First Published: Morning Freiheit, August 24, 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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(Following is the text of an address delivered by Paul Novick at a meeting commemorating the August 12, 1952 execution of the martyred Soviet Yiddish writers. The meeting, held at the Penta Hotel in New York on August 7, 1986, was co-sponsored by Jewish Currents, Yidishe Kultur and the Morning Freiheit.)
“Can one forget, nay, dare one forget” is the theme of the threnody of the martyred poet of the Warsaw Ghetto, Leib Opeskin. There are dates which a people may not forget, which we may not forget. August 12, 1952 is such a date, a date which must be memorialized for reasons of intense urgency.
First and foremost, on this gruesome day there occurred the liquidation of those who were our dearest possessions, the jewels of the Soviet and world-wide Yiddish literature ... As one performs the traditional annual rite at the grave of a deceased dear one, so must we render this honor to the hallowed martyrs of August 12, 1952. And since there do not even exist graves marking their final resting places, it is incumbent upon us to resurrect their names. “Can one forget, nay dare one forget?”
We must, however, memorialize this gruesome date of August 12, 1952 because it highlights a dark period, or series of periods in the history of the Jewish people: 1937-1940 and 1948-1953, periods during which were conceived the abominable “Doctor’s Plot” and the expulsion of Soviet Jews to their doom in the frigid northlands, but for the fortuitious demise of Stalin which brought deliverance to the intended victims.
The martyred poet Leib Opeskin did not only lament, but he also consoled with the hope-laden theme that on the morrow “the sun shall rise once again.” Each year on this memorial occasion, as we give expression to our pain and sorrow, we also voice our yearning, our demand for the rehabilitation, renewal and justice, to ensure that the light of Yiddish literature and Yiddish culture in general, in fact, the very fate of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union, shall “shine once again.”
Basically, what matters here is that the Jewish community in the Soviet Union should not be amputated, should not be cut off from the body of the ancient Jewish people, which has for more than two thousand years been dispersed in dozens of enclaves throughout the world, united in sorrow and joy, through its cultural heritage, customs, religion and holidays, through pogroms, inquisitions, false accusations of “ritual murders”, expulsions, wanderings and revival.
The martyrdom of Shlomo Mikhoels, David Bergelson, Peretz Markish and others in 1948 through 1952 stands out in our memories, as we recall how, together with Ellya Ehrenburg, in August of 1941, they appeared on radio with the manifesto to their “fellow Jews the world over” to unite in the struggle against the Nazi murderers.
Following is an excerpt of their manifesto:
“In the course of the entire tragic history of our long-suffering people, from the days of the Roman Empire to the middle ages, it is impossible to find a single period when there has been such tragedy and horror as fascism has wrought upon all humanity, with particular cruelty to the Jewish people.”
The Jewish people everywhere responded to the call of Moscow! Who can forget that moment at the Polo Grounds in July of 1943, when Shlomo Mikhoels turned to the assembled 50,000 people, addressing them with his leonine voice: “Fellow Jews!”
The crowd was thrilled and inspired and they answered his call!) American Jewry from coast to coast responded, just as the Jews of England had responded earlier, when Mikhoels and Feffer had stopped on the way to the United States, and as the Jews of Eretz Yisroel had similarly responded!
There came about a unity among Jews in all countries where Jewish communities existed, in solidarity with the Jewish Anti-Fascist committee in Moscow, to combat the combined enemy and to assist the heroic Red Army!
This simultaneously tragic, yet inspiring period comes alive for us as we recall the martyrs of August 12, 1952. They died in the historic struggle that the Jewish people in the Soviet Union might survive as a people, as a limb of the body of historic Jewry everywhere, as full-fledged citizens of their land, with equal rights to those of the Russian, the Ukrainian and other Soviet nationalities.
What is most certainly basic here is the matter of revival of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press, children’s schools and the gamut of Yiddish culture and its creators, all of which was by administrative fiat and without basis in principle, destroyed by Stalin and his lackeys. More than 500 Jewish writers, artists, scientists and cultural activists were liquidated!
Nikita Khrushchev, in his historic address of February 1956, revealed Stalin’s egregious crimes against all Soviet peoples. There followed a struggle in the Soviet Union, as an initial step, to revive the “Yiddish word” which Stalin had silenced, effectively destroying with anti-Semitic brutality any Yiddish literary creativity.
The primary goal, therefore, in the post-Stalin period, entailed the struggle for the “Yiddish word” both in relation to the Soviet Union internally and in its external relations. The Soviet Jews packed Jewish concert halls in 1957 with three million attendants. And when, a year later, I attended an overcrowded concert in Leningrad with Nehama Lifshitz, the audience stood up and tearfully sang Sing Me A Yiddish Melody and It Should Not Be a Surprise.
