Article from the New Republic
August 25, 1997
The Night of the Murdered Poets
by Joshua Rubenstein
Yiddish culture has not entirely disappeared, but it was sentenced to death twice, and each time the sentence was carried out. On the eve of World War II, millions of Yiddish speakers inhabited Jewish communities from Holland through Germany and Poland into the heart of the Soviet Union. Hitler did his best to annihilate every Jew his armies controlled. Individual Jews survived his onslaught, but their communities and unique culture were destroyed. Ironically, the country that saved millions of Jews and not so incidentally played the decisive role in stopping Hitler was the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union had its own solution to the Jewish problem.
Stalin, like Lenin, expected that Soviet Jews would gradually disappear as the regime offered the carrot of modernization with the stick of forced assimilation. But by the end of his life Stalin could no longer constrain his murderous anti-Semitism and began a systematic assault on the leaders of Yiddish culture who were the primary vehicle for Jewish identity in the country. This campaign culminated on August 12, 1952 with multiple executions in the basement of Moscow's Lubyanka prison.
Jewish communities across America have increasingly marked this event on August 12 of each year as the "Night of the Murdered Poets." Convicted at a secret trial in the summer, 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) cut down by Stalin's executioners in the basement of the notorious Lubyanka prison.
But because their trial was held in secret and the regime refused to confirm what actually happened for many years, 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 and the availability of previously closed archival material - including the trial transcript (which was published in Moscow in 1994) and the tireless research of several Russian and Israeli scholars who have discovered and published hundreds of documents relating to the case and even examined forty-two volumes of investigation records - 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, in fact, fifteen defendants, all falsely charged with a range of capital offenses, from treason and espionage to bourgeois nationalism. While five prominent literary figures were among those indicted - the Yiddish poets Peretz Markish, David Hofshtein, and Itzik Fefer; the writer Leib Kvitko, who was known throughout the country for his children's verse; and the distinguished novelist David Bergelson - the remaining ten defendants were not writers at all but connected in various ways to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC).
The investigation and subsequent trial were actually targeted as much against the JAC as they were against the remnants of Jewish culture in the country. The JAC, led by Solomon Mikhoels, the renowned Yiddish actor and theater director, had been established in 1942 alongside four other anti-fascist committees (for women, youth, scientists, and Slavs), each designed to appeal to a different segment of Western public opinion in support of the allied alliance against Nazi Germany. The five Yiddish writers joined Mikhoels on the JAC, writing articles for transmission abroad or for various publications inside the country.
JAC leaders, though, argued over limits to the committee's work. All agreed that it should support the war effort, raise funds, and issue appeals to Jews in other countries. But as the war progressed and the extent of Jewish losses became evident many members of the committee wanted to expand its functions. Proposals were made to help resettle Jewish refugees, to reestablish Jewish collective farms, to revive Jewish cultural life, and to collect eye-witness testimonies about the Holocaust on Soviet territory.
During the war the regime tolerated the committee's initiatives, although several informers from within the JAC denounced it for taking on "politically harmful functions" and for "intervening in matters in which it should not interfere." In particular, the committee began to receive mountains of appeals and petitions from individual Jews whose lives had been devastated by the Nazis. "As much as we would like to keep within narrow bounds, we are unable to do so," Mikhoels explained to his colleagues. "Hundreds of letters are being received every day, and hundreds of people . . . are turning [to us]. Life is persistently knocking at our door. . . We cannot escape the multitude of Jewish problems . . . No matter how much we drive them away, they would return all the same." So under Mikhoels' leadership, the JAC began to approach Kremlin officials, requesting assistance in one case after another. In a normal society, such appeals would be unremarkable, but in Stalin's kingdom the committee was violating a dangerous boundary. On one occasion, Peretz Markish expressed concern over the mistreatment of Jews who had survived the war then returned to hometowns in the Ukraine only to face discrimination and hostility from neighbors and officials. He was denounced for "slandering Soviet reality." Just weeks after the German surrender, the committee was criticized for highlighting the participation of Jewish soldiers in the allied victory. Mikhoels could barely constrain his impatience. "No one is going to think that it was two Jewish brothers who took Berlin." But once victory over Hitler was achieved, the regime grew increasingly suspicious of the JAC and the role its leaders had assumed as representatives of Soviet Jewry, a role the regime never intended to encourage.
Stalin's decision to turn against the JAC reflected both his growing paranoia and several foreign policy difficulties that made the country's Jews vulnerable. With the onset of the Cold War and the establishment of Israel in 1948, Stalin linked the threat of war with the United States to his belief that Soviet Jews had other loyalties. Although they had demonstrated their reliability in the struggle against Hitler, in a conflict with America (where too many Soviet Jews were presumed to have relatives) Stalin believed they would betray him. Israel too had disappointed him; it was turning into an ally of the United States rather than a member of the socialist bloc.
