Yiddish in the U.S.S.R.
New York Times Book Review
November 15, 1970: p. 71
by S. L. Shneiderman
Sholem Aleichem's Yiddish classics are more popular in the Soviet Union than anywhere else in the world. There, his tales need no musical-comedy sugar coating. They are translated into Russian, Ukrainian and other languages of the Soviet Union's many nationalities. Sales in Russian translation alone have long since passed the three-million mark.
Yet the language in which Sholem Aleichem wrote, Yiddish, has been subjected to harsh discrimination and suppression, while other Soviet minorities are encouraged to preserve and develop their languages and cultures. The splendidly decorated Soviet bookshops have special sections devoted to the literatures of the various minorities. I could find books in each of these languages by following the signs on the shelves, but I never saw a sign marking the shelves for Yiddish books. When I asked for them—in Moscow, Leningrad and Odessa—the salespeople were not always able to locate the few hidden away somewhere behind the counter. One clerk tried to tout me off to the latest Russian translations of Sholem Aleichem or the poetry of Peretz Markish, winner of the Stalin Prize, who was liquidated shortly before the tyrant's death. When I insisted on books in Yiddish, the clerk finally, brought out an 800-page anthology of short stories by 56 authors, issued in 1969.
During the first years of the Soviet regime, the Yiddish language did enjoy a period of true renaissance. By the 1930's there were more than 1,200 Yiddish schools and several teacher-training institutions, as well as departments of Jewish studies and chairs of Yiddish language and literature at the Universities of Moscow, Kiev and Minsk. Three Yiddish daily newspapers, periodicals and repertory theaters flourished in the Russian, Ukrainian and Byelo-Russian Republics.
Even Hebrew culture was encouraged for a time. The first Hebrew theater in the world, the Habimah, came into being in Moscow, where it made theatrical history with its production of S. Ansky's "The Dybbuk." However, there was opposition to fostering Hebrew culture, which nurtured the dream of a Jewish State in the Holy Land. In the early 1920's, the entire Habimah company left the Soviet Union and established itself in Tel Aviv. A gradual liquidation of Jewish cultural institutions set in with Stalin's ascent to power. After World War II, close on the heels of the Nazi genocide, came the suppression of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union.
That Stalin had embarked upon a policy of eradicating Jewish institutions became apparent in the winter of 1948 with the murder of the noted actor-director Solomon Michoels, and the subsequent closing of the Yiddish State Theatre in Moscow. This was followed by mass arrests of Yiddish writers, among them the poets Peretz Markish, Leib Kwitko, David Hoffstein and Itzik Fefer, and novelists David Bergelson and Der Nister. Some 30 Yiddish writers were executed on Aug. 12, 1952, but the secret was kept long after Stalin had died. In October, 1955, during the United Nations Assembly's session in New York, a high Soviet official still denied the "rumors" about the disappearance of Yiddish writers. Questioned specifically by this writer about the whereabouts of Peretz Markish, the Soviet Foreign Ministry's press chief unblinkingly told a story about having seen him in Pravda's office not long before.
About a month later, on Nov. 27, 1955, widows of executed writers were summoned to the High Court in Moscow. They were handed documents notifying them of the "rehabilitation" of their husbands and explaining that on Aug. 12, 1952, their husbands had been "shot by enemies of the people."
This admission has never been made public inside the Soviet Union. There are no official memorials to the murdered writers; no graves have ever been identified as theirs. However, last August, on the 18th anniversary of their liquidation and in a time of mounting unrest among intellectuals. a wreath bearing the names of the Yiddish writers was placed anonymously on the grave of Solomon Michoels, the only victim of Stalin's liquidation of Jewish intellectuals whose grave is in a public cemetery.
Almost a decade passed after the executions before Premier Nikita Khrushchev consented to the establishment of a bi-monthly devoted to Yiddish writing, Sovietish Haimland. In 1965 it became a monthly. The sign at the entrance to its office, 17 Kirova Street, bore the first Yiddish letters displayed publicly in Moscow's central streets since the black years of Stalin's terror.
By grim coincidence, the ark carrying the remnant of the Soviet Union's Yiddish writers has come to rest only a few doors away from the gruesome cellars that were the entrance to Golgotha for the martyred creators of a magnificent body of Yiddish literature. The survivors of the Stalinist flood, striving to carry on their tradition, are confronted with a constant reminder of what happened to them.
At the head of Kirova Street stands the Lubyanka jail. It is an imposing structure with a facade of black marble. There are no guards or bars in the windows to suggest that this is the headquarters of the secret police. The only clue is the statue in front—the gigantic figure of Felix Dzierzhinsky, founder in 1917 of the Cheka, which grew into the vast Soviet police system.