The three million Jewish concert-goers served as a demonstrative and evocative proof to the Jewish delegation of the French Communist Party in 1958, as brilliantly described by Chaim Sloves in his book “A Mission to Moscow”, recently re-issued by YKUF Publishers. As a result, Maurice Thorez, general-secretary of the French Communist Party at the time, saw to it that the delegation make this visit, with a view toward reviving Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. Here in the United States, Eugene Dennis, the then secretary-general of the Communist Party, published an article in the July 18,1956 issue of the Daily Worker describing Stalin’s crimes, and he did not omit mention of the murders of the Yiddish writers. Although Pravda, in transcribing the article, omitted this portion, the remaining few lines nevertheless did have their effect.
Perhaps I shall yet have the opportunity to describe my mission at the end of 1958, soon after the visit of the French delegation, in which I bore a message from Eugene Dennis. It was a mission performed in the name of the Morning Freiheit and the entire progressive Jewish movement of this country. I should only mention what Ilya Ehrenburg told me at his home in October 1958, namely that the International Peace Committee, of which he was a prominent member, resolved that the 100th birthday of Sholem Aleichem should be commemorated, in conjunction with other international personalities.
The Sholom Aleichem celebration took place in March 1959 in the great “Hall of Columns” in Moscow, with the participation of Paul Robeson and at which I had the honor of being a member of the presidium. Anyone who was not present as Robeson sang Zog Nit Kaynmal Az Du Gayst L Letztn Veg, and repeated it at the request of the demonstrative audience, which was moved to tears has seldom, if ever, witnessed so poignant a moment. Nor could anyone have a more moving experience than to have witnessed the audience snatching up the first Yiddish publication, a collection of Sholem Aleichem’s works – the first sign of light to appear after ten years of darkness, a period during which the Yiddish word was considered to be heretical.
Chaim Sloves claims that the Sholem Aleichem book appeared as a result of Maurice Thorez’s firm demand. One may well believe this. However, although the suppressed Yiddish Word literally tore itself out of the Lubyanka dungeons, the official attitude was – just this one book and no more! At a meeting of what was then a large group of Jewish writers who were attending the Writers Congress, I heard demands for a Yiddish book, as well as a journal! At a meeting which was held in the editorial offices of the Literaturnaya Gazetta, at get-togethers with White Russian writers in Minsk, Ukrainians in Kiev and Odessa, Lithuanians in Vilna, Moldavians in Kishinev, I called attention to the demonstrations of Soviet Jews on behalf of the “Yiddish word” and their significance in relation to other countries.
At this time, the scope of this I question is of transcendent proportions. Chaim Sloves correctly notes toward the end of his book, in the last of a series of very important memoranda: “It goes beyond the question of the issuance of another book, or even ten books, or the organizing of a new series of concerts and art exhibits.”
It involves the revitalization of Yiddish culture in all its aspects! It entails the removal of the prohibition to teach Jewish children or adults Yiddish or Hebrew, wherever Soviet Jews reside – in Moscow, Leningrad, Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania, Latvia or Moldavia; the prohibition of the study of the history of the Jewish people in any language, and this would include the small number of Jews remaining in Birobidjan. It concerns, again and again, the national rights of Soviet Jews on an equal basis with Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet nationalities. It involves the cessation of the spreading of anti-Semitism in the guise of “anti-Zionism.” It involves the revival of the slogan of August 1941: “Fellow Jews of the entire world!”, the establishment of ties between the Soviet Jewish community and Jewish communities everywhere, as was the case during the war years! At this moment in history, it includes the unified strengthening of peace, the fight against nuclear war!
We have been receiving welcome reports about statements by Soviet writers. I read through the Literaturnaya Gazetta of July 2, which contained speeches, or excerpts thereof, given at the Congress of Soviet Writers, which was attended by Mikhail Gorbachev. Such poets as Yevgeny Yeytushenko and Andrei Voznesensky and others spoke of a new approach to democracy! An excerpt from the speech of Yekatarina Scheveleva contains a comment about the failure of the report to the conference to discuss Yiddish literature. Her exact words are not reported, but we well remember the day when Yiddish literature was represented at Congresses of Soviet writers of all nationalities by delegates of a Yiddish writer section of the Union of Soviet writers.
At the Writers’ Congress, the demand was raised that Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago be published and that he be rehabilitated. Also, that other “forbidden” works be accorded the same consideration. This was welcome news! But that brings up the question of publishing The Black Book of Ilya Ehrenburg and Vassily Grossman, with the participation of other Soviet writers who were attracted to the project, such as Margarita Aliger, Pavel Antokolsky, Vesevolod Ivanov, Vera Ingber, Lydia Sayfulina and others.
