This guide offers one entry point to the complicated history of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union by unpacking one of the tragic endpoints of that history. “The Night of the Murdered Poets” refers to August 12, 1952, when thirteen Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union were executed by the state after having been convicted of “nationalist activity” and espionage. Five of those killed were among the most prominent surviving Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union, and so for many people their deaths came to mark an end of Soviet Yiddish culture and a final proof of Stalin’s murderous anti-Semitism.
It should be noted that “The Night of the Murdered Poets” is a misnomer on two important counts. First, only four of the thirteen victims were poets, though several others were prominent writers, intellectuals, and cultural figures; what really connected the group was their affiliation with an organization called the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. While the JAFC was supported by the Soviet government during World War Two as it worked to rally international Jewish support (and funding) for the war effort, after the war the very fact that the committee appealed to Jews around the world caused it to be branded as nationalist and therefore criminal in the Soviet Union. Secondly, the night of the execution was only the end of an ordeal that had gone on for years. The trial of the JAFC members lasted for two months, and this came after they had been imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured for two or three years in some cases.
The principle defendant in the trial, Solomon Lozovskii, testified that, “What is on trial here is the Yiddish language.” Indeed, for the poets among the accused, Yiddish poetry had literally become a matter of life and death. These writers had worked for decades to build Soviet Yiddish culture, and now their literary works were being used as evidence against them. Many had seen the Soviet Union as a liberator, even a savior, from the oppression Jews had experienced in Czarist Russia and during the rise of Nazism. The tension between the hope that many Jews had for the Soviet Union and the country’s ultimate betrayal of its promise to end anti-Semitism is one of the reasons this history and literature are so poignant.
The sources included in this kit come from a number of different genres, with the intention that as students learn about the history of the JAFC, Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union, and Stalinist autocracy, they are also learning how different kinds of sources can be approached, read, and used in different ways. What kind of information can we learn from a poem, a speech, a memoir, a court transcript, a song, or an essay? How do these different genres help us to understand a complicated historical event from different perspectives? And what do we do with historical material that is ultimately incomplete or even contradictory? On this last point, students will have to confront the fact that, even with all of these sources, it is all but impossible to understand what some of these historical figures really thought or felt about their lives, art, and work in the Soviet Union. The portraits of these individuals that students will gain from this kit will likely appear contradictory or even hypocritical. But history is not black and white, and we may in fact inhibit our ability to understand and learn from the lives and works of great writers like Dovid Bergelson, Perets Markish, Leyb Kvitko, and Dovid Hofshteyn if we remember them only as “victim” or “martyr.”
Cover image: Members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Moscow, 1946. (Photo courtesy of the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service, Moscow)