“Seven-fold Betrayal”: The Murder of Soviet Yiddish
Seven lights irradiate his head
To set against his seven-fold betrayal—
He is become again anointed poet
On the dead floor of the prison cell.
—H. Leivick, “Der man fun lid (Moyshe Kulbakn)”
[The Prisoner Poet]1
Jewish tradition mandates the lighting of memorial candles on the anniversary of bereavements, to re-member those departed. This year, the Jewish literary world commemorates Stalin’s post-war destruction of Yiddish literature and culture. Fifty years ago, on August 12, 1952, thirteen prominent Soviet Jews were shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka prison.2 One third of them were distinguished men of Yiddish letters: the poets Itsik Fefer, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko, and Peretz Markish, and the novelist Dovid Bergelson. The victims of these judicial murders were all accused of “bourgeois nationalism,” the crime of claiming for the Jewish people the right to be regarded as a nationality with a distinctive cultural identity. They were virtually the last among dozens of important 20th-century Jewish literati eliminated by the Soviet state from the early 1930s onwards: among the most prominent eliminated by the Soviet state were Moyshe Litvakov, Max Erik, Izi Kharik, and Moyshe Kulbak in 1937, Yisroel Tsinberg in 1938, and Zelig Akselrod in 1941.
At first, Stalin’s “purges” of those who opposed him, through the use of fabricated show trials and arbitrary death sentences, were directly antisemitic neither in origin nor in intention. They swept away many Jews because these had risen to high rank in the Communist Party, and Stalin therefore perceived them, in company with thousands of their Russian countrymen, as potential threats to the absolute nature of his despotism. Some supported Trotsky and were therefore inevitably doomed after Trotsky’s expulsion from the USSR in 1928. Others, however, faithfully served the Revolution with high idealistic conviction. They certainly did not anticipate being vilified and shot as spies, traitors, and counter-revolutionaries. But here lay the bitter irony of so much commitment to Bolshevism, particularly on the part of Jews in general and Yiddish writers in particular, for whom the Soviet Union, in the first decade of its existence, appeared as the savior of their language and its culture.
This near-messianic hope seemed well founded. After the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks enunciated a new nationality policy, based on their professed commitment to universal human brotherhood, that would ostensibly enable the Jews of Eastern Europe to live at last as equals in the land their forbears had settled for generations. Five members of Lenin’s first Politburo were Jews, and during the first decade of the emerging Soviet Union’s existence, Jews were in the forefront of all Party activities. Funded and encouraged by the new Soviet state, Yiddish cultural activ-ity appeared on the verge of a fresh new blooming. Re-search institutes, literary organizations, newspapers, publishing houses, theaters, and schools were established in great cities with large Jewish populations like Kiev, Minsk, Kharkov, and Moscow, inspiring Yiddish writers throughout Eastern Europe to set their work afloat in the mainstream of a world culture that seemed to flow from the great haven of the USSR. To clarify the Jews’ anomalous position vis-à-vis other “national minorities,” in 1928 Stalin, at that time People’s Commissar for Nationalities, declared Birobidzhan, an area in southeastern Siberia, a Jewish territorial district that, with Yiddish as its official language, was upgraded to an autonomous Jewish region (oblast) in 1934. Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union sang the praises of the new world opening up before them, urging Yiddish-speaking Jews worldwide to throw off the yoke of capitalism and join the revolutionary struggle in the new motherland.
By 1930, however, when Stalin was in the final stages of entrenching his dictatorship, some Yiddish writers started to feel oppressed by the insidious menace steadily encircling their lives and work. Izi Kharik was among the first to articulate what was then still a nameless dread:
Flee? I cannot, I do not want to flee,
And now it has become impossible to stay here anymore.
Destruction has blanketed the courtyards,
The windowpanes show only shrouded streaks of light.
Nothing and emptiness, wasteness and winds,
A gloomy silent hour hovers here ...
I walk on and my fancy plays me false—
Someone still comes on from behind:
I turn around to look and no one’s there,
I slowly go my way and yet I want to run ...
