On Ilya Ehrenburg

THE FIGURE OF Ilya Ehrenburg evokes passionate controversy. Some regard him as an opportunist and a sophisticated Stalinist hack. Others see him as an entrenched liberal, courageously but stealthily ordering the waves of reaction to retreat.

Anyone who has witnessed and tried to comprehend the traumatic events of the twentieth century cannot ignore the miraculous odyssey of Ilya Ehrenburg in Stalin’s Russia. How did he manage to survive into his seventies and die peacefully in the comfort of his own bed whilst many of his contemporaries received a quick bullet in a Lubianka basement? Why was he never cast adrift on one of the islands of the Gulag Archipelago to subsist as a ragged zek. Ehrenburg regarded his survival as sheer chance, a matter of human lottery. Indeed, the very evidence of his critics was based on the fact that he was not liquidated. “He remained alive? That means he is a traitor.”

Yet he was clearly ambivalent about his good fortune. Not only did he need to explain this to himself, but he also sought to construct a rationale to neutralize his critics within the USSR and beyond its borders. He asked: “Why did Stalin spare Pasternak, who held himself aloof, and destroyed Koltsov, who had faithfully carried out every task entrusted to him? Why did he wipe out Vavilov and spare Kapitsa? Why, having eliminated almost all of Litvinov’s associates, did he not eliminate the obdurate Litvinov himself? For me, all this is an enigma.”

Occasionally, Ehrenburg came very close to being trodden underfoot by the MVD. At a public meeting in 1949, Golovenchenko, an anti-Semitic member of the central committee, announced that he had been arrested. It was believed because it was expected. Ehrenburg, who was awaiting the legendary knock on the door, took a bold step. He wrote personally to Stalin to clarify the matter of his “arrest”. Shortly afterwards Malenkov telephoned him to express surprise. According to the Soviet Jewish writer Grigory Svirsky, Golovenchenko was hospitalized with a heart attack while Ehrenburg suddenly found favour once more amongst Soviet editors who clamoured for his articles.

This incident took place at the height of the arrests of the Jewish intelligentsia. It indicates that it was Stalin who was Ehrenburg’s protector and that a special role had been reserved for him. When Markish, Bergelson and the others were being apprehended and incarcerated, never to be seen again, Ehrenburg, who was also a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, remained a free man.

The late Anatol Goldberg’s biography of Ehrenburg, (Anatol Goldberg, Ilya Ehrenburg: Writings, Politics and the Art of Survival (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1984) which is basically a first draft, purports to explain his long career, with its twists and turns. It is the application of rationality to justify double standards. It draws together the diverse strands of his literary achievements, as well as information from the USSR and Israel, to develop new insights into the thinking of this complex character. Yet, as Eric de Mauny comments in his introduction, it cannot be regarded as a definitive work since there are materials still locked away somewhere in Moscow.

Ilya Ehrenburg’s multifaceted character helps to explain the reactions of both critics and supporters. He is often looked upon as a liberal Soviet writer so the revulsion caused by his behaviour when he became Stalin’s poodle is comprehensible. But he was neither simply a writer nor indeed a liberal; he was also—although he denied it—a shrewd political animal whose formidable pen raised propaganda to the level of a new art form.

If one can separate pragmatic action and morality when considering the reality of the Stalinist era, the question arises: how did Ehrenburg become an expert in the timing and nature of his responses? Naturally, self-preservation was one reason, but he also wished to continue writing what he perceived to be the truth. During those black years, he clearly embraced Stalinist methodology with the express purpose of surviving Stalinism and of struggling against it in better times. Ehrenburg softened this apparent volte-face with almost imperceptible rays of light. Suppose Ehrenburg ad fiercely denounced Stalin and revealed the truth about the arrested Jewish intellectuals at his famous press conference in London in 1950—it would have been a praiseworthy, defiant moral act, but would it have helped? It might have made much harder for Stalin to place on -trial and eventually murder the Jewish intellectuals in August 1952. It could equally be argued that, given ie paranoia of Stalin’s last years, it would not have made the slightest difference to their fate. For Ehrenburg, it would have spelled exile in the West at sixty and a sudden divorce from Russian culture. Stalin needed Ehrenburg because he cut an independent and thereby credible figure in the Vest. The struggle between the Vozhd and Ehrenburg was essentially a conflict between two propagandists, each with a rival message to convey. Ehrenburg could have used this platform in the Vest to denounce Stalin. He chose not to, fright-ned of exile and hesitant about the effectiveness f such an exercise.

