Fifty years after their execution on trumped-up treason charges, 13 Soviet Jews, including several prominent writers, are being honored on two continents.
“The Night of the Murdered Poets,” as the events of Aug. 12, 1952, are known, was part of a wave of postwar anti- Semitic repression orchestrated by Stalin.
Events this week in Moscow and Washington commemorated the 50th anniversary of the tragic day.
In Moscow on Monday, hundreds gathered at the Donskoi cemetery to pay homage to the slain Jews. In Washington, NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia presented the Russian ambassador to the United States with a commemorative booklet of readings that was first printed 30 years ago.
“As we build a foundation for a democratic Russia, we have to remember also the dark pages of our history,” Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov, told JTA at the Washington event.
The years following the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany were marked in the Soviet Union by growing nationalism and anti-Western campaigns, part of the emerging Cold War.
Stalin was increasingly suspicious about the loyalty of Soviet Jews, many of whom had relatives in the United States or felt sympathy toward the newborn State of Israel, which didn’t match Stalin’s dream for a Soviet stronghold in the Middle East.
Beginning in November 1948, Soviet authorities launched a campaign to liquidate what was left of Jewish culture.
The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a wartime organization, was dissolved. Its members were arrested, as were hundreds of Jewish authors, artists, actors and journalists.
Jewish books were removed from bookshops and libraries. Jewish theaters were closed. Jews were systematically dismissed from leading positions in many sectors of society, from government, the army, media, universities and the legal system.
The hunt culminated in the execution of the leadership of the Anti-Fascist Committee and the infamous Doctors’ Plot — when nine doctors, six of them Jews, were arrested in early 1953 on charges of plotting to murder Soviet leaders and of connections to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The doctors’ lives were spared after Stalin’s death in March of that year ended the anti-Semitic campaign.
Speakers at the Moscow ceremony emphasized the importance of having a memorial to the murdered poets — some of whom are believed to be buried in a common grave of victims of Stalin’s repressions, located in this cemetery.
Most also addressed the issue of anti-Semitism in contemporary Russia.
They also laid a wreath at the grave of Solomon Mikhoels, the chairman of the Anti-Fascist Committee, who was killed in a staged car accident on orders from Stalin in 1948.
At the beginning of perestroika, the “restructuring” of Soviet society launched by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid- 1980s, Jewish activists picked the tragedy of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee as an underlying theme of many cultural endeavors.
Newspaper articles, archival research, exhibitions devoted to the committee and its chairman, Mikhoels, were among the first signs of a reawakened Jewish consciousness in Russia.
In 1992, a black granite memorial plaque was unveiled at the Moscow building that once housed the committee’s offices. It was the first Jewish memorial erected in Moscow since World War II.
The opening ceremony for the sign — which marked the 40th anniversary of the tragedy — was one of the first outdoor Jewish events in Moscow in years, recalls Matvei Geizer, the author of several books about Mikhoels.
A small detail made the sign an even more powerful symbol: In addition to the Russian text commemorating the murdered members of the Anti-Fascist Committee, the plaque featured a menorah and the word “gedenk,” Yiddish for “remember,” something that many Jews never imagined seeing in a public place during the days of Soviet repression.
“Some predicted the plaque would not last even five days, and it would be quickly smeared,” Geizer said. “This hasn’t happened in 10 years.”
Geizer and others argue that the unveiling of the plaque was a turning point for the Jewish revival in Russia.
“People would come from all across Moscow to see the sign. Some said they couldn’t believe their eyes,” he recalled.
The hopes for a revival of Yiddish culture in Russia have not materialized, decades after the murder of the last generation of Soviet Jewish poets.
“Jewish culture in Russia did revive, but it took very different forms,” said Alla Gerber, a writer and president of the Holocaust Foundation. “The culture that was murdered by Stalin remains only in our memory.”
Another Jewish leader said it took him years to understand the tragedy of the murdered poets. Yosef Begun was 16 when the news broke of Solomon Mikhoels’ death.
“I remember my mother took it hard, but to me it seemed so distant and irrelevant,” the former Prisoner of Zion said.
Like most Soviet Jews, Begun was assimilated. Born and raised in Moscow, he spoke no Yiddish and felt no attachment to Yiddish culture.
His attitude did not change much after he became active in the underground Soviet Jewish movement in the 1970s, he told JTA.
“We were mostly focused on Israel, the Jewish classical tradition and the Hebrew language, rather than Yiddish and the fate of Soviet Jewish culture,” he said.
Begun, who now lives in Moscow and publishes Jewish books, said he only recently became interested in Stalin’s campaign against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
“The more I learn about it, the more I realize the enormity of this tragedy,” he said.
The upcoming issue of an almanac on Jewish history and culture that he publishes will be devoted to the fate of Stalin’s Jewish victims, Begun said.