First Published: Morning Freiheit, September 11 and September 25, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: The following is the text of the address Paul Novick delivered in the hall of the Hebrew Union College in New York City on August 11, 1983 at the memorial meeting to commemorate the 24 Soviet Yiddish writers and poets who were executed on August 12, 1952.
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We observe the date of August 12, 1952 in an especially grave period for the Jews in the Soviet Union, a period which possibly may be registered in history as one in which the Soviet government sought to put an end to the remnants of Soviet Jewish life. The present broadened and intensive old-new “anti-Zionist” campaign is an effort to diminish the national (or ethnic group) rights of the Jews in the Soviet Union, to hasten the process of enforced assimilation, to isolate the Soviet Jews not only spiritually but also physically from the Jews in the rest of the world, including from their relatives. This historically tragic development endows today’s commemoration with a new significance. Of course, the martyrs of August 12, are at the center of our concern. Those who bear this sorrow in their hearts but who, nevertheless, ask, “why open old wounds,” are in error. One who visits the graves of those who were close to him is not opening old wounds. Rather it means he remembers, he did not forget. When one’s thoughts turn to the martyrs of August 12, the painful question asked by the poet Leib Opeskin of Vilna arises: “Can one forget, may one forget?”
Forget Mikhoels, Bergelson, Markish, Feffer, Hofshtein, Kvitko, Zuskin, Solomon Lozovsky, Boris Shimelevich, forget all of our own who during World War II were the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow? Can we forget Leon Talmy who was the New York secretary of the ICOR (Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union), can we forget our own Morning Freiheit staff member Elyeh Wattenberg and his wife, Chaikeh Ostrovsky, who all left here in the 1930s to build a new life in the Soviet Union?
And, indeed, so much was built there then! When one speaks of the Yiddish culture, this ought not be forgotten. This underscores even more the scope of the tragedy that occurred, the great crime that was committed against the Jewish people and against socialism itself. Can one forget, may one forget the heights to which the Yiddish culture soared after the October Revolution, for almost twenty years? The poet Moishe Kulbak, the writer Ziskind Lev, the literary historians Max Erik and Meir Vilner hastened to the Soviet Union from abroad and there was much to hasten to at the time: There were Yiddish state institutions of various kinds, 16 Yiddish state theatres, Yiddish book publishing houses in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk which issued thousands of Yiddish books annually; there were Yiddish pedagogical institutes, Jewish Soviets, Yiddish courts, Jewish national areas and finally; the Jewish autonomous region, Birobidjan and all this thrilled the entire Jewish world.
On June 13, 1934 the Yiddish daily newspaper in Moscow, Emess (Truth) published a laudatory message to the then chairman of the Soviet government, Mikhail Kalinin, that was signed by 29 of the foremost American Yiddish writers and poets, (most of them non-Communists and even anti-Communists), including Shmuel Niger, Yankev Glatshtein, Dovid Pinski, A. Leieles, Dr. A. Mukdoni, Lazar Weiner and others.
Can we forget that our own Morris Winchevsky, the grandfather of the Yiddish socialist movement, was welcomed by units of the Red Army when he visited the Soviet Union? Can we forget the grand receptions that were accorded there to the American Yiddish poets Avrom Reisin and H. Leivick and the writers Yosif Opatoshu and Peretz Hirshbein? Opatoshu attended the first All-Union Conference of Yiddish Writers in Moscow in August 1934 and when one reads his letters to Shmuel Niger it is evident that Opatoshu was considering settling permanently in the Soviet Union. The poet Peretz Markish who had been living in Warsaw, Berlin and Paris returned to the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s and appealed to his colleague, Maylech Ravitch in Warsaw: “Come to us, it’s better here.” The same Peretz Markish in his very last poem years later, when he was expecting to be arrested, wrote: “Higher than the wings of birds / We climbed up the mountain sides...”
Peretz Markish bore his magnificent head with pride until the end. Indeed, they did fly higher than the wings of birds until an abyss opened before them, an abyss which was a betrayal of everything the October Revolution had brought the Jewish people and all the Soviet peoples, and a betrayal of Lenin, as well, who had so resolutely fought against anti-Semitism.