The JAC could not survive these tensions. Mikhoels was murdered on Stalin's personal orders in January 1948. The JAC was officially closed in November. All the defendants in the 1952 trial were arrested between September 1948 and June 1949 - the five Yiddish writers and ten other people connected to the JAC. 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 careers as loyal Soviet citizens do not fit comfortably into an easy category for Westerners to honor.
The principal defendant was not a Yiddish writer, but a former member of the Central Committee. Born in 1878, Solomon Lozovsky joined the Marxist underground in 1901. He was a prominent enough revolutionary to know Lenin and Stalin well and after the October Revolution played a major role in the Profintern, the international communist-controlled trade-union movement, and in the Communist International. (His daughter also assumed significant responsibilities, serving as secretary and confidante to Lenin's widow Nadezhda Krupskaya from 1919 to 1939.) Lozovsky survived Stalin's purges of the 1930s and was even elevated in 1939 when Vyacheslav Molotov, who had replaced Maxim Litvinov as Soviet foreign minister, appointed Lozovsky one of three deputy foreign ministers. (The other two were Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin's dreaded prosecutor, and Pavel Dekanozov, a former secret police executive close to Beria who also served as Soviet ambassador to Germany from 1939 to 1941, the years of the Pact.)
During the war, Lozovsky took on additional responsibilities as vice-chairman of the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinformburo) which was charged with dealing with the Western press. In that capacity, he supervised all five anti-fascist committees. Years later, no less a figure than Nikita Khrushchev vividly remembered Lozovsky: how he "was an energetic person and sometimes almost annoyingly persistent," Khrushchev recalled. "He used virtually to extort material from me" about Nazi atrocities in the Ukraine and then arrange for articles abroad. The JAC carried out effective propaganda; by one estimate, it sent more than twenty thousand articles to allied presses in Europe and North America.
A second prominent defendant was Boris Shimeliovich, the former medical director of Moscow's Botkin Hospital and an active member of the JAC leadership. Shimeliovich had impeccable revolutionary credentials; he had joined the Bolsheviks in 1920 a year after his brother had been killed during the Civil War fighting on behalf of the revolution. A third well-known defendant was the biologist Lina Shtern, at the time the only woman who was a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. She was credited with inventing "Soviet penicillin" which saved thousands of lives at the front. Born in Latvia and educated in Switzerland, she had emigrated to the Soviet Union out of ideological conviction. And the fourth famous defendant was the Yiddish actor Veniamin Zuskin, who had worked alongside Solomon Mikhoels for many years and succeeded him as director of the Yiddish State Theater.
The investigators then roped in six other little-known functionaries, some of whom had virtually nothing to do with the JAC's work, but whose alleged involvement in various crimes served to demonstrate the breadth of the committee's "treachery:" the historian Joseph Yuzefovich; the journalist and translator Leon Talmy; the lawyer Ilya Vatenberg and his wife Chaika Ostrovskaya, who worked as a translator for the JAC; the editor Emilia Teumin; and the party functionary Solomon Bregman, who joined the JAC in 1944 and quickly became an informer, sending denunciations about "nationalism" within the committee to party officials.
With two exceptions - Itzik Fefer and Lina Shtern - all the defendants were brutally interrogated; some were beaten and tortured, placed in grim isolation cells, or subjected to endless nocturnal interrogations (the infamous "conveyor belt"), then compelled to sign confessions. Boris Shimeliovich was beaten mercilessly even before his interrogation began; he told the court he counted more than 2,000 blows. Three years later, he was still not able to walk and had to be carried into court on a stretcher. Chaika Ostrovskaya renounced her signed confession during the trial. "The path to the isolation cell was well enough known to me," she explained to the judges; she actually signed her name while hallucinating out of fear and exhaustion. As Joseph Yuzefovich told the court, "he was willing to admit being a natural born nephew of the Pope" as a result of his treatment.
The interrogators often indulged in crude anti-Semitic invective. Emilia Teumin was forced to admit that "under Lozovsky the Sovinformburo had been turned into a synagogue." Colonel Vladimir Komarov who conducted much of the case screamed at Lozovsky that "the Jews are a foul and dirty people, that all Jews are worthless scum, that the entire opposition to the party was made up of Jews, that all Jews throughout the Soviet Union spit on Soviet power, that the Jews want to annihilate every Russian." Even a Jewish interior police official who must have brought about his own share of human misery was offended by the tenor of such interrogations and complained to his superior that "the investigators are interrogating these prisoners as Jews and not as criminals."
