Itzik Feffer is not only a talented Yiddish poet; he is also a gifted journalist and a splendid speaker. It is difficult to draw any fast line of demarcation between Itzik Feffer the poet and Itzik Feffer the public worker. His poems are calls to action. They are simply worded, like folk poems, full of love for his country and for the Jewish people, and hatred of their enemies. His articles and speeches are simple, direct, witty. He is an enthusiast, an untiring optimist.
This fulsome tribute to the Soviet-Yiddish poet by Shakhno Epshteyn, the secretary of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR, was published in a pamphlet in 1943 in London to commemorate the visit of Mikhoels and Feffer to Britain. Feffer’s first love was undoubtedly the Soviet state and Stalinism. His odes in Yiddish to the “Father of All-Russia” were well-known. His attacks on those who perished in the Great Purge were vicious. “Cursed be the names of Tukhachevsky and Yakir, the names of the Trotskyist scum.” Or “Dogs who trade in conscience—we shoot you down like mad dogs”.
During the war against Nazism, he joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and put at its disposal his considerable abilities as a propagandist. As a self-defined heretic who had dissociated himself from his rabbinic forebears, he encapsulated the full sweep of Jewish tradition within his historic epic poem, “I Am a Jew”. Joseph Leftwich’s translation from the Yiddish began:
I am a Jew
The wine of enduring generations
Strengthened me on my wanderer’s way
The evil sword of pain and lamentations
Nothing that I hold dear could slay—
My people, my faith, and my head unbowed.
It could not stop me from being free and true
Under the sword I cried aloud:
“I AM A JEW!”
Feffer’s words during the darkest days of the Shoah conjured up a pantheon of Jewish heroes, Samson and Rabbi Akiva, Yehuda Halevi and Spinoza. And into this tapestry, he wove his adulation for the man who organized the Gulag. “I am a Jew who has drunk up / Happiness from Stalin’s cup.”
After the war, Feffer’s remorse at the fate that had befallen the Jews trapped by the Nazi invasion was deep and genuine—to the extent that he did not return to the Ukraine in protest against a resurgence of popular anti-Semitism. Yet Itzik Feffer’s reputation, unlike that of Mikhoels and others who perished during the Black Years (1948-53), has been tarnished because of his unswerving loyalty to the Stalinist regime. Indeed, Soviet Jews who have emigrated during the last twenty years often surmised that Feffer was a KGB plant in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. It was believed that he was requested to go to Britain and North America simply to keep an eye on Mikhoels and to report back on meetings such as the discussion with Chaim Weizmann in the United States. Many rumours surrounded Feffer’s conduct during the trial of the Yiddish writers in July 1952. It was said that he had been driven mad by his torturers and betrayed the other defendants, only to die with them on 12 August 1952.
In her book, Le Grand Retour, Esther Markish related a conversation with Professor Lina Shtern, the only defendant not to have been sentenced to death. Shtern stated that Feffer was “a witness for the prosecution” and cooperated with the Minister of State Security Abakumov to implicate other Jewish writers. He also passed over letters from Soviet Jews who had written to him to secure a passage to Israel to assist in the fight for independence. Newly-opened archives in the USSR suggest that such accusations were not unfounded.
At the end of 1987, a commission of the Politbureau was established to investigate the crimes of the past. A special session was convened on 29 December 1988 and examined the fate of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. There were forty-eight volumes of evidence relating to the trial of July 1952. Moreover, there were only fifteen defendants, not the legendary twenty-four. The findings of the special session showed that it was not a trial conducted against specifically Yiddish writers but against the institution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee per se with Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s heir apparent, playing a crucial role.
Feffer was initially incriminated by the arrest and testimony of two Jews, Goldshtein and Grinberg, at the end of 1947 for anti-Soviet nationalist activity. A central factor in the trial was the Committee’s proposal in 1944 to create a Jewish homeland in the Crimea. According to Krushchev, Stalin’s rejection of the plan was based on the notion that it would allow “Zionism to gain a foothold in our country”.
In his recent biography of Andrei Vyshinsky, The Prosecutor and the Prey, the Soviet journalist Arkady Vaksberg examined a lot of new material surrounding the case. In particular, the eleven-page report of the trial chairman, Lieutenant-General Cheptsov, who testified in a secret inquiry at the end of 1954. Cheptsov commented that from the beginning of the trial a number of the accused petitioned for certain documents, disproving their charge . . . which had been refused to them during the investigation. To the court’s first question regarding whether they pleaded guilty, five out of the fourteen accused began by denying their guilt, citing the fact that their evidence during the investigation had been incorrect and forcibly given under physical coercion by the investigators . . . Over many days Feffer persistently exposed the anti-Soviet activity of all the accused, including Lozovsky as the organizer and leader of this criminal organization. . Feffer began giving muddled, untrustworthy evidence.
Cheptsov also reported that during a private interrogation, Feffer told the court that “since 1944 he had been a secret operative of the Ministry of State Security of the USSR”, working under the code name of “Zorin”. Shortly after his arrest, Feffer signed all the interrogation reports prepared by the investigators.
Cheptsov actually suspended the trial at its inception because of inadequate evidence and a sense of deception by the officials of the Ministry of State Security A meeting with Malenkov conveyed the reality of the situation to him! “The sentence has been approved by the people; the Politbureau of the Central Committee has gone into this case three times—carry out the Politbureau’s ruling.” Cheptsov returned to do just that “with the conviction that the Politbureau of the Central Committee had special considerations where this case was concerned”. And so Feffer whether out of fear or madness or a warped loyalty to the cause helped the authorities in the judicial murder of Markish, Bergelson, Hofshteyn, Lozovsky and the others and in truth placed his signature on his own death warrant.
Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1991