To ignore, to deny, to falsify– these are the blatant marks of betrayal today. When the Folks-Shtimmeh in Warsaw issued the now historic article of April 4, 1956 entitled, “Our Distress and Our Consolation,” which described the repression of the Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union and the fate of its builders, it was Leonid Ilychev of the Soviet Foreign Ministry who dared to assail the article and the newspaper. Ilychev said at the time that “if something would have happened” they, themselves, would have announced it! Imagine Ilychev saying, “if something would have happened”! On July 18, 1956 the then general-secretary of the American Communist Party, Eugene Dennis, had an article in the New York Daily Worker on Khruschev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes that included two rather mild lines: “Nothing can justify the snuffing out of the lives of more than a score of Jewish cultural figures.” Yet, the Pravda in Moscow which carried the translation of Dennis’s article knocked out these two lines!
Obviously, it didn’t want anyone to make public reference to the murder of the Yiddish writers.
This omission by Pravda persuaded certain persons here who at first were wrought up over the murders of the Yiddish writers to follow Pravda’s example, to dismiss the truth. So it is to the present day in those quarters: they keep silent about the murdered Yiddish writers, information about them is stifled, they trick others and seek to prevent commemoration meetings from being held.
The gruesome fact is that much more than a “score” of Yiddish cultural figures was involved. Almost all the Yiddish writers and cultural workers in the Soviet Union, hundreds of them, were jailed and sentenced to labor camps and many of them never returned or they returned utterly broken in health. Thus Der Nister died in a labor camp on June 4, 1950; two others who died in those camps were Yitzchok Nusinov and Sh. Persov, though they are mistakenly included among the victims of August 12, 1952.
August 12, 1952 signifies, perhaps, the most terrible act of a prolonged period in which Yiddish writers and cultural workers were eliminated. In the early 1930s Alexander Chemerinski, the secretary of the Jewish Section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Yevsektzia), and some of his associates were executed. Whatever criticism there may be of the Yevsektzia, is murder a proper verdict in a socialist society? In 1936-37 there disappeared the gentle Shimen Dimanshtein, a personal friend of Lenin’s and the Commissar of Jewish Affairs in Lenin’s cabinet; a number of the leaders of the Geserd society which organized agricultural settlements for Jews, disappeared, including Mikhail Rashkes who came to the United States in the 1920s as a Geserd representative. In camps and prisons there disappeared Moisheh Litvakov, the editor of Emes in Moscow and several of his co-workers. Former leaders of the Bund who went over to the Communists after the October Revolution such as Esther Frumkina and Yerachmiel Vainshtein were killed. Bundists who were killed included Anna Rosenthal, Mark Lieber, Henriki Erlich, Victor Alter. The splendid literary group in Minsk disappeared – Kulbak, Erik, Dunietz, Kharik, etc. In Birobidjan the chairman of the Region, Prof. Yosif Liberberg and his associates perished. Another of the victims was the first labor editor of the Morning Freiheit, Noah London, who had been an engineer in the New York subway system and went to the Soviet Union to help build the Moscow subway.
It is true that this terrible wave of arrests and executions was part of a much larger, more gruesome picture which began with Stalin’s plot to kill his opponent Kirov in 1934 along with Kirov’s supporters who wanted him to replace Stalin. This was followed by the trials of Lenin’s coworkers, of Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev and so many others. These purges claimed the marshals of the Red Army, generals and officers who in the tens of thousands were executed. A few years later when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union it was seen that these purges weakened the army and resulted in the loss of millions of lives of Red Armymen and civilians, including more than two million Jews who were trapped behind German lines when the nazis approached Moscow and Leningrad, reached the Volga River and crossed into the Caucasus.
If the destruction in the 1930s was of a more general kind, it is perhaps possible to record the events associated with August 12, 1952 as a specifically Jewish disaster. This came after the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and its weekly paper, Einikeit (Unity) were closed down. Also, the publishing house Emes was closed down with its entire treasure of books and manuscripts, including the Black Book which detailed the nazi atrocities against the Soviet Jews that had been compiled by Ilya Ehrenburg and another Soviet Jewish writer, Vassily Grossman. This was the period in which even Yiddish metal type was melted down! After 1949 it became dangerous to keep a Yiddish book in one’s home. There was to be no more Yiddish literature, no more Yiddish culture, no more Yiddish word and no more Jewish people.