My footsteps clatter terror-stricken on the ground,
I drag my body onward and beg that day will dawn,
That day will dawn, that day will dawn—
I cannot go on anymore!3
Why had the atmosphere changed so radically in so short a time? Who could believe that it had changed, when all the major state-supported structures of Yiddish cultural life were still in place? As was steadily to appear, the danger lay in these very cultural structures themselves. In 1919, barely two years after the Revolution, when a special “Jewish Section” of the Communist Party was created to address matters of direct Jewish concern, the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (Russian acronym GOSET), was founded in the capital to bring to the Jewish masses, in their own Yiddish vernacular, the teachings of Marxism-Leninism in plays especially scripted to emphasize the stultifying domination of traditional Judaism by comparison with the exhilarating freedom of the Revolution. Some of the seeds of Stalin’s emerging anti-Jewish persecution were sown by this theater’s work, and by the opportunities for encoded self-expression it offered some of those most closely associated with it. Since it increasingly became more and more criminal to express any sense of Jewish pride and particularity, the productions mounted by GOSET kept moving in and out of danger.
The founder-director of GOSET, Alexander Granovsky, had worked intensively with the troupe for nearly ten years, bringing it to a high standard of artistic expertise before he defected to the West during the theater’s first European tour in 1928. Direction of the theater then passed to the company’s leading actor, Solomon Mikhoels (Solomon Mikhailovich Vovsi). Though Mikhoels was committed to the ideals of the Revolution, he remained equally committed to his Jewish heritage and never became an official member of the Communist Party. He valued his people as an identifiable national group with a proud culture, and his work consistently endeavored to marry socialist ideology to Jewish national traditions. When increasing pressure was brought to bear on him to make his theater’s repertoire conform more closely to the Party line, he responded by attempting to depict contemporary events and doctrines from the perspective of Jewish history, and he further enhanced the Jewishness of his productions by drawing extensively on Jewish folklore and music. Mikhoels was wholly convinced that unless his Yiddish theater develop-ed materials drawn from specifically Jewish sources, it would render itself superfluous, so he solicited and produced plays from some of the most gifted Yiddish writers of his day: Dovid Bergelson, Moyshe Kulbak, Peretz Markish, and Shmuel Halkin all saw their distinctively Jewish dramas received with acclaim on his stage. As a result, almost all of them were also doomed, to some extent as a result of the “nationalistic” themes this work developed.
Initially, the goals of GOSET under Mikhoels did not conflict with the policies of either the Communist Party or the Soviet State. However, the Party line on what was acceptable in public discourse and what was not hardened significantly between 1928 and 1934. With the introduction of his first Five-Year Plan, Stalin ruthlessly enforced the collectivization of farms and the intensification of industry, in part by eradicating all who in any way opposed his policies. Thus began the Great Purges, which systematically destroyed all so-called “wreckers,” “saboteurs,” and “rightwing deviationists.” At the same time, as a counterweight against mounting German aggression abroad, Stalin reintroduced at home the same brand of Russian chauvinism on which the tsarist empire had depended for so long. Earlier Bolshevik catchphrases like “world revolution” and “proletarian internationalism” were subtly replaced by Stalin’s “theory of the elder brother,” written into the Soviet constitution in 1936. This doctrine severely truncated the hitherto guaranteed liberties of the Soviet republics, and wholly eliminated those of formerly respected national minorities. Inevitably, Soviet Jews, without any recognized historical claim to their own territory, felt this repression most immediately. Another assault on them came in March 1938, when a Politburo resolution introduced compulsory study of the Russian language “in the schools of the national republics and regions.” National minorities, again including the Jews, suffered the steady but total closure of their cultural and educational organs. Lenin’s early dictum that complete assimilation was a precondition for the acceptance and survival of the Jews in Russia was now also repeatedly invoked, so that far from pursuing that national-cultural self-identity the Revolution had promised them, Jews came to feel that their inviolable Soviet duty was to acquire Russian culture and language as quickly as possible.
