August 12, 2022 marks the 70th anniversary of the Night of Murdered Poets, an incident when the Soviet Union executed 13 Jewish intellectuals by firing squad in a Moscow prison.
The 13 executed were part of a group of 15 defendants, each of the 13 were accused of a litany of crimes ranging from treason and espionage, but the trial itself only happened following around three years of the defendants being tortured and beaten in isolation.
The trial itself was highly unusual, though in accordance with Stalin-era Soviet law, as it lacked prosecutors or defense attorneys.
What is especially notable about this case, however, was its relation to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), an organization formed during the Holocaust to help Jews around the world support the Soviet Union in fighting the Nazis.
“No matter that they were all loyal to the party. Russian Jewry showed too much interest in Israel and the Israelis for the Kremlin to like it. Five months later, not a single Jewish organization remained in Russia, and the Jews tried not to approach us any more.”Golda Meir
Background: The increasingly antisemitic leanings of the USSR under Stalin
Following the war, JAC worked to protect the remnants of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. However, the organization seemed to have drawn the ire of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin.
Already at the time, the Soviet leader's policies had begun taking a far more noticeably antisemitic turn. While the reasons for this are highly debated and much of it is likely rooted in existing antisemitism in Russia, there was also a notable fear of Russian Jews being seen as too pro-Israel. In other words, for the Soviet leadership, it seemed that the Jews were more loyal to Israel and their Zionist ideals than they were to the Soviet Union.
This is aptly described by former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who wrote about it in her autobiography covering her time as the first Israeli representative in Moscow.
“In January 1949, it became clear that the Russian Jews would pay a ‘heavy price’ for the reception they gave us,” she wrote.
“For the Soviet government, the joy that local Jews welcomed us with, meant a ‘betrayal’ of communist ideals. The Jewish theater in Moscow was closed. The Jewish newspaper Einikait was closed.
“No matter that they were all loyal to the party. Russian Jewry showed too much interest in Israel and the Israelis for the Kremlin to like it. Five months later, not a single Jewish organization remained in Russia, and the Jews tried not to approach us any more.”
The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and Stalin's crackdown
As noted by the World Jewish Congress, Stalin feared that JAC's loyalties were with Israel, Zionism and the US, and thought that its well-known usage of Yiddish was evidence of an attempt to form a distinct language and culture independent of the USSR.
In Stalin's efforts to crack down on the organization, its chairman, Solomon Mikhoels, an actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was killed in 1948 in Minsk. His death appeared at first glance to be a hit-and-run car accident, however, most sources agree that this was actually an assassination on the orders of Stalin himself.
Of the 15 on trial, five of them were Yiddish writers that were part of the JAC. The other 10 were associated with the organization.
Only two of the defendants were not executed. The first was Solomon Bergman, a deputy commissar of foreign affairs and active Communist Party member. He had fallen into a deep coma following beatings during the trial and eventually died of heart disease five months later.
The other was Linda Stern, a biochemist who served as one the first woman to be a professor of the University of Geneva and of the USSR Academy of Sciences. She had been a winner of the Stalin Prize and made groundbreaking achievements in her research of what is now known as the blood-brain barrier. Stern was given a sentence of three and a half years in forced labor and then five years of exile. The reason for her lighter sentence was due to her research. However, after Stalin's death, she was able to return home, and remained in the USSR until her death in 1968.
The Doctors' plot: Stalin's other antisemitic campaign
The incident is now widely seen by historians as part of Stalin's increasingly antisemitic policies that followed the end of World War II. The trial itself also coincided with Stalin's campaign against doctors in Moscow, who were largely Jewish, because of a conspiracy. This plot was followed by antisemitic publications condemning those with Jewish last names and, according to many historians based on memoirs and secondary evidence, the planned deportation of all Jews in the USSR to Gulags, though the latter part is a subject of considerable debate.
Regardless, the Doctor's plot fell through following Stalin's death in 1953. Following this, the allegations involved in the Doctor's plot were dismissed, and the new premier Nikita Khrushchev would later say it would have led to a massive purge in the Communist Party, as noted by the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Like the Doctor's plot, the trial of the 15 Jewish intellectuals was also seen as having been similarly fabricated, with all evidence gained through torture and coercion. As sources have noted, the entire trial was overturned on November 22, 1955 after it was determined that there was "no substance to the charges."
Night of the Murdered Poets: Legacy and commemoration
The Night of the Murdered Poets was memorialized with the dedication of a memorial in Jerusalem's Rasko neighborhood in 1977.
Today, the Night of the Murdered Poets is remembered as being one of Stalin's final acts of persecution before his death and were characteristic of the increasingly paranoid purges carried out under his regime. However, it also bears the hallmarks of an the attempt at erasing remnants of Jewish culture from Eastern Europe, and showed that the safety of the Jewish people was not necessarily guaranteed in the Soviet Union at the time.
As writer and educator Rabbi Eli Kavon noted in a 2015 column in The Jerusalem Post, "Stalin’s secret inquisition failed. But it remains a tragic chapter in the history of the Jews of Russia."