Purim 1953 in the USSR: When Joseph Stalin had his fatal stroke

Joseph Stalin had a stroke and collapsed in his dacha on Purim, March 1, 1953, possibly assisted by someone in his inner circle. He died four days later.

 A photograph of Stalin taken in 1937. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
A photograph of Stalin taken in 1937.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

Communism left a wide trail of blood which has not stopped. Historians estimate that tens of millions in the Soviet Union lost their lives in the massive democide under Stalin’s dictatorship. Communist China had its own large scale democide. Stalin instituted the Great Purge in the 1930s and launched show trials of leading communists in 1936-8. Many if not most of the accused were executed. Life was cheap. After World War II, show trials were initiated in the newly-minted communist Soviet satellite countries such as Hungary, where the famous László Rajk show trial started in 1949. 

A long-time communist, as interior minister Rajk set up the secret police and initiated the first show trials in the country. He was falsely accused of spying for Tito, Yugoslavia’s dictator, hated by Stalin and his lackeys, as he had an independent streak and didn’t follow Stalin’s orders. Rajk was also accused of spying for the “imperialists” and of other fabricated crimes. He confessed at a show trial after extended severe torture and was promised that his life would be spared if he “confessed.” He was executed. I was a child then, but I recall the intense propaganda directed against Tito. Such show trials were frequent in the Soviet empire. After 1949 and especially after 1952, many of the show trials were directed against Jews.

The Soviet Union was an initial supporter of Israel’s establishment but very soon it became increasingly antisemitic. On January 13, 1948, Solomon (Shloyme) Michoels, actor and artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was murdered in Minsk. It was made to look like he was run over by a truck. From 1942-1948, he was director of the Soviet Union’s Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which was used by Stalin as a propaganda tool to obtain help from the West.

In 1948 and 1949, the following Jews in the Soviet Union were arrested and falsely accused of espionage and treason: Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, Itzik Fefer, Leib Kvitko, David Bergelson, Solomon Lozovsky, Boris Shimeliovich, Benjamin Zuskin, Joseph Yuzefovich, Leon Talmy, Ilya Vatenberg, Chaika Vatenburg-Ostrovskaya, Emilia Teumin, Solomon Bregman and Lina Stern. They were tortured. A few years later, on August 12, 1952, Night of the Murdered Poets, all but Lina Stern and Solomon Bregman were executed in Moscow’s Lubyanka KGB dungeon. Among them were authors who were members of the Anti-Fascist Committee. Solomon Bregman never regained consciousness and died in prison in January 1953. In 1949, famous Yiddish writer Der Nister was arrested. He died in the Gulag in 1950. Yitzhak Nusinov died in prison. Shmuel Persov and Miriam Zheleznov were shot.

Preparations for the infamous antisemitic Doctors’ Plot started in 1952 in the Soviet Union. Leading doctors, mostly Jews, were accused of planning to kill Soviet leaders. An intensifying antisemitic atmosphere was orchestrated through the media. Jews lived in fear in the Soviet Union. Many believed that Stalin’s plan was to publicly execute the doctors, followed by massive deportation of Soviet Jews to Siberia and other atrocities. 

 Albert Einstein (Middle) is seen standing between Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer and Russian Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels in 1943. Feffer would be killed in the Night of the Murdered Poets, while Mikhoels was killed in what may have been an assassination ordered by Joseph Stalin. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Albert Einstein (Middle) is seen standing between Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer and Russian Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels in 1943. Feffer would be killed in the Night of the Murdered Poets, while Mikhoels was killed in what may have been an assassination ordered by Joseph Stalin. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On November 20, 1952, Rudolf Slánský and 13 other leading Czechoslovak communists were arrested on trumped-up charges and tortured: Vladimír Clementis, Otto Fischl, Josef Frank, Ludvík Frejka, Bedrich Geminder, Vavro Hajdu, Evzen Löbl, Artur London, Rudolf Margolius, Bedrich Reicin, André Simone, Otto Sling and Karel Sváb. Hajdu, Löbl, and London received life sentences, and the rest were executed. The show trial was conducted in an antisemitic atmosphere. Eleven of the 14 who were arrested were Jews, including Slánský. He was the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s general secretary after the World War II Russian occupation and was a leading creator of the communist dictatorship in the country. Although the above were not guilty of the concocted accusations, it is not clear to what extent some of them share in the guilt of the Czechoslovak dictatorship’s crimes.