Only one defendant, Itzik Fefer, immediately cooperated with the investigation, detailing a host of baseless accusations against the JAC that would frame the indictment in 1952. As a result of his betrayal, more than one hundred people were arrested. Fefer, it turns out, had been an informer for the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) since at least 1943; before that he had been among the most loyal and conformist Yiddish poets, helping to enforce strict ideological control over other Yiddish writers; he had a history of denouncing colleagues for their "nationalistic hysteria." Fefer, too, played a significant role at the JAC as its vice-chairman, accompanying Mikhoels on their famous trip to North America and England in 1943 to raise money and support for the Soviet war effort. (It was the first time that official representatives of Soviet Jewry were allowed to travel to the West; they received a tumultuous welcome, including a turnout of nearly 50,000 people in New York's Polo Grounds.) On the eve of their departure, Mikhoels expressed misgivings about travelling with Fefer. He "cannot be counted on for support and assistance," Mikhoels confided to his family. Fefer, in fact, was dispatched to watch over Mikhoels and make regular reports to a Soviet "handler." On the eve of the trial, Fefer was led to believe that if he continued to cooperate, his life would be spared.
The regime, it is now believed, intended to conduct an open "show trial" reminiscent of the infamous proceedings against leading Bolsheviks in the 1930s. Beaten, intimidated, utterly humiliated, the defendants were being turned into compliant actors for another Stalinist charade. But following the initial period of their arrests, when the confessions were obtained, the security organs became distracted by other urgent matters. The investigation dragged on. Individual defendants began to retract their testimony. New interrogators appeared. New charges were concocted. Meanwhile, other writers who had also been arrested were either executed or died in prison: in 1950 alone, Der Nister perished in a labor camp, Isaac Nusinov died in Lefortovo prison, and the the Yiddish journalists Samuel Persov and Miriam Zheleznova were shot. It was not until the spring of 1952, well over three years since the initial arrests, that the regime was prepared to go ahead with the trial.
The conduct of the proceedings was completely unprecedented. It opened on May 8; the sentences - all pre-arranged - were not handed down until July 18. Three military judges presided; there were no prosecutors or defense attorneys. The defendants were permitted to make lengthy statements and to cross-examine each other, an aspect of the trial that resulted in moments of high drama, particularly when outspoken defendants like Solomon Lozovsky and Boris Shimeliovich challenged Itzik Fefer. Stenographers carefully recorded every word, creating a reliable account of this monstrous episode.
As the transcript makes clear, the judges could not help but expose their prejudices and ignorance. One asked Leib Kvitko if he believed in God and if leaders of the JAC attended services in the Moscow synagogue. Hofshtein was upbraided for lecturing about his stay in Palestine, an act that could help "preserve Yiddish culture and language in the Soviet Union." During the war the committee was assigned the explicit responsibility of appealing to Jews around the world. Now at a trial in 1952, the same committee was charged with advocating "the uniqueness of the Jewish people" and with "using Biblical images in a positive manner." "All this was disguised with Soviet slogans," the judges insisted "when in reality proletarian internationalism was replaced with cosmopolitanism."
In the eyes of the judges, the defendants must have seemed as if they came from another world; several had been born to rabbis, ritual slaughterers, or Hebrew teachers. Raised in small Jewish towns in remote regions of the Russian Empire, the Yiddish writers among them had begun their careers before the October Revolution. Four of them (Fefer excepted) had even left the country in the 1920s for extended stays abroad. Markish lived in Poland and France; Kvitko in Germany; Hofshtein in Palestine; Bergelson in the United States and several West European countries. Each had returned, unable to find a place for himself as a Yiddish writer, while the Soviet Union, promising to subsidize literature including Yiddish, seemed to be the only country where these writers could make a living. (During a visit to the Soviet Union in 1926, David Bergelson declared himself to be "a Soviet writer" and described the U.S.S.R. as the only hope for Yiddish culture and literature. He then left the country for eight years before returning to stay in 1934.) Their time abroad, too, was used against them - evidence of their longstanding disloyalty.
