On With the Show

Date: July 15, 2001, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By Abraham Brumberg

The Postwar Inquisition
of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
Edited by Joshua Rubenstein
and Vladimir P. Naumov.
Translated by Laura Esther Wolfson.
Illustrated. 527 pp. New Haven:
Yale University Press. $35.


The trial of 15 prominent Soviet Jews in the summer of 1952, followed by the execution of all but two of them, was to prove the last gasp of Stalinist judicial terror; its architect was felled by a stroke less than a year later. The trial had all the usual ingredients -- round-the-clock interrogations, physical and mental torture, bogus evidence and spurious confessions -- but it was also the most unusual in the long history of Communist show trials.

The purpose of the trial was, as usual, to crush a group Stalin considered enemies of the Soviet state: in this case, leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The committee had been established in March 1942, along with four other ''antifascist committees'' -- for youth, scientists, women and Slavs -- all supervised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and directed to raise funds for the Soviet war effort among their ''constituents'' abroad. The committees were all disbanded by 1948, and only the Jewish one proved a headache for its masters.

Many Soviet Jews, while ardent Communists, had hoped to develop a Yiddish secular culture in schools, libraries, the theater and the like. But this proved to be a doomed enterprise.What kind of genuine Yiddish culture was possible if Jewish history and religion were taboo, relations with Jews in other countries nonexistent, and pro-Jewish sentiments could at any time be denounced as ''anti-socialist,'' ''bourgeois nationalist'' or ''formalist''? Finally, how could any form of Jewish consciousness survive in an atmosphere of growing anti-Semitism, which Stalin himself embodied?

Yet once the war began, Stalin, faced with the need for outside support, especially from American Jews (who were by definition sympathetic to Russia's war against Nazism), had to turn to the ''Jewish Jews.'' Hence the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, two of whose members -- Solomon Mikhoels, the gifted director of the Moscow Yiddish Art Theater, and Itsik Fefer, a mediocre but ideologically reliable Yiddish poet (and an informer for the secret police) -- were dispatched in May 1943 to raise money in the United States.

Mikhoels and Fefer's seven-month stay in America proved a phenomenal success, vividly described in Joshua Rubinstein's introduction to ''Stalin's Secret Pogrom'' and in the useful preface by the Russian historian Vladimir Naumov. But the committee, for all its successes, carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. The enthusiasm displayed by American Jews alone could have proved the kiss of death. But the committee also awakened Jewish sentiments and longings among loyal Soviet Communists. The situation became more parlous in the late 1940's, with the emergence of Israel. Stalin immediately recognized the Jewish state, hoping to use it as a weapon against the Arabs, but he clearly did not foresee the fervent response of Soviet Jews. And so the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee turned retroactively from a useful tool into a nest of vipers. Mikhoels was killed on Stalin's orders in January 1948 (his death officially attributed to a car accident), and in November, six months after the birth of Israel, the committee was disbanded. Arrests followed, and another of those grisly Soviet courtroom dramas seemed clearly in the offing.

But in fact it was almost four years before the case came to trial. In the meantime, savage interrogation, often laced with anti-Semitic abuse (''I especially hated and was pitiless towards Jewish nationalists, whom I saw as the most dangerous and evil enemies,'' the official in charge of the case wrote to Stalin), elicited phantasmagorical confessions from the prisoners, who then recanted and then, subjected to fearsome pressure, capitulated -- and again recanted. The investigators failed to produce any evidence, however specious, and the interrogations dragged on.

Finally, the prisoners gave in and the trial began. Three military judges presided; there were no prosecutors, defense attorneys or spectators. These events went unreported in the press, and the lack of information caused confusion and anguish among Western comrades and fellow travelers, who nevertheless managed to believe the lies doled out by the Kremlin's loyal timeservers. (''Fefer? Oh, saw him yesterday -- under the weather, I am afraid.'')

The real bombshell came a few hours after the accused were ushered into the courtroom. Only two fully admitted guilt. Four, including the chief witness, Solomon Lozovsky, a veteran Bolshevik and deputy foreign commissar in charge of all the antifascist committees, flatly repudiated their confessions, which they said had been signed when they were in an ''unclear'' state of mind -- indeed, as the poet David Hofshteyn put it, when they were virtually on the brink of madness. There was talk of torture and of evidence that had been twisted; a proposal to create a Jewish republic in Crimea, for example, which had been tentatively encouraged by Molotov, was now turned into ''proof'' of an anti-Soviet conspiracy.

It was not until after Stalin's death -- and even later, when the Soviet archives were finally opened -- that the duplicity of the proceedings was fully exposed. The transcripts, fluently translated by Laura Wolfson, are perhaps the most dramatic part of a mesmerizing book. They reveal conduct unprecedented in the annals of Soviet political trials: the defendants' resistance, the puzzling reaction of the highly experienced presiding judge, who at one point appealed to the Politburo to reopen the investigation. Rubenstein speculates that the collapse both of the confessions (supposedly representing ''the highest form of justice''), and of the ''evidence,'' so painstakingly collected -- that is, manufactured -- over the years, may have disturbed the judge. Whatever the motive, his behavior was extraordinary.

As for the defendants, perhaps they still hoped against hope that their passionate insistence on innocence would somehow soften the heart of the dictator in the Kremlin. That they were so tragically wrong illustrates yet again the bestiality of a system to which they -- and so many others -- had given the best part of their lives.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company