Saturday, August 16, 2003

STALIN AND THE JEWS: THE RED BOOK: The Tragedy of the Soviet Jews

By Arno Lustiger

Foreword by Yefim Etkind.

Translated from the German.

Enigma Books, $29, 446 pages, illus.


Joseph Stalin had a favorite saying by which he lived and multitudes died. It went like this: “est chelovek, est problema, net cheloveka — net problemy.” Or, “a person, a problem; no person — no problem.” Millions of people in the Soviet Union became un-persons during his quarter-century rule. While the Georgian-born Stalin didn’t particularly favor one nationality over another during his reign of terror, he was a “breaker of nations,” as in Robert Conquest’s book title — and he had a particular hatred for Soviet Jews. Stalin’s own daughter, Svetlana, attested to that psychosis:

“His anti-Semitism surely originated from the long years of struggle with Trotsky and his supporters,. What was originally political hate gradually became a feeling of racial hatred against all Jews, without exception.”

The Lustiger book is one of several recently published about Stalin’s war against the Soviet Jews, but this is one which has Soviet documents I have not seen before. I only wish that the publisher and his readers had paid more attention to the translation, which is poor, and to the text itself which has some real howlers. (There never was a New York senator named Abraham Kaplan, the Crimea is nowhere near the Baltic Sea, Svetlana was forced by her father to marry not Andre Zhdanov, Stalin’s hatchet-man, but his son, Iurii. And there are sentences which are incoherent, such as: “A few days after the revolt [in Spain], Franco agreed with the Politburo….”).

Were it not for such editorial ineptitude (the misspelling of proper names alone would be troubling enough), one would not hesitate to to accept such interesting revelations as that Grigori Khaifets “was the first [Soviet] agent to report to Moscow about frantic American efforts regarding the atom bomb in an encoded telegram in 1941.”

Born in Poland, the 79-year-old Lustiger is a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He now lives in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. A distant relative of Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, the author has devoted his research and writing efforts to the story of the Russian Jews, from the days of the tsars to the Stalin era, particularly the last three months before Stalin’s death March 5, 1953, to the post-Stalin years of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Bolshevik revolution began, as Mr. Lustiger tells it, with a campaign against anti-Semitism and promotion of the Yiddish language and literature. At one point, there were 400 Yiddish periodicals. By 1938, there were none. The Communists liquidated Jewish institutions, publishing houses, cultural associations and arrested their employees.

It was providential that the 73-year-old Stalin suffered a stroke on Feb. 28, 1953 on the same day as the Jewish holiday of Purim. It was also on the same day that deportations to Siberia of more than one million Jews from Moscow alone and millions more from other parts of the Soviet Union were to begin. There is some evidence that Stalin was also preparing new Moscow trials of those who had, during his genocidal reign, been his closest colleagues, like Vyacheslav Molotov whom Stalin forced to separate from his Jewish wife. (Molotov’s wife was suspect because she had been heard speaking Yiddish with the then-Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir.) Part of Stalin’s anti-Semitism was to conjure up the so-called Doctor’s Plot, in which the Kremlin doctors, most of them Jews, “confessed” under torture that they had deliberately misdiagnosed health problems of Soviet leaders. These accusations produced, says Mr. Lustiger, a “mass hysteria,” so that Russians refused to accept medications by Jewish physicians. All these doctors were freed a few days after Stalin’s death.

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.

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