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Anne ApplebaumFascinating. . . . Brilliantly portrays Soviet attitudes to the Jews, and reveals a great deal about Soviet attitudes to justice in general.
—Wall Street Journal
Published in association with the United States Holocaust Museum.
Night of the Murdered Poets
Late on the night of January 12, 1948, the renowned Yiddish actor and theater director Solomon Mikhoels was murdered in Minsk on the direct orders of Joseph Stalin. This was not an ordinary operation. As director of Moscow's State Jewish Theater and chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), which played a prominent role in Soviet propaganda efforts against Hitler during World War II, Mikhoels had earned an international reputation. But with the onset of the Cold War and the impending creation of Israel, Stalin came to suspect Mikhoels's loyalties. Dispatched to Minsk ostensibly to review a play for the Stalin Prize, Mikhoels was lured from his hotel and taken to the country house of Lavrenti Tsanava, head of the Belorussian security services, where he was summarily killed. His body was left in the snow along a quiet street, where, in the morning, workers discovered him. Mikhoels's death was declared the result of a traffic accident. To complete the camouflage, he was honored with a state funeral.
Many people suspected that Mikhoels's death was not a mishap. During the funeral, when the body lay in state for a full day in the State Jewish Theater, the Yiddish poet Peretz Markish observed that "the flow of people" did not stop, and "along with them, raised from stinking ditches and pits, came six million victims, tortured and innocent." Markish, in other words, understood that Mikhoels was killed because he was a Jew. But Markish tried to be careful; he showed his verse to only a handful of people and allowed only two politically innocuous verses to be printed on January 17 in Eynikayt (Unity), the Yiddish-language newspaper associated with the JAC. Publicly, the Kremlin continued to treat Mikhoels as a revered figure. But two weeks after his death, his murderer, Lavrenti Tsanava, was secretly given the Order of Lenin "for exemplary execution of a special assignment from the government."
This was the beginning of Stalin's assault on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the leading figures of Soviet Yiddish culture, who were the primary vehicle for Jewish identity in the country. Barely three years after the Holocaust and the defeat of Nazi Germany, Stalin now embarked on his own solution to the Jewish problem. As Peretz Markish remarked to a friend, "Hitler wanted to destroy us physically. Stalin wants to do it spiritually." This campaign culminated on August 12, 1952, with multiple executions in the basement of Moscow's Lubyanka prison.
Jewish communities have increasingly commemorated this event as the Night of the Murdered Poets. Convicted at a secret trial in the spring and summer of 1952, the last significant political trial of the Stalin years, all the defendants, except for the biologist Lina Shtern, were executed on a single night—twenty-four writers and poets (so it was believed), all men (so it was said)—in one of the most vicious episodes of anti-Semitism in Russian history.
But because the regime refused to confirm for many years what actually happened, myriad rumors obscured the nature of the case and the identity and number of the defendants. Today, years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the availability of previously closed archival material, including the trial transcript (which was published in Moscow in 1994 and forms the central document of this volume) and because of the tireless research of several Russian and Israeli scholars, the details of Stalin's anti-Semitic star-chamber can be plainly and accurately described.
The trial did not involve twenty-five defendants. There were fifteen defendants, all falsely charged with a range of capital offenses, from treason and espionage to bourgeois nationalism. Although five prominent literary figures were among those indicted—the Yiddish poets Peretz Markish, Leyb Kvitko, David Hofshteyn, and Itsik Fefer and the novelist David Bergelson—the remaining ten defendants were not writers at all but were connected in various ways to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a group that the regime had created during World War II to encourage Western Jewish support for the alliance with the Soviet Union.
Several defendants were famous Soviet personalities. Solomon Lozovsky, who turned out to be the principal defendant, had been a longtime member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and was deputy people's commissar for foreign affairs of the USSR throughout the war. Boris Shimeliovich had been the medical director of one of Moscow's most prestigious hospitals. Lina Shtern, renowned for her pathbreaking work in biochemistry and medicine, was the first woman member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. And Benjamin Zuskin was the premier actor at the State Jewish Theater in Moscow, where he and Solomon Mikhoels had created a world-renowned Yiddish repertory; after the death of Mikhoels in January 1948, Zuskin became the theater's artistic director.
The investigators also roped in six little-known functionaries, some of whom had virtually nothing to do with the work of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, but whose alleged involvement in various crimes served to demonstrate the breadth of JAC treachery: the trade-union activist Joseph Yuzefovich; the journalist and translator Leon Talmy; the lawyer Ilya Vatenberg and his wife, Khayke Vatenberg-Ostrovskaya, who worked as a translator for the JAC; the editor Emilia Teumin; and the party bureaucrat Solomon Bregman, who joined the JAC in 1944 and quickly became an informer, sending denunciations about Jewish "nationalism" within the committee to party officials. Talmy and the Vatenbergs had lived for many years in the United States before deciding to move to Russia in the 1930s out of loyalty to communism; their years in America made them vulnerable to charges of espionage.
