‘I am a Russian writer. Like all Russians, I am now defending my homeland. But the Nazis have reminded me of something else; my mother’s name was Hannah. I am a Jew. I say this proudly.’
So spoke the noted writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, at a Jewish rally in Moscow in August 1941 as the Nazi legions rapidly advanced across the USSR, sweeping all before them. Leading literary lights — Solomon Mikhoels, David Bergelson, Peretz Markish — all gave passionate speeches denouncing Hitler and articulating their love for the Soviet motherland.
As history records, Moscow did not fall and 11 years later on 12 August 1952, many of the speakers present were executed in Stalin’s dungeons in what has become known as ‘the Night of the Murdered Poets’. Jewish communities worldwide this month will commemorate the killing of 13 Jews on the seventieth anniversary of this terrible episode.
The rally in 1941 had produced the impetus to establish — with the Kremlin’s blessing — the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, composed of leading Soviet Jews from the worlds of literature, the arts, science and the military.
In 1943, Mikhoels, the head of the State Jewish Theatre and Itzik Feffer, the poet and Kremlin fellow traveller were dispatched to North America to raise funds and to galvanise Diaspora Jewish support for the Soviet war effort. On their way back to the USSR, they stopped off in Britain to speak at a plethora of community meetings at the invitation of Joseph Leftwich, the Yiddishist and writer, for the Jewish Fund for Soviet Russia.
The pair spoke at the Grand Palais in the East End of London’s Commercial Road and at the People’s Palace in Mile End. They attended a reception at Claridges where Mikhoels spoke of ‘the Bar Kochba tradition’ of fighting Jews. In Glasgow, they raised the then enormous amount of £4000 for two X-Ray machines for Russia. The JC reported that Mikhoels and Feffer raised £1000 at the home of the Kaiser family in Finchley’s North Crescent.
The British Jewish community engaged wholeheartedly with Mikhoels and Feffer as this was the first time that there had been any real contact with the millions of oppressed Soviet Jews. The hope from both sides was that this would be the start of a renewed relationship.
Mikhoels and Feffer were careful to avoid any charge of ‘Jewish nationalism’ — and in particular Zionism. In Manchester, they told their audience: ‘Today every Russian Jew could honestly say that “Russia is my motherland and I have no need of any other”.’
Four years later, Mikhoels’ body was discovered in the snow in Minsk, purportedly the victim of a hit and run driver, but in reality murdered by the MGB, the forerunner of the KGB. It was also the year of Israel’s birth and the USSR’s volte face in strongly supporting the establishment of a Hebrew Republic. For the previously quarter of a century, the Kremlin had ruthlessly suppressed Zionism and sentenced its adherents to repeated periods in the Gulag. This approach continued into 1948. Stalin arrested any Soviet Jew who wished to leave and fight for the fledgling Jewish state. There was therefore a profound difference between the internal crackdown and the external welcome for Israel.
When Golda Meir, Israel’s newly arrived ambassador to the USSR, attended shul in Moscow on Shabbat in September 1948, she was greeted with huge crowds thronging the streets, shouting goodwill messages to her. This was the first unauthorised demonstration since those of the Bolshevik opposition to Stalin in the mid-1920s.
At the behest of the Kremlin, Ilya Ehrenburg, wrote an article in Pravda, which effectively put an end to the honeymoon with Israel and was a stark warning to Soviet Jews to distance themselves.
They did not listen — the destruction of millions of Jews during the Shoah and the rise of Israel from the ashes of history had profoundly changed the outlook of many Soviet Jews. They returned in even greater numbers to welcome Golda Meir and her diplomats to shul on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur 1948. Stalin subsequently instructed his minions to close Jewish institutions and publications.
Large numbers of prominent Soviet Jews were then arrested in December 1948 and January 1949. This included those who were placed on trial in the summer of 1952 and put to death in August.
Stalin’s dislike of Jews stretched back to his youth in Georgia, but after 1945, his paranoia reached new heights. A press campaign against ‘cosmopolitans’ revealed to readers many a Soviet figure to be no more than a lowly perfidious Jew. The original Jewish name appeared in brackets after the Russified name by which they were known publicly. Even non-Jews became ‘Jews’ — President Roosevelt’s real name was deemed to be ‘Rosenfeld’. In this menacing atmosphere, many Jews burned their Jewish books for fear of being caught up in Stalin’s manic maelstrom.
Those who were arrested even included Foreign Minister Molotov’s Jewish wife, but the final selection of 15 seems to be almost arbitrary but symbolic. Only five were actually poets — they had lived abroad during the 1920s where they had relatives and friends.
A few were long time Communists. The main defendant was Solomon Lozovsky, a great-grandfather who had joined the party in 1901. Others such as Ilya Vatenberg and his wife, Khayke had been brought up and educated In New York. The translator, Leon Talmy, was not even a party member.
The defendants were not tried immediately as was usual, but instead kept in prison for more than three years and often in solitary confinement. Some had been deeply involved in the work of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, others only peripherally.
All were subjected to continuous interrogation, deprived of sleep and beaten until they confessed to any false charge. Boris Shimeliovich, the medical director of the Botkin Clinical Hospital, had to endure months of being beaten with rubber truncheons amidst antisemitic taunts. He was eventually carried into the interrogation sessions on a stretcher — but still he refused to confess.
Lina Shtern, a Stalin Prize winner and a renown scientist, protested about her treatment during the trial. She told her accusers that ‘there were moments when it seemed to me that I was going out of my mind, capable of uttering slander about myself and others’.
Many defendants remained defiant to the end. In his final statement, Lozovsky demanded ‘complete rehabilitation or death’. Others hoped against hope by blowing in the wind. David Hofshteyn became ‘a Zionist’ because he had spent a year in Palestine in the 1920s.
For many years, no one in the UK knew precisely what had happened — until the fall of the USSR in 1991. With the opening of Soviet archives, an accurate picture was constructed through the research of the noted academics, Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov.
Of the original 15 defendants, 13 were executed, one fell ill and later died — and Lina Shtern was given three and a half years in a labour camp, followed by another five years in exile. She never spoke about her traumatic experience.
Looking back over 70 years, the murder of the doomed Yiddish poets marked a watershed in the belief of many Jews in the ideals of Communism and the dream of a just new world.
Peretz Markish who met his end on that black night in August 1952 had written a prescient poem many years before:
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.
Jewish Chronicle 12 August 2022