The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
              (A Companion to MENDELE)
Contents of Vol. 07.009 [Sequential No. 135]
12 August 2003

1) This issue of TMR: a. The Jewish Language Research Website;  b. The
Murder of Soviet Yiddish  (ed.)
2) The Murder of Soviet Yiddish (Joseph Sherman)

Date: 12 August 2003
From: Leonard Prager 
Subject: This issue of TMR.

a. On a happy note, we are pleased to announce that the Jewish Language
Research Website [] has now completed
descriptions of thirteen Jewish languages, among which those of Yiddish,
Hebrew and Jewish English will be of particular interest to many TMR
readers.  William F. Weigel's description of Yiddish is succinct and
balanced.  Sarah Bunin Benor, editor of the site, Tsuguya Sasaki,
webmaster, and the language description authors all deserve our
congratulations and our thanks.

b. In an impassioned yet comprehensive essay that first appeared in
somewhat altered form in _Midstream_ (Vol. 38/5, July/August 2002),
Joseph Sherman memorializes the Yiddish writers killed by the Soviet
state precisely 51 years ago. This is an elegy for Yiddish culture in the
former Soviet Union.

Dr.  Sherman recently joined _The Mendele Review_ as associate editor.

Date: 12 August 2003
From: Joseph Sherman 
Subject:  The Murder of Soviet Yiddish

          "Seven-fold Betrayal": The Murder of Soviet Yiddish

                          by Joseph Sherman

zayn kop loykht-oyf mit zibn likhter
ariber zibn mol farrat.
er vert tsurik gezalbter dikhter
oyf toytn dil fun kazamat.[1]

['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.']

Jewish tradition mandates the lighting of memorial candles on the
anniversary of bereavements, to remember those departed.  Fifty-one
years ago to this day, on 12 August 1952, thirteen prominent Soviet Jews
were shot in the basement of Moscow's Lubyanka pr ison.[2] One third of
them were distinguished men of Yiddish letters:  the poets Itsik Fefer,
Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko and Perets 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
twentieth-century Jewish literati eliminated by the Soviet state from
the early 1930s onwards:  among the most prominent of those wiped out on
false charges were Moyshe Litvakov, Maks Erik, Izi Kharik and Moyshe
Kulbak in 1937, Yisroel Tsinberg in 1938, and Zelig Akselrod in 1941.

Notwithstanding Stalin's lifelong personal antipathy towards Jews, the
Soviet dictator's "purges" of those who opposed him, through the use of
fabricated show trials and arbitrary death sentences, were at first
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
the despotism he was carving out for himself.  Some supported Trotsky,
and were therefore inevitably doomed after Trotsky's expulsion from the
USSR in 1928.  Others, however, faithfully served the Revolution and the
Party 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,
which would ostensibly enable the Jews of the former Russian Empire 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 activity appeared on the verge
of a fresh new blooming.  Research institutes, literary organizations,
newspapers, publishing houses, theatres, 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--vis other "national minorities," in 1928 Stalin, at that
time People's Commissar for Nationalities, declared Birobidzhan, an area
in south-eastern 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 world-wide 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 his creeping sense of what was still,
at that early stage, a nameless dread:

antloyfn? ikh ken nit, ikh vil nit antloyfn,
un s'vert shoyn do ummeglekh vayter tsu zayn.
es hot zikh der khurbm tseleygt oyf di hoyfn;
in shoybn - farloshene tropelekh shayn.

gornisht un leydikeyt. pustke un vintn.
es hengt do a shtile, farloshene sho.
ikh gey un mir dakht zikh - men geyt nokh fun hintn,
ker ikh zikh um, -- iz do keyner nito.

gey ikh pamelekh un s'vilt zikh mir yogn.
es hilkht do tseshrokn mayn trot oyf der erd.
trog ikh zikh um, un ikh bet zikh: zol togn,
zol togn, zol togn! ikh ken shoyn nit mer. [3]

['Flee? I cannot, I do not want to flee,
And now it has become impossible to stay here any more.
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 any more!']

