Propaganda and Nationalism in Wartime Russia

Propaganda and Nationalism in Wartime Russia

By Shimon Redlich

(Columbia University Press, 1982, $26.00)

NINETEEN EIGHTY THREE marks the fortieth anniversary of the visit of Solomon Mikhoels and Itsik Fefer to this country. The publication of Shimon Redlich’s book on the saga of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) is thus timely and important.

In 1943, the interests of the Jewish people and the Kremlin flowed from different tributaries into a central swirling eddy—the need to defeat Nazi Germany. It would be strange today for Anglo-Jewry to enthusiastically welcome Jewish adherents of the social system in the USSR as official representatives of Soviet Jewry or indeed to praise “the heroic land of the Soviets”.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union made its historic appeal in Moscow in August 1941 to “Our Jewish brothers around the World”. Twelve years later the leading members of the “Committee” were “liquidated” in the basement of the Lubianka Prison in Moscow one black day in August 1952, murdered by the NKVD.

However, the legacy of these poets and writers among the victims will never be forgotten. Chaim Grade who spent the war years in Moscow wrote:

In your poems you were like a pond—

crooked mirror for the world of truth

The young have forgotten you and me and the hour of our grief

Your widows receive their dower of blood money

But your darkly murdered tongue, silenced by

the hangman’s noose, is no longer heard,

though the muse again sings in the land

You left me your language, lifted with joy But oh, I am bereft

I wear your Yiddish like a drowned man’s shirt wearing out the heart”

Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Poets

The mass exodus of Soviet Jews since the summer of 1968 effectively ended decades of isolation and separation from the mainstream of Jewish endeavour. That exodus was not simply an exit of oppressed humanity. With them, they carried the collective memory of generations of Soviet Jews. The refuseniks not only included wild-eyed young men who gloried in the name of Zion but also aged Chalutzim who had failed to make aliyah in the twenties and thirties.

A strange symbiotic relationship has arisen between the Diaspora and the refuseniks in the USSR. Assimilated Soviet Jews have gained access to the vaults of Jewish education through books and tapes from Western visitors as well as by exposure to a constant stream of Jewish scholars. In reverse, there has been an export of information about events long forgotten and of people long dead. Like Nadezhda Mandelstam, these Jews of apparent silence carried precious memories inside their heads, waiting for the day when their recollections could be dictated, transcribed and published. It is in this context that Dr. Redlich’s study should be viewed. He has specialised in studying the work of the JAC and has been instrumental in bringing it to the attention of the English speaking public in the light of new information from the USSR.

During those dark days of the invasion of Soviet Russia, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an unmentionable embarrassment, the Kremlin gave consideration to the harnessing of world Jewish opinion to the Soviet war effort. The vehicle to extend the hand of friendship abroad would be a Soviet controlled ‘Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. “It was obvious that such a weaving together of prominent Jewish personalities could also be viewed as a focus for Jewish concerns and desires. Der Nister bitterly recorded the reality of the times: “We have no God and no Torah. All we have are the letters of the Yiddish alphabet”. Yet even Yiddish and its official proliferation by the Yevsektsia was progressively undermined by the bovine minions of the Stalinist state.

The war thus opened up new possibilities of a national Jewish life and contact with world Jewry. The confluence of Soviet and Jewish interests was enthusiastically welcomed by Jews inside and outside the borders of the USSR. The positioning of the fulcrum which balanced—in Soviet eyes—the positive and negative aspects of the JAC was, of course, finely attuned by the Kremlin. The movement of that fulcrum was directly related to the movement of Soviet official policy. A dry run of this delicate balancing act was enacted through the drama of the Polish Bundist leaders, Henryk Erlich and Wiktor Alter. Although Dr. Redlich has already published this section of his book, the tragedy of the Erlich-Alter affair is still compelling reading the second time around.

