<h3>Readers’ Responses to “What Happened to Soviet Jewish Culture?”
Jews, Marxism and the Worker's Movement

Readers’ Responses to “What Happened to Soviet Jewish Culture?”

First Published: Jewish Life, June 1956.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Two weeks after the Folks-Shtimme article, only one thing is clear to me: most of the thinking Jewish progressives with whom I have spoken are in a state of emotional shock. If they have recovered from the shock, have been left with a bitter emotional aftertaste and are in a state of consternation and confusion or both. The confusion arises mainly from an absence of facts and explanation from the Soviet Union. The shock is due to the crippling combination of naivete, priggery and unquestioning faith which many progressives have accumulated over the years in varying proportions.

(Since I make not the minutest claim to being a political analyst and have been prone to let the “experts” or “specialists” do my thinking for me on subjects concerning which I possessed no first-hand knowledge or which seemed discouragingly complex, I can speak from personal experience regarding the above-mentioned states of mind.)

I think it should be kept in view that even the most recent “crimes” and “distortions” which took place in the Soviet Union occurred at least a half-dozen years ago and not this morning. Intimations of something wrong in the Jewish cultural front in the Soviet Union could be found any day of the week in a dozen publications, including the daily newspapers with their “cold war” diet. All of us read the newspapers and many of us read other left-of-center publications.

Why, then, the shock–as though we had had no inkling of what was going on–until the “authoritative” word came? It can be ascribed either to unquestioning faith in the impossibility of injustice in the Soviet Union; or to naivete–a refusal to recognize that wherever there’s smoke there must be fire; or to priggery–that nobody else could possibly know something that we didn’t.

All of this resulted in a certain type of dishonesty which led to a glossing over of those things which marred our pretty, schematic picture; to an over-emphasis of the positive and a neglect of the negative. Altogether, a distorted, mechanical, lifeless, unreal picture.

One example: JEWISH LIFE repeatedly listing the Jewish recipients of prize-winners in the Soviet Union as proof that there was no anti-Semitism. This is like saying that since Joe Louis and Marian Anderson rose to heights of recognition in the U.S., this is proof that anti-Negro prejudices have been eradicated.

Another example: JEWISH LIFE omitting reference to the anti-Semitic propaganda being spread in the U.S. and other places from Arab sources (including the Syrian ambassador) on the theory, I suppose, that this is only a secondary manifestation, because the Arab states are following a generally anti-imperialist course. When I related this (about the anti-Semitic propaganda) to a group of otherwise well-informed people–many of whom are regular JEWISH LIFE readers– they were “surprised.” Surprised by this, shocked by that, when everybody else is aware of it!

I do not know who or what is to blame for this state of affairs, or how or where it started. I feel just as guilty for having accepted this stuff as are those who dished it out. Just as I think that those in the Soviet Union who knowingly stood by while all the crimes were being committed are–to what extent, I don’t know–also guilty of participating in a crime. Nor will we ever know who or what is to blame –even if we all live to be a hundred-and-twenty!–unless all the facts and all the answers are forthcoming.

That is why I think our first responsibility is to keep on asking questions and demanding answers. I will also hazard a prediction: if the present ideological leaders of the “Jewish left” in the U.S. do not conduct a real campaign to get the answers to these questions, or if they come forward with a stock of glib, ready-made answers which are not answers, but justifications–then they will soon have no one to lead. As it is, there is already a vacuum which, in the absence of understanding, is being filled by a painful cynicism. And this cynicism can be combatted only by a continuing discussion and by clear evidence that these leaders are really trying to understand what happened, and not merely searching for the “right way” to handle the whole business.

Let me therefore ask a few questions which have arisen in my mind in the last months, both before and after the disclosures.

1) Is–or was–there a Russian-language Jewish culture in the Soviet Union? If yes, what did it accomplish? If not, what were the conditions in the Soviet Union which explain its nonappearance in that country as contrasted to the appearance of an English-Jewish culture in the U.S.? What sort of “Jewish continuity” was there among the non-Yiddish-speaking sons and daughters of Soviet Jews? Did they ever discuss the desirability of this continuity and how did they distinguish this from “nationalism”?

2) To what extent was the fight against Zionism used as an anti-Semitic weapon in the Soviet Union? Were errors made by the leaders of the Soviet Jewish community themselves in their fight against Zionism? Cosmopolitanism? (What the hell is cosmopolitanism? Why is it such a foreign, sounding concept to an American?) Why was it necessary to outlaw the use or teaching of Hebrew in the struggle against Zionism? What effect did the arrest of “many, many” Jewish leaders have on the thinking of the ordinary Soviet Jew? What did they– the ordinary Jews–say or do about it? What are they saying–and doing –now? What was the position of the Yiddish publicists in Poland on the accusations against the Jewish doctors before their innocence was announced?

3) In the light of present disclosures, what are we to make of the following: “Yugoslav Vice-President Milovan Djilas, interviewed by a correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor a few weeks before Stalin’s death, went so far as to assert that the present Hungarian administration was ’the most anti-Semitic of all satellite governments.’ Hungary’s leaders he said, knew the Kremlin disliked having that country’s government in the hands of Jews. Hence, they believed they had to indulge in anti-Semitic acts in order to prove to the Kremlin that they had freed themselves from ’cosmopolitan-Jewish’ mentality.” (Congress Weekly, July 20, 1953.)

If there was any truth in Djilas charges, what do these men now have to say about it? And if Djilas was inventing all this out of animosity, what kind of irresponsible baiting is this from a man whom we are now asked to regard as a “friend”?

