. A month later, Poland was under Nazi occupation. The Morgnshtern membership would share the fate of the rest of Polish Jewry.
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