Communism & Socialism

Soviet Yiddish Writers: From Revolution to Repression

For many Jews of an earlier generation, 12th August 1952 marked a decisive break with the Communist Party, when thirteen leading members of the Soviet Union’s Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) were murdered by Stalin. Their number included the cream of Soviet Yiddish writers including the novelist David Bergelson, the poets David Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko, Peretz Markish and Itzik Feffer.

Itsik Fefer and Solomon Mikhoels, members of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, meeting Paul Robeson in 1943

These deaths followed the earlier state murder of the poet Izi Kharik and the death in prison of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh (“Der Nister”). Shloyme Mikhoels, the artistic director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre was also killed, though the murder was disguised as a traffic accident. Mikhoels had been the leading light in the JAFC. Many of the thirteen were well known internationally.

The JAFC had been set up during World War II, one of five committees – the others being scientists, Slavs, youth and women – to promote the political aims of the Soviet Union. Mikhoels and Feffer toured America and other countries to propagandise and to raise money, meeting Jewish and other leaders. These official visits were to rebound against the JAFC later due to Stalin’s paranoia about those who had been in contact with people from the West. After the war the JAFC became a pole of attraction for Jews turning to the only officially recognised organisation of Jews which seemed to have power and contacts. The JAFC newspaper, Eynikeyt (Unity) was widely read.

The establishment of Israel, and its recognition by Stalin, gave people confidence to celebrate the new state publicly – with this too rebounding against JAFC members thought to be “bourgeois nationalists”. One member not arrested was that eternal survivor Ilya Ehrenburg, a controversial figure who would later write the novel, The Thaw, which provided the name for the post-Stalin era in Russia.

The JAFC was closed down in 1948. Most of those arrested were tortured to extract “confessions”, most of which were withdrawn at their staged trial to no avail. The closure of the JAFC drew to an end another period of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. For Yiddish, this was a severe blow – with the political and cultural leadership wiped out.

It had all started so well. The Revolution of 1917 lead to a flowering of Yiddish culture, publishing, libraries, schools and theatre. After Czarist repression, Jews were able to live in a country that appeared to respect their language and autonomy and which aimed to abolish anti-Semitism. But what became obvious was that the Communist Party needed to use Yiddish – the language of most Jews at the time – to propagandise and to move Jews away from religion and the old ways.

In the early years there was debate about the nature of Yiddish culture, with modernist experiments in literature, art and typography. For Yiddish writers there was the struggle to write creatively while under political pressure to conform. Within the tragedy that was played out on 12th August 1952 there were smaller tragedies, of writers who had struggled with their art. David Bergelson’s work had been published in the New York Forverts, the Warsaw Moment and the Moscow Shtrom. His Gezamlte verk (Collected Works) was published in Berlin. In 1934 he returned to Russia for good, by choice – choosing Communism, as so many Jews had done internationally in the wake of 1917. He was shot on his sixty-eighth birthday.

For me, the high points in Yiddish literature and film is where tradition meets modernity. In Markish’s “The Workers’ Club”, for example, the new Soviet regime wants to turn an old synagogue into a cultural centre. In Der Nister’s “Grandfather and Grandson” a rabbi and his Communist grandson are both arrested by the Nazis and are taken to their fate together, with both finding, in extremis, a way of respecting each other’s views.

“In vald” (In the woods) – the cover of a children’s book by Leyb Kvitko, one of the writers killed on August 12th 1952

Given the period, the Holocaust loomed large, as members of the JAFC tried to find ways of commemorating the Jewish victims and Jewish resistance, In David Bergelson’s “The Sculptor” he wrote “One of the quiet middle-sized towns on the border between Podolia and Volin” – Berdichev in fact – the sculptor, a partisan, returns after the town was retaken from the Germans to find what was left and who had survived as others also gradually drift home. He eventually leaves with no exact address “but he had sculptures that could tell over again about his father, about his town, and about his people.” His “metal figures, marble busts and bas-reliefs… joined with… holy books to recite Kaddish in [the town’s] memory.”

To mark the 60th anniversary of the death of the writers and others from the JAFC, Five Leaves Publications is bringing out a collection of translations of some of the work of the JAFC writers, and other Soviet Yiddish writers who Stalin had murdered. Most of the book was translated and edited by the late Joseph Sherman. We include a long essay by him on the JAFC and detailed biographies of the writers which comprises a good summary of Soviet Yiddish writing from the Revolution up to the arrests of 1948.

The closure of the JAFC was not the last anti-Semitic act of Stalin. There were direct family connections with some of those arrested in the “doctors’ plot” though fortunately Stalin died, bringing the release of those arrested. Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ended the worst excesses of the Stalin era though it was not until 1989 that the JAFC members were “rehabilitated”.

From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing 1917-1952 (Five Leaves Publications, £9.99)

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