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65 Years Ago, The USSR Murdered Its Greatest Jewish Poets. What’s Left Of Their Legacy?

For nearly four decades, no one knew exactly how many Soviet Jews were secretly executed by the Soviet Union in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison on August 12, 1952.

A 1970 New York Times report on the fate of Yiddish in the USSR claimed the victims numbered around 30. A 1972 volume commemorating the event, released by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, now the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, had the number at 24.

Then, in 1994, the Soviet Union released transcripts of the secret trials that preceded the executions, which confirmed that on the Night of the Murdered Poets, 13 Jews — including five prominent Yiddish-language writers — had lost their lives.

The Yiddish writer Dovid Bergelson holds his son, Lev. Image by Wikimedia Commons

The poet Perets Markish was the only Soviet Yiddish writer to receive the Order of Lenin, one of the U.S.S.R.’s most high-profile honors. (He was awarded it in 1939.) Dovid Bergelson, who published articles and fiction in the Forverts from Berlin in the 1920s, was thought by some to be the fourth great pillar of Yiddish literature, after Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz. In 1922, Dovid Hofshteyn published a collection of poems about Ukrainian pogroms called “Troyer” — in English, “Mourning” — that was illustrated by Marc Chagall.

Yet for years, the full cultural cost of the massacre remained, as evidenced by the confusion over who, exactly, was killed, unclear.

In a 2015 video for the Forverts, Boris Sandler described the Night of the Murdered Poets as marking the end of Jewish hopes for a future in the Soviet Union.

(Among the executed writers, Bergelson had been a notably enthusiastic proponent of that future, writing in a 1926 article that of the United States, Poland and the U.S.S.R., then the world’s three centers of Yiddish culture, the Soviet Union presented the best environment for that culture to flourish.)

Sandler’s statement is true not just because the event marked a decimation of Soviet Jewish culture, but also because it served as the culmination of a years-long political turn against the Soviet Jewish community. The victims of the August 12 massacre were all members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, formed by Josef Stalin’s government in 1941 to boost support for the Soviet war effort against the Nazis, primarily by working to encourage Western support for the Soviet military alliance with Western powers.

While that committee, headed by Solomon Mikhoels, director of the Moscow Yiddish State Theater, was successful in its mission, raising substantial funds for the Soviet war effort from North America and England, it advocated for additional goals that the Soviet government considered out of line with its own interests, including the creation of a Soviet Jewish state in Crimea.

Once the war was over, the committee’s activism became a political liability. And upon the 1948 founding of Israel, which Soviet Jews heralded with a vocal rally for Golda Meir when she first travelled to Moscow as a representative of the fledgling state, the Stalinist government was threatened by the possibility of Soviet Jews bearing allegiance to a non-Soviet country.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, blamed for the demonstration, suffered immediate retribution. Mikhoels had been assassinated earlier in 1948, an indication that the Soviet government had already begun to turn against the Jews. Hundreds of Jews associated with the Committee were arrested, and according to YIVO, 15 were tried by the state. (The others, according to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, numbered over 400, most of whom perished in Soviet labor camps.)

Tortured into confessing to various crimes, the defendants, testifying in secret proceedings in Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka Prison, endured a dramatic two months. The trade unionist Solomon Lozovskii refused to go along with the state’s suggested narrative, drawing explicit parallels between the trial and the torments his ancestors had undergone during the Spanish Inquisition. Others followed his lead, reneging on their confessions; on the night of August 12, they — however many “they” were — were executed in the prison’s basement.

Two decades after it happened, the Soviet purge of Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals, most of them Yiddish-speaking, had never been officially acknowledged within the U.S.S.R. Of their number, only Mikhoels’s grave can be found in a public cemetery; the families of the murdered weren’t informed of their loved ones’ fates until 1955, when they were told, vaguely, that the disappeared had been executed by “enemies of the state.”

Chaim Grade’s poem “Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Writers,” published in a translation by Cynthiz Ozick by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry in its 1972 commemoration of the Night of the Murdered Poets, expressed the depth of loss and confusion incurred on Yiddish culture by the event.

“In your poems you were/like a pond — crooked mirror/for the world of truth. The young/have forgotten you and me and the hour/of our grief,” he mused, en route to a devastated conclusion: “But oh, I am bereft —/I wear your Yiddish like a drowned man’s shirt,/wearing out the hurt.”

Correction, August 14, 3:05 pm: An earlier version of this article stated that it continues to be unclear how many Jews were executed on the Night of the Murdered Poets. This confusion in fact lasted only until 1994, when Russian-language transcripts of the secret trials preceding the executions were released; those transcripts were translated into English in 2001. The transcripts confirmed the names of 13 individuals who were executed on August 12, 1952. (One defendant, Solomon Bregman, became ill during the trial proceedings and died in January 1953; another, Lina Shtern, was exiled to Jambul, then made free to return to Moscow in 1953.) An earlier version of this article also neglected to mention that the former National Conference on Soviet Jewry has been renamed, and is now the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry.

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