But only the martyred Yiddish writers are mentioned at August 12 commemorations. The other defendants who lost their lives, as well as the sole survivor, Lina Shtern, are rarely, if ever, remembered, perhaps because their connection to the case has only recently been divulged and they were hardly known in the West to begin with, or perhaps because careers as loyal Soviet citizens do not fit comfortably into an easy category for Westerners to honor.
The five Yiddish writers also had complicated biographies. With the exception of Itsik Fefer, each had left the Soviet Union in the 1920s for extended stays abroad. Markish lived in Poland and France; Kvitko, in Germany; Hofshteyn, in Palestine; Bergelson, in Germany, Denmark, and the United States. And each had returned, unable to find a place for himself abroad as a Yiddish writer.
At the same time, Yiddish culture was increasingly fragile, with few prospects, whether in an open democracy like the United States, where millions of Yiddish speakers had recently immigrated; in a country like Poland, where a large Jewish community was free to practice its religion but still faced anti-Semitic restrictions in the broader society; or in the developing Jewish homeland in Palestine, where the revival of Hebrew as an everyday, modern language was a primary goal of the Zionist movement.
Leyb Kvitko, for example, was barely able to support himself in Germany; at one point he had to accept work as a porter in Hamburg. David Hofshteyn lived for a year in Palestine, but as a Yiddish poet he had few professional opportunities. Although Zionist leaders were promoting the use of Hebrew, Yiddish—which was associated with "European ghetto culture"—was actively discouraged. The Language Defense Corps patrolled the streets, burning kiosks where Yiddish newspapers were sold and throwing stink bombs during lectures and performances in Yiddish. Faced with this kind of hostility and given family pressures to return to Kiev, Hofshteyn, too, made the fateful decision to go back. Peretz Markish restlessly searched for a haven, living in Poland and France, traveling to Germany, even to Palestine. But despite his wide recognition and literary acclaim, a career as a Yiddish writer could not provide him with an adequate livelihood. Most Yiddish literary figures were also proofreaders and copy editors, jobs that Markish, by temperament, could not be expected to pursue. After five years in Europe, he returned to Moscow in 1926.
David Bergelson was the most reluctant to move back. Although he visited the Soviet Union on several occasions, he stayed in Europe and America from 1921 until 1934. The regime, however, recognizing Bergelson's stature as a novelist, cultivated his loyalty. Other Yiddish writers encouraged him to return, and the regime made promises to support his work. The Kremlin was subsidizing the arts, including Yiddish literature, and each of these writers—Markish, Kvitko, Hofshteyn, and Bergelson—came to regard the Soviet Union as the only country where they could still find a large enough readership to make a living.
Once inside Stalin's kingdom, they were all compelled to accept the regime's ideological demands, engage in Stalinist propaganda, and lend their names to ugly denunciations of condemned political figures. Markish, Kvitko, and Hofshteyn, who had spent time in Europe, found it unnerving to be in such an ideological cauldron and to know they would never be able to escape it. As Markish wrote to a friend, the writer Joseph Opatoshu, in New York in November 1929, the situation was "very strained and aggravated.... In general, we don't know what world we're in. In this atmosphere of trying to be terribly proletarian and one hundred percent kosher, much falseness, cowardice, and vacillation have manifested themselves and it is becoming somewhat impossible to work."
By the late 1920s, a whole traditional way of life was under assault. The Jewish section of the Communist Party (the notorious Yevsektsiya) was the driving force behind the broader party directives for the Jewish minority. It was at the initiative of the Yevsektsiya that Hebrew was prohibited, making the Yiddish press the principal medium for propaganda among the poor, rural masses in their shtetls. Religious observance came in for ridicule from secular, communist Jews who initiated campaigns to make it difficult to observe Jewish holidays and the Sabbath.
It was in this atmosphere that Yiddish writers were expected to help create a secular Yiddish culture that was a fundamental part of the Kremlin's plan to wean the Jews from their religious and cultural ties. Knowing that the regime was determined to cleanse their writings of biblical and religious imagery, as well as of nostalgia for the shtetl and traditional Jewish life, they accepted severe censorship of their work. The Yiddish alphabet, which is written in Hebrew characters, was adjusted for ideological reasons. There was even an attempt to screen Yiddish for words of Hebrew origin and, where possible, replace them with words from German or Russian roots. Such measures were part of a concerted effort to make Soviet Yiddish literature conform to Stalin's classic dictum for all minority cultures: "national in form, socialist in content." As the writer Der Nister wrote to his brother in Paris, "Here one has to turn one's soul upside down."
Legally, Yiddish remained the officially recognized language of the Jewish minority, but the very books and newspapers that were being produced in Yiddish were helping to turn its native speakers away from the new Soviet Yiddish culture. The regime's manipulation and control were having a devastating effect. Increasingly assimilated into the general economy, Yiddish-speaking Jews were faced with a language that was like an artificial version of the Russian they encountered all around them; the language they once knew was no longer their own. By the late 1930s, fewer parents were sending their children to Yiddish-language schools. Yiddish books were removed from libraries, and Yiddish scholarly institutes shut down, along with many schools and newspapers. All the Yiddish writers understood that future generations would have little, if any, access to genuine Yiddish culture. As Bergelson acknowledged during the trial, they were becoming "superfluous."