After nearly two years’ incarceration in Soviet prisons, the two socialists found themselves tried, sentenced to death, reprieved and finally released within the space of six weeks. The volte-face was catalysed by the cataclysmic times that had befallen the Kremlin in the wake of the seemingly invincible Nazi advance into the USSR. Erlich and Alter were released so that through their vast array of contacts in both the socialist and Jewish worlds, they would promote, with zest and fervour, the concept of a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR with corresponding groups in the USA and Great Britain. They maintained close contact with Stafford Cripps, then British Ambassador in Moscow, and met Walter Citrine, the General Secretary of the TUC when he visited the USSR. Then suddenly at the beginning of December 1941, Erlich and Alter were re-arrested. Their execution is believed to have taken place shortly afterwards. Dr. Redlich argues that at this time, Soviet war fortunes improved and the position of equilibrium moved away from the Bundists. As Dr. Redlich states, “the NKVD considered the use of the Bundists for Soviet purposes as a calculated and closely controlled risk”. Erlich had been a member of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917. Clearly his Menshevik and Bundist affiliations were no recommendation to the Soviet leadership. Within a few months of their release from prison, the psychological risk of working with non-Soviet, non-Communist people proved too much for the Kremlin. Paradoxically, in spite of their knowledge of Bolshevik duplicity from the earliest days of the Revolution, Erlich and Alter really believed that the German invasion of Russia had caused Stalin to mellow. In a memorandum to the Polish Ambassador in the USSR, they wrote: “The emergence of the Jewish Anti-Hitlerite Committee would be the first break in Soviet practice banning socialists from participation in any public activities. The decisive influence in the JAHC would be exercised by socialists”.

When the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was eventually established the Kremlin ensured that it was staffed with its own—at least outwardly—compliant citizens. But as history has shown, the fate awaiting Mikhoels, Fefer, Markish and all the rest was no different from their Bundist colleagues.

Dr. Redlich records that over a hundred prominent Jews participated in its activities. The nucleus of the committee consisted of Yiddish writers and poets. Indeed, Government officials and party functionaries were in a distinct minority.

A chapter is devoted to a membership profile of the better known luminaries. A particularly interesting section is devoted to Ilya Ehrenburg who is characterised as “a special kind of ‘internal’ Soviet fellow traveller”. Ehrenburg’s relationship with the JAC was extremely complex and it was, of course, his notorious article in Pravda in 1948 which signalled the “correct” attitude that Soviet Jews should adopt towards Israel and Zionism.

The Committee’s work is detailed in full: the publication of Eynikayt; its cultural activities and literary evenings; its development of Der Ernes, the Yiddish publishing house; its huge public meeting in April 1944 attended by 3000 people; its proposals for Jewish settlement in the Crimea; its active support in promoting Birobidzhan as a Jewish homeland; its help and concern for Jewish refugees from Poland; its emergence as a major documentation  centre of Nazi atrocities and its compilation of such horrors in the Black Book project. Much of this is well known, but Dr. Redlich has filled in many gaps in previous knowledge.

Jewish responses to the JAC and specifically to the Mikhoels-Fefer visit are enlightening. Very little space is devoted to their visit to Britain which is a pity especially for those who were actively involved at the time in the work of the “Jewish Fund for Soviet Russia”. In the USA, a number of front organisations were initially established. Headed by non-Communist public figures, they appeared to be dissociated from the Party whilst promoting pro-Soviet sentiments. This was not new, but in this context, members of established communal organisations joined them. The Jewish Council for Russian War Relief thus boasted Stephen Wise and Albert Einstein as joint honorary chairmen. Orthodox rabbis and the President of the Zionist Organisation of America were counted amongst its members. For many Jewish leaders, it was not simply the psychological release of buried utopianism, but a genuine attempt to build bridges to Soviet Jewry and to establish permanent contacts with the Kremlin. This manifested itself during the visit of Mikhoels and Fefer to the USA. Many Jewish leaders adopted an explicitly pro-Soviet stand. The Erlich-Alter affair was either forgotten or glossed over. Nahum Goldmann believed that pro-Soviet diplomacy would mobilise the Kremlin’s support for Zionism and the Yishuv. At a mass rally with Mikhoels and Fefer as honoured guests, Goldmann told the audience “l am here. . . not despite my being a Zionist . . . but because I am a Zionist”.