The state’s demand for complete Russification and assimilation thrust Yiddish cultural workers into a dangerously untenable position. They were devoting all their creative energy to a cause that official Party ideology now insisted was “nationalistic.” Those they were supposedly addressing were dying away: children, no longer taught in Yiddish, regarded Russian as their mother tongue; great numbers of GOSET’s Moscow audiences no longer spoke Yiddish. External pressures also forced Jews further out of Soviet public life. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 led to a purge of Jews in the Foreign Ministry. The Russian Vyacheslav Molotov replaced the Jew Maxim Litvinov as Foreign Minister; other, less fortunate diplomats of Jewish nationality were removed from their posts and imprisoned. Right up until the German invasion and the outbreak of war, discrimination against Jews, and the state’s closure of those cultural and educational institutions it had formerly supported, cut off the legs of the Yiddish revival in the USSR.
After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, this creeping official antisemitism was halted. With the USSR initially on the losing end of the invasion and in sore need of Allied aid, Stalin could not openly pursue an anti-Jewish policy of discrimination and suppression. Publicly, at least, all anti-Jewish measures were subordinated to fight what the Soviets came to call “The Great Patriotic War.” A Jewish mass rally, officially sanctioned and held on August 24, 1941, included passionate addresses from eminent Jewish public figures including Mikhoels, Markish, Bergelson, and the internationally celebrated journalist Ilya Ehrenburg, all of whom stressed that Hitler’s international war of conquest was specifically aimed also at the destruction of the Jewish people. The crisis precipitated by the war made possible this kind of claim, in the teeth of twenty years of rigorous Soviet prohibition of any assertion of Jewish unity or particularity. From beginning to end of the war, Jewish leaders openly called special attention to the extent of Jewish suffering in Europe, and appealed for a worldwide alliance of “brother Jews” against the Nazi evil. Sentiments like these, vital at this period for the unification of the Soviet war effort, would malevolently be used ten years later to fabricate an indictment carrying the death penalty against those who had earlier been encouraged to express them.
As a sop to the Allies, and a mask over Soviet reality, Stalin now sent Litvinov to Washington as Soviet ambassador. He also authorized the formation of five separate anti-Fascist committees representing special interest groups—Jews, women, youth, scientists, and Slavs—to solicit material and financial aid from the West by establishing overseas contacts and assiduously disseminating pro-Soviet propaganda. On December 15, 1941, Stalin appointed Mikhoels chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC), and the veteran Bolshevik activist Shakhno Epshteyn as its deputy chairman and executive secretary. By May 1942, the most respected Jews in Soviet public life had been made members of the JAFC; its executive committee included Hofshteyn, Markish, Kvitko, Fefer, and Bergelson, the poet and dramatist Shmuel Halkin, the biochemist Lina Shtern, and the physician Boris Shimeliovich. Established at the same time was the Yiddish daily newspaper Eynikeyt (Unity), the first issue of which appeared on 17 July 1942. All the anti-Fascist committees operated under the direction of Solomon Losovsky, a Jew who was simultaneously deputy chairman of the newly created Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinformburo) and Deputy People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs.
The JAFC, of course, always functioned under tight state control. Fearful of any upsurge of Jewish nationalism within the USSR, even while the German invasion was at its height, Stalin secretly put into action an antisemitic program of “national-personnel” control, with the deliberate aim of placing only Russians in the key positions of public administration. A report entitled “The Selection and Promotion of Personnel in the Arts” that was submitted to the Politburo in August 1942 identified by name, and in terms of percentages, all Jews employed in State cultural institutions, and recommended that they be replaced. A brisk campaign for “the purity of Russian art,” never publicly admitted, was then speedily implemented. At the same time, in an attempt to encourage more foreign aid to the USSR, Stalin agreed to permit a delegation from the JAFC to accept a joint invitation, issued by several pro-Soviet American war relief committees, to visit the USA and Britain. Mikhoels and Fefer were authorized to go. Sholem Aleichem’s son-in-law, the ardently pro-Communist, Russian-born American journalist, Ben-Zion Goldberg, organized the tour. Although the invitation had come from committees of private individuals and was neither issued nor negotiated through the US State Department, all engagements during the trip were strictly regulated by the Soviet embassy in Washington.