At the time, Israeli communist Mordechai Oren traveled through Prague and was arrested. He was falsely accused of spying for the “imperialists” and Zionists. He was tortured and imprisoned for about four years, yet held on to his political views. His incarceration was a shock to many on the Israeli far Left. His ordeal and what was Stalin worship in some kibbutzim, including the display of Stalin photos, is presented in the Israeli film Yaldei Stalin (Stalin’s Children).

In late 1952, Jewish-born secret police (ÁVO, later called ÁVH) chief Gábor Péter (b. Benjamin Eisenberger) was arrested by defense minister Mihály Farkas (b. Hermann Lőwy) in the Budapest villa of the Stalin of Hungary: prime minister Mátyás Rákosi (b. Mátyás Rosenfeld) – another non-Jewish Jew. Péter was accused of “spying for the “Zionists” and collaborating with Slánský and other “Zionist traitors.” He was jailed and four years later, in 1956, so was Farkas. Many others were also arrested in preparation for what was referred to as the Zionist Show Trial, which ultimately didn’t take place due to changing circumstances. 

Among those arrested was Shlomo (Erwin) Grossberg, whom I knew as a child from the central Orthodox community. Together with others in the cheder, I attended his wedding in the community courtyard. He was the principal of the cheder, Beit Yakov, and represented Agudat Israel. I met Shlomo again at his home in Bnei Brak more than two decades ago. He said that he had been arrested on Purim 1953. I recall his sudden disappearance and rumors about his fate. He returned to the Orthodox complex in the fall and didn’t look good.

At the time of the Soviet Doctors’ Plot show trial preparation, a Moscow-directed Wallenberg Show Trial was also prepared in Budapest. Leaders of Hungary’s Jewry – Lajos Stöckler, Miklós Domonkos and perhaps others – were arrested, along with two non-Jews, Pál Szalai and Károly Szabó, who worked with Raoul Wallenberg to save Jews from the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross and the Nazis. 

Szalai and Szabó rescued many Jews during the Holocaust. It is said that Szalai met with German general August Schmidthuber possibly at Wallenberg’s request and helped prevent the mass murder of the Budapest ghetto’s 70,000 inhabitants, including my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Pfeffer. Apparently, they rescued Stöckler and his family at the Danube, where a large number of Jews were taken by Arrow Cross murderers in late 1944 and early 1945 to be thrown into the icy river.

The innocent “accused” were tortured to help them credibly enact the Moscow-produced creative script, according to which, in early 1945, they “murdered” Wallenberg. Under torture, the unfortunate accused “confessed” to have shot Wallenberg in the basement of the Neologue Jewish Community Center building on Síp utca (street), which is just behind the Great Synagogue of Budapest.

The accused were released only in the fall of 1953, about six months after Stalin died. Meanwhile, they were fed, and the secret police tried to hide signs of their torture and food deprivation. Miklós Domonkos passed away shortly thereafter from the ordeal. Lajos Stöckler never regained his mental capabilities. Mária Ember’s book in Hungarian, Ránk akarták kenni (They Wanted To Smear It on Ss), details the Wallenberg show trial preparations and the victims’ fate.

Purim 1953: Joseph Stalin had a fatal stroke

Stalin had a stroke and collapsed in his dacha on Purim, March 1, 1953, possibly assisted by someone in his inner circle. He died four days later. There was a somber atmosphere in Budapest. Buildings were covered with black material, and collective mourning was orchestrated for the emperor.

In late November 1947, Stalin had supported the establishment of Israel in the United Nations and even allowed or instructed the by then-communist Czechoslovakia to provide arms and military training for Israel’s War of Independence. He probably assumed that the then-Socialist Israel would join the Soviet camp. It must have been a disappointment to Stalin that Israel didn’t become communist, but a number of kibbutzim still worshiped the Soviet Union and its Great Dictator.