There was, by no means, unanimity in support of this pro-Soviet line. The execution of Erlich and Alter aroused bitter opposition from Jewish socialist circles. The Jewish Labour movement and its mouthpiece, the Forward vehemently condemned such tactics “di tsionistishe unterfirershaft oyf der komunistisher khasene” (the Zionist ‘best men’ at the Communist wedding) The Jewish leadership, as Dr. Redlich shows, went to great lengths to ensure the success of the visit. In a memorandum on his meeting with the Head of the State Department’s Russian Division, Nahum Goldmann wrote “I also told him of our condition (for the Mikhoels-Fefer visit) that the Erlich-Alter murders must be kept off the agenda”. Despite divisions in the US Jewish community, contacts with the JAC were established by organisations such as the World Jewish Congress and the Joint. There were, however, considerable differences regarding the nature of that cooperation and its objectives. Despite a dialogue with successive Soviet Ambassadors in Washington, Dr. Goldmann received little in return as far as Soviet Jewry was concerned. Requests for the release of Jewish prisoners in the USSR were met with a “wait and see” response. WJC attempts to involve the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in its work met with vacillation and stone walling. Conference invitations were ignored or evaded by the JAC.

Given the nature of Stalin’s regime and the chilly winds of the cold war, it is no wonder that hints and promises were never translated into concrete realities. It is perhaps a little unfair of Dr. Redlich to suggest that “the public flattery of influential Jewish politicians and journalists such as Dr. Nahum Goldmann . . . was just another example, of Soviet manipulation of Jewish public opinion”. In hindsight, it is of course easy to rationalise a complex situation.

The Yishuv, on Ben-Gurion’s insistence, similarly attempted to establish contacts with Soviet diplomats. Many Left Socialist Zionist circles were ideologically supportive of a rapprochement with the USSR. Dr. Redlich notes that Al Ha-Mishmar, Hashomer Hatzair’s journal, published “pro-Soviet views and propaganda almost indiscriminately”. This was done at a time when adherents of their party had languished for decades in the camps of the Gulag. Although diplomatic contacts did develop, there could be no hint of Zionism seeping into the USSR. Thus when the programme of the Yishuv’s V League was published in Eynikayt, its “Zionist oriented” clause was omitted. Even a visit of Mikhoels and Fefer to Palestine was considered to be too sensitive a venture.

The end of the war set new priorities for the Kremlin and this was reflected in the attitudes of the JAC. Under the impact of the cold war and the introduction of the “Zhdanovshchina”, JAC attitudes became more rigid and propagandistic. Contacts with the Yishuv and Diaspora organisations became weaker. The JAC outwardly was gradually transformed into an overt organ of the Soviet propaganda machine. Nineteen Forty Eight was, of course, the “year of reckoning”. The perfidious murder of Mikhoels in January was a crime worthy of a banana republic government. Dr. Redlich details much of the available evidence which indicates death by deliberation. The illusion of a traffic accident deceived few in Moscow. Markish wrote:

The wounds on your face are covered by the snow so that

the Black Satan shall not touch you but your dead eyes

blaze with anger and your heart they trampled on cries out

against the murderous crew

The exhilaration of the establishment of the State of Israel permeated the JAC and it propagated its rejoicing in no uncertain terms within the liberal parameters of Soviet policy. However the JAC was unable to perform according to the rules, external support for Israel, internal opposition to Zionism. The subtleties of the situation proved too much for most nationally conscious Soviet Jews including members of the JAC. Dr. Redlich has squeezed the momentous events of 1948 as perceived by Soviet Jews into a few short pages. The numerous stories of Jews who applied to the JAC for details about emigration to Israel or volunteering to fight in the War of Independence merit more than a few lines especially as many of the applicants were later arrested. The book concludes with the dismemberment of the JAC in 1948.

The work of the JAC deserves to be understood by a wider audience than perhaps is intended by this academic study. Even so, it is an important contribution to the education of those who care about the history of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union.

Jewish Quarterly Spring-Summer 1983


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