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 organizations
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 Theatre
(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 Bolshevik Revolution.  With the bitterest
irony, some of the seeds of Stalin's emerging anti-Jewish persecution
were sown by this theatre'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, in striving to keep alive a sense of Jewish consciousness among
its supporters, kept moving in and out of ideological 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
theatre's first European tour in 1928.  Direction of the whole company
then passed to its most charismatic leading actor, Shloyme Mikhoels
(Solomon Mikhailovich Vovsi).  Though Mikhoels was to a large extent
committed to the ideals of the Revolution, he remained equally committed
to his Jewish heritage and he never officially became a card-carrying
member of the Communist Party.  He valued his people as an identifiable
national group with a proud culture, and his work consistently
endeavoured to marry socialist ideology to Jewish national traditions.
When increasing pressure was brought to bear on him to make his
theatre's repertoire conform more closely to the ever-hardening Party
line, especially the demand after 1932 for literary works of "socialist
realism", Mikhoels responded by attempting to depict mandatory
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
passionately convinced that unless his Yiddish theatre continued to
develop and create 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, Perets Markish, and Shmuel Halkin all saw their
distinctively Jewish dramas received with acclaim on the stage at GOSET.
As a result, almost all of these dramatists were also doomed, to some
extent as a result of the "nationalistic" themes these works developed.

Initially, the goals of GOSET under Mikhoels did not conflict with the
policies of either the Communist Party or the Soviet State, and a wide
range of people in Soviet society regularly and enthusiastically
patronised its productions.  But the Party line on what was and was not
acceptable in public discourse 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 murderously eradicating all who
in any way opposed his policies.  Thus began the Great Purges, which
systematically destroyed all so-called "wreckers," "saboteurs," and
"right-wing 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 so
long depended.  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, were
subjected to this repression most immediately.  A full frontal assault
on Jews then followed 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 now came to be repeatedly invoked, so that far from
pursuing that national-cultural self-identity the Revolution had
promised them, Jews were made 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", while the very language in
and for which they tirelessly worked was downgraded as a lead up to
suppressing it entirely.  Those they were supposedly addressing in
Yiddish were older Jews who were steadily dwindling in number; children,
no longer taught in Yiddish, grew to regard Russian as their mother
tongue; great numbers of GOSET's Moscow audiences no longer spoke
Yiddish.  External pressures also played their part in forcing 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 in 1941, discrimination against Jews, and the state's closure of
those Jewish 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
obviously 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 24 August
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 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 against the Germans, Jewish leaders openly
called special attention to the extent of Jewish suffering in Europe,
and appealed for a world-wide 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 whom the state had earlier positively and enthusiastically
encouraged to express them.

As a sop to the Allies, and a wholly misleading mask over Soviet
reality, Stalin now sent Litvinov to Washington as the ambassador of the
USSR.  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 15 December 1941, Stalin appointed Mikhoels
chairman of the Jewish Anti- Fascist Committee (JAFC), and the veteran
Bolshevik activist Shakhne Epshteyn as its deputy chairman and executive
secretary.  By May 1942, some of the most respected Jews in Soviet
public life had been made members of the JAFC; its executive committee
inc luded 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 Eynikayt (Unity), the first issue of which appeared on 17 July
1942.  Furthermore, all the anti-Fascist committees were placed 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.

Naturally, the JAFC functioned under exceedingly tight state control.
Fearful of any upsurge of Jewish nationalism within the USSR, even while
the German invasion was at its height, Stalin surreptitiously put into
action an antisemitic program of "national-personnel" control with the
calculated and deliberate aim of placing only Russians in key
administrative positions.  A report entitled "The Selection and
Promotion of Personnel in the Arts" and submitted to the Politburo in
August 1942 meticulously identified by name, and in precise terms of
percentages, all Jews employed in State cultural institutions, and
recommended that they be replaced.  A sweeping but clandestine campaign
for "the purity of Russian art," obviously never publicly admitted, was
then speedily implemented.  At the same time, in an expedient 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.  At no stage of their
visit, however, were the Jewish delegates permitted to act as free and
independent individuals.  Despite the fact that their 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 and exhaustively regulated by the Soviet embassy in

In mid-June 1943, Mikhoels and Fefer arrived in the USA 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 Menuhin, the most critical
in the light of future events were Chaim Weizmann, president of the
World Zionist Organization (WZO); Nahum Goldmann, director of the World
Jewish Congress (WJC); and James Rosenberg, one of the leaders of the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (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.

How the remnant of Eassdtern European Jewry was to be saved and cared
for when the war ended was naturally uppermost in he minds of all the
world's Jewish leaders.  At his first meeting with the JAFC delegates in
New York, Rosenberg, mindful of this pressing necessity, 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 of the Ukraine, 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.  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", as it came to be
known, proved to be a disastrous mistake.  It suggested to the morbidly
mistrustful Stalin that the JAFC was seeking to represent Soviet Jews
and thus to acquire political influence, and he determined to put an end
to it and all its aspirations.

