Sunday, 1 July 2012

August 12 1952

Two cameos. A few years ago I attended a Communist Party seder in London. The guest speaker was Dennis Goldberg, one of six Jews arrested with Nelson Mandela in the “Rivonia Trial”, which led to Goldberg serving 22 years in prison. The food at the event was kosher, there was a klezmer band and the collection was organised by Monty Goldman, whose last electoral campaign netted over 2,000 votes for the Communist Party in Hackney in 2010. There were about 150 people present – this number out of the relict Communist Party of Britain, with a membership of below 1,000. The second cameo was in in France, at the Medem Bibliotek – Paris's Yiddish library – when, at the party at the end of a Yiddish summer school, many of the faculty and older students started singing the Internationale in Yiddish, when they realised how many of them, from different parts of the world, had been youthful members of Yiddish speaking Communist organisations. Not that the Jewish Communist story is over - the Maki (Israeli Communist Party) member Dov Khenin won a third of the votes cast for mayor of Tel Aviv in 2008.

But for many Jews of an earlier generation, 12th August 1952 marked a decisive break, when thirteen leading members of the Soviet Union's Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) were murdered by Stalin. Their number included the cream of Soviet Yiddish writers including the novelist David Bergelson, the poets David Hofshteyn (who was also a Hebraist), Leyb Kvitko, Peretz Markish and Itzik Feffer. These deaths followed the earlier state murder of the poet Izi Kharik and the death in prison of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh (“Der Nister”). Shloyme Mikhoels, the actor and later artistic director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre was also killed, though the murder was disguised as a traffic accident. Mikhoels had been the leading light in the JAFC.
The JAFC had been set up during World War II, one of five committees – the others being scientists, Slavs, youth and women – to promote the political and military aims of the Soviet Union. Mikhoels and Feffer toured America and other countries to propagandise and to raise money, meeting Jewish and other leaders. These official visits were to rebound against the JAFC later due to Stalin's paranoia about any Soviet citizen who'd been in contact with people living in the West. After the war the JAFC continued, increasingly becoming a pole of attraction for Jews turning to the only officially recognised organisation of Jews which seemed to have power and contacts. The JAFC newspaper, Eynikeyt (Unity) was widely read. The establishment of the state of Israel, and its early recognition by Stalin, gave people confidence to celebrate the new State publicly – with this too rebounding against JAFC members thought to be “bourgeois nationalists”. Not all JAFC supporters were arrested. One of those to escape the round-up was that eternal survivor Ilya Ehrenburg, a controversial figure who would later write a novel, The Thaw, which provided the name for the post-Stalin era in Russia.
The JAFC was closed down in 1948. Most of those arrested were tortured to extract “confessions”, most of which were withdrawn at their staged trial to no avail. The closure of the JAFC drew to an end another period of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. For Yiddish, this was a severe blow – with the political and cultural leadership wiped out.
It had all started so well. The Revolution of 1917 lead to a flowering of Yiddish culture, publishing, libraries, schools and theatre. After Czarist repression Jews were finally able to live in a country that appeared to respect their language and autonomy and which aimed to abolish anti-Semitism. But what became obvious was that the Communist Party needed to use Yiddish – the language of most Jews at the time – to propagandise and to move Jews away from religion and the old ways.
In the early years there was intense debate about the nature of Yiddish writing, with modernist experiments in literature, art and typography. For Yiddish writers there was the struggle to write creatively and naturally, and to make their living, while under political pressure to conform. Within the tragedy that was played out on 12th August 1952 there were smaller tragedies, of writers who had struggled with their art. In David Bergelson's case the successful Russian Revolution took away the sources of his earlier writing, which often described the world of the Jewish well-off. His work was read internationally, in the New York daily Forverts, the Warsaw Moment and the Moscow Shtrom. His Gezamlte verk (Collected Works) was published in Weimar Berlin. In 1934 he returned to Russia for good, by choice – choosing Communism, as so many Jews had done internationally in the wake of 1917. He was shot on his sixty-eighth birthday.
To mark the 60th anniversary of the death of the writers and others from the JAFC, Five Leaves Publications is bringing out a collection of translations of some of the work of the JAFC writers, and other Soviet Yiddish writers who Stalin had murdered previously. The book will be launched in London on 12th August 2012, the 60th anniversary (the last day of the Olympics!) at an international event at the Russell Square campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, in association with the Jewish Music Institute. The event is free and runs from 2.00pm-5.00pm (further information from The speakers include Gennady Estraikh, Associate Professor of Yiddish at New York University and Robert Chandler, translator of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. Polina Shepherd, who was born in Siberia, and her husband Merlin will play music of the Soviet Jewish era.
For me, the high points in the book are when – as in so much of Yiddish literature and film – tradition meets modernity. In Markish's “The Workers' Club”, for example, the new Soviet regime wants to turn an old synagogue into a cultural centre. In Der Nister's “Grandfather and Grandson” an elderly rabbi and his Communist grandson are both arrested by the Nazis and are taken to their fate together, with both finding, in extremis, a way of respecting each other's views.
Given the period the material was written, the Holocaust loomed large, as members of the JAFC tried to find ways of commemorating the Jewish victims and Jewish resistance, In David Bergelson's “The Sculptor” he wrote “One of the quiet middle-sized towns on the border between Podolia and Volin” - Berdichev in fact – the sculptor, a partisan, returns after the town was retaken from the Germans to find what was left and who had survived as others also gradually drift home. He eventually leaves with no exact address “but he had sculptures that could tell over again about his father, about his town, and about his people.” His “metal figures, marble busts and bas-reliefs... joined with... holy books to recite Kaddish in [the town's] memory.”
There are also some early illustrations by Chagall, which accompany the long poem “Troyer” (Grief) by David Hofshteyn, first published, with the same graphics, in 1922 by the Kultur-lig as a fund-raising pamphlet for local Jewish orphans, translated by Seth Wolitz; other poems included are by Leyb Kvitko and Izi Kharik, the majority translated by Heather Valencia. Most of the book has been, however, translated and edited by the late Joseph Sherman, who died in 2009 when we originally planned to publish. After Sherman's untimely death – with the book as yet unfinished – I did not have the heart to go back to it for some time. I am sure he would have been pleased that we are now bringing the book out for the 60th anniversary. We include a long essay by him on the JAFC and detailed biographies of the writers which comprises a good summary of Soviet Yiddish writing from the Revolution up to the arrests of 1948.
The closure of the JAFC was not the last anti-Semitic act of Stalin. There were direct family connections with some of those arrested in the “doctors' plot” though fortunately Stalin died before those arrested were killed, and they were released. Khrushchev's “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ended the worst excesses of the Stalin era though it was not until 1989 that the JAFC members were “rehabilitated”.

A version of this article will also appear in Jewish Renaissance, published this month.

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