The transcript often makes for painful reading. During the trial most of the defendants could not avoid debasing themselves. Fefer, the principal accuser, began his testimony by incriminating several co-defendants, claiming that he had recognized "nationalistic views" in the work of Bergelson, Hofshtein, and Kvitko as early as 1920 when he first met them in Kiev. Shimeliovich was "an aggressive Jew," while Lina Shtern did not regard the Soviet Union as her "true fatherland." Kvitko claimed that Hofshtein and Shtern had Zionist tendencies. Markish testified that the "very fact" that the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee collected information on Jewish suffering was an act of nationalism. Bergelson confessed that his religious upbringing was tantamount to nationalism. Kvitko denied believing in God. Bergelson said that Hofshtein encouraged the study of Hebrew. Hofshtein regretted that he continued to write in Yiddish. At one point, Bergelson grew so frustrated by the judges' aggressive questions that he blurted out: "There cannot be anything criminal in the phrase 'I am a Jew' (referring to a poem by Itzik Fefer). If I approach someone and say 'I am a Jew,' what could be bad about that?"
The principal accusation revolved around the "Crimea question." Jews had once established small agricultural colonies in the northern Crimea in the 1920s. Two decades later, faced with severe dislocations brought on by the war, the Holocaust, and the difficulty of returning Jewish survivors to the Ukraine, Mikhoels and others proposed making the Crimea a Soviet Jewish Republic. At least initially, the regime treated the proposal seriously, but it soon dismissed the whole idea. Lazar Kaganovich, the only Jew in Stalin's Politburo, told Mikhoels and his colleagues that "only artists and poets" could think up something like this. But then after the arrest of Fefer in December 1948, the regime began to embroider a complex quilt of lies and fabrications: that during their visit to New York in 1943, Fefer and Mikhoels offered to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea so that Zionists and American imperialists could use it as a "bridgehead," part of a long-term strategy to dismember the Soviet Union.
Several defendants were also accused of passing state secrets to two American Jewish figures - Paul Novick, the communist editor of New York's Morgen Freiheit, and the Yiddish journalist B. Z. Goldberg (who was the son-in-law of Sholem Aleichem). Novick and Goldberg were well-known left-wingers, apologists for the Soviet Union and enthusiastic supporters of the war-time alliance. They each visited the Soviet Union soon after the war with the full knowledge and support of the Kremlin. Naturally, they spent the bulk of their time with their Yiddish-speaking colleagues, anxious to assess the prospects for reconstruction and renewal after the war's devastation. But MVD investigators decided to turn Novick and Goldberg into American espionage agents and accused the JAC of passing along secret economic and political information.
Other accusations were equally far-fetched. Emilia Teumin was condemned for failing to contradict Mikhoels and Fefer when they supposedly uttered "nationalistic" remarks in her presence. "I carried the poison of bourgeois nationalism," she admitted in a final plea for her life. Leon Talmy had written a book about Birobidjan in 1931, describing this failed experiment in Soviet Jewish autonomy as a promising answer to "the Jewish problem." But "experts" called by the court testified that the book contained "state secrets;" in reality, the regime needed to connect Talmy, along with Ilya Vatenberg and Chaika Ostrovskaya to the case because they had once lived in the United States. It did not matter that in the 1920s Talmy helped to found the American Communist Party and wrote glowing articles about the Soviet economy and culture for The Nation, or that Ilya Vatenberg helped to represent Soviet commercial interests in New York. The Cold War was on and America was the enemy.
Once the trial got underway, the indictment and Fefer's testimony were demolished by several defendants, in particular by Solomon Lozovsky. Lozovsky, too, had signed a confession after eight nights of non-stop interrogation. As he explained to the court, he understood it was hopeless to resist and decided to wait until his trial when he hoped to speak his mind to a broad public audience or at least to party leaders. In this he was disappointed, for Lozovsky's only listeners were three judges, his fellow defendants, and a stenographer. Lozovsky's testimony lasted for six days and was the emotional high point of the trial. His words deserve to be remembered, especially his opening statement:
As you know, my family name is Dridzo. This name cannot be translated into any language. When we asked our father what it signified, he told us that, according to a story that had been passed down from fathers to sons, one of our very distant ancestors was among the 800,000 Jews who fled from Spain when the chief inquisitor Thomas Torquemada issued a decree compelling Jews either to convert to Catholicism or leave the country within two months. I became Lozovsky in 1905 at the Bolshevik conference in Tammerfos, where I met Lenin and Stalin for the first time.
My father was a Hebrew teacher. He knew Talmud, knew Hebrew very well, wrote verses in ancient Hebrew. My mother was an illiterate woman. My father taught Hebrew grammar, prayers, and Russian grammar. The fact that a Hebrew teacher taught his son Russian language shows he was not a fanatic. I was religious until the age of about thirteen.
Lozovsky, in other words, after three and a half years of complete isolation, subjected to brutal threats and interrogation, preserved his dignity and had the presence of mind to compare this Soviet military tribunal to the Spanish Inquisition and make clear that his judges were no better than Thomas Torquemada.
