What Is the Night of the Murdered Soviet Jewish Poets? Originally Published August 16-17, 2019.

Last Monday, August 12th, was the anniversary of the murder in 1952 of imprisoned Jewish poets.  They had been kept for two months for regular beatings and an intensive trial in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. 

It was only during the Save Soviet Jewry movement that information began to appear.  The New York Times in 1970 reported, saying the number of victims had been around 30.  In 1972, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry reported 24.  In 1994, the Soviet Union released the transcripts of the closed-door trials which showed that 13 Jews were murdered.  Among those executed were well-known Yiddish writers:  Dovid Bergelson, Perets Markish (who had been the only Soviet Yiddish writer to receive the Order of Lenin, in 1939), Dovid Hofshteyn (who had published Troyer, a collection of poems illustrated by Marc Chagall), and Itzik Fefer.

It is notable that the victims all reportedly were members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, formed by the Stalin government in 1941 to increase support for the war against the Nazis.  They were to accomplish that effort in part by raising money from North America and England to support the Soviet war effort.  (Remember, we were allies in WWII.)  The head of the Committee was Solomon Mikhoels, who was the director of the Moscow Yiddish State Theater, and under him the Committee, successful in its mission, pushed for, among other things, the creation of a Jewish state in Crimea.

After the War, and especially after the founding of Israel, the members of the Committee became potential nightmares for Stalin, who feared they might pledge allegiance to Israel rather than to Russia.  (Sounds frighteningly familiar, repeated throughout history.)  After a large number of Soviet Jews came out to rally for Golda Meir when she visited Moscow, the Committee was blamed for the embarrassment, so to speak, of the demonstration, and retribution was swift.  Mikhoels had already been executed in 1948.  Some 400 Jews involved with the Committee were arrested.  Fifteen were tried, many of the rest would die in labor camps.  Notably the labor union advocate Solomon Lozovskii publicly drew parallels with the Spanish Inquisition, and then others recanted their coerced confessions.  At that point it is believed all those then in the prison’s basement were then executed.  (Lina Stern was exiled, and Solomon Bregman had fallen ill, been taken from the prison, and died in January 1953.)

Their families were not told until 1955, and then they heard the writers, artists, and intellectuals had been killed “by enemies of the state.”  History can teach us many lessons.