We may think we’ve uncovered by now the deepest depths of Stalin’s iniquity but now, thanks to Yale University Press’ remarkable series “Annals of Communism,” we learn in detail the startling case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, created with the blessing of the Soviet dictator during World War II to win support in the West for the Soviet war effort.
Beginning in 1948, 15 members of the committee were arrested and charged with capital offenses. All 15, like so many in the show trials of the 1930s, were innocent. But unlike those victims, several of the JAC energetically defended themselves once they came to a secret tribunal in 1952, barely a year before the tyrant died. Tortured, most confessed to their “guilt,” but in secret session some renounced their confessions. In the basement of Lubyanka prison in Moscow, all but one was executed with a bullet to the back of the head.
The new book, “Stalin’s Secret Pogrom,” presents the grimly poignant record of their trial as well as speculation as to exactly why Stalin should have wanted these people put to death. The transcript of the trial is translated by Laura Esther Wolfson and annotated by Joshua Rubenstein, the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International, USA.
Rubenstein supplies the historical backgrounds of the 15 victims, giving in detail their life prior to the arrests – nearly all had been decorated for distinguished service to the state – bringing vividly alive what might have been otherwise a dry rendering of bureaucratic terror.
The trial of the 15 was as secret as their execution. According to Vladimir Naumov, a leading Soviet researcher, editor of the Russian version of this book, even their official exoneration in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, was still kept secret. Until now, it was generally thought that 24 Yiddish writers and poets were executed after those secret trials in the spring and summer of 1952.
Why this particular persecution? Given the onset of the Cold War and the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, Stalin linked the threat of war with the United States to his suspicions that Soviet Jews had other loyalties. The Jews may have shown their dependability to the USSR in the war against Hitler, but should a conflict break out with America and the West, Stalin was convinced the Jews would betray him.
The JAC was unable to survive such tensions. The distinguished, and much honored by the Soviet regime, director and actor Solomon Mikhoels – he received the title of People’s Artist of the Russian Federation for his performance of King Lear – was murdered on Stalin’s personal orders in January 1948. The dictator’s daughter Svetlana later overheard her father on the telephone approving the official story that the actor’s death was the result of an automobile accident. Stalin had felt Mikhoels was too much of an actor to carry out the role prepared for him by the secret police for him to take part in any show trial. Hence, it was imperative that he die in an accident. Sent off to Minsk to evaluate a new play, Mikhoels was shot, and an accident was staged to make it appear a car crash. He received a state funeral.
Paul Robeson, who had known Mikhoels, and another member of the JAC soon to be arrested, Itsik Fefer, had insisted on a visit to Moscow that he meet with Fefer. The visit was arranged. Fefer managed to inform Robeson of his arrest but implored the singer for the sake of his friends and family to say nothing about his imprisonment once back in the West.
Back in America, Robeson denied reports of anti-Semitism in the USSR, telling a reporter for “Soviet Russia Today,” that he had “met Jewish people all over the place … I heard no word about it.” According to Rubenstein, Robeson justified his silence on the grounds that any public criticism of the USSR would reinforce the authority of America’s right wing which, he believed, wanted a preemptive war against the Soviet Union.
Robeson never spoke out, even in private, or tried in any way to help his friend, but he was not the only person to remain apparently indifferent to the fate of these people. In 1950,when the American Jewish Yearbook carried the disturbing news that “leaders of the (Anti-Fascist) Committee and most of the well-known Yiddish writers were arrested and deported” (a claim only partly true), there was no effort made to save them by Jewish organizations in the West, Israeli officials, or the Western democracies. And this at a time when the memory of the six million of the Holocaust should surely have been all too alive in everyone’s minds.
With one exception – Itsik Fefer – all the defendants were brutally interrogated – some beaten and tortured, placed in miserable punishment cells, subjected to nights of seemingly endless interrogation. “Giving a lecture, writing verse, literary evenings, meetings with young students, language lessons, the study of history, studio exercises, the theatrical repertoire” – any activity that writers, poets, people of culture might routinely pursue were reckoned subversive.
“Stalin’s Secret Pogrom” is literally a terrifying, but infinitely valuable document to the times in which we have lived and still may live. This is a document no person who thinks he cares about the human condition should miss. It’s brutal but essential reading.