volume 211, Number 14 | Monday, April 08, 2002   


Unknown History, Unheroic Martyrs
Telling the story of some of Stalin’s Jewish victims
By : Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

You can see them at community events and Holocaust commemorations in some of America’s larger urban centers.

The faces are unmistakably Russian. And the medals that some of these aging veterans wear on their chests speak proudly of their service in the World War II-era Red Army against Nazi Germany.

They are the generation of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived in the United States after a lifetime of love-hate experiences with an evil empire.

For most American Jews, Jews from the former Soviet Union remain an abstraction. They are the heroic refuseniks for whom we marched and demonstrated a generation ago. For a younger generation, they are the “New Americans” whose success stories or hard-luck immigrant tales are the stuff of philanthropic fundraisers.

But the reality of the complex lives of the Jews of the Soviet Union remains as much a closed book for most American Jews as that of the immigrants of the Spanish dispersion 500 years ago. We know of them, but we have no idea who they really are.

Some of their history is told in the stories the immigrants can tell us of their long struggle to survive amid famines, wars, the Holocaust and state anti-Semitism.

‘Night of the murdered poets’
But other stories were buried deep in the archives of the Soviet Union. And it is out of those newly opened storehouses of records that comes to us the story of one of the most tragic, yet typical instances of life for the Soviet Jews.

The process of translating the mountain of records now available to scholars has been difficult. But the Yale University Press has persisted, and has issued a number of invaluable volumes.

Their latest effort, recently published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, bears interest for those seeking to unlock some of the mysteries of Jewish existence in the mad world of communism.

Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee tells the little-known story behind what is usually referred to as “the night of the murdered poets” in 1952, when 15 prominent Soviet Jews, including a number of prominent Yiddish writers, were executed on false charges of treason and espionage. The book contains the transcript of the secret trial, along with an informative introduction by author Joshua Rubenstein.

Rubenstein, the author of Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg, who was a contemporary of the condemned Jews, has taken it as his scholarly mission to unravel what he has admitted is the “complicated history” of a group of Jews who were deeply involved in Stalin’s regime.

The focus of this particular purge were those involved in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a propaganda vehicle founded by the Stalinist regime during World War II to promote the image of Soviet Russia and engender American support for its war effort.

To that aim, a committee of reliable Soviet Jews were drafted to present the best possible face of Stalin’s murderous regime at a time when it was an American ally and a victim of Nazi aggression. Those involved included men such as Solomon Lozovsky, a veteran Bolshevik who had served Stalin faithfully for decades, and Yiddish poets Itsik Fefer and Peretz Markish.

The committee faithfully did its job during the war, the highlight of which was a successful tour of the United States by committee members that did much to both rouse American sympathy for Russia as well as whitewash the plight of Jews in Stalinist Russia.

But though they loyally followed the orders throughout their service on the committee, they also began to take seriously the task of representing Jewish suffering to the world. Although careful to follow the party line, the committee began to devote itself to telling the story of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. And their Yiddish publications and programs gave a much-needed boost to the last remnants of Jewish culture that had not yet been stamped out by the regime.

Predictably, following the end of the war and its usefulness to the leader and his party, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee became the subject of suspicion. Stalin’s visceral anti-Semitism and paranoia were fed by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent wild enthusiasm with which its new ambassador to the Soviet Union, Golda Meir, was greeted by Moscow’s Jews.

At that point, he pulled the trap on members of the committee. They were arrested, imprisoned, even tortured. As was typical of previous mass purges under Stalin, the victims were coerced into making wild confessions, in which they admitted to bizarre charges of spying for foreign powers and working to destroy the government.

A show trial — at which these Jewish traitors and “secret Zionists” could be exhibited for the purpose of intimidating the rest of the Jewish population — was planned. But almost all the defendants in this case recovered their courage and repudiated the lies that had been wrung out of them by Stalin’s torturers. In the end, they could not be “relied upon” to play their parts, and their trial was kept secret. Reading the transcript of the trial gives us an idea of the Kafkaesque trap in which these people had been put.

In one instance, the victims were accused of passing information to prominent left-wing American Jewish journalist B.Z. Goldberg. They protested that he had been okayed by the Kremlin and was not an American spy. The records reveal that when their judge inquired about this, he was told that, in fact, Goldberg was a Soviet spy, not an American agent, but that he should forget about it.

Uncomfortable questions
The book does much to elicit sympathy for these doomed Jews, as well as our indignation at both the anti-Semitic Stalinist state and its disgusting fellow travelers and supporters abroad. But behind that there is another uncomfortable question lurking. That is, where were these people — some of whom were prestigious and even powerful individuals in the Soviet state — when millions of other Russians, Jews and non-Jews alike were similarly tortured and murdered by Stalin?

The answer is plain. They were either on the side of the killers or quaking in their boots, afraid to do or say anything. It would be easier to think well of them if they really were “guilty” of Zionism, but the truth is that most were just scared, while others were eaten alive by the false god they had themselves worshipped.

Author Rubenstein is, perhaps, a bit too sympathetic to these “Soviet patriots” as he was previously with Ehrenburg, a famous Soviet Jewish journalist who, despite much good work in promoting the memory of the Holocaust, was himself a loyal Stalinist.

But however much we might want to judge them for their previous silence, we cannot do so with an easy conscience. In this police state, no one was safe; all feared for their lives. Whether one had bought into the lying promises of communism — as some Jews did in the first half of the 20th century — or were merely trying to survive, in Stalin’s Russia there was no escape and there were no easy choices. Everyone, the guilty along with the innocent, were co-opted into the crimes of the state.

As Rubenstein says of these defendants: “Their lives darkly embodied the tragedy of Soviet Jewry.” Unlike a later generation that found the courage to stand up to the Soviet state, they had meekly served the leviathan. Though they are not heroes, almost in spite of themselves, Rubenstein is right to say they died as “Jewish martyrs,” persecuted for promoting Jewish identity. And it is on that basis we should remember them.

Their deaths may seem remote to us, but they inform us of the awful dilemmas that Soviet Jews faced. At a time when modern tyrants — including the one-time Soviet ally Yasser Arafat — still pose a grave threat to the future of the Jewish people, this is a story worth remembering.

Jonathan S. Tobin can be reached via e-mail at: jtobin@jewishexponent. com.

You may contact Jonathan S. Tobin via Email: jtobin@jewishexponent.com

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