Remembering Jewish Doctors

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published August 25, 2010, issue of September 03, 2010.
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Remembering Jewish Doctors Executed by Stalin at Center for Jewish History

Described as a “celebration of the creativity of Soviet Yiddish culture on the anniversary of its near destruction,” the August 12 event at the Center for Jewish History was sponsored by the Congress for Jewish Culture, the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, the Jewish Labor Committee, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Culture and the Forverts. Hosted by YIVO’s archivist, Hershl Glasser, with the Forverts’s editor, Boris Sandler, introducing film clips of readings by Soviet Yiddish writers, the evening’s featured speaker was YIVO’s executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent, author (with Vladimir P. Naumov) of “Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948–1953” (HarperCollins, 2003). Brent presented a rollercoaster summation interfacing the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin’s ill health and the need to maintain power and trim the Politburo. He also cited the impact of the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948, weaving all the elements into a tapestry of impending disaster that unraveled with Stalin’s own death on March 5, 1953. Brent added, “Many researchers, including myself and the Russian historian Naumov, believe [it] was an assassination at the hands of Lavrenty Beria with Nikita Khrushchev.”

Celebration: Jonathan Brent
Celebration: Jonathan Brent

Brent cited assorted post-World War II plots and executions starring a cast of characters familiar to Soviet history buffs, including former foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (whose wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina, was Jewish); former foreign minister Klement Voroshilov; former head of the Red Army Anastas Mikoyan, a powerful member of Stalin’s inner circle, and members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

Brent expounded on Stalin’s paranoiac fear that the establishment of the State of Israel was “another signal that the Jews, like others, might have dual loyalty and therefore could not be trusted…. Israel had turned from the Soviet Union to the United States, and therefore the potential disloyalty of the Jews could be exploited in Stalin’s campaign against the West.”

It’s a pity that the audience did not get a chance to view the documentary “Le Dernier Complot de Stalin” (“Stalin’s Last Plot”), which was made for France Television with the support of the FondaTion pour la Mémoire de la Shoah and was directed by Philippe Saada and produced by Dominique Tibi. Brent gave me the DVD video, suggesting that it might provide additional background information. The DVD gives the 50-plus years ago plot a palpable immediacy absent in archival records. Recollections by the now elderly children and relatives of the executed doctors — some of whom were present when their parents were arrested — describe the postarrest shunning by neighbors and friends. They describe the families’ angst and detail the torture to which the doctors were subjected: weeks without sleep in cells too small to lie down in, brutal beatings, starvation and unspeakable torture. So well publicized and viscerally believed by the Soviet public was the Jewish doctors’ plot that one of the “talking heads” recalls a pregnant Jewish woman doctor who was so terrified of being treated by a fellow Jewish doctor that she asked to be transferred to another hospital lest she, too, become a victim!

“Cinema Judaica” Celebrates Major Jewish Composers for the Silver Screen

I must admit that I had never heard of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. But when I received the announcement of its August 8 “Cinema Judaica” tribute to the composers whose scores resonated in films with Jewish themes, I arranged for both pre-and postconcert interviews with the symphony’s founder, artistic director and conductor, Noreen Green. Held under the stars at Los Angeles’s Ford Amphitheatre, the sold-out evening resonated with music by Elmer Bernstein (“The Ten Commandments,” “The Chosen”), Elmer Bernstein/Sylvia Neufeld (“Trinkt Lekhayim” from “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), Jerry Goldsmith (the suites from “QB VII” AND “Masada”), John Williams (the theme from “Schindler’s List”) and Stephen Schwartz (“The Prince of Egypt”). During our preconcert chat, Green told me, “I wanted the music to stand alone… to stimulate our musical memories… to have the audience [experiencing] their own pictures in mind.”

Charles Fox, noted for his themes from the 1969–1974 TV show “Love American Style” and for the mega hit “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” was represented by pianist Andy Feldbau’s performance of the suite of “Victory at Entebbe.” Yuval Ron on the oud and Jamie Papish on drums performed the suite of “West Bank Story” (which Ron composed), and the Ford Festival Choir sang Danny Pelfrey’s suite from “Joseph: King of Dreams.” Concertmaster violinist Mark Kashper performed Williams’s haunting theme from “Schindler’s List.” This work always reminds me of a surreal moment several years ago in the cavernous marble lobby of Florida’s Peabody Orlando hotel. Above the din of clinking glasses and ear-assaulting chatter by the conventioneers, who were in their summer garb, the lobby’s resident orchestra’s sole violinist could be heard playing the theme from “Schindler’s List.” No one paid any attention.

Green, who is also the music director at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., and lectures widely on Jewish music, explains the symphony’s mission as “filling a cultural niche that revitalizes the legacy of Jewish music and spans the broad range of Jewish heritage from the nadir of adversity to the triumph of accomplishment.”

A few days postconcert, Laura Stegman, the L.A. Symphony’s publicist, sent me a batch of postconcert comments.

Lori Miller Farkas, executive director of the Jewish Life Foundation, said: “Bravo! The concert was just phenomenal! The music was incredibly moving and transformative. I’m actually glad there was no movie screen. It wasn’t necessary, and the purity of the music really did stand alone…. It was a magical evening.”

“My mom, who is 86, said the evening brought back so many memories when her father would dance with her to Jewish music….Thank you to the L.A. Jewish Symphony for continuing the tradition of Jewish music. The concert really inspired me to go tomorrow night to my temple choir high holiday rehearsal,” said Stacey Tilliss, executive director of the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Grossman Burn Foundation.

A postscript: The August 9 cover of Time magazine, with its shattering photo of an 18-year-old Afghan girl, Bibi Aisha, whose nose had been cut off, prompted Dr. Peter Grossman, co-director of the Grossman Burn Centers, and his wife, Rebecca Grossman, chair of the Grossman Burn Foundation, to bring the young victim to Los Angeles, where her nose — as well as her ears, which were also cut off — will be reconstructed.

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