Let's remember August 12. The Jewish experience in the blessedly, former Soviet Union can be described as life on a roller coaster with ups and downs. With the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, most Jews were filled with optimism. The antisemitic Czarist regime was overthrown. Initially the 1920s was a time of optimism. Jews urbanized in significant numbers and were able to enter positions in government and the professions. Then came a frightening time in the 1930s, with Stalin shuttering Jewish institutions and life.
During World War II, Stalin needed to mobilize Western support to defeat Germany. He established the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee composed of some of Soviet Jewry's most distinguished figures-scholars, actors, poets, and party officials. Its chairman was Shlomo Mikhoels, a world renowned Soviet Jewish actor and artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre.
To gain support for the war effort, Mikhoels and Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer went abroad in 1943 as official representatives of Soviet Jewry. They toured the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Britain for seven months in order to gain support for the Lend-Lease Program which brought significant aid to the Soviet war effort. When the war ended, Soviet Jewry was optimistic. Jewish soldiers fought and died in the Red Army. There was a sense that having given so much for Mother Russia, the Jews would now be fully accepted.
It was not too long before that optimism turned into pessimism and, from there, to deep dread. This was signaled with the murder in 1948 of Mikhoels, on Stalin's order. Mikhoels had achieved near-legendary status for having mobilized the Jewish people to demonstrate solidarity with the Soviet Union and to present a united front of the entire Jewish people against the threat of total annihilation by the Germans.
By 1948, Jewish support, which had been so important in the Soviet effort in the war against the Germans, was not only not needed; it was not desirable. In Stalin's Communist vision, national identities would wither away as all became members of the proletariat, the working class. Stalin set out to erase all traces of Jewish identity and culture.
Thus, the dark and black years of Soviet Jewry began-signaled with the murder of Mikhoels. The Jewish community in the Soviet Union quickly realized that this was no death by accident, as the official report said. Then, the assimilated traitorous Jew, Ilya Ehrenburg, signaled the new campaign against his own people by warning in Pravda that Soviet Jews should not identify with Jews in other countries. This would be disloyal.
Stalin's determination to erase Jewish national identity was further sharpened. On October 4, 1948, he was stunned. Golda Meir arrived in Moscow as Israel's first Ambassador to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Like all Israeli diplomats posted in foreign countries, she went to shul on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, to the Choral Synagogue on Arkhipova Street, but a 15-minute walk from Red Square. It was made clear to the Jews of Moscow that they should not make contact with the Israeli diplomatic delegation.
Indeed, Ehrenburg, wrote in Pravda , that the State of Israel has nothing to do with the Jews of the Soviet Union, where there is no Jewish problem, and therefore no need for Israel.
In her memoirs, Golda wrote of that day, "Instead of the two thousand odd Jews who usually come to synagogue on the holidays, a crowd of close to fifty thousand was waiting for us. They had come, those good brave Jews, in order to demonstrate their sense of kinship and to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel." Stalin saw in this outpouring of Jewish solidarity with Israel the threat of Jewish nationalism.
In the winter of 1948-49, the Soviet Union arrested hundreds upon hundreds of Jewish personalities and officials. Amongst them, party members, government bureaucrats, artists, writers, musicians, poets, all sorts of prominent Jewish figures. The exact numbers are not known. According to one account 431 prominent Soviet Jewish artists and leaders were arrested. Most of them died in Soviet labor camps.
This antisemitic activity culminated on August 12, 1952, called "The Night of the Murdered Poets." On this night 13-plus leading Jewish poets, intellectuals, and public figures were executed in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, in the headquarters of what was soon to become the KGB. Those murdered were:
In addition, another 11 Jews were shot that night. Among them were Solomon Lazovsky, Binyamin Zuskin, Eliyahu Steiback, and Linda Shtern.
The great Yiddish poet, Chaim Grade, who knew many of those murdered that night composed an elegy for the Soviet Yiddish writers. It opens with the following lines:
I weep for you with all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet that made your hopeful songs .
With these words Chaim Grade and Soviet Jewry and the rest of the Jewish world entered into a period of deep, dark dread about the fate of the three million Jews in the Soviet Union. This dread-pall was lifted only after the death of Stalin a year and a half later.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund.