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.
Professor Pinkus ends his comprehensive and informative study in 1967, the year in which the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. Three years later, Jews outside the Soviet Union were shaken by the heavy sentences of the Leningrad “hijack” trials, and at the same time staggered to learn of the simultaneous upsurge in Jewish demands to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. This was also a period of American-Soviet détente. Suddenly exit visas were granted on so substantial a scale that, in less than a decade, more than 260,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to leave.
The nine years of unprecedented Jewish emigration are examined by nine authors in Robert O. Freedman’s book Soviet Jewry in the Decisive Decade, 1971–80. “The supposition that the Kremlin has viewed Soviet Jews as bargaining chips in political and trade negotiations with the United States,” writes one of the essayists, Jerome M. Gilison, “is supported by the close correlation of the emigration rate with the ups and downs of Soviet-American relations.” The highest emigration years were 1973 and 1979. The latter year saw the highest number of exit visas yet recorded, 51,320. But throughout this period, more than three thousand Jews were refused exit visas, thus becoming “refuseniks,” and were usually thrown out of their professions.
Reading Freedman’s book one sees how, even as emigration flourished, dozens of Jews were arrested, tried, and imprisoned for their activities, often purely cultural, in seeking to advance Jewish emigration. In 1978, on the eve of the year of maximum emigration, Anatoly Shcharansky, a refusenik since 1974, received a thirteen-year sentence (and, like Dr. Begun, is today in a labor camp in Perm). In 1980 Dr. Victor Brailovsky, one of the leaders of a cultural seminar for refuseniks, was sentenced to five years’ internal exile in remote Kazakhstan. Today, having completed his sentence and returned to Moscow, Brailovsky is still not allowed to leave the Soviet Union.
Mass emigration began to be cut back in 1980, at first gradually, then with a growing momentum whose dangers are clearly described by another of the essayists, Jerry Goodman. He believes current policy was fixed with Brailovsky’s arrest. “The situation had its desired impact,” he writes, “it silenced protestors. And if the message was not clear, within a few months other long-term refuseniks in Kiev, including Kim Fridman and Vladimir Kislik, also were arrested.” As if the existing tight emigration restrictions were “insufficient,” Goodman adds, “the assault against Jewish emigration activists in the Ukrainian capital has been escalated.”
Since Goodman wrote these words, Jewish emigration has been cut back to its lowest figure since the opening of the gates in 1970. During 1984 only 896 Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Among them was not a single long-term refusenik (of ten years or more) or any released prisoner. During 1984 alone, six Jews were sent to prison or labor camp for their part in demanding the right to emigrate. The geographic range of those sentenced was wide, including two Hebrew teachers from Moscow, one from Kiev, one from Odessa, an activist from Riga, and a woman from Leningrad. During the first months of 1985, there were two further trials and sentences, one in Estonia, a second in Odessa.
For Soviet Jews, part of the strength of their claim, and will, to emigrate has been that the legality of emigration is enshrined in international agreements. This makes the Helsinki accords of 1975 a central feature of their argument. Signed by the Soviet Union, as well as by the United States and Britain, these accords confirmed the earlier Declaration of Human Rights, issued in 1948, which guarantees “the right of every person to leave any country, including his own.” Since early last year, however, this right to leave has been only a part of the argument put forward by Soviet Jews. On February 7, 1984, a group of twenty Jews, mostly from Leningrad, issued a signed declaration to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, insisting upon another right, that of “repatriation.” This right, they argued, gave them as Jews a moral title to be repatriated to their Jewish homeland, Israel.
The declaration of February 7, 1984, is outspoken. The Soviet response to it defies Western logic. The first signature on the declaration was that of a young poet, Yury Kolker. Within a few months, Kolker, his wife and daughter had received their exit visas. Today they live in Jerusalem. Two more of the signers, Evgenia Utevskaya and her husband, received their exit visas within nine months of the declaration. All the other signers have been refused permission to leave. One of them, Michael Beizer, has been waiting for more than five years to join his eight-year-old son in Israel. Another signer, Zahar Zunshein, has begun a three-year labor-camp sentence.