In mid-June 1943, Mikhoels and Fefer arrived in the US and began a hectic round of banquets, receptions, rallies, and meetings with American and international Jewish political, cultural, and charitable organizations. Among the many distinguished persons they met, including Albert Einstein, Charles Chaplin, and Yehudi Menu-hin, the most critical in the light of future events were Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organi-zation (WZO); Nahum Goldmann, director of the World Jewish Congress (WJC); and James Rosenberg, one of the leaders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Com-mittee (JDC). Foreign Minister Molotov cleared all these meetings in advance, and all of them took place in the presence of a Soviet diplomat and a Soviet interpreter.
At their first meeting in New York, Rosenberg touched on the future of the Crimea and the possibility of creating an autonomous Jewish settlement there, in which surviving Jews, dispossessed and displaced by the Nazi invasion, might rebuild their lives. The JDC undertook to become a part-sponsor of such a project should it materialize. After their return to the USSR in early November 1943, Mikhoels and Fefer naturally gave their superior, Losovsky, a full report on their tour, including a detailed account of Rosenberg’s offers. Losovsky then arranged a meeting between JAFC leaders and Molotov to discuss this putative Crimean project, and since at this meeting’s conclusion they received only a vague response—“Write a letter and we’ll look into it”—the JAFC decided to submit a memorandum on this subject to Stalin personally. This “Crimean brief” was a disastrous mistake. It suggested to the morbidly mistrustful Stalin that the JAFC was now seeking offi-cially to represent Soviet Jews, and thus to acquire some kind of political influence, and he viewed this approach as threatening, particularly as he had intensified his distrust of his former Allies after Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946.
The general situation of Soviet Jews unquestionably worsened after the war. In the Ukraine and other regions, violent pogroms erupted in 1945. Leyb Kvitko, sent to report on the circumstances of Jews in the Crimea, for example, discovered that, despite all their suffering at Nazi hands, their repatriation was now being blocked by Soviet authorities, who denied them residence rights, work permits, and financial help. American and Western aid was either being stolen or diverted. These injustices were reported, and a token state commission was established, which, not surprisingly, dismissed all the accusations. This manifest upsurge of Soviet antisemitism was the consequence of the anti-Jewish policy instituted by the Kremlin long before the war began. Nazi propaganda circulated in the areas occupied by the invading Germans simply exacerbated a longstanding prejudice.
Sensing that his best interests would be served by taking temporary account of Western sympathy for collective Jewish suffering, Stalin did not immediately stamp out the budding national movement among Soviet Jews. Nevertheless he did everything in his power to minimize the Holocaust, insisting that all Soviet citizens had suffered equally from Hitler’s savagery, and re-emphasizing that the Marxist-Leninist dogma of “proletarian internationalism” and “proletarian solidarity” ruled out all possibility of national particularism. Dogmatic propaganda, under the slogan “Communist internationalism and Soviet patriotism,” was stepped up, and the MGB (later NKVD and then KGB), the all-intrusive state security service, was ordered to probe the activities of the JAFC and its affiliated institutions. Soviet Jews were swiftly isolated from the outside world, while at home, efforts to assimilate them were intensified, Jewish cultural and educational activities were shut down, and Jews continued to be discriminated against in the workplace.
With typical duplicity, for propaganda and espionage reasons of its own, the Soviet government at the same time permitted visits to the USSR from two pro-Soviet American Jews, the journalist Ben-Zion Goldberg, and Peysekh Novick, the editor of New York’s pro-Communist Yiddish daily Morgn-frayheyt. Goldberg arrived in Moscow at the end of 1945, and though he met Kalinin, the USSR’s nominal head of state, and was allowed to travel widely in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Latvia, and Lithuania, he was refused permission to visit the vaunted Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan. Soviet intelligence kept close watch over Goldberg’s visit, making extensive notes of all those in the JAFC with whom he met. Novick visited the USSR from September 1946 through January 1947, and he too was closely monitored, being regarded, for the purposes Stalin had designed for him, as an “American spy,” despite the fact that he had been a committed member of the American Communist Party since 1921 and was, like Goldberg, ironically enough regarded by the FBI as a “Moscow agent.”