"The Lubyanka is like an iceberg. Most of its mass is submerged," a Yiddish poet said to me during a late evening stroll through Moscow's streets, as we approached the statue of Dzierzhinsky. He had reason to know the depth of the prison's cellars, having spent months under interrogation there in the winter of 1949-50. The Lubyanka was on my mind next day as I entered the editorial offices of Haimland, which are luxurious by Soviet standards. I was received with reserved courtesy. Staff members who had been through interrogation in the jail up the street seemed especially quiet, while those who had escaped Stalin's Inquisition, like editor-in-chief Aaron Vergelis, were loud in their claims of a glowing future for Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.
The walls of the spacious reception room are adorned with portraits of the three giants of classical Yiddish literature—Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Sforim and I. L. Peretz. I saw no pictures of writers like Bergelson, Markish, Kwitko or Hoffstein, the liquidated coryphaei of Yiddish literature in the Soviet era.
Of the more than a hundred writers whose work regularly appears in Sovietish Haimland, the majority are in their fifties and sixties, having made their literary debuts before World War II. Most are university graduates and, by profession, engineers, teachers, philologists or historians.
During the Nazi invasion, well over fifty Yiddish writers fell at the front. Those who survived the war soon fell victim to the Stalinist terror. Non-Jewish writers also suffered, of course, but among them arrests and executions were usually confined to those suspected of deviations at one time or another. Their ranks were decimated. Yiddish literature was decapitated. There was hardly a hint of this in the first issue of Sovietish Haimland, in July, 1961. Nothing was said of the murder of Jewish writers or the liquidation of Jewish cultural institutions, which had gone as far as the melting down of Yiddish type fonts. A single stanza of a long poem by Moshe Teif, "Song of Our Brothers," could be construed as referring, cryptically, to the martyred Yiddish writers:
Oh. my perished brothers,
Your melodies will live forever
in my heart,
Here in the shtetl, under the
Your song flourishes and
It was not until later that the magazine began publishing works by authors who had been liquidated. In every such case, the byline was accompanied by the same euphemism: "Victim of the Cult of Personality."
Few of the "victims" had had the foresight to hide their manuscripts before they were arrested, and works of great value must have disappeared along with their authors. In an unusual flash of intuition, Peretz Markish asked a visiting friend to take with him some papers wrapped in a potato sack a few hours before midnight on Jan. 27, 1949, when the secret police arrived at his home on Moscow's Gorky Street. Among the manuscripts thus preserved were a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto, a long epic poem about World War II and a number of other poems.
Although editor Vergelis steers Sovietish Haimland on a course of full compliance with the party line, some of his writers, usually the most talented, occasionally resist. In Aesopean language, their novels and poems sometimes lay bare deep and unhealed wounds left by Stalin's terror. The more mediocre writers stick to glorifications of life on collective farms and in industrial plants, with particular emphasis on harmonious integration of Jews into the national majority. Mixed marriages are common in their plots, which detail the adventures of stereotyped "positive" heroes without emotional problems.
The finest prose writing in post-Stalin Yiddish literature deals with Jewish life in pre-Revolution Russia, with the. shtetlach (small towns) which no longer exist. In evoking nostalgia for a way of life that has been wiped out, this writing has undertones that indicate a cautious attempt to show a Jewish national identity. Outstanding is a novel by Eli Shechtman, "Erev" (On the Eve), about Jews in the years just before the revolutionary storm of 1905.
In the poetry appearing in Sovietish Haimland, there is a distinct dichotomy. On the one hand, there are hosannas for. the current regime, which Vergelis's own verse typifies. On the other, there is pure escapism in lyrical outpourings about the beauties of the Russian landscape. Even such poems sometimes contain veiled references to the tragic years under Stalin. The first open mention of the murder of the Yiddish writers came in a poem by Yosif Kerler published in April, 1965. The very first stanza of "A Word About Leib Kwitko," demanded to know:
How did the bitter enemies
Look straight into his face,
Aim coldly and trigger
The bullet that closed his lips.
That was the last time Sovietish Haimland published any poetry by Kerler. He later stirred up a cause celebre by his battle with the Soviet authorities for a passport to join relatives in Israel. Although Bertrand Russell twice made representations on his behalf and his case came up at the the 1969 PEN International Congress in Menton, Yosif Kerler is still in Moscow. He is one of a sizable group of Yiddish writers who have cut off relations with Sovietish Haimland, and are now doing their writing for the desk drawer, or for the occasional distribution in mimeographed form through underground channels. Only September last, a group of poems by Kerler reached the West.
To the optimists, the appearance of Sovietish Haimland, and its publication of the work of liquidated writers, augured well for a revival of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. A number of Jewish intellectuals in their middle years were moved to begin writing in Yiddish, reinforcing the thinned-out ranks of what had once been a fraternity of close to 800 Yiddish writers. There have also been a few debuts by new young writers, surprising because Yiddish schools have been shut down for over a quarter of a century and textbooks of the Yiddish language have been virtually unobtainable.
