Jewish cultural figures who would become members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee signing an appeal to world Jewry to support the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany, Moscow, 1941. (Front row, left to right) Dovid Bergelson, Solomon Mikhoels, and Ilya Ehrenburg; (second row) David Oistrakh, Yitskhok Nusinov, Yakov Zak, Boris Iofan, Benjamin Zuskin, Aleksandr Tyshler, Shmuel Halkin. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Martin Smith)

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Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee

One of several Soviet anti-fascist groups formed after the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941. On 24 August 1941, two dozen Jewish cultural figures, led by the Yiddish actor and theater director Solomon Mikhoels (1890–1948), issued an international radio appeal to Jews around the world to unite in the struggle against Nazi Germany. To allow Jews to appeal to their fellow Jews was an extraordinary step for the Kremlin. But Stalin understood the need for the regime to repair relations with the Western powers in the face of the German onslaught.

Over the winter of 1941–1942, Stalin created five anti-fascist committees, for women, scientists, young people, ethnic Slavs, and Jews. Each had a similar mandate: to encourage Western support for the unexpected alliance between Stalin’s Soviet Union and the Western democracies by placing articles abroad about Nazi atrocities and Soviet resolve. The JAC was chaired by Mikhoels; its members included Yiddish writers such as Dovid Bergelson (1884–1952), Perets Markish (1895–1952), and Itsik Fefer (1900–1952), along with the journalists Ilya Ehrenburg (1891–1967) and Vasilii Grossman (1905–1964) who wrote in Russian. They were also joined by numerous other public figures, including the scientist Lina Shtern (1878–1968); the medical director of Moscow’s Botkin Hospital Boris Shimeliovich (1892–1952); and General Iakob Kreizer (1905–1969) of the Red Army.

The committee’s most famous undertaking was a seven-month tour by Mikhoels and Fefer to the United States in 1943, with stops in Mexico, Canada, and England. They appeared in many cities and raised millions of dollars for the Soviet war effort. Mikhoels and Fefer were received with enthusiasm by figures ranging from Rabbi Stephen Wise (1874–1949), Albert Einstein (1879–1955), and Fiorello La Guardia (1882–1947; mayor of New York from 1934 to 1945) to the leaders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress. The highlight of their visit came on 8 July when 50,000 people greeted them in New York at the Polo Grounds.

It was only natural for Mikhoels and Fefer to be welcomed with such passion. They arrived in New York soon after the victory at Stalingrad when Soviet prestige was at its height. They were the first official representatives of Soviet Jewry to visit the West since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

When Mikhoels and Fefer returned to Moscow in December 1943, they came back to a different country from the one they had left in the spring. The Red Army was now pushing the Wehrmacht out of Soviet territory. As Soviet troops advanced, they began to discover sites of massacres. Members of the JAC learned the fate of their relatives. Grossman’s mother was killed at Berdichev. The poet Dovid Hofshteyn (1889–1952) lost his mother and younger brother at Babi Yar, a ravine outside of Kiev. Itsik Fefer lost his father, a Hebrew teacher, in the Ukrainian town of Shpola.

This news deeply affected the work of the committee. Members began to develop programs to help survivors return to their hometowns, find relatives, and resume their educations. They even tried to make contact with Western Jewish organizations, hoping to arrange for humanitarian supplies on a nonsectarian basis to regions of the Soviet Union with heavy concentrations of Jews. The JAC also authorized Ehrenburg and Grossman to organize the Black Book project; under their leadership, writers and journalists sought documents and firsthand testimony about the Holocaust on Soviet territory. Mikhoels and Fefer also appealed to Soviet leaders to consider establishing a Soviet Jewish republic in Crimea, where Holocaust survivors could renew their lives.

Although Soviet officials were not happy with the committee’s unauthorized initiatives, they did not interfere as long as the war continued. But with the outbreak of the cold war, America became the enemy and contact with the West was severely curtailed. The committee’s wartime activities were now held against it.

The turning point for the JAC came with the founding of Israel in 1948. That September, Golda Meir (1898–1978) visited Moscow as Israel’s first diplomatic representative. She was greeted by cheering mobs at the city’s main synagogue on the Sabbath and High Holidays. Such spontaneous demonstrations in support of a foreign leader, particularly the representative of a Jewish state, were regarded as a provocation by Stalin. The JAC was held responsible. In November, the committee was officially closed and its archives confiscated. Over the winter of 1948–1949, hundreds of Yiddish cultural figures were arrested, including many people associated with the JAC. Solomon Mikhoels was already dead, having been assassinated on Stalin’s orders the previous January.

Within a year, 15 of those under arrest who were connected to the JAC were targeted for a show trial. In spite of a longstanding myth that all the defendants were literary figures, only 5 were well-known poets and writers: Bergelson, Markish, Fefer, Hofshteyn, and Leyb Kvitko (1890–1952). The other 10 defendants included the old Bolshevik and former deputy foreign minister Solomon Lozovskii (1878–1952); the scientist Lina Shtern; and the Yiddish actor Benjamin Zuskin (1899–1952). The defendants were subjected to various forms of torture, and except for Boris Shimeliovich, they all “confessed” to espionage, treason, and “bourgeois nationalism.” They even admitted to working with the Americans and the Zionists to detach Crimea from Soviet territory and turn it into a beachhead for Zionists and American imperialists.

The trial did not begin until May 1952. It lasted for two months, in secret, within the grounds of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police. Itsik Fefer turned state’s evidence; the regime hoped that his accusations would break the will of the other defendants. But Solomon Lozovskii exposed the sham proceedings over the course of six days of testimony. He even compared the court to the Spanish Inquisition and explicitly reminded the judges of his Jewish ancestors who had been persecuted by Tomás de Torquemada. The other defendants took heart from his courage and disavowed their earlier confessions. But nothing could save them. Thirteen were executed on 12 August 1952, an event that is commemorated as the Night of the Murdered Poets. A fourteenth defendant, the party bureaucrat Solomon Bregman, collapsed into a coma during the trial and died in January 1953. Only Lina Shtern was spared. Sentenced to five years of exile, she returned to Moscow after Stalin’s death in 1953. But she never spoke or wrote about what happened to her.

Suggested Reading

Shimon Redlich, Propaganda and Nationalism in Wartime Russia: The Jewish Antifascist Committee in the USSR, 1941–1948 (Boulder, 1982); Shimon Redlich, War, Holocaust and Stalinism: A Documented History of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR (Luxembourg, 1995); Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov, eds., Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (New Haven, 2001).