Where the Tsar banned Yiddish theater, the Soviets would subsidize it
In 1948, Solomon Michoels was brutally killed , on Stalin's orders, by the Soviet Secret Police
In October, 1955, during the United Nations Assembly's session in New York, a high Soviet official still denied the "rumors" about the disappearance of Yiddish writers. For many years, a host of myths surrounded the case against the committee.
Now there is a new book - STALIN'S SECRET POGROM ed. Joshua Rubinstein - which presents the long-suppressed transcript of the trial and reveals the Kremlins machinery of destruction.
The trial of 15 prominent Soviet Jews in the summer of 1952, followed by the execution of all but two of them, was to prove the last gasp of Stalinist judicial terror; as its architect was felled by a stroke less than a year later. The trial had all the usual ingredients -- round-the-clock interrogations, physical and mental torture, bogus evidence and spurious confessions -- but it was also the most unusual in the long history of Communist show trials.
The Moscow State Yiddish Theater was created in the revolutionary fervor of 1919. For nearly three decades, this theater called by its Russian acronym, GOSET was the most important Jewish institution in the Soviet Union .
In order to transform the Yiddish stage, Aleksandr Granovsky, the assimilated son of one of Russia's wealthiest Jews, had first to learn Yiddish. Shtetl-born painter Marc Chagalemblazoned the GOSET's interior walls and ceilings with allegorical murals to create a festive, Purim-like atmosphere.
But the enterprise ws doomed from the beginning..What kind of genuine Yiddish culture was possible if Jewish history and religion were taboo, relations with Jews in other countries nonexistent, and pro-Jewish sentiments could at any time be denounced as ''anti-socialist,'' ''bourgeois nationalist'' or ''formalist''? Finally, how could any form of Jewish consciousness survive in an atmosphere of growing anti-Semitism, which Stalin himself embodied?
In 1928, Granovsky's theater embarked on an extensive European tour. When Soviet authorities summoned the troupe home at the end of the year, he chose to remain in Germany.
Kaganovich's complaint actually was not unwelcome to Mikhoels, enabling him, as it did, to dramatize his own Jewish pride.
But like all creative artists in the Soviet Union, Michoels feared for his life and with good reason. There is evidence that Beria proposed to link Mikhoels to the arrested writer Isaac Babel
Ironically, Mikhoels was saved by the Nazi invasion.
Yet once the war began, Stalin, faced with the need for outside support, especially from American Jews (who were by definition sympathetic to Russia's war against Nazism), had to turn to the ''Jewish Jews''
In 1941, Stalin appointed Mikhoels as head of, and chief spokesman for, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The members were all pro-Stalinist - believing that the revolution had brought real change.
The purpose of the committee was to rally support for the Soviet Union during World War II. Through media propaganda, and through their own personal contacts with Jews abroad (especially in Britain and the United States), the members of the committee were expected to influence public opinion and to enlist foreign support for the Soviet war effort.
In May 1943 Solomon Mikhoels and Itsik Fefer, a mediocre but ideologically reliable Yiddish poet (and an informer for the secret police) -- were dispatched to raise money in the United States.
Their 7-month stay in America proved a phenomenal success, vividly described in Joshua Rubinstein's introduction to ''Stalin's Secret Pogrom'' and in the useful preface by the Russian historian Vladimir Naumov.
Stalin immediately recognized the Jewish state, hoping to use it as a weapon against the Arabs, but he clearly did not foresee the fervent response of Soviet Jews. And so the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee turned retroactively from a useful tool into a nest of vipers Mikhoels' worst mistake was his incautious enthusiasm for newly established (and then Soviet-supported) Israel.
After the war, close on the heels of the Nazi genocide, came the suppression of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. As Stalin's paranoia about Soviet Jews mounted, he disbanded the committee.
That he had embarked upon a policy of eradicating Jewish institutions became apparent in July of 1948 when Solomon Mikhoels was sent on a fool's errand to Minsk, where he was dispatched in what was officially described as a car accident.
As part of a newly launched official anti-Semitic campaign, the JAC was disbanded in November 1948, six months after the birth of the State of Israel. Most of its members were arrested , and another of those grisly Soviet courtroom dramas seemed clearly in the offing.
In the event, it was almost four years before the case came to trial. In the meantime, savage interrogation, often laced with anti-Semitic abuse elicited phantasmagorical confessions from the prisoners, who then recanted and then, subjected to fearsome pressure, capitulated -- and again recanted. The investigators failed to produce any evidence, however specious, and the interrogations dragged on.
STALIN'S SECRET POGROM ed. Joshua Rubinstein - presents the long-suppressed transcript of the trial
THE MOSCOW STATE YIDDISH THEATER : Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage by Jeffrey Veidlinger is the first English-language book devoted to the Moscow GOSET
Making use of newly discovered archival material, both in Russia and Israel it gives a detailed account of the first (and the only) time in history when Yiddish had the imprimatur of official state culture.