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Night of the Murdered Poets

Rokhl’s Golden City: This week in 1952, five Yiddish poets were executed in the Soviet Union. How have their deaths been framed since then?

Rokhl Kafrissen
August 14, 2019
Photo: Wikipedia
Perets Markish, 1922 Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
Perets Markish, 1922 Photo: Wikipedia

Tradition tells us that the greatest calamities to befall the Jews have happened on (or near) the ninth of Av: the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem; the expulsions from England (1290), France (1306), and Spain (1492); even the largest mass murder of Jews in the Americas, the bombing of the AMIA center in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1994). All of these tragedies (and more) have found their way into the ritualized Tisha B’Av mourning.

What you’ll never find in any martyrology service is another infamous date of mass murder: August 12, 1952. On that date 13 members of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were executed for invented crimes against the state. Subsequently, August 12 became a kind of secular Tisha B’Av for a small but vibrant sector of Yiddish-speaking, socialist but anti-Communist, American Jews. Many of the participants had known the murdered, or been a part of their larger literary circles.

This year August 12 and Tisha B’Av fell within a day of each other. Even in their periodic proximity, a chasm lies between the two dates of mourning. In 1952, the executions fell on the 21st of Av. Perhaps if the global Jewish narrative had been able to claim the executed as martyrs, then another, slightly earlier, moment of significance might have been chosen to bring them into the penumbra of Tisha B’Av. But, of course, that never happened. The executed were too tainted by their participation in the Soviet project.

August 12 quickly came to be observed by organizations like the Congress for Jewish Culture, the Workmen’s Circle, and the American Jewish Committee, as the “Night of the Murdered Poets” even though only five of the 13 executed on that day were Yiddish writers: Perets Markish, Dovid Bergelson, Leyb Kvitko, Dovid Hofshteyn, and Itsik Feffer. The rest of the victims were intellectuals and scientists who had been active in the JAC. They were leaders in the anti-Nazi fight as well as the postwar effort to document Jewish resistance and Nazi crimes against Jews in the Soviet Union. So why was their murder framed as a crime against Yiddish literature?

Certainly this was partly due to the relative renown of the writers. But as Yiddishkayt LA’s Rob Adler Peckerar argues, it was the dominant ideology of the times, specifically Cold War anti-Communism, that shaped these commemorations. The Murdered Poets programs were meant to focus on the violence and tragedy Soviet Communism brought upon Jews and Jewish culture, and perhaps, just as importantly, they demonstrated that those doing the remembering had learned the “right” lessons.

“Much of Soviet Jewish culture, in what little has been written about it in English, has been viewed almost exclusively through the lens of the Purges and their miserable aftermath,” writes Peckerar. “Those who were killed emerge as pawns ‘used’ by the Soviet state to betray their own people. Until recently, when people gathered to remember the Yiddish writers of the Soviet Union, most fell back on tragedy, perhaps because terror and murder make for more compelling and sympathetic stories.” But such an approach deprives us of the entirety of Soviet Yiddish, the “creative explosion” that came with the (too) brief periods of state sponsored culture.

For most of those invested in the past (and future) of Yiddish culture, torture and execution in the miserable Lubyanka prison was enough to (at least partially) kosher the Soviet Yiddish writers, even those viewed as directly complicit in Stalin’s crimes, such as Itsik Feffer, who had allegedly been an NKVD informer and cooperated with the state in their prosecution of the JAC members. Their murder, framed as a valuable object lesson, was the vehicle by which their work could retain its cultural currency. It would be a mistake, though, to think that today, when the generation with a deeply personal connection to the August 12 victims is gone, that these questions of ideology have also disappeared. Some gatekeepers believe that even today, adequate judgment has yet to be passed on Soviet Yiddish writers.

Though some of the children of the murdered are still with us, mostly in Israel, there is no natural constituency for the August 12 commemorations. If Yiddish in general was set apart from mainstream American Jewish culture, Soviet Yiddish was held apart all the more so. There was no next generation that was encouraged to feel invested in these writers and their work, no personal connection that could be cultivated.

This stands in stark contrast with April 19, the other great day of commemoration on the secular Yiddish calendar. April 19, of course, was the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Though modest in comparison to global Holocaust remembrance days, April 19 continues to be a vibrant, and highly visible, day of commemoration. Today, third-generation Holocaust survivors are starting to take the lead in this work. This, however, was hardly inevitable.

