Tuesday, 30 April 2013
Midnight in Moscow
On August 12, 1952, 13 members of the Jewish People’s Anti-Fascist Committee were executed in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison. Among them were the poets Itsik Feffer, Leib Kvitko and Peretz Markish, the writers David Bergelson and Shmuel Halkin; Solomon Lozovsky, a former general secretary of the Red Trade Union International and government minister, and Benjamin Zuskin, a leading actor at the Moscoll State Jewish Theatre.
The theatre’s director, and chair of the Jewish People’s Committee, Shlomo Mikhoels, had been murdered on January l3, 1948, in a hit and run accident outside Minsk believed to have been arranged by the secret police.
The Jewish People’s Anti-Fascist Committee was launched with official backing in April 1942 to win worldwide Jewish support for the Soviet war effort.
Stalin approved this turn although he had signed the death warrant for the two men who first proposed enlisting Jewish energies against the Nazis -Victor Alter and Henryk Ehrlich, leaders of the Jewish Workers’ Bund from Poland. Alter and Erlich had defended left wing opponents of Stalinism. But worse, from the Kremlin’s point of view, they were ‘premature anti-fascists’, having proposed anti-Nazi resistance while the Soviet government was loyally maintaining its pact with Hitler.
In 1943, Shlomo Mikhoels and Itsik Feffer toured the United States, Mexico, Canada and Britain, addressing enthusiastic Jewish audiences, Feffer in his full uniform as colonel of the Red Army. They raised millions of dollars for the Soviet war effort, as well as fervent political support. The Jewish People’s Committee had its own Yiddish newspaper, Eynikayt (Unity). Bergelson wrote regularly for it, and for the NewYork Morgn Frayhayt. Soviet Yiddish writers and poets were published in English too.
Jewish people around the world rejoiced at Soviet military triumphs. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz,’ they told each other. The Jewish People’s Committee persuaded Soviet authorities to provide a list of decorated Soviet Jewish war heroes, both to refute antisemitic jibes and to raise Jewish morale.
When Foreign Minister Gromyko, referring to Jewish suffering in Europe, gave the Soviet Union’s blessing to Zionist aspirations and the UN’s November 1947 Palestine partition resolution, the rejoicing seemed complete. The USSR was the first power to recognise the new State of Israel in 1948, and helped it with arms.
Yet even during World War II, harsh winds were forming that would blow asunder Jewish hopes in the Soviet Union. From `socialism in one country’, official ideology moved on to waging the `Great PatrioticWar’. Although surviving purged Red Army officers were released to lead their units in battle, old Czarist heroes and generals came back into favour in patriotic literature.
Historians rediscovered that Czarist Russia’s expansion and conquest of subject peoples was ’progressive’. Even while Red Army troops were chasing German invaders out, special detachments were sent to deport peoples like the Crimean Tartars and the Chechens, accused of being ‘collaborators’, and living in the wrong place.
Call it collective punishment, or 'ethnic cleansing’, it set a brutal precedent, even if the world was too busy celebrating the defeat of Hitler’s fascism to notice its sinister reflections.
In 1946, the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee launched a drive against writers who did not conform. Beginning under party secretary A A Zhdanov, this became a drive against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ accused of grovelling to western culture and belittling Russian achievements.
In 1949 Pravda reported a speech byAnatoly Sofronov of the Writers’ Union, denouncing an anti-patriotic group of theatre critics’, rabid ill-intentioned cosmopolitans, people without kith and kin, who had been undermining the foundations of culture for a long time’ by criticising patriotic plays. In contrast to criminal trial reports where papers always gave the real names’ of the accused, Jev\sh novelist Ilya Ehrenburg was told to make his characters’ names more Russian.
It became obligatory to claim that Russians had made all important scientific discoveries and inventions, and that foreign’ science was inferior. Such ignorant boasting detracted from genuine Soviet achievements, rendered the propaganda ridiculous and obstructed vital work in science and medicine. But it was a golden opportunity for jealous mediocrities and humbugs to rise up, and denounce their colleagues and critics as unpatriotic’.What right had cosmopolitans without kith and kin’ to hold influential positions, barring the way to genuine Russians?
A witch-hunt began, parallel to the anti-Communist witch-hunts in the United States, where coincidentally many of those victimised for alleged un-American activities’ came from the same ethnic background as Russia’s 'rootless cosmopolitans’. Russia’s witch-hunt spread through colleges and factories, army bases and hospitals. People were accused of plots, dismissed from posts, and arrested. Jewish choirs and drama groups were disbanded. Books vanished from shops and library shelves as their writers disappeared from their homes.
In the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan, a vast library of Yiddish works was destroyed. The plates for a Black Book on Nazi atrocities were smashed. The Jewish People’s Committee had published an English edition during the war, but evidently it was for export only.
Unlike blacklisted Americans, many of Stalin’s victims did not live to tell their tale. The Jewish People’s Anti-Fascist Committee was disbanded in November 1948, as were other wartime bodies set up to win support in the West. Not satisfied with liquidating the Jewish Committee, Stalin had 15 of its members arrested, taken to the Lubyanka punishment cells and tortured to make them sign confessions. One, hospital director Boris Shimeliovich, refused to confess to anything despite being given 100 lashes every day for a month.
Yet rather than proceed to a show trial, as they had done with Bolshevik oppositionists and Red Army officers in the 1930’s, the Stalinist authorities took four years trying to break the resistance of the Jewish prisoners before a tribunal behind closed doors.
