Stalin and the Night of the Murdered Poets

The destruction of the Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators dealt a terrible blow to the Yiddish language and a civilization that endured more than a 1000 years. Millions of Yiddish speakers were murdered and the language would never recover. But Josef Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union, dealt a further blow to Yiddish on the night of August 12, 1952, when he ordered the execution of Yiddish poets, writers and cultural and political figures in the USSR. Thirteen Jews were executed on that night in the cells of the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. The framed defendants—accused of espionage and treason—endured years of imprisonment, tortures, beatings and interrogations.

This inquisition centered on the activities of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) during World War II. Stalin supported the formation of this committee of prominent Soviet Jews to raise money and support in America for the war against the Germans. The committee’s activities, under the leadership of the beloved Yiddish theater director and actor Solomon Mikhoels, were a great success. Stalin reversed his decision to suppress Yiddish culture in the USSR and gave free reign to Jews to express their Jewish identity and heritage in the face of the Nazi foe. But after the Shoah, the JAC attempted to rebuild Jewish life in Russia. This effort was undermined by the onset of the Cold War and Stalin’s growing paranoia that the JAC actually betrayed the USSR by collaborating with America against the Soviet state. This suspicion became the basis for the eradication of Yiddish life and culture in the Soviet Union.

Stalin began this reign of terror by eliminating Solomon Mikhoels in 1948. The murder of the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater was made to look like an accident. Mikhoel’s popularity precluded his arrest and torture. Stalin began to carry out this pogrom in secrecy. Among those arrested and imprisoned were Yiddish poet Peretz Markish, novelist Dovid Bergelson, and Benjamin Ziskin. Ziskin had been the assistant to Mikhoels in the Yiddish theater. Although all those who were framed were dedicated Communists and supporters of Stalin, false confessions and accusations undermined their loyalty and led to their doom.

Toward the end of his life, Stalin began a campaign to further persecute the Soviet Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” who had no loyalty to him or to the Soviet state. The libel that Jewish doctors were attempting to murder the leadership of the Soviet Union would have been a prelude to much worse for the Jews had Stalin not died in 1953. To the credit of Soviet Jewry, many Jews greeted Israel’s ambassador to the USSR Golda Meir on her visit to Moscow in September of 1948. Thirty years of Communist dictatorship did not eradicate their Jewish identity and support for the Jewish State. Stalin’s secret inquisition failed. But it remains a tragic chapter in the history of the Jews of Russia.