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The Fall of the Soviet Jews

The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948–1967

by Benjamin Pinkus
Cambridge University Press, 612 pp., $59.50

Forty years ago, on May 9, 1945, the defeat of Nazi Germany was celebrated throughout the Soviet Union. On that day, the 2.5 million Jews of the Soviet Union were not without hope for a better future. More than a million Jews had been murdered by the notorious Nazi Einsatzgruppen killing squads on Soviet soil. Several hundred thousand more Jews had fallen in battle in the ranks of the Red Army. More than two hundred Jews had risen to the rank of general in the Red Army, a figure confirmed by Benjamin Pinkus in his comprehensive documentary study. From the earliest months of the war, Soviet Jews had been active behind German lines in the ranks of the partisans. A Red Army officer, Alexander Pechersky, had been among the leaders of the revolt of Jewish slave laborers in the Sobibor death camp.

As Professor Pinkus documents, Soviet Jews had also played a leading part during the war years in making Russia’s torment known in both Britain and the United States. In 1942 almost every leading Soviet Jewish writer and intellectual joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Among the members of the committee were three of the leading Yiddish poets, David Hofshteyn, Itsik Fefer, and Perets Markish. The committee’s chairman was the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, a winner of the Lenin Prize. Fefer and Mikhoels visited the United States and Britain in 1943, becoming international advocates of Allied unity in the fight against Nazi Germany and, as Professor Pinkus notes, raising $2 million for Soviet hospitals and children’s homes.

With so many demonstrations of patriotic zeal and suffering in Russia’s “Great Patriotic War,” Soviet Jews could expect after that euphoric May 9 to be allowed greater recognition of their specifically Jewish culture and aspirations, or at least sufficient recognition to match the designation “Jew” which was (and is) inscribed in the “nationality” section of the internal passport carried by Soviet citizens. Surely these “Soviet citizens of Jewish nationality,” as they are still officially described, would now be granted some of the rights enjoyed by the other Soviet nationalities.

Between 1945 and 1947, the three years preceding the opening of Professor Pinkus’s volume of documents, some of these hopes seemed briefly to be realized. Most monuments set up in Soviet cities to the victims of the Holocaust made it clear whenever those victims were Jews. Many accounts of Jewish heroism were published. In 1947, Soviet policy supported unequivocally the coming into being of the state of Israel. On May 14, 1947, Andrei Gromyko told the General Assembly of the United Nations:

During the last war, the Jewish people underwent exceptional sorrow and suffering. Without any exaggeration, this sorrow and suffering are indescribable. It is difficult to express them in dry statistics on the Jewish victims of the Fascist aggressors. The Jews in territories where the Hitlerites held sway were subjected to almost complete physical annihilation. The total number of members of the Jewish population who perished at the hands of the Nazi executioners is estimated at approximately six million. Only about a million and a half Jews in Western Europe survived the war.

But these figures, although they give an idea of the number of victims of the Fascist aggressors among the Jewish people, give no idea of the difficulties in which large numbers of Jewish people found themselves after the war.

Large numbers of the surviving Jews of Europe were deprived of their countries, their homes and their means of existence. Hundreds of thousands of Jews are wandering about in various countries of Europe in search of means of existence and in search of shelter. A large number of them are in camps for displaced persons and are still continuing to undergo great privations.

Gromyko went on to express the Soviet Union’s support of a Jewish state in part of Palestine. Five months later, a senior Soviet diplomat, Semen Tsarapkin, in reiterating the Soviet Union’s belief that the Jews of the world should have what he called “a state of their own,” told the General Assembly:

It was necessary to take into consideration all the sufferings and needs of the Jewish people whom none of the states of Western Europe had been able to help during their struggle against the Hitlerites and the allies of the Hitlerites for the defence of their rights and their existence.

The Jewish people were therefore striving to create a state of their own and it would be unjust to deny them that right. The problem was urgent and could not be avoided by plunging back into the darkness of the ages.

Every people—and that included the Jewish people—had full right to demand that their fate should not depend on the mercy or the good will of a particular state. The Members of the United Nations could help the Jewish people by acting in accordance with the principles of the Charter, which called for the guaranteeing to every people of their right to independence and selfdetermination.

These were emphatic words, offering Soviet support for the Zionist dream. Nor was this support limited to words. On November 14, 1947, the Soviet Union voted in the United Nations for Jewish statehood. Six months later, Stalin’s Russia recognized Ben-Gurion’s Israel at its moment of independence.

Inside the Soviet Union, this period of Israel’s birth saw many apparently hopeful signs. In Kiev, David Hofshteyn was elected a member of the “Jewish section” of the Writers Union of the Ukraine. In Moscow, the actor Binyamin Zuskin, famous for his performance of the Fool in King Lear in 1935, was appointed artistic director of the state Yiddish theater. In Vilnius, a Jewish museum, established in 1945, contained by 1948 some 3,500 books on the history of Jewish theater and Jewish social life. Departments of Yiddish literature functioned in the libraries of Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov, Lvov, Minsk, and Kherson. In Moscow, where the Yiddish writers bureau was presided over by the children’s writer Leyb Kvitko, plans were announced for the publication during 1949 of works by Sholom Aleichem and by Kvitko himself, and of a volume setting out what was described as “the creative path” of twenty-four Soviet Yiddish prose writers and poets.