Ehrenburg came from an assimilated bourgeois Jewish background. Even his father was removed from traditional communal life. Ehrenburg regarded his Jewishness as a utopian symbol: As long as there is a single anti-Semite left in the world, I shall proudly call myself a Jew”. In fact, his fiery anti-fascist articles during World War II were worthy of the most nationalistic Jewish patriarch. It can be argued that Ehrenburg was intensely Jewish in a universalist sense. In spite of the absence of a strong Jewish background, he conformed to the Jewish tradition of polemic and dissent established by the Prophets. In Ehrenburg’s first major novel, Julio Jurenito, the central character asks his seven companions which word they would retain if the rest of the vocabulary were to be abolished—would it be “yes” or “no”. Six choose the affirmative while the Jew says “no”. Julio Jurenito demands to know why the Jews persist with their desire to change the world when the world does not want change. The author sees this discourse as potent in the hands of both anti-Semites and Zionists alike, but not perhaps as a deeply rooted concept in the mainstream of Jewish thought and endeavour.

Ehrenburg never lost his sense of rebellion and independence. In the year before his death, he signed an appeal in support of the writers Daniel and Sinyavsky. From the very beginning of his career, he followed his own path. Arrested at seventeen, he joined the Bolsheviks before it became fashionable. Drifting away from politics at nineteen, he went to Paris as an aspiring poet. At twenty he contemplated becoming a Benedictine monk despite fathering a child. To Lenin and his entourage, this Bohemian was known as “Shaggy Ilya”. Like many other emigres, he returned to Russia in 1917, yet he never rejoined the Party and was almost embarrassingly inactive during the October revolution. During the period of war communism, he was, according to Nadezhda Mandelshtam, sickened by the wholesale slaughter that was taking place. Ehrenburg supported the ideals of communism, but not its practice. This is evident from his earliest writings in the Soviet period. His sense of objectivity annoyed many adherents of the Bolshevik cause, for example, the ultra-zealous group of writers around the early periodical, Na Postu, whose central purpose amongst others was to unmask less than committed supporters such as Ehrenburg. “Na Postu was, from the Communist point of view,” writes Anatol Goldberg, “the most radical and from the literary point of view, the most reactionary”. But for Ehrenburg, literature could not be placed in a conformist straightjacket. Ideology erected boundaries. It was this fundamental point with which he grappled throughout his life.

Unkindly and falsely, many termed him a nihilist or even an anarchist. The literary critic, Viktor Shklovsky described Ehrenburg as “a Saul who had failed to become Paul”, in that he never eliminated past concepts or philosophies when imbibing new ones. As Mr Goldberg paradoxically remarks, it was only in the West that Ehrenburg could become a free Soviet writer. Such a paradox has recognizable Jewish ingredients. Shklovsky’s negative appraisal should be interpreted positively—as the triumph of the Jewish objectivity of Saul over the Hellenistic dualism of Paul.

The rise of fascism helped to turn Ehrenburg’s mind away from the madness that was taking place in Moscow. The pride that he felt when the Nazis considered his books important enough to burn tended to lessen the horror of the extermination of his mentor, Bukharin, and many other close friends. But his attacks on the Nazis suddenly became the unacceptable face of anti-fascism during the lead-in to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. lzvestia refused to print any further articles. Mr Goldberg suggests that this was a compliment to Ehrenburg as an effective propagandist. Yet this would only be true if Stalin knew that there would be war between Germany and the USSR some two years before it actually took place. Before the pact, Ehrenburg was under surveillance as a Communist spy. It must have seemed like a black comedy to him when, after the pact, the French police regarded him as a Nazi spy! When France fell, he witnessed the ascent of the “New Order” in his beloved Paris. A new French newspaper remarked: “In each of us there is something Jewish. Each of us needs an inner pogrom”. Evacuated together with the Soviet Embassy by the Nazis, he travelled through wartime Germany and spent two nights in a Berlin hotel to which Jews were not admitted.

Such events intensified Ehrenburg’s Jewish consciousness and his hatred of fascism. In the later stages of the war, Soviet journalists were requested to play down the immensity of the Jewish tragedy, particularly in view of the rampant antisemitism in the newly liberated Ukraine. When the authorities wished physically to obliterate the site at Babi Yar, Ehrenburg appealed to Nikita Krushchev. The future Soviet premier upbraided the writer, “I advise you not to interfere in matters that do not concern you. You had better keep to writing good novels.” This period of Soviet history and its distortion of the Holocaust is scarcely mentioned by Mr Goldberg.

Ehrenburg’s celebrated article, “About A Certain Letter”, in the Moscow Pravda of 21 September 1948, is regarded as the official warning to Soviet Jews to keep their distance from Israel and to abandon thoughts of unrestricted emigration. It heralded that terrible period in history which has become known as the Black Years of Soviet Jewry. It is significant to note that the article appeared some five days after the first formal approach to the Soviet Foreign Ministry on the question of emigration by the Israeli Legation in Moscow.