Perhaps the most remarkable of the new Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union is Alexander Belousov of Kuibyshev, who is not Jewish. During my visit to Sovietish Haimland, one of the editors showed me a portfolio of Belousov manuscripts then being prepared for inclusion in the magazine's fall issue. The richness of their Yiddish idiom was astounding to me, as was the youthful Russian's choice of subject for his first published works, the Nazi holocaust that almost consumed European Jewry. A poem called "Martyrs" mourns the Jews slaughtered by the Nazis in the little towns of the Ukraine. Though he was born years after the Nazis were gone, Belousov laments the desecrated synagogues put to the torch on the "holy Sabbath." The poet regards himself as sharing in a universal guilt and urges that it not be forgotten, because "their pain is not alien to me." Twenty-two years old and a student at the Kuibyshev Pedagogical Institute, Belousov is undoubtedly a linguistic genius. He mastered both Yiddish and Hebrew within two years by taking private lessons from Jewish neighbors. He writes in both of his adopted languages with the ease and naturalness of one who absorbed them in childhood.
Belousov has created a stir in both Jewish and non-Jewish literary circles. There is poetic justice in the phenomenon of this young Russian who has cast his lot with the culture of a minority that has endured so much.
Another paradoxical literary event, with peculiar political ramifications, was the appearance of a masterful translation into Hebrew of the Georgian national epic, "The Knight in the Tiger's Skin," by the medieval Caucasian bard, Shotta Rust'haveli. The translator is 36-year-old Boris Gaponov, editor of the daily Leninetz, official party organ in the giant Ordzhonikidze automobile plant at Kutaisi in the Georgian Soviet Republic.
His rendering of the ancient folk classic has been hailed as a masterpiece in its own right, far surpassing in poetic quality innumerable previous translations into many languages, including five into Russian. The Asian Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences devoted a special meeting in Leningrad to evaluation of Gaponov's translation.
In the spring of 1969, at the peak of the Soviet propaganda :crusade against Israel, "The Knight in the Tiger's Skin" was brought out in Israel by the Labor Zionist publishing house, Sifriat Poalim, in a lavish edition illustrated with colorful miniatures by 15th and 16th century Georgian artists. The book won the prestigious literary award named after the great Hebrew poet, Saul Tchernichovsky. This unusual cultural exchange between the Georgians and the Israelis has been welcomed by Soviet Jewish intellectuals as a hopeful sign that all the bridges between the Soviet Union and Israel have not been burned yet. That, however, was not the opinion of the dean of Russian writers, Kornei Chukovsky, when he showed me the copy of the Hebrew edition he had received from Israel.
Chukovsky was in a glum mood when I visited him at his dacha in Peredelkino, near Moscow, shortly before his death at the age of 88. Contributing to his depression was the loss of his battle with the censor over his last book of Bible tales for children, "The Tower of Babel." The censor had first deleted the laudatory adjective from an objectionable phrase in the book's preface, "the great Jewish people." Leaving the rest of the phrase in was "something of a concession on the censor's part," Chukovsky told me in a sarcastic tone. "Soviet books hardly ever contain references to the Jews as a people or a nation." However, when Chukovsky refused to consent to elimination of a chapter about Jerusalem, "The Tower of Babel" was withheld from publication.
While he was impressed by the magnificence of the Israeli edition of Shotta Rust'haveli's epic, Chukovsky saw it as an isolated incident, best understood in the light of the Georgians' long resistance to efforts to "Russify" them. He conceded that it did help cement bonds of sympathy between the Georgians and a Jewish community which has deep roots in their land.
The work of writers like Gaponov and Belousov is a clear sign of a growing undercurrent of resistance to the Kremlin's longstanding policy of suppressing Jewish creativity, whether in Yiddish or in Hebrew. This is only a small tributary to a much broader stream of dissent and resistance on the part of Soviet intellectuals in general.
The number of Soviet Jews now writing in Yiddish and Hebrew is considerably greater than the hundred or so short story writers, novelists, poets and critics whose pieces have been appearing in Sovietish Haimland. I have met quite a few of the rebellious writers and seen some of their manuscripts. Some never wished to be associated with a magazine edited by a man like Aaron Vergelis; others severed their relationship with Sovietish Haimland after the Six-Day War and the onset of a hate-Israel propaganda drive. Still others have begun to write only recently, in an effort to release bitterness pent up ever since the dark years of Stalin's terror.
Work by these authors circulates in the same underground channels that carry mimeographed chapters of Solzhenitsyn's novels far and wide inside the Soviet Union. A Jewish Solzhenitsyn has not yet emerged, but among these writers may be one who eventually will succeed in depicting the "Jewish Circle" of Stalin's inferno.