By David Mazower
As Ross Bradshaw has explained elsewhere on this site, 12 August 1952 was a transformative moment in Soviet Jewish history. The murder that day in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison of thirteen Yiddish cultural activists was the final act in Stalin’s programme to wipe out an entire culture. Among their ranks: David Bergelson, brilliant novelist of disillusionment; Peretz Markish, a dazzling modernist poet; and Leyb Kvitko, one of the most popular Soviet children’s authors. Thereafter, Yiddish culture in the USSR limped on, neutered, timid, and for the most part slavishly conformist.
The keynote speaker at a recent memorial meeting in London marking the anniversary was the Yiddish scholar, Gennadi Estraikh. He provided the context to the events of August 1952: the creation of the Jewish Anti Fascist Committee during World War 2 as a tool of Soviet propaganda, and its gradual transformation after the war into a body that attempted to represent Jewish communal concerns.
The most prominent ambassadors of the Committee were two remarkable personalities: the renowned actor and literary scholar Solomon Mikhoels, and the often cravenly submissive poet Itzik Feffer. Their tour of 1943 caused a sensation in the Jewish world. Here at last was a chance for the many Jewish supporters of communism in the UK and USA to finally meet two revolutionary heroes in the flesh. They spoke to large crowds in the UK, and huge audiences across the United States, capitalising on a tide of goodwill towards the Soviet Union, now a key ally of the western powers.
Something of the heady atmosphere of those days is captured in a remarkable book. A slim large-format volume, it’s a tribute to Mikhoels and Feffer published in London in November 1944, one year after their visit. The full title reads: Greetings and Goodwill Messages from Anglo-Jewry to Soviet Jewry in commemoration of the visit to Great Britain of Prof. Solomon Mikhoels and Col. Itzik Feffer, November 1943.
On one level, it’s a memento of a vanished world of working-class Jewish life. There are messages of support from the London Jewish Bakers Union, the Whitechapel Yiddish newspaper The Jewish Times, the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers (East End branch) and no less than six branches of the Workers Circle, the British Jewish friendly society that provided basic benefits to immigrant workers in the days before the welfare state.
Many individuals send personal tributes of their own, including Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Montagu, Myra Hess, Lewis Namier and the Whitechapel novelist Simon Blumenfeld, then in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Chief Rabbi Hertz and over a dozen individual synagogues contribute letters of their own, as do some prominent Jewish manufacturers and businessmen (many of them later revealed to be members of the Communist Party).
The book seems to have been published with two main aims: to solicit donations to the Jewish Fund for Soviet Russia, and to place on record the admiration of the authors for the heroic efforts of the Soviet forces in the battle to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe.
But alongside these sentiments, many writers also voice another hope: that the post-war era will allow Europe’s shattered Jewish communities to reconnect, leading to greater cooperation and closer links between Jews in the west and their co-religionists in the Soviet Union.
Here, for example, is an extract from a letter sent by Mr Woolfson, representing the Highams Park and Chingford Synagogue:
On behalf of the Highams Park and Chingford Community I desire to express the pleasure we have derived from the recent visit of Prof Solomon Mikhoels and Col. Itsik Feffer. Their contact with the Jews of this country has had the effect of bringing us closer to our brethren in Soviet Russia; it has given us a fuller understanding of their problems; a strong cord of fraternal sympathy has been permanently established; and there has been an opportunity to exchange thoughts and views which make us realise more deeply than ever before that ‘All Israel are brethren’. A policy of world wide understanding is vitally necessary to the future of Israel. In this longed-for unity will lie our future strength.
Another writer, Lady Gertrude Spielman, offered Mikhoels and Feffer ‘my high appreciation of the courage you have shown in helping to uphold Jewish feeling in your country’.
By the early 1950s, in the dying years of the Stalin era, these were dangerous sentiments. Innocent expressions of Jewish solidarity could easily be twisted into evidence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and counter-revolutionary plotting. And any allusion to the hugely sensitive topic of the organised destruction of Jewish communal life under Stalin was more dangerous still.
Mikhoels, widely acknowledged to be one of Soviet Russia’s greatest actors, was murdered on Stalin’s orders in a faked car ‘accident’ in 1948. Feffer was among those shot on the night of 12 August 1952.
One of the principal charges against the thirteen victims was the ‘Crimea question’ – the accusation that in 1943 Mikhoels and Feffer had plotted to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea that ‘Zionist and American imperialists’ could use as a base from which to plan the destruction of the USSR.
It’s a sobering thought that these messages from obscure immigrant rabbis, small Jewish unions and British communist sympathisers served perhaps to contribute to the paranoia that led to the brutal murders of 12 August 1952.