Lozovsky then proceeded to take apart the indictment as no defendant in a Soviet political case had ever done before. Could the JAC hand over the Crimea to American imperialism? Lozovsky reminded the judges that in 1945 "Roosevelt flew into the Crimea [for the Yalta conference] with a large group of spies in numerous airplanes. He did not come here to see either Fefer or Mikhoels, or to worry about settling Jews in the Crimea, but for far more serious matters. . . What could Hofshtein, Ostrovskaya, or Zuskin . . . pass along to him?" As for charges of espionage, Lozovsky made clear that copies of all correspondence were saved by the committee. "What kind of spies make copies of their dealings?" he asked the judges. Were Goldberg and Novick really espionage agents? Lozovsky pointed out that the Soviet press had nothing but praise for each of them; the JAC could hardly be expected to know they were spies when the NKVD and the MVD, who arranged for their trip, did not know either. But none of their functionaries were in the dock!
The entire case was such an obvious fabrication that the presiding judge Alexander Cheptsov interrupted the trial for almost a week and appealed to judicial and party officials to renew the investigation. Such an action by a Stalinist judge was unheard-of. Cheptsov, though, was not acting out of purely idealistic motives. A veteran jurist, he had condemned other Jewish figures at earlier trials that were no less contrived. But there is reason to believe that Lozovsky's eloquence and bearing - and the fact that Fefer began to back away from his testimony during the questioning of Lozovsky and then admitted in a closed session that he had been an informer and was now prepared to disavow his testimony - evidently impressed the judges. Cheptsov, moreover, sensed there was continuing disarray within security circles and he wanted to be sure that his severe instructions - to condemn obviously innocent people, including Solomon Lozovsky, who was an Old Bolshevik with a distinguished party and government career - still applied. Georgy Malenkov himself rebuffed Cheptsov's request. "Do you want to bring us to these criminals' knees?" he told him. "The Politburo has investigated this case three times. Carry out the Politburo's resolution." Cheptsov did as he was told. Except for Lina Shtern, who was sentenced to a term of exile, and Solomon Bregman, who collapsed into a coma during the trial and died in prison in January 1953, the remaining thirteen defendants, including two women, were convicted and sentenced to death; the executions were carried out on August 12.
One terrible irony played itself out afterwards. Paul Novick, as editor of the Morgen Freiheit, was under tremendous pressure to explain the whereabouts of many Soviet Yiddish writers. Soviet spokesmen as late as 1955 denied anything was amiss. But in April 1956, the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper Folkshtimme broke the news that numerous Yiddish writers had been victims of "Beria's gangs." (After Stalin's death and particularly after Khrushchev's famous speech denouncing the dictator in February 1956, loyal communists continued to blame things on the malicious influence of Stalin's security chief Lavrenti Beria. Beria, in fact, was not connected to the wave of repression against the JAC.) The article, though, did not mention that an actual trial had taken place.
Well before this announcement, Novick knew that something terrible had happened to his Moscow friends, but his loyalty to the Soviet Union and steadfast belief in communism compromised his judgment. He did everything he could to cushion the news and reassure his readers that Yiddish culture would be restored to its previous glory now that Stalin's "cult of personality" had been exposed and Leninist principles restored. It is not clear if Novick ever learned how his name was used against the defendants (he died in 1990 at the age of 99, long before the transcipt of the trial was released), but his long-standing loyalty was tragically typical for many in his generation. As his widow Shirley Novick once observed after learning about the fate of the Yiddish writers, "It was unbelievable to us. We believed in the party like religious Hasidim."
Paul Novick carried a heavy sense of guilt over the fate of his friends. David Bergelson had come to New York in the 1920s, but then had to return to Europe and eventually to the Soviet Union. Novick was deputy editor of the Morgen Freiheit in those years and may have felt he could have done more to help Bergelson establish himself in America. When Novick travelled to Moscow in the late 1950s, he immediately visited Bergelson's widow. Entering her room, he fell on his knees, burst out in tears, and begged for forgiveness.
As for the defendants at the trial, it is not clear what they believed about the system they each served. Their lives embodied the tragic saga of Soviet Jewry. A combination of revolutionary commitment and naive idealism tied them to a system they could not renounce. Whatever doubts or misgivings they had they kept to themselves, and served the Kremlin with required enthusiasm. They were not dissidents. They were Jewish martyrs. They were also Soviet patriots. Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.
Joshua Rubenstein, the Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA, is the author of Tangled Loyalties, The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg. His new book Stalin's Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, will be published in May 2001 by Yale University Press (in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) as part of the its Annals of Communism Series. It will contain the transcript of the secret trial of fifteen Jewish figures associated with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.