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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.2 (2003) 368-370
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Stalin's Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2001), xxvii + 527 pp., $35.00.
Shortly after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union launched a vicious antisemitic campaign. Two incidents stand out: the infamous "Doctors' Plot," in which Jewish physicians were accused of conspiring to murder the Soviet leadership, including Stalin, and the purge of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Both efforts would possibly have been complemented by the deportation eastward of Jews residing in the European parts of the Soviet Union, a plan forestalled by the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953.
The fate of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee is the subject of the present volume, a recent addition to the acclaimed "Annals of Communism" series published by Yale University Press. The JAC was one of a number of committees established by the Soviet Union to raise international support during the war against Germany. The JAC engaged in extensive publicity efforts in a variety of languages, especially in Yiddish. In [End Page 368] 1943 two of the committee leaders, Isaac Fefer and Solomon Mikhoels, made a barnstorming trip through the United States, where they were feted by major figures, from Albert Einstein to Charlie Chaplin. Jewish furriers, bedrocks of American left-wing labor activism, presented each of them with fur coats and hats, along with a third set for Stalin. In the Soviet Union, Eynikayt, the Yiddish-language newspaper published by the JAC, detailed Nazi atrocities against Jews and, after the war, lauded the establishment of Israel. For individuals associated with the JAC, the horrors uncovered as the Red Army advanced against the Nazi forces struck very deeply: many had lost their entire families as the Holocaust unfolded on Soviet territory.
Although most JAC members were communists or at least sympathetic to the Soviet system, after the war the committee leaders found themselves charged with "bourgeois nationalism," anti-Soviet propaganda, and, most seriously, espionage and treason against the Soviet Union. Many of the defendants were incarcerated for three years and tortured while in custody—their confinement and trial reprised some of the worst excesses of the Great Terror of the 1930s. Under torture, the defendants signed confessions. Fefer and a few others testified against their erstwhile colleagues, and although the presiding judges seemed unconvinced of the charges and unsure how to proceed, the Politburo eventually confirmed the convictions, and thirteen of the fifteen defendants, most of them leading figures in the world of Yiddish culture, were executed on August 12, 1952. One defendant had died in prison and the esteemed physician and academic Lina Shtern received a sentence of five years' exile. Mikhoels, the chairman of the JAC, had already been murdered in 1948.
As with the other volumes in the series, Stalin's Secret Pogrom consists of an extensive scholarly introduction together with primary sources from the recently opened archives of the Soviet regime, notably the trial transcripts, including the testimony of the fifteen defendants, and the 1955 annulment of the convictions. The documents are carefully edited and the accompanying introductions and footnotes provide just the right amount of explanatory material.
The documents are, at times, riveting. One senses from the judges' interrogations some contempt for the accused, but also a certain incredulity at the charges. The defendants themselves embodied the range of Jewish life in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, from poor shtetl backgrounds and religious upbringings to the glories of Yiddish theater and poetry and to socialist and communist activism. Knowing that the defendants were tortured, it is painful to read the parts of their testimonies where they incriminate one another. Yet there are also long sparring matches in which the defendants seem to take back what they had just admitted or supposedly revealed. From the transcripts one sees battered individuals placed in impossible circumstances, desperately trying to keep...