This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
The film “Finding Babel” portrays theater professor Andrei Malaev-Babel’s journey across the former USSR seeking traces of his grandfather, Russian-Jewish author Isaac Babel. The film was recently released on Vimeo in English-, Russian- and Ukrainian-language versions. In the English version of the film, Isaac Babel’s quotes are read by the actor Liev Schreiber. Although Isaac Babel wrote exclusively in Russian, his themes were thoroughly Jewish and reading his works one can clearly hear echoes of his mother tongue, Yiddish.
Babel was executed by Soviet authorities in January 1940, officially due to his alleged support of Leon Trotsky. In truth, he was arrested and subsequently shot for a very different reason: He was having an affair with the Jewish wife of Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Due to Babel’s relationship with his wife, Yezhov put the writer under surveillance. When Yezhov himself fell out of favor with Stalin and was arrested, Babel was arrested too, due to his links to Yezhov’s wife. In a piece of tragic irony, Babel and Yezhov’s bodies were buried in the same mass grave near Moscow’s Donskoye cemetery. News of Babel’s execution was suppressed. Officially, he was said to have died in a gulag. Lost forever upon Babel’s arrest were many of his manuscripts, including several unpublished novels and dozens of translations of short stories by Sholem Aleichem.
The incident would have strong reverberations for Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. Babel’s close friend Solomon Michoels, the leading Soviet Yiddish actor and perhaps the USSR’s most famous Jewish public figure, was also closely associated with Yezhov’s wife, which led to his falling under government suspicion. Michoels was run over by a car in Minsk in 1948. Although Soviet authorities claimed it was an accident, the truth soon came out: He too had been executed on Stalin’s orders.
The film “Finding Babel” can be streamed here.