The Black Book, otherwise known as Tchornaya Kniga, describes the holocaust of the Soviet Jews. In the pogrom that was perpetrated against the Jewish publishing house Emes at the end of 1948, this book, already completed, was virtually destroyed by the Soviet authorities. Fortunately, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had earlier sent copies of the manuscript to several places, and a copy was found in the possession of Shlomo Tzirulnikov in Tel Aviv, who was the secretary of the Israel-Soviet Friendship Society. (Tzirulnikov, incidentally, is the current Israeli correspondent of the Morning Freiheit in Israel). The Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has published this historically important volume in its original form, both in Russian and in Yiddish. It also appeared in the United States in English. Would it not be appropriate that this heretofore forbidden Black Book should finally be issued in the Soviet Union as well?
When will the Jewish Holocaust be recognized in the Soviet Union? In Jewish communities the world over, the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto has become the symbol of Jewish resistance to Nazism. Why not in the Jewish communities of the Soviet Union as well? One recalls 1963, during the Khrushchev era, when Izvestia and other Soviet periodicals wrote about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (I have clips in my files). Why not now, when one hears talk of “openness, honesty” – surely laudable objectives?
Mikhail Gorbachev, general-secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, was confronted, while in Geneva last November and also on French television, with the subject of the Jewish question in the Soviet Union; similarly, when representatives of the French Communist newspaper L’Humanite interviewed him in Moscow last February 4. They too, raised the Jewish question and that of anti-Semitism. I cannot here delve into the details of the questions and answers. One thing, however, is clear: there does exist a Jewish Question in the Soviet Union which requires a basic solution!
True, it is all to the good that the Soviet Constitution contains a provision against anti-Semitism. However, such a provision existed during Stalin’s time, but this did not prevent him from doing as he pleased! Nor did this provision, during Brezhnev’s term, deter the Yevseyevs, Bolshakovs, Ivanovs, Skurlatovs, Korneyevs, Mcdzorians and others from writing anti-Semitic books and pamphlets – to the point of justifying the Czarist pogroms!–which, in turn, were printed by Soviet state-controlled publishers! Should not the writers and publishers be motivated to a higher level of truthfulness and responsibility?
The Jewish Question cannot be explained away by the higher proportion of Jewish professionals when compared with the percentage of Jews in the overall population of the country. There are historical reasons for this phenomenon: official edicts, expulsions from cities and other forms of persecution. In the United States, as well as in Canada and other western countries, there is also a higher proportion of Jewish professionals and academicians. However, this has not become the basis of discrimination on the part of the government. Jews are not excluded from ministerial, diplomatic or ambassadorial positions, nor was this the case previously in the Soviet Union! Jews in the western countries can come and go as they please, as provided by the UN resolution on human rights and the Helsinki agreement to which both the Soviet Union and the western countries were signators. It is well that the Soviet Union is permitting the Shcharansky family to emigrate, but Jewish emigration in general is virtually at a standstill. A mere 38 families emigrated during the month of June! Why should this question become a source of antagonism on the part of the Jewish populace, when constructive measures for friendships and peace could be instituted?
While the matter of emigration is of concern to us, it is however, clear that the majority of Jews will remain in the Soviet Union. The main area of concern, therefore, is that of forced assimilation, the estrangement of the Soviet Jewish community from the body of the Jewish people worldwide through such prohibitions as earlier indicated – the teaching of Yiddish and Hebrew to Jewish children, and Jewish history in any language, even in the so-called “Jewish Autonomous Region,” which sad to say, is but fiction, given the mere 10,166 Jews living there, according to the official census of 1979 – five percent of the total Birobidjan population! And of these, only 2,268 indicated Yiddish as their first or second language!
The bottom line leads us back to the manifesto of the August 1941 Moscow radio broadcast to our Jewish brothers the world over, which rang with historic truth – to help save the Soviet Union and the entire world! Was this but a war-connected maneuver, or worse, a trap for those who called for and received help, only to be brought to trial during July 11-18, 1952, and put to death on August 12, 1952, as stated in official Soviet documents, of which I have copies in my files, given to me by a family of one of those executed, most of whom I knew personally?
“Can one forget, nay dare on forget” cries the poet. Our hearts mourn at the thought of the unforgettable, unforgiveable misfortune! But we join the poet in mourning, not simply for the sake of mourning, but rather as a spur to struggle for the restoration of our people to life, for full national rights, for international peace and freedom. As David Bergelson hurled his challenge: “I shall not die, I shall live!” (Lo aumuss, ki echye).
The proud prince of Yiddish poetry, Peretz Markish, while waiting to be arrested, gave voice, with song in his heart to the following words parting:
“Let it pour in full measure!
Let all our aspirations be fulfilled!
That our people’s streams flow amply,
That nothing may be lost!”
We hear you, dear Peretz! We hear you, our hallowed martyrs! Nothing will be lost! The people shall live! “Am Yisroel Chai!” The Jewish people live!
(Translated by I. Malenky)