Hoping to undermine British influence in the Middle East, Stalin supported the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1947, on May 14th and again on November 26th, Andrei Gromyko, USSR ambassador to the UN, was instructed to endorse the partition of Palestine. To serve this end further, on April 20, 1948, in a statement that radically departed from the official Party line on the Holocaust in order to soothe Western sensibilities, Gromyko explicitly declared: “The heavy sacrifices of the Jewish people during the tyranny of Hitlerites in Europe emphasize the necessity and justify the demands of the Jews to create their own independent state in Palestine.” To serve its own interests, the USSR consequently became one of the first world powers to recognize the new State of Israel, and since Stalin hoped that Israel’s new government might lean politically toward Moscow, in 1948 he received Golda Meyerson (later Meir) as Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Even so, Stalin remained profoundly suspicious of Soviet Jews and their attraction to the West, and he made up his mind to intimidate them. As a preliminary step in this direction, he cunningly arranged for the murder of Mikhoels, the charismatic and outspoken chairman of the JAFC, whom hundreds of Soviet Jews regarded as their intercessor and protector, and to whom many appealed personally for help in their difficulties with the state. Since Mikhoels was a bold and flamboyant personality of widespread celebrity—the actor-director had dared publicly to express grief for the Jewish millions murdered in the Holocaust, and could barely conceal his interest in the political foundation of a Jewish homeland—Stalin evidently felt that murdering him clandestinely would suit his long-term plans for Soviet Jewry better than an arrest and a staged trial during which Mikhoels might very well fail in court to play the role assigned to him in a script prepared by the MGB.
In January 1948, Mikhoels was sent as a Stalin Prize judge to evaluate a new Yiddish theater production opening in Minsk. There, on the night of January 12, 1948, MGB agents murdered him together with the MGB agent who had accompanied him, carefully arranging the corpses to look like the casualties of a hit-and-run motorist; it was as victims of a motor accident that their deaths were presented to the public. The autopsy report confirmed what the authorities required, while in Moscow, Mikhoels was given a lavish state funeral and many posthumous honors: GOSET was renamed after him, several performances were given in his memory, and the Moscow city council discussed renaming after him the street on which his theater stood. All this was a typical Stalinist ploy designed to allay suspicion about the abruptness of Mikhoels’s death, and to conceal from immediate public perception the anti-Jewish persecution that had long been planned and would soon be put into operation.
In the spring of 1948, the establishment of the State of Israel excited many Soviet Jews, especially as Stalin backed diplomatic recognition with military aid. The JAFC sent a telegram of congratulation to Chaim Weizmann, and hundreds of individual Jews expressed elated solidarity with Israel in phone calls, personal visits, and letters to the JAFC. In June 1948, with Stalin’s consent, the Moscow Choral Synagogue organized a ceremonial service of thanks-giving, attended by several thousand people, and displayed huge posters proclaiming in Hebrew such patriotic slogans as Am Yisrael Chai. Identical services took place at the same time in other great cities across the USSR. On September 2, 1948, Golda Meyerson arrived in Moscow to take up her embassy, and a week later she attended the Sabbath synagogue service to great public enthusiasm, intensified when she attended the Rosh ha-Shanah services three weeks later. Nearly twenty thousand people, for most of whom there was no room inside the synagogue, participated in this service, which became a fervent communal expression of gratitude for Israel’s founding, as did the service on Yom Kippur ten days later, when the concluding prayer of the service, “Next year in Jerusalem,” coupled with the blowing of the shofar, elicited a powerful emotional response from the crowd. Jewish sympathy for the State of Israel was so widespread in the Soviet Union that it brought out of hiding many people who had earlier taken great pains to conceal their Jewish origins, including the wife of Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, a former Defense Commissar, and Molotov’s wife Polina Zhemchuzhina who, at a diplomatic reception in Moscow in November 1948, proudly declared to Golda Meyerson in Yiddish, “Ikh bin a yidishe tokhter” (I am a daughter of the Jewish people). Stalin obviously recognized with anger that foreign policy support for Israel was encouraging Soviet Jews at home to feel integrally—and impermissibly—part of world Jewry, and he moved brutally to stamp out all hints of Jewish national consciousness.
