As a Long Island yeshiva boy with “a real shtetl education,” the novelist (and now playwright) Nathan Englander grew up in what he termed “a complete universe.” And yet, upon entering the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his junior year abroad and encountering, for the first time, “fully functioning atheistic Jews,” his faith, together with his orthodoxy, disappeared in a flash, opening his mind to possibilities hitherto unimagined.
In his Russian studies class, Englander learned of an amazing, and horrific, incident that took place in the Soviet Union in 1952, just months before Stalin’s death. Following years of imprisonment, interrogation and torture, five Yiddish poets and writers—Peretz Markish, David Hofshtein, Itzik Fefer, Leib Kvitko and David Bergelson—were executed, along with eight other Jewish leaders who shared a connection to the pro-Soviet (and therefore pro-Stalin) Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee ( JAFC).
Initially, the Bolsheviks’ victory inspired a renaissance of Yiddish culture beyond what any Jew living under czarist oppression might have dreamed. This led, over time, to a devil’s bargain between these now-celebrated Jewish cultural figures and the Soviet state, in the form of a propaganda alliance in which the JAFC’s members sang Stalin’s praises in the USSR and on fundraising trips to the United States. Eventually, Stalin turned on these writers (as he turned on everyone), and they were arrested and charged with treason in the form of espionage, bourgeois nationalism and a “lack of true Soviet spirit.” (One accusation involved a fanciful plot to turn over the Crimea to some ambiguous combination of American and Israeli Jews.) What made these charges (and eventual executions) so complicated—and hence, so difficult for so many American Jews to acknowledge—was not only the secrecy of the proceedings, but the fact that these martyred Jews were loyal Stalinists. As Shirley Novick, the widow of Paul Novick, editor of New York’s Communist Yiddish daily Morgen Freiheit, ruefully noted, “It was unbelievable to us. We believed in the party like religious Hasidim.”
What became known to keepers of the now barely burning Yiddishist flame as “The Night of the Murdered Poets” came to stand, for those aware of its occurrence, as the moment that Yiddish culture in Russia—and perhaps secular Yiddish culture almost everywhere—died a sudden and unnatural death. The full details of this story, all but unknown outside the USSR until the end of the Cold War, were finally brought to light in Joshua Rubenstein’s 2001 book, Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. But it was not a story that many American Jews were comfortable telling (or hearing) during the Cold War. As the scholar of Jewish literature Robert Adler Peckerar has asked, “How can you celebrate poets who wrote enthusiastic odes to Stalin, or worse, denounced one another?”
Scroll back to young Englander in his Russian studies class. Newly secular, he “was dreaming about being a writer, and thought these writers died with their greatest stories.” He wanted to be the one to tell their tale. (It did not occur to him, until I raised the question, that his attachment to this story might have something to do with the abandonment of his own “complete universe” of Orthodox Judaism.) Now fast-forward a decade: in 1999, Englander published his first short-story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. It opened with “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” which tells the story of three of these imprisoned writers, imagined on the eve of their execution. The late Nora Ephron—author, screenwriter, director, force of nature and national treasure—happened upon it and asked Englander to meet her for lunch at Barney Greengrass (which she picked, she admitted, to establish “Jewish street cred”). Over the world’s best smoked fish, Ephron told the all-but-speechless 29-year-old author she planned to option his story and teach him how to be a playwright so that he could turn it into the drama she insisted it must become. Englander, overwhelmed, managed to ask if he could write the novel he had in mind first. Ephron agreed, and Englander did not resurface for another ten years, during which time fate threw in a tragic twist. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Ephron had been undergoing extensive treatments for the cancer that would lead to her death last year. But she shepherded her novice playwright through the process of turning “The Twenty-Seventh Man” into a play that recently enjoyed a successful extended run at the Public Theater.
Ephron stuck with the project right through the end of her life, attending every reading and advising at every stage of its composition, Englander recalls. (Like his fellow Jewier-than-almost-any-secular-Jew-you’ve-ever-met playwright Tony Kushner, Englander, now 42, is apparently incapable of answering a simple question without a discursive, often fascinating essay in response.) “She had fully realized the most glorious career a person could want,” he says of Ephron, who fed him lox and bagels in her apartment on countless Sunday mornings, and “she saw her job as simply to put stories into the world.” And with the help of the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, and the play’s director, Barry Edelstein, along with a stellar cast that included the great Ron Rifkin, that’s just what Englander and Ephron have done.
Chaim Baider, a poet who devoted much of his life to chronicling the lives of Soviet writers, artists, musicians and scholars, has written that the Jews of the Soviet Union were “buried without a name, without a number, without a ‘here lies.’” Here now, in Englander’s story, in the Public Theater’s play, and in the archives assembled by Baider, the histories like Rubenstein’s, and annual commemorations at places like the Center for Jewish History and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, the story lives again. One cannot but rail at whatever fate denied Nora Ephron the opportunity to see it on opening night.
In his last column (Dec. 17), Eric Alterman reported on Rupert Murdoch’s tweeted complaint that “the Jewish-owned press” is consistently anti-Israel.