As shown above, since 1948 the Soviet Union launched a series of show trials and executions of Jews in its empire. In general, the so-called “rootless cosmopolitan” victims were falsely accused of spying for the “Imperialists,” “capitalists” and “Zionists.” Preparations for the planned show trials in Budapest coincided with the infamous Doctors’ Plot-related events in the Soviet Union.

Many free world intellectuals and humanists became communists or communist sympathizers. They mourned Stalin’s collapse and his subsequent death. This included some kibbutzim in Israel, where annual Purim celebrations were canceled. Newspapers such as Al Hamishmar (On the Watch) were mournful and confused about how to report the collapse and subsequent death of their idol, whom they referred to as the leader of the “peace camp” and the “sun of the nations.”

I knew someone who lived in Berlin and escaped to London from the Nazis. He became a communist and after the war returned to help build a “Garden of Eden” in East Berlin. He worked for a high-ranking commissar and noticed that he was actually helping to build “Hell.” He “opened his mouth” about this and was warned by a friend that “they” would soon come for him. At the time, it was still possible to cross into West Berlin. From there, he contacted his sister on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, received permission to be a member, and made aliyah. Once there, he tried to explain the reality of Red Paradise, but the ardent believers were not willing to listen to a heretic. Only his sister believed him and related the story decades later.

A friend recently saw Stalin’s picture prominently displayed in another Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz. It is surprising that this is allowed in today’s Israel, considering Stalin’s crimes against Jews in particular and humanity in general. Communism and Stalin still have a positive afterglow for many.

In 1953, eight years after the Holocaust ended, Jews and multitudes of others were again in great danger, this time from Stalin. His collapse on Purim prevented further large-scale atrocities against Jews and others in the Soviet Union and its Eastern and Central European colonies. Jews and the world were quite possibly saved from a modern-day Haman during Purim 1953. Natan Sharansky, the former prisoner of Zion, made an important statement about Purim 1953 based on his childhood impressions, which can be found on YouTube.

Stalin’s death was the first major earthquake in the Soviet-controlled empire. It was followed by a series of aftershocks, which led to large-scale protests and revolutions in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and decades later to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain and the Soviet imperialist regime.

How do Jews “remember”? Yad Vashem was established by the Knesset in 1953 to be Israel’s authority commemorating the Holocaust and ambitiously calls itself The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. It has a sign prominently displayed at the entrance to the visitor area: “Remembering the Past – Shaping the Future,” whose corollary is “Misremembering the Past – Misshaping the Future.” It doesn’t present in its showcase museum the very important deeds of the few Jewish Wallenbergs whose dedicated and inspired activism led to saving an estimated hundreds of thousands of Jews in aggregate. Nor does it show frequent obstruction of the above by free world Jewish and Zionist leaders in England, Switzerland and especially America. The museum doesn’t explain anything even on a single poster about Purim 1953, although it potentially saved a huge number of Jews.

The Knesset was approached multiple times by various groups suggesting a law to remember each Purim that we were saved from a Haman of our days – this time, the mass murderer Stalin. There was no reaction from the Knesset. It may want to avoid antagonizing Russia or perhaps it simply thinks the Purim 1953 events were insignificant.

A request to remember Purim 1953 during annual Purim celebrations was also sent to the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Israel. There was no reaction from them. Israel demands constant “remembrance” of the Holocaust from the world, yet prevents any attempt to commemorate heroic deeds of the few Jewish Wallenbergs who saved so many. Israel refuses to remember how so many Jews were saved on Purim 1953, the monumental barbarism committed by Nazi Germany’s ally Japan during World War II, the Armenian massacre by Turkey, and the immense crimes of international Communism. Something is not right.  ■

Larry Pfeffer survived the Holocaust in Budapest and escaped from Hungary in late 1956 after the revolt against Soviet rule was brutally put down. He found freedom in New York and later made aliyah with his wife and first two children.