The Stalinist Show Trials

On 12 August 1952, Peretz Markish, Dovid Berge!son and some others were executed in the dungeons of the Lubianka. Even today, thirty-ive years on, it is uncertain how many were killed or precisely when. Last month, family and Friends of the murdered Soviet-Jewish writers gathered in Jerusalem to commemorate them and to recall the manner of their passing.

The liquidation of a notable section of the Jewish intelligentsia was the first episode in a trilogy of Jewish tragedies in the USSR during the terrible winter of 1952-3. This and the final terror of the Doctors’ Plot are remembered each year, especially by Yiddishists and activists in the campaign for Soviet Jewry. But the link between these two events, the infamous Slansky trial of Communist leaders in Czechoslovakia in November 1952, has by and large been glossed over. This is probably due to the fact that the Jewish defendants—eleven out of the fourteen on trial—were all life-long Communists and without any identification with Jews or Zionism. Moreover Slansky’s own persecution of social democrats and liberals did not cast him in the role of a Jewish martyr. Even so, the trial plumbed new depths of Stalinist antisemitism and distortion of Zionist purpose. Artur London and Eugene

Loebl were fortunate enough to be sentenced -Co–long prison terms and subsequently wrote chilling accounts of the primitive hatred for Jews which their interrogators exhibited. London, whose mother, sister and other family members perished in Auschwitz, was told by the prison commandant at the outset that “not everything that Hitler did was bad, because he killed Jews and that was a good thing. Too many escaped the gas chambers. What he did not finish, we shall complete.”

Some relatives of the accused believed so completely in the infallibility of the Party that they were unable to see through the web of lies. The son of Ludwig Frejka genuinely believed his father was guilty and wrote to the President of the court to demand the death penalty for him—which he duly received.

All the defendants had been led to believe that they would receive heavy terms of imprisonment if they cooperated with their interrogators. The court instead condemned eleven of the accused to death. Eight of these—Slansky, Geminder, Frejka, Mein, Margolis, Fischl, Sling and Simone—were Jews.

Artur London later recalled the atmosphere in the courtroom.  -the silence in the court showed that, however carefully the audience had been selected, they too were overwhelmed by the cruelty of the verdict… .No applause, no sign of approval. On the contrary, one had the impression that a breath of terror had passed through the room, an icy coldness had overcome the spectators. They craned forwards. Nobody was proud of this ghastly end.. ..The spectators stood staring at us. They watched us leave the room, motionless and horrified.

Between our warders we marched to our boxes. We were shattered. We could see nothing. For although we had often thought that death alone would end our trial, we clung to every last straw of hope handed to us by the only beings we were in contact with, the interrogators, the men who, for us, represented the Party.

We had finally accepted everything, even our own death sentence. There was no other way out; like Lenin’s old comrades before us, like the defendants of Budapest, Sofia and Bucharest, we had to accept our part in the trial and confirm the charge. (On Trial, 1986)

On 3 December 1952, less than a week after the verdict, the eleven were hanged and their ashes disposed of on an icy Prague road.

Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1987

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