The Twenty-Seventh Man
On the night of August 12, 1952, a group of Yiddish writers was executed on Joseph Stalin’s orders for the crime of writing while Jewish. The executions, remembered as the Night of the Murdered Poets, were the tragic culmination of the grand romance between Jewish intellectuals and Marxism. Author Nathan Englander now has a new play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, based on a short story he wrote about the murders. He imagines the 27 imprisoned writers in a Russian prison cell, caught between the Marxist promise of a brotherhood of workers, liberating the oppressed to create a bright new world, and the reality of Soviet Communism. In Englander, the murdered writers have found their bard.
In Marxist theory, national identity is a shallow, ephemeral phenomenon. Nation-states, a modern invention created by self-interested capitalists and politicians to manipulate the masses, will evanesce with the coming of the Marxist utopia. In reality, Lenin and others in the Socialist International exploited the Tsarist empire’s national liberation movements, which were, struggling for self-determination, in order to bring about the revolution.
When the revolution came in 1917, the victorious Bolsheviks announced that each of the peoples oppressed by the Tsars would have a sovereign nation-state; these states would form a union of equals building the Marxist future—a Soviet Union. Each liberated nation would have the right to its own schools, newspapers, and even national theaters in its own language. The catch was that all these cultural institutions would have to be “national in form, socialist in content.” And the structures of self-government were hollow: in reality, all power was held by the Communist Party Central Committee.
Nevertheless, the 1920s saw the flourishing of a remarkable Jewish cultural nation within the Soviet Union. Jewish schools taught Marxist doctrine in Yiddish—but not Hebrew or Jewish texts. There were government-supported Yiddish newspapers, publishing houses, even a Yiddish National Theater—but all the stories they told were correctly Marxist. To the extent that Jewishness is defined as having a positive relationship with God, Torah, Jewish tradition, or Israel, Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nationalism was intensely anti-Jewish.
The dedicated Jewish Marxists of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, carried out an aggressive secularization campaign. Breadcrumbs were added to town water supplies at Passover. Stores were opened and synagogues closed on the Sabbath. These and other anti-religious measures were sometimes enforced by thugs, sometimes by such legal techniques as requisitioning a synagogue for use as a worker’s committee room. There were campaigns of intimidation against parents who might have tried to teach their children Hebrew and Torah.
Yet, until 1928, Jewish prayer and practice were, technically, legal. Some observers—even some secular Yiddishists—looked at the Potemkin village of a flourishing, Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nation and thought it real. Thus, the Yiddish poet Dovid Hofshteyn returned from Palestine to Russia in 1926, and a number of Marxist intellectuals returned from other countries. The last of the well-known returnees was novelist and poet Dovid Bergelson, who went home to Russia in 1934. He is undoubtedly part of the inspiration for Englander’s character Moishe Bretzky, compellingly played by Daniel Oreskes, who has some of the play’s sharpest and funniest lines. Bretsky must account to himself for having so loved the Yiddish-speaking Jewish world of Russia that he returned to it even though he knew Communism for the fraud that it had become.
By 1928, Russia had become a totalitarian state controlled by Joseph Stalin, who, though born a Georgian, was dedicated to the imposition of Russian culture on the entire Soviet empire. Englander ratchets up the pressure on his Yiddish writers by putting an important proposition into the mouth of a Stalinist functionary, chillingly played by Byron Jennings as a man who is simply doing his job. Part of that job is believing the anti-Semitic lies he is required to tell. In order for a lie to have power, he explains, it has to be believed.
The Yiddish writers murdered by Stalin were not dissidents or anti-Communist activists. Some were men like Vasily Korinsky, persuasively played by Chip Zein, who worked to build the Marxist dream, and, at some point, began to lie to himself about Marxist reality. Yet, at the point when it became necessary for good Russian Communists to believe in a nefarious international Jewish conspiracy, it also became necessary for Jewish Marxists to confront the truth about the world they had helped create. Englander has written both Korinsky and Bretsky so well that playgoers may squirm with the uncomfortable self-recognition.
The 27th man of the play’s title, played by Noah Robbins, captures hearts as a youth so filled with ideas that he can hardly write fast enough to get them all down. But at the heart of the story is the character of Yevgeny Zunser—acted by Ron Rifkin, who doesn’t so much play an aging Yiddish writer as inhabit one. Here is a man who once watched an entire Jewish civilization go up in the smoke of a burnt offering to the anti-Semitic ideology of Nazism; now he is slated to become a victim of Stalin’s decision to annihilate the world’s largest surviving Jewish community. Knowing this, he behaves with humanity, moral intelligence, and unshakable dignity.