Bund historian David Slucki (himself a 3G from a Bundist family) has written about how April 19 came to be accepted as a locus of Holocaust memory. This was in large part due to the Farband fun gevezene yidishe katsetler un partizaner (Katsetler Farband), known in English as the United Jewish Survivors of Nazi Persecution. The Katsetler Farband helped shape the meaning of the Holocaust in the immediate postwar era. In “‘A Struggle Unparalleled in Human History’: Survivors Remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” (2019), Slucki writes: “From its very beginning in the 1940s, the Katsetler Farband privileged narratives of resistance, conceiving of itself as a ‘veterans’ organization’ among other military veterans’ groups in the United States. The focus on resistance pivoted particularly on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” The Farband put forward an understanding of the uprising that was both Jewish and universal, emphasizing the moral authority of those who had fought.

Those looking to celebrate the complicated legacy of Soviet Yiddish are often met with lingering demands to relitigate the crimes of Jewish communists. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was probably impossible to position the JAC as heroes (and martyrs) in the same way that the Katsetler Farband positioned the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Consequently, today there is no clear-cut day of commemoration for the destruction of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. And that itself is a tragedy.

My friend Shane Baker was once again involved with producing this year’s August 12 program, this year featuring an astonishing find, an extremely rare theatrical text by Moscow State Jewish Theater director Shloyme Mikhoels (himself murdered on Stalin’s orders a few years before the rest of the JAC).

Baker is the head of the Congress for Jewish Culture, which produced its own August 12 event from the very beginning. When I asked him about the event’s continuing relevance, and the exasperating layers of accreted politicization, he warned me about being too quick to subscribe to black-and-white notions of performative commemoration. He reminded me that Itche Goldberg, the long-lived stalwart of the Communist-associated IKUF (Jewish Culture Association), renewed ties between the anti-Communist congress and IKUF, and was a speaker at the congress’ August 12 event for many years.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the “creative explosion” of Soviet Yiddish continues to reverberate today. Many of the people who have shaped modern Yiddish culture in New York, people like Gennady Estraikh, Boris Sandler, and Chaim Beider, were themselves beneficiaries of, and came up in, the Soviet Yiddish cultural “thaw” that happened less than 10 years after the terrible tragedy in the Lubyanka prison. My Russian Jewish peers deserve to learn that the beloved Russian-language children’s author Leyb Kvitko was also a Yiddish poet. Our connection to Soviet Yiddish culture isn’t a thing of the past, but a vital part of the future.

READ: Though the August 12 commemoration never made it very far into the American Jewish mainstream, in 1999 Nathan Englander used the saga of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee as the backdrop of a short story called “The Twenty-Seventh Man.” That story was turned into a play in 2012. Listen to the story here or read the play here.

LISTEN: Two Itsik Feffer poems are featured on the 1998 Klezmatics-Chava Alberstein album Di Krenitse (The Well); the title track, “Di Krenitse,” and the haunting “Di Elter” (Old Age). Born in 1900, Feffer wasn’t even 50 when he was arrested. A few lines from “Di Elter” (translation by Michael Wex):

This heart of mine will not grow gray,
My word will not grow cooler.
The chilly dew upon my path
Won’t make my song grow stiller.
If I really have to age,
I want to age like wine.

ALSO: Klezmer-bluegrass virtuoso Andy Statman is everywhere these days. Aug. 28 he’ll be collaborating with Brooklyn Raga Massive for a show at the Rubin Museum, 150 West 17th St. Oct. 10 he brings his trio to the Mercury East for an early show. Mercury East, 217 East Houston St. Tickets here. … Ever dreamed of being part of a Yiddish chorale? The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus is holding new member auditions Sept. 4 and 5. Email Chorus Director Binyumen Schaechter ([email protected]) for an appointment. … Wednesday, Sept. 11, Dr. Michael Nutkiewicz discusses his research on Eli Gumener, author of the Yiddish language memoir A Kapitl Ukraine: Tsvey Yor in Podolye (A Ukrainian Chapter: Two Years in Podolia). Gumener was an aid worker during the 1918-1920 pogroms in Podolye. Sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee, 2 p.m. in Midtown Manhattan (registration required for location details). … A new six-session evening class starts Sept. 12, exploring the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer. In English, at YIVO, 16 West 15th St. Register here. … If you want to know anything about Yiddish in Brazil today, you have to start with Sao Paulo’s Nicole Borger. She’ll be in New York to give a concert on Sept. 14 and a lecture at the New York Public Library on Sept. 16. Not to be missed. … Finally, very few live Yiddish and klezmer performances get the benefit of professional video and sound recording. Happily, the good folks at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival caught this gorgeous performance of my girl crush Sasha Lurje singing the Yiddish Tennessee Waltz with the incomparable Michael Winograd and the Honorable Mentshn. Enjoy.


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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.