The first Yiddish writer arrested in the sharp crackdown against Jews, now designated “rootless cosmopolites,” that followed was the poet Dovid Hofshteyn, a lifelong lover of the Hebrew language who not long before had sent a telegram to Golda Meyerson urging the necessity of reviving the study of Hebrew in the USSR. On November 20, 1948, two months after Hofshteyn’s arrest, the Politburo abolished the JAFC with immediate effect, and the very next day the MGB ransacked its premises and confiscated all its documents. On November 25th the Yiddish publishing house Der emes was closed down, and by mid-December 1948, orders were issued for the arrest of Fefer and Benjamin Zuskin, Mikhoels’s successor as director of GOSET. The MGB patently regarded these two as among those most vulnerable to psychological pressure, because Zuskin was in an advanced stage of nervous prostration, and Fefer had for some time been working as a secret agent for the MGB inside the executive committee of the JAFC. Both were expected to provide “confessions” that would incriminate others, and the “evidence” on which to convict them. Fefer was primed to testify about his trip to America and the “collaboration” with Western intelligence it produced; he was also pressured to confess to the “nationalistic activity” of the war-time Yiddish newspaper Eynikeyt and the Jewish section of the Union of Soviet Writers, in running both of which he had been active. Zuskin was expected to disclose compromising information about his dead partner Mikhoels, the putative organizer of subversive Jewish activity in the USSR, and about the Moscow State Yiddish Theater as the nerve center of anti-Soviet agitation.
On December 24, 1948, Zuskin and Fefer were sent to the Lubyanka, to be followed there on January 13, 1949 by Boris Shimeliovich, director of Moscow’s Botkin Hospital, and the trade unionist Joseph Yuzefovich. As a result of forced confessions extorted from those in prison, those similarly accused were then arrested between January 24 and 28, 1949: the former deputy commissars Solomon Lozovsky and Solomon Bregman; the writers Leyb Kvitko, Peretz Markish, and Dovid Bergelson; the editors Emilia Teumin and Ilya Vatenberg; Vatenberg’s wife Khayke Vatenberg-Ostrovskaya; and the eminent academician and biochemist, Lina Shtern. The last of those indicted in this way, the translator and journalist Leon Talmy, who had lived for more than twelve years in the USA, was arrested six months later, on July 3, 1949. These arrests were followed by total repression of Jews in general and Yiddish culture in particular.
With the exception of Fefer, all the defendants were physically beaten and verbally abused, to enable the interrogators to fabricate confessions to what Joshua Rubenstein has identified as four separate crimes: (1) bourgeois nationalism; (2) the creation of an anti-Soviet nationalistic fifth column; (3) treason against the Soviet Union; and (4) spying for US intelligence. The search for more incriminating “evidence” and the names of other “bourgeois nationalists” continued for a further two years, during which the accused were held incommunicado in the Lubyanka until the interrogators had what they regarded as enough material to mount a “trial.” In March 1950, the defendants were informed that the investigation of their case was complete, but they continued to be held in prison for another eighteen months before the accusations against them were presented in court. The death penalty, abolished in 1947, was now reinstated, and other Yiddish literary figures were progressively arrested and destroyed: the novelist Der Nister (Pinkhas Kahanovich) perished in a labor camp, the literary critic Yitskhok Nusinov died in Lefortovo prison, and the journalists Shmuel Persov, Miriam Aizenshtadt-Zhelezh-nova, and Naum Levin were shot.
