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Stalin and the Jews

Nepravedniy Sud: Posledniy Stalinskiy Rasstrel (The Unjust Trial: Stalin’s Last Execution)

edited by V.P. Naumov
Moscow: Nauka Publishers

It has been just over half a century since the Holocaust. And we are told that many of those now in school in this country have only the vaguest notion of it. That sends one back to the realities, to the results of a lunatic criminality that still persists in different forms in our own day, back to the heart-rending eyewitness accounts, but even more to the large-scale works that examine, and as far as possible explain, how such horror could be enacted in Europe in the twentieth century. In particular we return to the three-volume 1985 edition of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961. But whatever can add further to our knowledge and understanding of the entire phenomenon is to be welcomed.

If the Holocaust is now inadequately remembered, this is naturally far more true of the Stalinist anti-Semitic purge which followed during the 1940s and early 1950s. Its results have been known with far less completeness. It was devious, gradual, camouflaged, and never reached its intended climax. Only a limited number of Jews were tortured and murdered for specifically Jewish offenses, though in Stalin’s last year the entire Jewish community was living in fear and under persecution.

A number of good general books have been written on this theme—beginning with Yehoshua A. Gilboa’s The Black Years of Soviet Jewry (1971). Arkady Vaksberg’s Stalin Against the Jews, published in the US in 1994, had much useful information. But Out of the Red Shadows (whose Russian title, In the Captivity of the Red Pharaoh, is rather more apt) is the first book available in English which presents a full documentation of the anti-Semitic activities between 1943 and 1953. Out of the Red Shadows is not as “readable” as Vaksberg’s book, which like most of his work was something of a breakthrough. But it tells the intricate story of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign, and presents the evidence for it at every step. It should be on the shelf of everyone concerned with these matters.1

Stalin’s first blow at Jewish victims was in the tradition of Bolshevik politics. During its early days in the Russian Empire the social-democratic movement included Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and autonomous Latvian and Polish organizations. But by far the best organized and largest of these groups was the Bund, the “General Union of Jewish Workers of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia.” (Its members were usually the best educated in Marxist theory as well.) The Bund’s relations with the other social democrat groups went through complex variations which are often misunderstood. In The Bones of Berdichev, their book on the dissident Russian novelist Vasily Grossman, John and Carol Garrard write, for example, that “Lenin drove the Bund out of the Bolshevik party in his single minded drive for total power.” But the Bund was never in the Bolshevik party.

After the Revolution, the Bund was not allowed to exist in Russia, but it continued as a social-democratic party in Poland and Lithuania. Among its leaders were Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter. Soon after the Red Army entered Poland, in 1939, they fell into Soviet hands. Interrogated on various charges over the next year or so—including that of hostility to the Nazi-Soviet Pact—they were sentenced to death in July and August 1941. This was soon commuted to ten years in labor camps.

They were released in September by Stalin’s government, which wanted them to form a World Jewish Committee under Soviet sponsorship to mobilize international Jewish opinion against the Nazis. Put in touch with leading Soviet Jews, they became active in planning international activities involving Jewish matters. However, they still considered themselves Polish citizens and they kept in contact with the Polish and British embassies, and with the old “anti-Soviet” Jewish Socialists abroad. On December 3, 1941, they were arrested once again.

The Garrards eccentrically account for the timing of the arrest as a matter of Stalin’s getting rid of them as soon as he could afford to. He could now do so, they argue, because he knew, through his agents, that Japan was about to attack the US, and because he was about to win the battle for Moscow, and so felt he no longer needed help from the Bundists. This argument is not convincing; and in any case Stalin could have waited a few days until those events actually occurred.

The rationale for such arrests is to be found elsewhere. Stalin was prepared to cooperate with former enemies, but these unrepentant heretics were another matter. In any case, he did not cease to make use of ideologically incorrect assistance when he wanted it. He arranged for a new Polish Army to be organized by General Anders, who previously had been under arrest in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison; he arranged a rapprochement with the Orthodox Church; and he created, early in 1942, a purely Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC).

Ehrlich and Alter were accused (in a statement issued by the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1943) of urging surrender to the Nazis. One might have thought that such crude charges would have provoked at least some revulsion in the West—at least a warning to Stalin against anything similar in future. But the only protest was organized by David Dubinsky, head of the International Garment Worker’s Union in New York, and himself formerly a Bundist; and Dubinsky issued his protest in the face of pressure from the White House and the State Department to remain silent and not to offend the USSR. This surely strengthened Stalin in his hopes that silence, diversion, and falsification would blunt any Western perception of Soviet brutality and terror. Ehrlich apparently committed suicide in prison in 1942, while Alter was shot in February 1943—details that became known only a few years ago.

The new Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was headed by the great actor and director Solomon Mikhoels, the Soviet Union’s leading Jewish cultural figure, whose Yiddish King Lear is said to have been the best performance of Lear ever given in any language. Itzik Fefer, a well-known writer, became executive secretary. Members represented every sphere of Soviet Jewry. Mikhoels and Fefer were sent to America in 1943, and found much enthusiastic support for the Soviet war effort, raising large contributions to it.

