Murray Polner reviews Joshua Rubenstein & Vladimir P. Naumov, edited with an introduction, "Stalin's Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committeee," abridged paperback edition (Yale University Press, 2005)
In 1952, four years before Nikita Khrushchev’s speech detailing the savagery of Stalinist rule, fifteen Soviet Jews associated with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), most of them prominent literary and scientific figures, were secretly found guilty of spying and executed.
As the Communists did regularly with the Great Soviet Encyclopedia and so many books, events and writers, their lives and achievements were obliterated, as if they had never existed. After Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, the case was finally re-examined and surprise! -- every defendant was found to be innocent. Still, it wasn’t until 1994 that the transcript was finally published in Russian. Laura Esther Wolfson has ably translated this abridgment of the original eight-volume transcript into English.
This sad and gruesome story is a reminder of how a Jew-hating dictator, surrounded by bootlickers and accomplices and, shamefully, supported for decades by sycophants around the world, contributed to the tragedy by refusing to believe that Stalin’s Russia was capable of so evil a deed.
Nothing could penetrate the rigid ideological wall faithful American communists and their sympathizers erected around themselves. Howard Fast once described the Daily Worker as “a newspaper of courage and independence.” It was in truth a tendentious, biased sheet that delighted in assailing critics and dissidents. The same men and women who rightly demanded black equality and justice for working people (excepting, of course, when they cheered the federal government’s use of the Smith Act to prosecute Trotskyists in 1940) excoriated as lies any hint of Soviet’s crimes against millions of Ukrainians, the murders of Babel, Bukharin, Radek, Zinoviev, et.al, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the executions of senior generals before the German invasion and so much more, not to mention the discriminatory treatment of their fellow Jews.
Many otherwise decent Americans refused to entertain any doubts about Moscow’s crimes. Still, what did Susan Sontag once say? That one could have learned more about the Soviet Union in the Reader’s Digest than from many myopic left liberal journals.
The JAC nightmare, now widely referred to as the “Night of the Murdered Poets,” began one evening in January 1948 when, writes Joshua Rubenstein, Solomon Mikhoels the prominent Jewish actor, director and theater impresario was killed in Minsk “on the direct orders “ of Stalin. Soon, suspicions of a Jewish “menace” began hatching behind the cloistered walls of the Kremlin, especially after huge numbers of Jews gathered in September 1948 in Red Square to greet Golda Meir. Two months later the JAC was closed down and a concerted drive against “cosmopolitans” –read Jews—begun. Within a few years, the JAC, which the Party had created and cynically used during the war to garner support from worldwide Jewry, was dissolved and its main members arrested. “We cannot completely envisage the torments to which these people were subjected once they were inside the Lubyanka,” writes Vladimir Naumov in his Preface. All were eventually doomed save Lina Shtern, the first female member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who was sentenced to five years’ exile.
The authors and editors of this abridged edition of the 2001 edition are Joshua Rubenstein, the Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA and Vladimir Naumov, executive secretary of the Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression. And what a story they tell.
The Soviet investigators made no secret of their intense hatred for Jews. The JAC was supposedly at the center of all Jewish conspiracies, which included Jewish employees of various Soviet ministries and the leaders of the Birobidjhan experiment—a farcical “autonomous” area that American communists enthusiastically supported, and whose front groups sent naive believers from the U.S. to the remote reaches of Birobidjan and one presumes to an eventual miserable end. Even the well-known journalist Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman –the greatest Soviet novelist and a worthy successor to Tolstoy—were on the hit list. The Yiddish newspaper Eynikayt and Der Emes, the Yiddish language publishing house, were shut down. And then came the threat to Jewish doctors and talk of rounding up Jews for shipment to somewhere within the vast Soviet land mass, a mad scheme aborted only by Stalin’s timely death.
Eventually the JAC case was handed to thirty-eight year old Lt. Col. Mikhail Riumin, whom Simon Sebag Montefiore’s magisterial biography Stalin portrays as “plump, balding, stupid and vicious.” Stalin often personally wrote his questions for Riumin to ask the terrified prisoners. Yet another torturer, says Montefiore, was one Colonel Nahum Shvartsman, who committed incest with his son and daughter and was as well a lover of the anti-Semitic Minister of State Security Victor Abakumov, who was also eventually executed on Stalin’s orders.
Rubenstein’s brilliant and unforgiving Introduction raises anew the question why so many American communists and sympathizers took so long to recognize that they were in fact supporting a regime dominated by an obsessive paranoid and his murderous clique. Every outrage was defended and rationalized. Paul Novick attacked Sholem Asch for writing to IKUF about the terrible fate of the Yiddish literary figures.
When I once asked Howard Fast at a Columbia University lecture about the fate of Itzik Fefer, Fast (who knew better but apparently chose to believe what the Soviets told him) claimed Fefer was alive when he had already been executed. Finally, Novick of the Morgen Freiheit grew concerned about Soviet anti-Semitism. He urged Fast, then in Europe for the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Congress, to visit the Soviet delegation and denounce Moscow for crimes against Jews. Fast then met with Alexander Fadayev, the sycophantic novelist and guardian of “socialist realism” who denied the accusations. Ironically, or sadly, in 1956, following Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress, Fadeyev, (in repentance for collaborating with devils?) killed himself.
Similarly, Paul Robeson understood what was happening. In Moscow in 1949 for the 150th anniversary of Pushkin’s birth, Robeson demanded to see Feffer, who was then outfitted with a suit of clothes by his keepers and brought from his cell to the singer’s hotel suite. Robeson knew it was all a fraud and that Fefer –looking “pale and sickly”-- was in fact a prisoner. But he said nothing because, asserts Rubinstein, “Fefer implored him to keep silent about his fate in order not to jeopardize his family.” Later, the singer courageously and publicly lamented Mikhoels’ death at a concert in Moscow and then sang the Jewish partisan song “Zog nit keyn mol,” (We did not go the last way), based on the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. Yet when he returned home he denied the existence of Soviet anti-Semitism since to do otherwise would, he may well have believed, only help rightwing warmongers. One party member later criticized Fast in January 1957– Rubenstein quotes from Fast’s 1957 book The Naked God— “If you and Paul Robeson had raised your voices in 1949, Itsik Fefer would be alive today.”
Non-Communists must also share some of the blame for abandoning the JAC victims. Generally, silence prevailed among American Jewish organizations, Israeli officials, and Western governments. “The prisoners,” concludes Rubinstein, “were on their own.”
Howard Fast finally quit the Party, became a pacifist and sought to understand why he and so many others believed as they did. In his 1990 memoir, Being Red, Fast insists, quite rightly, that many party members were indeed “brave, incorruptible” and that they were defamed and victimized by McCarthyite and government witch hunts. But their leaders, whom they chose to obey without question, were “stupid, rigid men whose orders we accepted without demurral.” All he same, American Communists, he confessed, “inherited” the Soviets’ criminality; “their sins become our sins,” and “We deified them.”
As for the executed JAC men, Rubenstein argues convincingly that their service to the Communists “darkly embodies the tragedy of Soviet Jewry. A combination of revolutionary commitment and naïve idealism had tied them to a system they could not renounce…. [serving] the Kremlin with the required enthusiasm. They were not dissidents. They were Jewish martyrs. They were also Soviet patriots. Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.”