By 1928, Stalin had enough control so that he could end the pretense of Communist support for the self-determination of peoples within the Soviet Union. This was a Russian empire, and Stalin was determined that its peoples would become Russian or be extinguished. He intended to deport the Jews to an empty patch of ground along the trans-Siberian railway, a plan stopped only by his death in
The play’s staging and set are starkly perfect and, in the final scene, achieve a fearsome power. This is compelling theater, and was especially on a night when another intensely anti-Jewish government was shooting at Jews. But, unlike the Yiddish writers, Israel’s Jews are not helpless victims of a totalitarian regime; they live in a democracy and defend themselves with a citizen army.
Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the UK had an apropos observation recently, in his discussion of the problems of the liberal movements in Judaism and of secular Jewishness generally. He observed that none of these cultures or movements have managed to survive in a vital and self-sustaining manner for more than 3 generations. Nothing beyond traditional Judaism has ever survived in the diaspora for longer than this amount of time. Israel national identity in its current form is the only other Jewish ideology that has shown staying power. These two points should tell us something.
It failed as historical analysis. It failed as a predictive model. It failed when attempted in large polities. It failed on the micro scale of the now-disbanded kibbutzim. It failed to bring prosperity, it failed to bring justice, it failed to produce a better world.
You assert that contemporary Marxism has "blithely sidestepped" the ruined lives, torture chambers, and mass murder of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceaușescu, Kim Jong-il...
To do so, however, Marxists like Howard Zinn have had to step over the dead bodies of tens of millions of victims of the hubris of Marxists who persuaded themselves that "this time" it would be different.
"The dedicated Jewish Marxists of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, carried out an aggressive secularization campaign. Breadcrumbs were added to town water supplies at Passover. Stores were opened and synagogues closed on the Sabbath. These and other anti-religious measures were sometimes enforced by thugs, sometimes by such legal techniques as requisitioning a synagogue for use as a worker’s committee room. "
The Yevsektsia were much more than "thugs".
They were directly responsible for the murder of thousand of Jews and for the uncounted numbers that were forced into exile by their action in eradicating Judaism in Russia.
Included in these horrific numbers were two of my uncles!
Their ignoble history has yet to be written.
You are correct that the history of the Yevsektsia and of Soviet Yiddish nationalism has yet to be written. There is some solid work on the Yiddish National Theater of that era, and some focused on the Yevsektsia's attack on Zionists. But surprisingly little serious history of the period for the Revolution to 1928.
You should contribute by writing up your family's own experience, as well as it can be done from what are undoubtedly patchy sources.
Make a trip to Crown Heights and meet (as one of many examples) Rabbi Mendel Morosow who is now 96 years old.
He will relate to you how his father and brother were arrested in S. Petersburg by the Jewish Yevsekzia in 1939. They were murdered that night in the Lubyanka Prison.
Their 'offence'? Counter revolutionary activity. Meaning being openly religious which infuriated of these Jewish 'thugs' who believed, as you write in your article, in the Marxist utopia .
Needles to say that most, if not all, of these vicious murderers were eventually killed by other Stalin henchmen.
I sincerely hope that someone is copying down Rabbi Morosow's experiences. Such memories are an irreplaceable part of the historical record.
By patchy I only mean that people like Rabbi Morosow did not survive in every town, or passed away without recording what they experienced. Many Stalinist crimes are unrecorded.
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There is as yet no culmination of that grand romance in the larger historical sense. It has shifted from generation to generation and the most recent crop of Western Jewish intellectuals deeply influenced by Marx are to be found in the United States. Of socialism, Howard Zinn wrote, "there are people fearful of the word, all along the political spectrum. What is important, I think, is not the word, but a determination to hold up before a troubled public those ideas which are both bold and inviting, the more bold the more inviting. That's what the remembering of Debs and the socialist idea can do for us." His opus, "History Is A Weapon," mentions Marx rather often in appreciatve language, and his titles tell something too, such as "Marx in Soho: A Play on History." Zinn is but one of many I have read, and find their version of truth far less than "revolutionary," an adjective Zinn wedded to history and "truth."
An objective reading however reveals that contemporary Marxism has blithely sidestepped National Socialism, Soviet Socialism, Sino-Socialism and still holds out the lure of "this time" as distinct from a century of socialism tearing away at Jews in Europe, Asia and Israel.