4) In 1950 a large number of Jewish leaders were jailed in Rumania in an anti-Zionist campaign. (Today’s news says that they have now all been released.) What specific laws did they violate? Did we here in America know what these laws were? Would we approve of such laws in the U.S.? If not, why should we condone them anywhere else?

5) What were the laws under which the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were executed? I know that this is now admitted to have been a frame-up. But what were they accused of? What judicial institutions should have prevented their illegal executions? Will the Soviet government allow inspection of the official documents which sent them to their deaths? In this connection I would ask those who point to the present disclosures as evidence that socialism is a self-correcting system: would it not be more to the point here to talk about the judicial system of the Soviet Union rather than socialism? What is self-correcting about a system that needs to wait until one man dies before it can begin its self-correction?

6) The theory of Zionism may be a reactionary one, but the State of Israel is now a sovereign country. Isn’t the right to emigrate–to give up your citizenship in one country and settle in another–an inalienable human right? Why should a socialist country deny this right to people who want to leave that country and go elsewhere?

My long list of “categories” reminds me of a Yiddish saying–“Oif itlekhn terets ken men gefinen a naie kashe”–for every answer you can find a new question.

So let this be enough for a start.

MAX ROSENFELD Philadelphia, April 23

* * *


Before Hitler, I considered myself an American who simply happened to be of Jewish origin and was rather contemptuous of the physical and other fears of the European generation, whose members, because of their bitter history, felt comfortable only in the presence of other Jews.

Hitler made me a Jew in the sense best expressed by Ehrenburg, who said that we are Jews not because of the blood that is in us, but because of that which has flowed out of us. This is clearly why the present generation of Jewish youth and young parents are so much more concerned with Jewish matters than was my generation. But because of my political views I felt until now that there was an absolute line of demarcation between Jews in the USSR and those in the rest of the world.

Now, with the Folks-Shtimme revelations that two generations of Jewish political and cultural leaders were wiped out in the Soviet Union, I understand, for the first time, the Zionist sympathies of the mass of Jews: the belief that there can be safety from persecution as Jews only in a land of the Jews. I am sure that the USSR will eventually disprove that, but the Jews as a whole will not believe it until our generation is gone–we who saw a Communist government 35 years in power perpetrate the Doctors’ Case. I review my personal history in this regard because observation convinces me it is typical of the non-Yiddish speaking, “assimilated” Jew, except that non-progressives went through it much sooner than we who are friendly to the Soviet Union. If this is so a review of the Jewish question is necessary just as, to draw a parallel that I believe is most striking for progressives, a review of attitudes on the Negro question is under way because the Negroes have made clear their insistence, South and North, upon equality as Americans and not upon any classic solution of the national question in the European, Asian or Soviet sense.

I think the trend among Jews is in some respects, the opposite of that among Negroes. Time was when it was ridiculous to compare the position of the Jews to that of the Negroes, and represented a chauvinist disregard for the extent and depth of the oppression of the Negroes. But a generation of Jews that has seen a cultured land like Germany become a charnel house, and the leaders of the Jews, as Jews, in the Soviet Union, physically wiped out now knows that it can happen anywhere, and feels each blow abroad as on its own skin.

I can best describe this–and again I consciously choose a parallel most striking to American progressives–by saying that the execution of people like Dimanshtein, Merezhin, Litvikov and Levitan, is comparable to the killing, if it had occurred here, of Walter White, Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, and Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. The murder of Itsik Feffer, Bergelson, Markish, Kvitko and others is comparable to that of Dr. Du. Bois, Richard Wright, Shirley Graham and John Killens. Only if we on the left understand this, can we appreciate how deeply the Soviet revelations have separated us from the Jewish community, how long is the road back and how carefully we need examine it even before starting out.

In this situation I believe JEWISH LIFE has, for us who don’t read Yiddish, a function of clarification, discussion, information and guidance to play vastly more important than ever before, one for which there is no conceivable substitute.

WILLIAM MANDEL New York City, May 3

* * *


You appeal to me for a contribution to JEWISH LIFE. So I write to you.

Left wing leaders, whether they published a magazine or held office in a political party, have had rough going of late. It took courage to stand up to McCarthy while living on short rations.

But that was done out of their own convictions. For that we honor them as we do the simple trade unionist who sacrificed his job and his community status rather than sell himself to Mr. Ellender.

Were this trade unionist to pull a boner, however, he would most likely abide by the quaint custom we have in America of apologizing for it. He would even try to make amends for the damage done.

Yet when certain leaders make the most monstrous errors time after time for more than ten years, they publicly forgive each other and then “participate in searching discussions” (a la Harap in his letter).

Doesn’t elementary decency require the editors of JEWISH LIFE to stand up and say, “We failed you. What do you, our readers, think we should do now?” Perhaps they are afraid the answer will not be, “Let’s participate in searching discussions.”

If the editors knew what was going on and withheld that knowledge from us, then we were deceived. If they did not know, then they have masqueraded as interpreters of current events. I work hard for my living, too. Nevertheless, were I to dispense to my clients a comparable quality of service, I would have lost them long ago.

They are still aping the Russians. Yesterday it was the cult of the individual. Today it is silence or the belaboring of men who are dead.

No, I will not “help assure unbroken issuance of the magazine” as presently constituted. But I cannot deny my obligation. Mine was no trial subscription of a few months. A constant reader becomes a kind of stockholder with responsibilities. If there is need for funds to pay back salaries of the present editorial board so they can make way for their replacements; if money is required to pay the debts of the magazine so it can fold gracefully then I expect to pay my fair share of the burden.

Should either event occur, I will honor promptly the draft made upon me at that time.

B. KLEIN New York City, April 27