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?”