All of this links up to what we now have before us–the establishment of an All-Union Anti-Zionist Committee on April 1, 1983 and we may assume there is a direct line extending from August 12, 1952 to this new Committee.
Anti-Zionism serving as a mask for anti-Semitism has a history in the Soviet Union of many years, at least since 1970 when the Moscow paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, began to print Yevseyev’s book, Fascism Under a Blue Sky (meaning Israel). Since then scores of anti-Semitic books have been published, along with a barrage of articles in newspapers and magazines. Besides Yevseyev there is now an entire stable of these anti-Zionist but actually anti-Semitic writers. These include Bolshakov, Yemelyanov, Ivanov, Skurlatov, Kolesnikov, Solodar, Begun, Korneyev, Dmitri Zhukov, Modzhorian and others. These persons are conducting a broad anti-Semitic propaganda in Russian and in foreign languages for the entire world. What a desecration this is of socialism and of Lenin himself.
However, in addition to “anti-Zionism” this new Committee poses several new dangers for the Jews in the Soviet Union.
First, a comment on Gen. Dragunsky, the chairman of this new Anti-Zionist Committee. I have the entire list of the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee that was formed in Moscow in 1942 to mobilize the Jews in the war against the nazi invasion. This list includes the active and the formal members among whom were great Soviet Jewish artists, scientists, and military officers headed by the most important Jewish Red Army officer. Army General Yakov Kreizer. Dragunsky’s name is not on this list and he had nothing to do with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. His name surfaced at the time of the arrest of the group of Jewish doctors in January 1953 when Stalin had a plan drawn up to expel the Jews from the large Soviet cities and send them to the northern areas of the country. However, Stalin’s end which came, or was made to come, in time nullified this horrible plan.
When I visited Ilya Ehrenburg in his home in Moscow in 1959 he told me that after the group of Jewish doctors was arrested he was approached for his signature to a statement that endorsed this devilish deportation plan. It was Stalin’s intention to have this deportation plan for the Soviet Jews appear to have been made at the request of prominent Soviet Jews in the form of a petition to the Soviet government. Ehrenburg related that he wriggled out of signing this “request” by explaining that the proposed deportation of the Soviet Jews from the Soviet cities would create a devastating impression abroad and he would no longer be able to attend peace conferences or other mission: abroad that were assigned to him. However, Ehrenburg told me that Dragunsky’s signature was already on that petition! Let Dragunsky deny this if he will.
Nevertheless, our concern is not with Gen. Dragunsky personally. His ugly statements about “man-hating Zionism” and his equation, “Zionism-Fascism-Hitlerism,” expose both him and the character of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public of which he is the chairman and one of whose members is Yuri Kolesnikov, the author of a blatantly anti-Semitic novel.
Indicative of this situation is an article, “Bearers of Culture with a Master Key,” by B. Kravtsov that appeared in the Leningradskaya Pravda–everything is Pravda there, nothing but the whole truth!–of April 19 and 20, 1983. This article was published soon after the Anti-Zionist Committee’s Appeal in the Moscow Pravda of April 1, 1983 to everyone in the Soviet Union, to the workers, kolkhoz farmers, scientists, writers, musicians, etc., that they should all mobilize themselves against the shock brigade of international imperialism, against Zionism! In this article B. Kravtsov comments on the slaughter of the Palestinians in Sept. 1982 in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut but he takes care not to mention that the actual murderers were the right-wing Christian Phalangists.
“Mankind has found out much too well lately what kind of (Israeli) ’civilization’ this is. It means thousands and tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians killed and the still warm blood of Beirut where Israeli soldiers who received a ’cultured’ Zionist upbringing disemboweled pregnant women with their bayonets and killed children and old men and women with their knives...The Hitlerites acted in the same way when they exterminated the ’inferior’ Jewish race...”