By March 1985, more than two hundred Soviet Jews had signed the declaration of February 7, 1984. As the gates of emigration continued to close more and more tightly, this demand for “repatriation,” which in January 1984 seemed so novel, became, by the early months of 1985, a rope cast out across a chasm. The idea of “repatriation” had also been forcefully expressed in another document, prepared for the visit of the former president of Israel, Professor Ephraim Katzir, to Moscow, in June 1984. This document, known as the “Katzir letter,” also distanced the Soviet Jewish activists from Soviet dissidents. “Everything we do,” the Jewish activists explained, “stands in complete accordance with the norms of Soviet and international law and it does not have any anti-Soviet aims or intentions.”
In October 1984, with the resurgence of arrests and trials, an appendix to the Katzir letter, headed “A Voice from a Neck of the Woods,” was sent to the West. “We have every reason to assert,” its authors declared, “that the present assault upon the Jewish movement is aimed at its very existence.” For the first time “in a long while,” they pointed out, “the persecuted people are those who have proved to be nobody else but champions of Jewish culture, religion and language.” Their letter continues: “The planners of this campaign have seemingly got the idea that having arrested several refuseniks on provocative grounds they will force all other Jews to deny their striving for normal and universally acknowledged patterns of their national life.”
Much afraid of the immediate future, the authors of “A Voice from a Neck of the Woods” informed the Jews of Israel and the West that they have “every reason to suppose” that the events about which they are writing “are but a beginning of a large-scale attack” against them. “We anticipate the possibility of further actions designed to curb any cultural activity,” they warn, “especially such as teaching and studying Hebrew, professing our religion, historical and cultural studies, and education.” Their letter continues:
The provocative course of these actions taken by our authorities makes us believe that the principle of strict legality that has always been insisted upon by the Jewish movement can no longer provide a guarantee of personal safety for any of us.
Many Soviet Jews fear not only an intensified campaign against Jewishness and Jewish aspirations but also the continuing assimilation of a large percentage of Soviet Jews. “The young generation of our people here,” one Jewish activist wrote in a letter sent from Leningrad on November 22, 1984,
not only as a rule do not know anything of Jewish history, culture, traditions, but even do not suspect that such things exist. Their Jewishness gives them only “tsores” [troubles]—converts them into thirdrate citizens. We do our best to give them the elements, but the results are hardly visible.
This letter was written two days after the sentencing of a young Hebrew teacher in Odessa, Yakov Levin, to three years in a labor camp. Activists saw this and the other sentences of late 1984 (and, now, of early 1985) as intended to weaken still further the links between them, the thousand and more people who are most openly concerned to preserve Jewish identity, and the rest of the two million Soviet Jews.
“If the process of forced assimilation continues with the same speed,” writes the author of the letter of November 22, 1984, “a new version of the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish problem will come true here in some ten years, and if they let us—the activists—go, the process will even hasten.” Nevertheless, he adds, with a burst of personal optimism, “I think that in spite of the hard reality, it would be too early to give up, ‘it is still not midnight’ as they say in Russia. Not every avenue has been explored.”
It is not yet midnight. There is indeed a mood, among some Soviet Jewish activists, of a sense of better times to come. This sense revolves around the currently eclipsed sun of Soviet-American détente. It is based upon the belief that the two superpowers must, and indeed should for global reasons, move forward into a new era of talking and cooperation.
Many Soviet Jews believe that Jewish emigration must have a place in such a new era of détente. Or rather, they believe that it can have a place if Western Jews are able to keep the issue of the Soviet Jews alive, so that Western governments will have therefore kept it “on the agenda.” The plea in so many recent messages to Western Jews to “keep us on the agenda” springs from the realization by Soviet Jews that unless the issue of exit visas to Israel remains an integral part of Western diplomatic initiatives, there will be, when détente eventually arrives, no reason for the Soviet authorities to allow the Jews to be among its beneficiaries.