By the time the JAFC trial was finally staged in the spring of 1952, some of the accused had repudiated what they had been forced to “confess” to, so the case had to be reinvestigated and new confessions forced from them in accordance with that principle of Soviet law laid down by Vyshinsky, the notorious prosecutor of the pre-war purge trials, that a confession was irrefutable confirmation of the guilt of an accused. Since retraction of confessions, all obtained under duress, left the court theoretically without “evidence,” “experts” were set to work combing through all the issues of Eynikeyt and other JAFC materials for corroboration of the state’s indictment. On March 5, 1952, a final list of fifteen defendants, charged with Zionist and American-inspired plotting against the Soviet Union, was submitted to the Politburo with the recommendation that all of them, with the exception of Lina Shtern, be executed. Thus, well before this “trial” started, the defendants had been condemned to death. The court process was mere farce, and those in charge of it were obliged to make strenuous efforts to camouflage the groundlessness of the accusations.
The hearing, held in camera, presided over by three military judges, without prosecutors, defense counsel, or witnesses, began at noon on May 8th, and dragged on until July 18, 1952. The principal charge was the “Crimea question”: whether, during their visit to New York in 1943, Fefer and Mikhoels, in league with the American JDC, had plotted to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea that Zionist and American imperialists could use as a “beachhead” from which to destroy the Soviet Union. Other defendants were accused of passing state secrets to the two American “spies,” Goldberg and Novick. Con-trary to what was expected, however, only Fefer and Teumin fully admitted being “guilty” to the charges. Lozovsky, Markish, Shimeliovich, and Bregman refused to plead guilty to anything, and the others pleaded only “guilty in part.” Once they began giving their own testimony, the defendants were allowed to address the court in great detail and to cross-examine one another. Al-though in his testimony Lozovsky repeatedly demonstrated the absurdity of the central charge, the defendants were forced to admit to other “crimes” newly minted by the state. Markish asserted that the “very fact” that the JAFC had collected information about Jewish suffering at Nazi hands was a “nationalist act.” Fefer “admitted” that he was guilty of “nationalistic chauvinism” because the JAFC had highlighted Jewish military heroism in the propaganda it distributed to the Western press—a ludicrous acknowledgment, since this was exactly what the Politburo had specifically instructed the JAFC to do. Kvitko averred that any attempt to counter state-enforced assimilation by emphasizing the Jewish cultural heritage denied the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism, and he confirmed that the pro-Israel demonstrations of 1948 proved the “destructive” and “harmful” effects of the JAFC on the state. Bergelson confessed that his religious upbringing had corrupted him, and Talmy seconded Bergelson in asserting that “the Jewish religion is a crudely nationalistic religion.” All bitterly accused Hofshteyn of “reactionary” encouragement of the study of Hebrew.
As directed, between the 11th and the 18th of July 1952, the Military Tribunal sentenced all the defendants except Shtern to death. All the condemned appealed for clemency to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, categorically denying the crimes with which they had been charged. Their appeals were denied, and—with the exception of Bregman, who died before his sentence could be carried out—they were shot in the Lubyanka on August 12, 1952.
Bitterly enough, their sense of working on borrowed time had been strong in the condemned writers for over two decades. Fear and disillusionment found surreptitious, encoded expression in their work, despite all their strenuous attempts to churn out what was officially demanded. In the early 1940s, for instance, Markish published a profoundly self-reflective poem that readers in positions of authority instantly condemned as “pessimistic” and that was later cited at his trial as damning evidence against his “lack of true Soviet spirit”:
Now, when my vision turns in on itself,
My shocked eyes open, all their members see
My heart has fallen like a mirror on
A stone and shatters, ringing, into splinters.
. . . .
Piece by piece I’ll try to gather them
To make them whole with stabbed and bleeding fingers.
And yet, however skillfully they’re glued,
My crippled, broken image will be seen.4
When Stalin told his people at the height of the Great Purges that “Life has become better, comrades, life has become gayer,” he was not only reconstructing their perception of reality, but also issuing a directive to their souls. Henceforth public expression of even the most private grief would not be permitted. Small wonder that the haunting cadence of one of Hofshteyn’s poems, published five years before the Revolution, became with hindsight an ironic expression of isolation and loss in a world that the Revolution was supposed to have transformed into a commonwealth of gainful equality:
In silence longing for the fields in the distance,
for the paths and the by-paths wind-blown and snow-covered ...
