The Night of the Murdered Poets

By Nahma Sandrow
Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On August 12, 1952, thirteen major Soviet Jewish figures were executed for espionage, bourgeois nationalism, "lack of true Soviet spirit," and treason, including a plot to hand the Crimea over to American and Zionist imperialists.  In the group were famous writers such as Peretz Markish, David Bergelson, and Itsik Fefer—which is why the date has come to be marked annually as the Night of the Murdered Poetsbut the murdered also included an actor, a former deputy foreign minister, a scientist, and a general.  A fourteenth defendant died during the four years the group suffered in Moscow's dreaded Lubyanka prison, and a fifteenth was merely sentenced to exile. 

Their ordeal of arrests, tortures, and trials was virtually secret at the time, but according to the many pages of testimony that became accessible in the 1990's, even the judges themselves seemed uncomfortable with the charges.  Now we know that though in the course of those four years all but one defendant confessed to at least some charges, at the final hearings people bravely recanted confessions, and one faced his inquisitors and called them Torquemada. 

The Revolution began with thrilling hopes for Jews. The USSR actually subsidized Jewish institutions, including Yiddish theaters and even theater schools.  Yiddish culture flourished, especially theater and literature. Then came the Five Year Plan and the Great Purges.  By the 1930's, Jewish institutions were constricting; new rules, sometimes unspoken, controlled what could be written and how; the very spelling of Yiddish words was altered to erase traces of Hebrew roots, and thereby religion or nationality.  By the late 1930's, writers were vanishing.  Actors, too, simply failed to show up for rehearsal, and nobody dared ask why. The war brought some domestic respite for the Jews, as the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee became an active arm in government propaganda and international fund-raising against the Nazis.  But after the war, terror gathered and grew.  The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 galvanized the denunciation of the Jews. That year, the Murdered Poets entered Lubyanka.  The show trial known as the "Doctors' Plot" got underway the following year and it seems that Stalin's death in 1953 was all that prevented the total extinction of Jewish life in the USSR.

From our side of the Iron Curtain, it was virtually impossible to see what was going on.  In the late 40's, my own family was advised that corresponding with our family in Ukraine meant exposing them to danger.  And any official information was often a lie.  An anecdote about Itsik Fefer illustrates how much was buried.  As chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Fefer had visited the U.S. during the war and become friendly with the African-American performer Paul Robeson.  When Robeson visited Russia in 1949, he asked to see Fefer, who by then was a battered emaciated prisoner.  The authorities stalled Robeson while they fattened Fefer and cleaned him up.  The room where the two men actually met was bugged, of course, so Fefer couldn't say anything out loud, but he repeatedly slashed his hand sideways across his own throat. The fact that much later Robeson told the story indicates that he understood what Fefer was trying to tell him.  At the time, however, he left Russia and said nothing; Fefer returned to Lubyanka, and his death.  In silence, as if they had never existed, the Jews of Soviet Union were "buried without a name, without a number, without a 'here lies.'"

Chaim Baider, the poet who wrote those lines, spent the last two decades of his life painstakingly assembling crumbs of facts memorializing the silenced Soviet writers, musicians, painters, actors, and teachers.  When he died in 2003, he left behind a massive archive, now at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  Now two important Yiddish figures of our day, Boris Sandler, editor of the Forward, and Professor Gennady Estraikh, have realized Baider's mission by extracting from his notes the biographies of over four hundred writers, editing them, and assembling them as the Leksikon fun Yidishe Shrayber in Ratn-Farband (Biographical Dictionary of Yiddish Writers in the Soviet Union), published by the Congress for Jewish Culture with support from the Holocaust Museum and Baider's own widow and son.  This lexicon lists dates of birth and death (when these are known), titles and descriptions of works, occasionally a photo. It names famous writers as well as many who didn't live long enough to establish a reputation.  As Itzik Gottesman, associate editor of the Forward and folklorist, points out, all these individual lives together produce a sense of the whole.  They provide enough information to distinguish patterns, such as the cresting waves of deaths, and the irony that in the 1920's, Markish, Bergelson, and others abandoned promising careers in Berlin to come home and serve the ideals of the Revolution. 

Last week was the annual commemoration of the Night of the Murdered Poets at New York's Center for Jewish History.  Because of the new lexicon, this year's event was different from any I'd ever seen.  Here at last was a memorialand even a celebration!for those buried "without a name, without a 'here lies.'"  Actor and executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture Shane Baker recited a section of a Markish poem.  Yiddish theater stars Hy Wolfe and Yelena Shmulenson sang settings of lyric poems by Fefer and Moshe Kulbak, writers listed in the lexicon.  Chaim Baider's widow stood on the stage holding up her late husband's book.  "Zayt gliklekhbe happy," she cried exultantly. "Teach your children Yiddish.  May Yiddish live and sound over the whole earth!" 

Nahma Sandrow is the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater She is currently writing the libretto for an opera version of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story, which will premiere at Kentucky Opera in the fall.

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