Because of the hopes that Soviet Jews have for détente as the only realistic means to their being allowed exit visas, the various recent signs of détente, which for us in the West may seem minimal or uncertain, are, for Soviet Jews, direct and real. Thus the visit to Russia of the oil magnate Armand Hammer in 1984 and that of Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, scheduled for 1985, like Theodor Herzl’s visit to St. Petersburg in 1903, are looked upon as harbingers of a new era.
That this new era will come is the faith of many Soviet Jews. When it will come they can no more prophesy than we can. A few do not see a renewal of mass emigration in the present generation, even with détente. Others see a reopening of the gates emerging in a few years’ time, in the wake of the Geneva arms limitation talks of 1985 and the various projected follow-ups to the Helsinki process planned for 1985 and 1986. But détente could prove an illusion, or, at best, a long and halting process. “If the more recent cutback reflects a connection between the policy of Soviet authorities toward the emigration of Jews and the state of bilateral relations with the United States,” writes Jerry Goodman in his essay in Freedman’s collection, “Soviet Jews are now in a tragic situation: they are kept virtually as hostages.” If, Goodman warns, “their basic right to leave” is conditioned upon a set of relations over which they have no control, “their fate becomes even more desperate.”
Goodman’s warning is not exaggerated. When, in 1984, exit visas fell to below seventy-five a month (in 1979 they had averaged four thousand a month), a surge of near-despair was at once evident among many activists. On December 23, 1984, in an appeal, “To the Jews of the West,” more than a hundred Soviet Jews declared with passion:
There have been enough expressions of concern—the hour has come for some practical action. Turn on your television sets, open your papers and ask yourselves where and how much space you have devoted to our plight in your programs and publications. Would it be too much for you to scrape together some dollars, pounds, shekels or francs and publish on the front pages of leading newspapers and magazines the lists of those who have been unable for years to see their near and dear ones?
This appeal was addressed to more than eighty Western Jewish institutions and leaders. It ends: “Who, if not you, can help us remove the stone from the mouth of the well?”
Unable to see the end of what seems to them to be the ever-lengthening process of refusal, the signers of this appeal do not speak as calmly as some British and American Jews might want them to speak. Their appeal is not, however, as they themselves hasten to point out, “an expression of base ingratitude or a reproach against your passivity, but a call for concrete action.” The Soviet government, they argue, has always understood “only concrete deeds and a practical approach,” and they go on to urge Jews in the West: “Let the experience of Disraeli and Montefiore, of Rothschild and Kissinger be of help to you.”
At least three of these four statesmen believed in quiet diplomacy. The appeal of December 23, 1984, would seem to support those Western leaders who seek to use their diplomatic skills, not for confrontation but for détente, and to secure with détente a new Jewish exodus.
In a seventeen-page document prepared in the summer of 1984, a dozen of the leading Jewish activists in Moscow pointed out that reopening Jewish emigration would not be a disruptive or revolutionary process but the return to an earlier system that worked. In urging an increase in Jewish emigration, they argued, no one was asking the Soviet authorities to take a step into the unknown. To let every single one of the 11,000 existing refuseniks leave the Soviet Union during 1986 would still fall 40,000 short of the exit visa figure for the year 1979.
The refusenik leaders point out that even if a future opening of the gates is to be on a lesser or more controlled scale, it will be in accordance with known reality. Nor will a new emigration be sought on anti-Soviet grounds. The Jewish activists in the Soviet Union stress this. They are not seeking to disturb or to disrupt the existing patterns of Soviet Communist life. Their one desire is to leave the Soviet Union, not to change it. The Pinkus and Freedman volumes make clear just how courageous and how persistent their aspirations are.
May 30, 1985