50 Years After The Night of the Murdered Poets

By Shai Franklin

Fifty years ago, on August 12, 1952, 13 prominent Jewish intellectuals were murdered in Moscow on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Although the world learned of this travesty in March 1956, reports had filtered out during the prisoners’ extended incarceration that something was amiss. The Jewish world, and no less the world at large, did little at the time to investigate their status or protest their incarceration.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, created by the Soviets to promote U.S. support during World War II, was a group of Jews loyal to the Soviet cause and was by all accounts a success. Two of the Committee’s organizers – Isaac Fefer and Solomon Mikhoels – conducted a seven-month American tour in 1943, speaking to mass audiences including a packed rally in New York’s Polo Grounds, and gaining warm receptions from leading politicians, entertainers, and intellectuals. Later, as the aging Stalin consolidated his post-war power, he saw the Committee’s international work as a threat, and its Jewish flavor offered a prototype and pretext for stepped up persecution of Soviet Jews. Fifteen Soviet Jews were arrested in connection with the Committee from 1948 to 1949, with their interrogation and trial lasting until July 1952.

Fifty years ago, the lessons of the Holocaust were still raw and the lessons of the Soviet Jewry movement were yet to be claimed. Yet Itzik Fefer, in the chilling transcript of the secret trial [reprinted in Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov, editors, Stalin’s Secret Pogrom, Yale 2001] answered the presiding officer’s challenges with no expectation of reward – quite the opposite. When asked, “Were the Jews really the only ones to suffer during the Great Patriotic War?” he replied unapologetically, “Yes, you will not find another people that has suffered as much as the Jewish people. Six million Jews were destroyed out of a total of 18 million – one-third. This was a great sacrifice. We had a right to our tears, and we fought against fascism.”

The leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were among the truest communists, eager to use their Jewish ties to bolster international support much like the Yiddish language was used to inject secular vocabulary and Marxist ideology into popular Jewish culture. These intellectuals believed, mistakenly, that their Jewish heritage could be transcended and used in the service of a new universalism known as communism. Too late, they learned the limitations of their opaque society. Joshua Rubenstein concludes in his account of the 1952 executions: “They were not dissidents. They were Jewish martyrs. They were also Soviet patriots. Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.”

The years following Stalin’s death saw evolution of Jewish consciousness and Western conscience. In 1970, the public Leningrad trials attracted international condemnation and diplomatic pressure, compelling the Soviets to set aside the death sentences of aliyah activists who had planned to hijack an airliner to Israel. The mid-1970s saw international mobilization on human rights issues, with a focus on Soviet Jewry, leading to enactment of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment into U.S. law and the launching of the Helsinki process, which compelled the Communist bloc to assume humanitarian obligations in exchange for recognition of European borders and emboldened dissidents across the Soviet realm.

The 1975 Helsinki Final Act confirms “that religious faiths, institutions and organizations, practising within the constitutional framework of the participating States, and their representatives can, in the field of their activities, have contacts and meetings among themselves and exchange information.” The 1990 Copenhagen Document, finalized at the close of Soviet history, affirms the right of minorities “to establish and maintain unimpeded contacts among themselves within their country as well as contacts across frontiers with citizens of other States with whom they share a common ethnic or national origin, cultural heritage or religious beliefs.”

In his November 2001 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov affirmed the binding nature of minority rights not as an imposition on Russia but as a Russian objective: “I would like to reaffirm our firm commitment to these principles, which we consider an indispensable condition for Russia’s existence and development as a multiethnic country and the development of a civil society on the basis of generally recognized rules of international law and universal morality.”

The Kremlin’s outreach to the American Jewish community – under Stalin, through Cold War détente of the 1970s, and up to the present day – is a recognition that openness has definite advantages for the state as well as society. The pitfalls of latent anti-Semitic paranoia and efforts to manipulate Jewish support should not deter us from continuing to open the doors of culture and dialogue. These are American values and Jewish imperatives, along with standing up for what we know to be right.

As the ongoing escalation of anti-Semitism in Western Europe reminds us, we have not succeeded in banishing this scourge from private or public life. But we have identified it, and we have broadened international acceptance that Jews have rights along with other minorities within every society, fostering a culture of tolerance and accountability.

As Russia integrates further into the community of nations, its Jewish community is helping resuscitate the spirit of intellectual curiosity, inter-disciplinary investigation, and academic freedom. The Jewish University in Moscow, for example, is a deliberately non-sectarian school, with 100 faculty, 230 full-time students, and numerous international partnerships. Last month, I attended the graduation of two dozen students with degrees in philology and psychology. According to one alumnus quoted in the school’s prospectus, the faculty “come from different schools of thought, even those that disagree with one another, and it creates a unique intellectual atmosphere in the school. You feel that these people care for each other and are ready to help. You don’t find this kind of personal relationship in other Russian universities.”

Stailn’s murderous campaign against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee accomplished nothing for the Soviet regime and robbed the world of great minds. We are fortunate to possess the record of their public poetry and the transcripts of their private and unintended heroism.

Shai Franklin is Director of Governmental Relations for NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. For this 50th anniversary, NCSJ has reprinted its 1972 commemorative book with poetry and writings by and about the August 12th victims