For several years the JAC operated fairly freely. Nor were there at this stage any overt signs of official anti-Semitism. Indeed anti-Semitism as such was never an official doctrine. Jews had been vulnerable throughout Soviet times because they were bourgeois, or religious, or Bundists, or Zionists. But overt persecution of Jews, as Jews, was forbidden.

The key word is “overt.” The third arrested member of the Ehrlich-Alter group, Lucjan Blit, who survived, told me that when he was arrested in 1939, after the Soviet attack on Poland, he was vilely treated, but never heard any anti-Semitic abuse. But after his second arrest in 1942 the interrogators vilified him as a Jew. This, he deduced, could only have been inspired from the top.

We now learn from Out of the Red Shadows that as early as August 1943 the Party’s Agitation and Propaganda Department (Agitprop) reported to the secretaries of the Central Committee that many institutions in the arts were full of “non-Russian people (mainly Jews)”; the Agitprop Department gave, for example, a series of lists of Jews working in the Bolshoi Theater and the State Conservatory as well as in the literary, musical, and theatrical sections of all the leading newspapers. The Moscow Directorate of Art Affairs made a survey of artistic agencies in order to set a quota for the Jews. This was a reversion to the numerus clausus policies of (for example) pre-war Russia and Hungary, where Jewish entry to universities was limited to a given percentage—something like affirmative action for gentiles.

Two main kinds of complaint now gradually merged—first, that in a given institution there were too many Jews; second, that they were collectively a hotbed of nationalism. The various motives for anti-Semitism within many Soviet institutions seem to have been mixed. Some denunciations of the Jews seem insane. Others are soaked in primitive xenophobia. Others seem to reflect the mean, denunciatory habits long prevalent in Soviet society. But we should not neglect the even more primitive motives of the old provincial looters during Czarist pogroms—to secure the pay, power, and positions of the victimized Jews.

One of the most revealing documents, in itself justifying the publication of the Kostyrchenko book, describes what happened in October 1950 to the Bolshoi’s planned production of Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson and Delilah. The Agitprop Department, in a long analysis, concluded that it might “play a negative role…as a stimulus for kindling Zionist sentiments among the Jewish portion of the population.” As a result the Fine Arts Committee canceled the project.


The great novelist Vasily Grossman, whose career and creative work are intricately linked with the persecution of Jews, writes that there were three levels of anti-Semitism: “the relatively harmless day-to-day type”; a “social” variety found in the press and television and such activities as boycotts of Jewish merchants; and third and worst, “State anti-Semitism,” common to “totalitarian countries where society as such no longer exists.”

Day-to-day anti-Semitism, as seen lately in some black quarters in New York, tends to emerge among poor or deprived people, some of whose members see, and envy, the more prosperous neighborhood shopkeepers of different origins—Jews, Koreans, and others. The situation was roughly analogous in some Russian localities.

As for state-sponsored anti-Semitism, Hitler said that without ideology violence cannot be relied on. Similarly, among the evidence against Isaac Babel (shot in January 1940) was an informer’s report which included his having said in 1938, “The Soviet system only survives thanks to ideology. Without it, all would have been over ten years ago. It was ideology that enabled them to carry out the sentences on Kamenev and Zinoviev….” Stalin’s anti-Semitism, developing later, was not, like Hitler’s, based on race theory. But neither was it simply the erratic unideological anti-Semitism of the sort that condemned Jews to live in the Pale of Settlement in Czarist times. For the last ten years of his life Stalin’s hostility to Jews was constant; and though not racist in principle it was, as Grossman said, conceived in ideological terms. Marx had, of course, pronounced his general disapproval of Jews on anticapitalist grounds, and Stalin seems to have absorbed this view early on.

Was Stalin right about the Jews being, or tending to be, unamenable to full-scale totalitarianism? The answer must surely be yes. Most Soviet Jews, even if in some cases hardly consciously, were aware of the existence of the outside world, in particular of the Western diaspora—often having direct family connections of a type seldom found among the other Soviet populations. They had at least a potential alternative loyalty.

Stalin’s own full responsibility not only for the anti-Semitic policies he pursued in the 1940s, but also for their detailed implementation, emerges clearly from Out of the Red Shadows. We still find in the West a lumpen-academic school of thought which plays down Stalin’s role in sponsoring terror (as with the de-Hitlerization of Nazism by some German professors); but the documents quoted by Kostyrchenko again and again show his direct intervention ordering specific murders, tortures, and executions.

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    There are, indeed, other important books not yet translated—such as the similar, though more personal, Obvinaetsya Krov, by Aleksandr Borshchagovski (Moscow, 1994), himself one of those attacked in the 1940s, which has as yet appeared in the West only in French, as L’holocauste inachevé: ou, Comment Staline tenta d’éliminer les juifs d’URSS (Paris: J.C. Lattès, 1995). The phenomenon of useful books on the Soviet theme appearing first, or only, in French is a strange one, and includes such examples as Vaksberg’s Hôtel Lux, on the Comintern, Karlo Stajner’s 700 Jours en Sibérie, and Vladimir Bukovski’s Jugement à Moscou.

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