“The Israelis disemboweled pregnant women with their bayonets.” No one in Beirut ever made such an accusation! Here you have the most repulsive, cannibal-like anti-Semitism that calls for the sharpest protest. Shame on a newspaper which prints such a pogrom incitement against the Jews! What sort of Authorities do they have there that permit this kind of thing and do not penalize anyone for this and similar anti-Semitic incitements?
Kravtsov also came forth with a theory about the Jewish people. There is no such people, Kravtsov announces! Soviet Jews have nothing to do with Jews in other countries! Why is there talk about a two thousand year old Jewish culture? What is this Jewish culture altogether? Soviet Jews have their own Jewish culture–in Birobidjan!
This is no more than a vile joke. These tricksters themselves know that everyone else knows they are deceiving others. How can Jewish culture be maintained in Birobidjan? This distant region in Siberia went through two purges: one in 1936-37 when Prof. Joseph Liberberg and his colleagues, the then leadership of Birobidjan, were arrested and executed and there was a second purge in 1948-49 in which the leadership was charged with treason and jailed. Since then Jews have been leaving Birobidjan. The Soviet census of 1979 revealed that in Birobidjan there were only 10,166 Jews and they constituted five percent of the entire population of Birobidjan. Five percent, as opposed to 95%! This is the kind of “Jewish Autonomous Region” that Birobidjan is today. Of the more than ten thousand Jewish people there only 2,268 indicated that Yiddish was their first or second language. Yet, this is supposed to be the center for the Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union.
The almost two million Jews, and perhaps more, in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Odessa, Gomel, Vitebsk, Vinitsa, Riga, Vilnius (Vilna), Kaunus (Kovno), etc., don’t count anymore. In these cities it is prohibited to teach Jewish children the Yiddish alphabet, to teach them Yiddish or Hebrew or to study Jewish history in any language.
There is no Jewish people! Yet we remember that in July 1943 at the Polo Grounds in New York fifty thousand Jews came to welcome the representatives of the Soviet Jews, Shloimeh Mikhoels and Itzik Feffer, and they, the fifty thousand, were visibly moved when they heard the lionlike voice of Mikhoels begin his address with the words “Brother Jews.”
In 1942, after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, one heard in radio broadcasts from Moscow the voices of Mikhoels, Markish, Bergelson and other prominent Soviet Jews declare, “Brother Jews of the entire world!”
The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow issued the Black Book of the nazi crimes against the Jewish people in nazi-occupied Soviet territory. This book was later offered as evidence at the trial of the nazi leaders in Nuremberg after the war and this presentation was made together with the Va’ad Leumi in Jerusalem, the World Jewish Congress and the Yiddish Writers and Artists Committee in New York whose chairman was Dr. Chaim Zhitlowsky and whose honorary chairman was Prof. Albert Einstein.
Yes, the term the Soviet Jewish representatives then used was, “Brother Jews!” There was then and there is now a Jewish people!
During the Second World War Itzik Feffer, who was later one of the martyrs of August 12, 1952, sent to the Morning Freiheit from Kuybyshev in March 1943 his now famous poem, “I Am a Jew!” This was and remained a response to the persecutors of the Jewish people. Feffer wrote of the wine of generations’ long endurance that strengthened him in his wandering path as a Jew. He recalled the troubles caused by Titus and Haman, the example of Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva, the wisdom of Isaiah’s words, the heroism of the Macabees, King Solomon’s “wondrous mind” and Heinrich Heine’s “twisted smile.” He wrote of Spinoza and Mendeleh, of the echo of the harbor in Haifa and of the Yiddish song in New York. Itzik Feffer traversed the entire length of the path of the Jewish people and in defiance of its enemies he repeated the words, “I am a Jew!”
His outcry is still in our hearts along with the outcries of all the other victims of August 12, 1952 and of all, all, the other massacres wherever they occurred. In defiance of the enemies we continue to honor their behest for the continued life of the generations’ old Jewish people and its Yiddish literature and culture for which the victims of August 12 perished. Their sacred behest lives and shall never cease to live in our hearts.
(Translated by S.R.)