With the bitterest irony, the situation of Soviet Jews actually 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, notwithstanding all
their suffering at Nazi hands, their repatriation was now being
systematically blocked by Soviet authorities, who denied them residence
rights, work permits, and financial help.  American and Western aid sent
to them 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 inevitable 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 long-standing 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 po wer 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 n ational 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; at home, efforts to assimilate them intensified:
Jewish cultural and educational activities were shut down, while Jews
continued to be actively 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-Tsien [Ben-Zion]
Goldberg, and Peysekh Novik [Novick], the editor of New York's
pro-Communist Yiddish daily Morgn-frayhayt.  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.  Novik 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".

Stalin's capacious mind was more than equal to the task of balancing his
foreign policy with his domestic repressions.  Hoping to undermine
British influence in the Middle East, Stalin consequently supported the
establishment of the State of Israel.  In 1947, on 14 May and again on
26 November, Andrei Gromyko, USSR Ambassador to the UN, was instructed
to endorse the partition of Palestine.  To serve this end further, on 20
April 1948, in a statement that radically departed from the established
official Party line on the Holocaust vigorously promoted at home 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".  Purely to
serve its own interests, therefore, the USSR became one of the first
world powers to recognize the new State of Israel, and since Stalin
hoped that Israel's new government might l ean politically toward
Moscow, in 1948 he received Golda Myerson (later Meir) as Israel's first
ambassador to the Soviet Union.

All this duplicity for foreign consumption notwithstanding, Stalin
remained profoundly and murderously suspicious of Soviet Jews and their
attraction to the West, and he determined 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 Mi khoels was a bold and flamboyant personality of
widespread celebrity and committed Jewish national feeling -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 the courageous Mikhoels might very well fail in cour t 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 theatre production opening in Minsk.  There, on the night of
12 January 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 honours:  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 theatre stood.  All this was a total cover-up --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 thanksgiving, attended by several
thousand people, and displayed huge posters proclaiming in Hebrew such
patriotic slogans as "am yisrael khay" ['The Jewish People Lives'].
Identical services took place at the same time in other great cities
across the USSR.  On 2 September 1948 Golda Myerson arrived in Moscow to
take up her embassy, and a week later she attended the Shabes synagogue
service to great public enthusiasm, intensified when she attended the
Rosheshone 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 Yonkiper ten days later,
when the concluding words of the service, "leshono habo birusholayim"
['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 Ekaterina Davidovna (born Golda
Gorbman), the wife of Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, a former Defence
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 20 November 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 25 November the Yiddish publishing
house Der emes was closed down, and by mid-December 1948 orders were
issued for the arrest of Fefer and Binyomin [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 supposedly
produced; he was also pressured to confess to the "nationalistic
activity" of the wartime Yiddish newspaper Eynikayt 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 24 December 1948, Zuskin and Fefer were sent to the Lubyanka, to be
followed there on 13 January 1949 by Boris Shimeliovich, the
distinguished medical 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 24-28 January 1949:  the former deputy commissars
Solomon Lozovsky and Solomon Bregman; the writers Leyb Kvitko, Perets
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 3 July 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
continu ed 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 no velist Der
Nister (Pinkhas Kahanovich) perished in a labour camp, the literary
critic Yitskhok Nusinov died in Lefortovo prison, and the journalists
Shmuel Persov, Miriam Aizenshtadt-Zhelezhnova 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
extorted from them in accordance with that principle of Soviet law laid
down by Andrei 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 theo retically without "evidence," "experts" were set to
work combing through all the issues of Eynikayt and other JAFC materials
for corroboration of the state's indictment.  On 5 March 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, defence counsel, or witnesses, began at noon on 8
May, and dragged on until 18 July 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 Novik.  Contrary 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 other.
Although 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 acknowledgement, 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 and promotion of the
study of Hebrew.