And concealed in the heart the sorrow of seedlings
that keep waiting, keep waiting their time of sowing ...
Russian fields on winter evenings!
Where can one be more lonely, where can one be more lonely?5
Nearly four years passed between Hofshteyn’s arrest in September 1948 and the executions in August 1952. Several circumstances, including the hopeless fight by the defendants, had prolonged, but could not halt, the process or its purpose. Since the state knew perfectly well that the charges were false, it would not risk making them publicly known. Even though these ostensibly grave charges were prosecuted as part of a planned campaign of anti-Jewish repression, the case against the “Jewish nationalists” was never mentioned in the Soviet press. Despite their high public profiles, those charged vanished overnight from public view as though, like thousands of their murdered compatriots, they had never existed. Questions regarding their whereabouts, never raised in the USSR, were indeed asked in the West, but were wholly evaded by those from the Soviet Union, like Ilya Ehrenburg, who might have made an informed guess. Stalin had trained his Communists well all over the world. Those in the West refused to believe any evil of Stalin. Not until February 1956, when Khrushchev delivered his “secret” speech denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality” at the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow, did the truth of the mass murders steadily become known, even to the families of the victims themselves. When it did, Jews who had idealistically embraced and dogmatically defended the Bolshevik Revolution and the murderous despotism it had spawned were constrained to revaluate their commitment. They would never again be able to read, without incredulous shock, such contemptuous dismissals of Jewish tradition as, for instance, the one penned by a young, arrogant Fefer:
I’m a quiet guy and hardly a villain;
My honesty has not great appeal;
I’m never known to put on tfiln,
I’m never known to wheel and deal.
So what if I’ve been circumcised
With rituals, as among the Jews?
Field winds have tanned my middle-sized,
Pale, dreaming feet to darker hues.6
Stalin’s systematic postwar murder of Jews effectively took up where Hitler had left off. His ferocious assault was mounted against the whole Jewish people, and all of them suffered. In consequence, the Yiddish language and its culture in the Soviet Union sustained its most grievous blow. The trial of 1952 did more than wipe out some of the best Yiddish literary talents of the century; it completed the destruction of Yiddish in Europe. Always vulnerable to a variety of life-threatening enemies, Yiddish in the Soviet Union could not survive the betrayal of the hope the Revolution had awakened for it. Perhaps nothing is more devastatingly broken than an idealistic heart, nothing more cruelly cut off than the unfulfilled promise of youth. With terrible irony, the acrid words in which Leyb Kvitko had years before grieved over the pogroms of the Civil War years now provided an epitaph for both the poets and their language:
A Russian death
Is death of all deaths.
Pain of all pains.
Does the world’s wound ooze pus?
How does its heart do now?
Ask any child,
Ask any Jewish child.7
If, as Stalin had decreed, it was a crime to mourn the martyrs of the Holocaust, a crime to value one’s Jewish heritage, a crime to treasure the language of the Torah, a crime to be a proud and identifying Jew, to care deeply about continued Jewish identity and survival in a bloodthirsty world, then those writers condemned were all, without question, guilty. To lesser or greater degrees, their creativity, even when exercised under the severest constraints, was indelibly stamped with the stigmata of their Jewishness. Whatever disavowals may have been forced from them during the long agony of their imprisonment and trial, the work they left behind belies them. The Yiddish language in which they shaped their utterance became the small voice of a betrayed and beaten Jewishness. Its memory deserves honor; its shapers, our respect.•
About the author
Joseph Sherman, a former editor of the South African quarterly journal, Jewish Affairs, is currently Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies, University of Oxford. Apart from having published a range of scholarly essays in the field of Yiddish literature, he has also translated into English Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Shadows on the Hudson (New York, 1998), and Dovid Bergelson’s novella, Descent (New York, 1999). He is currently writing a book on Dovid Bergelson.