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The Schmooze

When Mikhoels Came to America

A longer version of this post appeared in Yiddish.

Solomon Mikhoels reads at an evening in honor of Charlie Chaplin, 1946. Image by Forward Association

Some weeks ago, on December 12, I was involved in a commemoration at YIVO of the 120th birthday anniversary of the great Yiddish actor and director Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels.

I am not sure if Mikhoels is well known among the younger generation in Russia, or anywhere else. Older people, however, specifically in America and Canada, may recall the trip that he and the poet Itsik Fefer took from the Soviet Union to North America in 1943. They came as representatives of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, of which Mikhoels was the chairman. What is often forgotten is that not all Jewish organizations made the two artists welcome.

The Forverts circle in particular didn’t want anything to do with the Soviet delegation, and the same was true of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring. The problem they had with Mikhoels and Fefer was, in truth, justified. It would have been naïve to view these two people as representatives of Soviet Jewry. Nobody except for the Soviet regime had appointed them, and the Forverts didn’t want to have any connection with the Soviet government.

I could write a great deal about the hostile reception that the Soviet delegation was given in the pages of the Forverts, but I will confine myself to one article, by the well-known Yiddish writer Dovid Einhorn.

On July 17, 1943, Einhorn published an essay titled “Does the World Know the Truth About the Soviet Delegation?” Between many “truths,” Einhorn recalled the anti-Semitic subtext of the mission — the very fact of sending Jews (and not Ukrainians, for example), revealed (at least to Einhorn) the image that Moscow had of American Jews: that they controlled the press, the radio, the cinema, and had immense Capitalistic power.

Meanwhile, a good laugh was had at the expense of the novelist Sholem Asch, who carried himself around with the Soviet guests. Asch had by that time become treyf at the Forverts — Ab. Cahan couldn’t forgive him his Christological novels. And in laughing at Asch, no one forgot to remind him of Fefer’s own satirical song, “Asch, Sha,” written in the 1930s, when Asch became treyf in the Soviet Union.

In the Forverts certain people such as Mikhoels became kosher only in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War. But at that time it was forgotten, or one made a pretense of forgetting, that Mikhoels, as well as Fefer, Dovid Bergelson, and others, were loyal Soviet citizens who weren’t killed because of their opposition to Stalin. Rather, the murder of Mikhoels in January 1948 was a natural outcome of Stalin’s tyranny, which simply rid itself of people who might interfere with its plans, plausibly or otherwise.

Translated by Ezra Glinter

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