As directed, between 11 and 18 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 12
August 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 h is "lack of true Soviet spirit":

atsind, ven s'kert di rie mir zikh um tsurik aleyn,
iz mir a ris di oygn efenen un zen mit yedn glid do,
az s'iz mayn harts aropgefaln, vi a shpigl oyf a shteyn,
un mit a klung fun brokh oyf shtiker zikh tseshpiltert.
ikh vel zey oyfklaybn farpruvn - ens tsu eyns -
baheftn zey banand, biz blut in finger zikh farshtokhn, --
-- khotsh vi ikh zol kuntsik nit tsunoyfklepn, alts eyns
vel ikh in dem zikh shtendik zen farkripelt un tsebrokhn.[4]

['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 expres sion of even the most private
grief would not be permitted.  Small wonder that the haunting cadence of
one of Hofshteyn's poems, first published in 1912, 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 benken in shvaygn fun felder fun breyte,
fun vegn un veglekh farshneyte, farvayte .

in trogn in hartsn farborgene vayen
fun zoymen, vos vartn oyf zayen .

in vinter-farnakhtn oyf rusishe felder!
vu ken men zayn elnter, vu ken men zayn elnter? [5]

['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,
either the process or its purpose.  Since the state knew perfectly well
that the charges it was pressing 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 t he West - and most
painfully and particularly, Yiddishists who believed in the
near-messianic achievements of the Soviet Union in general and its
leader in particular -- 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
Jewi sh tradition as, for instance, the one penned by a young, arrogant

me ken mikh far a gutn un shtiln,
far a sakh iz mayn erlekhkayt karg.
kh'ob keyn mol nit geleygt keyn tfiln
un keyn mol gehandlt in mark.

nu, iz vos, az me hot mikh gemalet
un gepravet, vi bay yidn, a bris.
s'hobn feldishe vintn farsmalyet
mayne vayse fardrimlte fis.

['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 post-war 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:

ruslendisher toyt
iz toyt fun ale toytn.
ruslendisher payn
iz payn fun ale paynen.

yatret velts a vund?
vi halt ir harts atsind?
freg a brekl kind,
freg a yidish kind.

['A Russian death
Is death of all deaths.
Russian pain,
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 language in which
they shaped their utterance became the small voice of a betrayed and
beaten Jewishness.  Its memory deserves honour; its shapers, our


[1] H. Leyvik, "Der man fun lid (Moyshe Kulbakn)", in _A blat oyf an
eplboym_ (Buenos Aires:  Kiyem-farlag, 1955), pp.288-89.  My
translation.  All other translations are mine unless otherwise

[2] The events leading up to this trial, and the trial itself, have been
the subjects of extensive scholarly investigation, particularly since
the archives of the former Soviet Union have been made available to
researchers.  My own brief account is greatly indebted to the following
studies, which are among the most recent books to deal with the subject
in authoritative depth:  Gennady Kostyrchenko, Out of the Red Shadows:
Anti-Semitism in Stalin's Russia (Amherst, N.Y.:  Prometheus Books,
1995); Joshua Ruben stein and Vladimir P. Naumov (eds.), Stalin's Secret
Pogrom:  The Post-War Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
(New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 201); Arkady Vaksberg,
Stalin Against the Jews (New York:  Knopf, 1994); Jeffrey Veidlinger,
The Moscow State Yiddish Theater:  Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage
(Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2000).

[3] Izi Kharik, "Antloyfn?".  Yiddish text in A shpigl oyf a shteyn,
edited by B. Hrushovski, A. Sutskever and Kh.  Shmeruk (Tel-Aviv:
Farlag Goldene Keyt, 1964), p.662.  My translation.  The Yiddish title
of this major anthology of Soviet Yiddish writing, wh ich translates as
"a mirror on a stone," is a phrase taken from a poem by Perets Markish.
See Note 4 below.

[4] Under the editorial title, "[Brokhshtiker]", the Yiddish text of
Markish's famous poem is published in A shpigl oyf a shteyn, p.489.
Translated by Leonard Wolf, the poem appears in English under the
editorial title "Shards" in The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse,
edited by Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse and Chone Shmeruk (New York:  Viking
Penguin, 1987), p.376.

[5] Dovid Hofshteyn, "In vinter-farnakhtn", translated by Robert Friend
as "In Winter's Dusk." Parallel Yiddish and English texts in The
Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, pp.260-61.

[6] Itsik Fefer, untitled poem, translated by John Hollander.  Parallel
Yiddish and English texts in The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse,

[7] Leyb Kvitko, "Ruslendishe toyt."  Yiddish text in A shpigl oyf a
shteyn, pp.350-51.  Translated by Allen Mandelbaum and Harold
Rabinowitz, the poem appears in English as "Russian Death" in The
Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Poetry, p.298.
End of The Mendele Review 07.009
Leonard Prager, editor
Joseph Sherman, associate editor

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