Everything was stood on its head. Jewish internationalism, once praised by Lenin, and a proven asset to the communist cause, was now ' rootless cosmopolitanism’, a deadly enemy. Mikhoels and Feffer’s tour in the West on the Soviet Union’s behalf was portrayed as a trip to conspire with American millionaires. By extolling the mighty Soviet war effort they had betrayed state secrets! A proposal to settle Jewish Holocaust sulvivors and displaced persons in the Crimea was a Jewish nationalist plot to detach the region from the Soviet Union - the same Soviet Union whose representatives had so eloquently supported Zionist claims to Palestine!
My nationalist tendencies came out in the following ways,’ Feffer told the tribunal: I said that I love my people. Is there anyone who doesn’t love his people? I wanted my people to have what all others had. And when I saw that everything was being closed dowll, everything being eliminated, this pained me and made me rise against the Soviet power. This was what motivated my interest in the Crimea and Birobidzhan.’ He reminded the judges that US President Roosevelt had been to the Crimea (for the Yalta talks) but he did not ask for Mikhoels and Feffer to brief him on the strategic peninsula!
One American who did ask after his friends Mikhoels and Feffer was black singer and Communist Paul Robeson. When he arrived in Moscow in 1949. Mikhoels was already dead, but Feffer was hastily fattened up, scrubbed, and brought from jail to the singer’s hotel room. Signalling to Robeson that the room was bugged, Feffer managed to convey that Mikhoels had been killed and that he was facing death too.
At his concert, Paul Robeson spoke about his Jewish friends, before singing the Yiddish Partisan Song, Zog nit keynmol az du geytstdem letsten veg. . . .’ Never say that that you are walking your last road. The applause was huge. But on the reissued recording of the concert you call still hear the blip where Soviet censors cut out his little speech about Miklloels and Feffer. Back in the United States, Robeson censored himself, confiding only to his son what he’d been told, and insisting to reporters that he had seen no sign of antisemitism or racism in the Soviet Union. Maybe Robeson’s loyal Stalinism had been disturbed, but he was afraid to say anything that could be used by US warmongers or further endanger his friends.
Maybe if the US government had not taken away his passport. . . As it was, Robeson’s silence did not help his friends.
Paul Robeson's Moscow concert
A book out last year, Stalin’s Secret Pogrom edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov, evokes the flavour of the hidden trial. Under interrogation one woman had stated that under Lozovsky the [Soviet information bureau} had been turned into a s\lagogue`. But during the trial, prisoners retracted or altered confessions. Lozovsky said his judges knew how confessions were obtained. "You took note of the fact that all of the accused testify using one and the same phrasing. So this means tilat someone conspired to come up with this language. Who? Those under arrest? I don’t think so. That means that it was the investigators who conspired."
He compared General Alexander Cheptsov, who presided over the tribunal, to a Spanish inquisitor. In fact, at the end of the trial Cheptsov asked party leaders to reopen the investigation. Party
Secretary Georgy Malenkov was indignant. "Do you want us to kneel before these criminals?’ he demanded. " Carry out the Politburo’s resolution!’ As one of the five-man defence council which oversaw the Soviet war effort inWorldWar II, Malenkov knew the contribution made by the Jewish People’s Committee. His daughter had married Lozovsky’s grandson, Vladimir Shamberg, and the two men were close. But days before Lozovsky’s arrest, Malenkov rushed through his daughter’s divorce, saying he did not want `a relative of an enemy of the people’ in his house.
After Stalin’s death, Malenkov became party leader, then Prime Minister until was elbowed aside by Khruschev. In 1957, accused of leading an anti-party group’, he was sent off to manage a power station in Kazakhstan - a gentler end to that to which he’d helped consign Lozovsky
Vladimir Shamberg never contacted his ex-father-in-law again, but says of his behaviour: As a human being I cannot approve it, but as a political scientist I understand what he had to do.’
Of the 15 members of the Jewish People’s Committee who had been tried, one died in prison. Another, Latvian-born medical scientist Lina Stern, who had gone to work in the Soviet Union in 1926, was exiled to Kazakhstan. The remainder were executed.
Later that year, Stalin got his show trials in Prague, where former Czech Communist Party general secretary, Rudolf Slansky, and 13 longstanding party members (including three genti1es for good measure) went on trial accused of Zionism, Trotskyism, Titoism. . . All confessed their "guilt". A11 were executed and three sentenced to life imprisonment.
Then on l3th January 1953, the Soviet news agency, TASS announced the arrest of a group of 'killer doctors’, accused of plotting to murder public figures. Referring to 'Trotskyite conspiracies’ including the death of Gorki, it claimed the dead Shlomo Mikhoels had orchestrated a huge terror plot in league with a Zionist espionage agency, 'the Joint’ (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee).
All over the Soviet Union, Jews feared pogroms or the knock on the door from the KGB arranging their 'protective' arrest and deportation to Siberia. But then, on l5th March 1953, came the news that Stalin was dead. The charges against the doctors ~were dropped. The Jewish People’s Anti-Fascist Committee was soon to be admitted innocent too. Khrushchev acknowledged publicly in 1955 that during the war the Committee was 'indispensible to the interests of the Soviet state, our policies and our Communist Party,’ In his 1956 'secret speech’ he attacked Stalin’s persecution of nationalities. It was too late to save the murdered Jewish intellectuals or the victims of the show trials. Nor could references to Stalin’s 'personality cult’ satisfy Jewish people around the world, shocked and disillusioned with the kind of 'socialism’ that could permit such a monstrosity.
A legendary sage, the Baal Shem Tov, said remembrance was the first step to redemption. Without an honest reckoning with the past, we cannot hope to restore faith in a socialist future.
(first published in Jewish Socialist no.46, Spring 2002)