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Still Mourning the Murdered Mikhoels and 24 Yiddish Poets

A standing-room-only crowd of Yiddishists, socialists, students and even a black-coated rabbi pushed into Chanin Hall of the Workmen’s Circle here Monday evening to see a rare film of the giant of the Soviet Yiddish theater, Shloime (Solomon) Mikhoels.

The man adulated by Jew and non-Jew alike for his exceptional dramatic interpretations was murdered in Minsk in January 1948. His death is remembered every year in August in conjunction with memorial ceremonies for the 24 Yiddish poets murdered by Stalin four years later, on Aug. 12, 1952.

Mikhoels, at the head of the Soviet Jewish cultural vanguard, was the first of these prominent Yiddish cultural figures to be murdered in Stalin’s purges.

TRADITIONAL JEWISH BACKGROUND

Mikhoels was raised in a traditional Jewish family in Riga, Latvia. He studied law at the University of St. Petersburg. His announcement of desire to be an actor surprised everyone. He was short, not particularly handsome, and nothing in his background had prepared him for that life. In 1918, he entered the Petrograd Jewish Dramatic Studio, despite being told that at the age of 28 it was too late to study acting.

In 1919, Mikhoels went with the Studio to Moscow, where its name was changed to the GOSSET, an acronym for State Yiddish Theater. Mikhoels became its leading actor, and the GOSSET began to attract an unexpected following of non-Yiddish-speaking Jews as well as non-Jews. An estimated 600,000 people saw Mikhoels’ “King Lear.”

Ben Schechter, director of New York’s Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, said that a world authority on Shakespeare, who understood no Yiddish, was persuaded to observe Mikhoels in “Lear,” and was so taken by his dramatic powers that he returned several times to see him, proclaiming Mikhoels one of the greatest actors in any language.

The Soviet government accorded Mikhoels the title “People’s Artist,” and in 1931, on the theater’s 20th anniversary, he was awarded the Order of Lenin.

In 1942, the Soviet government founded the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to garner wartime support from Jews worldwide, fostering a false sense of security that the Soviets supported international Jewish unity. Mikhoels was named chairman of the committee. Stalin himself chose the Yiddish writers and artists to lead the committee. It was these people who were killed during what are known as the “Black Years,” 1948-53.

The committee, formed in ’42 and disbanded in ’48, became the focus of Jews in these turbulent years. With Nazi horrors reverberating around them, the Jewish writers attempted to demonstrate Jewish will to survive through use of Jewish historical and religious themes in their works. The committee published a journal, Eynikayt (Unity), which publicly pronounced Jewish unity worldwide, something unthinkable before the war.

Mikhoels addressed all Jews throughout the world as his “brothers.” Poet Peretz Markish–among those later murdered — wrote, “There are not two Jewish peoples. The Jewish nation is one. Everywhere, we are and shall remain one entity.”

The Soviet government even sent Mikhoels and poet Itzik Feffer — also killed in ’52 — to the United States in 1943 to collect money from American Jews for the war effort.

Morris Schappes, editor of Jewish Currents, recalled having a private meeting with Mikhoels in New York at that time, during which Mikhoels told him he looked forward to buying tanks for the Red Army with the money raised and inscribing on them in big letters “From the Jews of the U.S.” It is not known if tanks were bought with the more than three million dollars raised.

VICTIM OF ‘ANTI-COSMOPOLITANISM’ POLICY

After 1948, anti-Semitism reappeared in the guise of “anti-cosmopolitanism.” Mikhoels was the first prominent victim of this policy.

He was sent to Minsk by the Cultural Affairs Ministry as a member of the Stalin Prize Committee, purportedly to inspect theaters. Late at night, on Jan. 13, 1948, he was called from his hotel by an official. He was mowed down by a truck, and although his death was reported an accident, it is generally believed that the KGB killed him. The Soviet government made an extraordinary funeral for Mikhoels, attended by tens of thousands of Jews.

At Monday’s event, he was remembered by former students Emil Gorovets, Margarita Polonskaya, Rita Karin and Rosa Kurtz, who emotionally recalled his funeral.

The film, accompanied by slides and sketches, was presented by New York University Prof. Mel Gordon, who spoke about Mikhoels’ life and turbulent times. Included in the slides were shots of the scrim which artist Marc Chagall designed for the theater after consulting with Mikhoels.

Monday’s program inaugurated a week commemorating the murder in 1952 of the Yiddish poets. After a trial of 25 Jews, begun on July 11, 1952, whose charges and proceedings have not to this day been made public by the Soviet government, 24 were killed on the night of August 12 in the basement of Moscow’s Lubianka Prison.

The only reports of the trial came from a book by Esther Markish, widow of Peretz Markish, who in turn drew her accounts from Academician Lina Shtern, a biochemist who was part of the group tried in 1952 but found not guilty. Although Jewish, Shtern was not a part of the Yiddish movement.

To this day, the names of 12 of those poets killed remains a secret. The only names known are those of Markish, Feffer, David Hofshteyn, Dovid Bergelson, Eliahu Spivak, Doar Nestor, Solomon Lazovsky, Leyb Kvitko, Shmuel Persov, Yehezkel Dobroson, Itzik Nusinov and Binyamin Zuskin, an actor who was Mikhoels’ successor in the theater.

Jewish cultural leaders across the political spectrum have been asking Soviets for an accounting of what happened at that trial.

On Wednesday, the 35th anniversary of the poets’ murders, a memorial ceremony took place at the City Council Chambers at City Hall, sponsored by the United Yiddish Culture Committee of the Workmen’s Circle, Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish Labor Bund, Labor Zionist Alliance, Jewish Forward Association and the I.L. Peretz Yiddish Writers Union, in cooperation with the New York City Council leadership and the NCSJ. The groups called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to meet with them “when you come here to meet our President” in order to discuss the “padlocking of Jewish cultural institutions since the 1950s.”

In addition, the YIVO Institute for Yiddish Culture opened an exhibit, “Shattered Dreams,” featuring some of the poets’ books, letters and photographs, and an evening program was held at the Workmen’s Circle including the murdered writers’ poems, songs and writings.

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