The core of Mr. Lustiger’s volume is the tragedy that befell the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC). Organized in March 1942 in Moscow with Stalin’s full approval, the JAFC was assigned the job of fund-raising in the United States for the Soviet war effort. Solomon Mikhoels, the charismatic director of the Moscow Yiddish Art Theatre, and Itzik Feffer, a Yiddish poet but also a secret police informer, were sent to the United States in May 1943 on a six-month tour. It was highly successful. Forgotten was the Nazi-Soviet alliance from August 1939 to June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. During that 20-month entente cordiale, writes Mr. Lustiger, the Soviet media substituted the phrase “reactionary racism” for the word “fascism” which could no longer be mentioned let alone be criticized. It was ten days after the German invasion, July 2, 1941, before Stalin permitted public criticism of Germany. And equally forgotten was Stalin’s purge of the Red Army during which 40,000 officers were executed, among them 169 Jewish generals.
As for the JAFC, on Nov. 20, 1948, it was officially dissolved. By Jan. 28, 1949, some 100 committee members were in jail as “rootless cosmopolitans,” a euphemism Stalin adopted, says Mr. Lustiger, “so as not to put the party’s reputation with the international left at risk.” And yet at the same time Stalin was supporting Israel in the United Nations including official recognition of the Zionist state. A few months later Stalin was inveighing against “Zionism” as an outpost of American imperialism and the JAFC members became part of a Zionist-U.S. conspiracy against the Soviet Union.
Stalin’s first JAFC victim was Solomon Mikhoels whom he ordered shot and then run over by a truck to make it appear he died in an accident. Svetlana is authority for this revelation since she says she heard her father in January 1948 telephone the order to liquidate the actor. There followed a great State funeral and a lavish obituary in Pravda mourning the great loss.
His next victims were some 110 JAFC members, all accused of espionage, nationalist propaganda, and of seeking to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea as a “bridgehead” for American imperialism. The trial of the top 15 JAFC members began May 8, 1952. And it is here that the book comes into its own with the trial transcript of the JAFC leadership, which fought back. It didn’t help. Thirteen of the 15 were executed by firing squad Aug. 12, 1952. (Confusion here: The post-Soviet rehabilitation document in 1989 cited in the book refers to 10 JAFC members condemned to death).
Despite its many imperfections Mr. Lustiger’s book is encyclopedic and remains an important work in the history of the Soviet Union.
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.