The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 reinforced the isolation of Yiddish writers within Soviet borders. Following the Non-Aggression Pact in August, Stalin was now an ally of Hitler, which led to the suppression of information about Nazi atrocities in the Soviet press. At the same time, the Red Army took over the Baltic states and initiated a new purge of Yiddish culture within local Jewish communities. When the poet Zelig Akselrod protested the closing of Jewish schools and newspapers in Vilna (Vilnius), he was arrested and executed by the Soviet security police.
Around the same time, Peretz Markish traveled to newly occupied areas of eastern Poland as a member of the Writers' Brigades, whose job it was to indoctrinate Polish Yiddish writers into the new Soviet reality. In Bialystok, Markish came upon the actor David Lederman, whom he had known in Warsaw in the early 1920s. Asking to see him in private, Markish showed Lederman an article by the writer Moyshe Nadir in which Nadir explained why he had broken his long-standing ties with the American Communist Party and the Yiddish-language communist newspaper the Morgen Freiheit (Morning Freedom) following the Hitler-Stalin pact. "Moyshe Nadir has revealed that he raised a snake around his neck," Markish reported to Lederman. "Only he nourished this snake around his neck? Only he alone? And maybe all of us weaned the snake? And a time may come when this full-grown snake will choke all of us.... Yes, if it keeps going like it's been going, the time will come that the snake wrapped around our necks will choke us."
Markish urged Lederman to keep their conversation to himself. Lederman said later that Markish's "eyes filled with tears. He fell into a spasmodic wail. It was very difficult for me to calm him. He prepared himself to part with me, embraced me, and said that he believed that the conversation with me should not be made known to anyone until the time comes when it can be told." Markish, however, like all Soviet writers, recognized the need for more than silence. He also understood the necessity of praising the snake; in 1940, after seeing Lederman in Bialystok, Markish published a lengthy, obsequious poem glorifying Stalin. As for David Lederman, he did not recount his conversation with Markish until 1960, long after Markish and his colleagues had succumbed to the Kremlin python.
The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
The investigation and subsequent trial in 1952 were directed as much against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee as against the remnants of Jewish culture in the country. The JAC, led by Solomon Mikhoels, had been established in 1942 along with four other anti-fascist committees—for women, youth, scientists, and Slavs—each designed to appeal to a different segment of foreign public opinion in support of the alliance against Nazi Germany. All operated under the direct supervision of Solomon Lozovsky, who was deputy chairman of the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinformburo), as well as deputy people's commissar for foreign affairs. The JAC played a significant role in the Soviet war effort, raising money in the West and encouraging support for the alliance between the Soviet Union and its democratic allies. Indeed, the JAC's success and the renown of its chairman. Solomon Mikhoels, made the committee all the more visible a target for Stalin.
The history of the JAC remains among the most complex and dramatic chapters of Soviet Jewish history. Adolf Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union early in the morning of June 22, 1941. Six weeks later, eight prominent Jewish cultural figures—including Mikhoels, Bergelson, Kvitko, and Zuskin—sent a letter to Lozovsky proposing "to organize a Jewish rally aimed at the Jews of the USA and Great Britain, and also at Jews in other countries." The letter concluded, "In our opinion, a rally with the participation of Jewish academicians, writers, artists, and Red Army fighters will have a great impact abroad."
Excerpted from Stalin's Secret Pogrom by . Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Note on the Translation|
|Introduction: Night of the Murdered Poets||1|
|Pt. 1||Court Record of the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court, May 8-July 18, 1952||65|
|Testimony by the Defendants||75|
|Statements by Isaac Fefer and Joseph Yuzefovich in Closed Judicial Session||324|
|Testimony by the Defendants||326|
|Solomon Bregman Continued||326|
|Experts' Testimony in Closed Judicial Session, June 26||417|
|Experts' Testimony in Closed Judicial Session, June 27||421|
|Experts' Testimony in Closed Judicial Session, June 28||424|
|Determination Regarding the Defendants' Petitions||428|
|Testimony by the Defendants||429|
|Lina Shtern Continued||429|
|Determination to Separate Solomon Bregman's Case||469|
|Statement by Isaac Fefer in Closed Judicial Session||470|
|The Defendants' Final Statements||472|
|Pt. 2||The Resolution: Post-Trial Documents||495|
|Certificate That the Sentence Was Carried Out, August 12, 1952||495|
|Death Certificate for Solomon Bregman, January 23, 1953||496|
|Determination to Cease Solomon Bregman's Prosecution, June 3, 1953||497|
|Determination to Annul the Sentence and Terminate the Case of Lozovsky et al., November 22, 1955||499|