Any hopes engendered by such developments were soon to prove illusions. Even while Moscow prepared to welcome the first diplomatic emissaries from the new Jewish state, all was going wrong for Jews inside the Soviet Union. On January 13, 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was murdered in Minsk, “apparently,” writes Professor Pinkus, “on the direct orders of Stalin.” Within a year, hundreds of writers and actors had been arrested, among them Hofshteyn, Markish, and Fefer, former luminaries of the Anti-Fascist Committee.

Worse was to come. On August 12, 1952, twenty-three Jewish writers and actors were executed, including Kvitko. Also among the Jews executed that day were Zuskin, Hofshteyn, Fefer, and Markish. Five months later on January 13, 1953, Pravda announced the arrest of fifteen “saboteur doctors” in what soon became known as the “doctors’ plot.” Most of the participants in this “terrorist group,” Pravda declared,

…were connected with the international Jewish bourgeois nationalist organisation, “Joint,” established by American intelligence for the alleged purpose of providing material aid to Jews in other countries. In actual fact this organisation, under the direction of American intelligence, conducts extensive espionage, terrorist and other subversive work in many countries, including the Soviet Union. The prisoner Vovsi told investigators that he had received orders “to wipe out the leading cadres of the USSR”—from the “Joint” organisation in the USA, via the Moscow doctor, Shimelovich, and the well-known Jewish bourgeois nationalist, Mikhoels.

When this article was published, Solomon Mikhoels had been dead for eight years, to the day. Boris Shimelovich had been an active member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Meir Vovsi, a cousin of Mikhoels, had held the rank of general in the Red Army medical corps. The Joint (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), a charitable organization, had never pursued an anti-Soviet policy.

The “black years” of Soviet Jewry had begun. In 1954, one year after Stalin’s death, what Professor Pinkus calls “a degree of balance” was introduced, at least in regard to Jewish religious worship, but this was followed within three years by another bout of repression, lasting from 1957, when the Jewish religion came under attack, to 1964. Hundreds of synagogues were closed. Distinguished rabbis were forced to stop their preaching. At the same time, “regime” Jews, as they are sometimes called, emerged as public and vociferous crities of Judaism and Zionism.

Professor Pinkus includes material from the ten-day “Seminar for Propagandists against Religion,” held in Moscow in May 1957, at which one of the fiercest denunciations of Judaism came from Mark Mitin, a Jewish member of the Academy of Sciences and a friend of Khrushchev. “The Jewish religion,” Mitin told the seminar, “distracts believing Jews from the struggle for a better life here on earth.” In Israel, the state and religion work together “to arouse enmity between toilers of different nationalities.” Almost no Jewish religious holiday in Israel passed, according to Mitin, “without clashes between Jews and Arab Muslims.”

Mark Mitin spoke with all the authority of a Jew who had reached the highest ranks of Soviet official life. From 1950 to 1962 he was a delegate to the Supreme Soviet. Other Jews, as Pinkus’s copious documentation confirms, were to reach similar heights throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In return, these Jews were all to make public criticisms of Judaism or Zionism. During the last decade, General David Dragunsky, a Soviet war hero and a Jew, headed the Anti-Zionist Committee set up in 1983 and, in a series of press conferences for Western journalists, spoke bitterly against Zionism. In the 1950s and 1960s, Dragunsky had been one of the delegates to the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian and Armenian republics. A table in Pinkus’s book lists twelve Jews who reached similar high positions. One of them, the Soviet war hero General Yakov Kreizer, was appointed in 1963 to be commandant of the higher officers courses of the Red Army.

For the mass of Soviet Jews, such personal achievements in no way paralleled their own worsening plight. Nineteen sixty-three was the third consecutive year in which Jews were executed for “economic crimes” variously described by the prosecutors as “speculation in footwear,” “embezzlement of curtain material,” and “speculation in fruit.” Another of Professor Pinkus’s statistical tables (there are twenty-eight) lists year by year and republic by republic the death sentences, ninety-one in all, imposed on Jews between 1961 and 1964. Not only did Jews account for 78 percent of all death sentences carried out, but most of these Jews were sentenced specifically “without right of appeal.”

These death sentences led to a letter of protest from Bertrand Russell to Khrushchev, made public on February 25, 1963. Russell’s letter was a landmark in Western protests on behalf of Soviet Jews, the beginning of twenty years of sustained Western concern, both Jewish and nonJewish. Its culmination came in 1983, when all one hundred United States senators signed a letter to Yuri Andropov, protesting the rearrest of a Moscow Hebrew teacher, Dr. Yosif Begun. A few months after this impressive protest, Begun was sentenced—at the age of fifty-one—to twelve years in a labor camp.

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