The article opposed emigration and Zionism. Soviet Jews only had one homeland and in any case, there could be no Jewish problem under socialism. Although Ehrenburg was working from a prepared brief, Mr Goldberg contends that he embellished the article with many of his own beliefs. Ehrenburg was certainly quite unsympathetic to Zionism. In an early piece of writing, “A Spoonful of Tar”, Ehrenburg’s views were clearly those of one who has transcended traditional Judaism. He believed that the concept of the wandering Jew was a boon to mankind. The aspiration to rootless cosmopolitanism should be a Jewish ideal. However, after the Holocaust this utopian suggestion lost its validity to Jews in the USSR and abroad. Many Jews then regarded Ehrenburg’s article as a betrayal—and many Soviet Jews still do today.

Mr Goldberg suggests that the piece was a concealed warning from Ehrenburg to Soviet Jews to beware the Damoclean sword that hovered above them. But it might well be argued that the anti-Jewish campaign had already been planned and this was not the warning but the opening shots. Ehrenburg’s letter was greeted by the well-known demonstration of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews on Rosh Hashana 1948 who welcomed GoIda Meir to the Moscow synagogue. This spontaneous manifestation certainly shocked the Kremlin—nothing like it had been seen since the protests of the Oppositionists in the 1920s. By Yom Kippur, the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction had had its effect, judging by the diminished attendance at the synagogue, Even so, the Kremlin felt the need to take steps and began by abolishing the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and arresting prominent Jews in November 1948. One of the articles in the last edition of Einikeit, the Committee’s periodical, was reputed to contain a repudiation of Ehrenburg’s approach by Itzik Pfeffer—a man who had once written Yiddish odes to Stalin. Unlike Ehrenburg, Pfeffer was arrested and subsequently liquidated. Were these tragic events already planned when Ehrenburg’s article was published? Or did they simply come as a reaction to the prevailing national mood of Soviet Jews? Did Ehrenburg’s expansion on the original brief constitute a genuine warning to Soviet Jews or was it complicity in Stalin’s strategy for the Jews? Even if the latter hypothesis is true, Ehrenburg may have realized his rashness, for he repeated his warning to Mordechai Namir, Counsellor of the Israeli Legation. Namir reported that “Ehrenburg’s friendly advice was to suppress all efforts to attract Soviet Jews to Zionism and to aliya”. This took place in December 1948 when the anti-Jewish campaign had already begun. If Ehrenburg exhibited a certain ambivalence in the summer and autumn of 1948, perhaps as a personal reaction to the establishment of Israel, by the time of the Doctor’s Plot it is clear that he took a principled stand. Mr Goldberg includes Ehrenburg’s letter to Stalin in which he explained his reasons for not signing an appeal by docile Soviet Jews. As history records Stalin died and the trial of the doctors never took place, thus averting the mass deportation of Soviet Jews to Central Asia, which, it is believed, would have resulted from the appeal. But it is not clear from Goldberg’s book whether Ehrenburg did not sign the letter, as the author suggests. The last sentence of Ehrenburg’s letter to Stalin reads: “If leading comrades convey to me that the publication of this document and my signature on it may be helpful in the defence of the Motherland and for the Peace Movement, I shall at once sign it.”

Even if Ehrenburg did not sign the offending document, many Soviet Jews, at the time, regarded Ehrenburg with great suspicion. Baruch Weissman was an elderly Kiev Jew who kept a secret diary during those dark times. Writing in June 1953, he clearly believed that Ehrenburg signed.

The writers Ehrenburg and Marshak were especially evasive to several invitations to visit Pravda to discuss “an important matter’. The police were enlisted. Police officers set out in their victory cars to hunt down the two writers in their lairs and deliver them to the editors of Pravda. They were brought in, shown the letter, and, when they saw that they were not amongst the first ten and that Kaganovich headed the list, they dutifully affixed their signatures.

I have always had great respect for the talents of these two men, and somehow hoped that they would raise their voices against the persecution of their people. Yet there is so little margin for moral heroism in the life of a Soviet writer that I was inclined to impute heroism to their silence about the Doctors’ affair when the Rybaks, Mitins and others ran with the pack. However, both Ehrenburg and Marshak finally succumbed by affixing their signatures to the letter of the fifty-two. There has since been no evidence to indicate that they have been seriously perturbed by this terrible self-abasement which they tried hard to evade. Marshak still pens his verse for children and Ehrenburg still writes impassionately of peace and truth.

To write a biography of Ehrenburg must be a fascinating yet frustrating task. The late Mr Goldberg developed many seemingly logical explanations to demystify the contradictions that personified Ehrenburg. Even so, the full and final story has yet to be told.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1984


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.