Purim 1953: Jews in the Communist empire

by Yosef Begun, Larry Pfeffer

Jews in the Former Soviet Union are generally well aware that the Russian-dominated part of the Communist empire was getting increasingly anti-Semitic after 1948, when it became clear Israel would not turn “red.” What might have been had Stalin stayed in power?

Yosef Begun’s memories from Moscow 

Two years after the end of World War II in 1945, I was 15 and started my studies in a technical high-school attached to the aviation industry. I was lucky since a year later, in 1948, “the years of late Stalinism” began, with all kinds of discrimination and persecution of Jews. Jewish students were not accepted at our school. 1948 began tragically. I remember well a cold day in January. I was coming home late, frozen, looking forward to a hot supper. Right away I see that Mama is very upset; she is silent, with her hands resting in her lap.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Mikhoels is dead. It was an automobile accident.” she replied.

I must confess that at that time I didn’t feel anything special. People were perishing every day. During that period I didn’t know who was this famous Yiddish actor, director of the State Jewish Theater and chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which was very helpful in the fight against Hitler. In my youth there was no place either for the Yiddish theater or for its great actor Solomon Mikhoels.

I was very assimilated, like many others of my generation whom the Soviet regime deprived of Jewish education and Jewish identity.

Mama and some relatives went for the last farewell.

Before the Bolshevik Revolution Mama had had a “classical” Jewish girl’s education in the cheder of her shtetl and respected everything Jewish. I was brought up as Soviet citizen who studied to be aviation engineer and literally did not know the difference between Mordechai and Haman. As a 15-year-old boy I had something “more important” to do that day. Still today I feel ashamed of this.

At the time we still could not imagine what difficult times were beginning for us. Soon rumors began to circulate, each more terrifying than the one before. For example, at the great automobile factory in the name of Stalin in Moscow they said that “a group of saboteurs” had been uncovered, consisting of top engineers, all of whom were Jews. The newspapers wrote about “cosmopolitans” who did not love the Soviet homeland and Russian people and were “kowtowing” before the West. Almost all of the names of such people were Jewish.

There were rumors about closing down the Yiddish Theater…

at that time we knew nothing about the arrests, torture, trials and execution of Jewish cultural and public figures.

There were hints, rumors and much uncertainty which contributed to our sense of fear of what was to come.

Then came January 1953, when there were announcements about the “murderers in white coats.” Once again the Jews. Anti-Semitic articles appeared in the central newspapers Pravda, Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda. There were caricatures in Krokodil, with exaggerated Jewish noses and sinister faces. The newspapers printed letters from workers demanding that the “Zionist agents” be rooted out and punished. No one knew who these “Zionist agents” were, but the papers explained that American Jewish organizations were recruiting Soviet Jews in order to harm Soviet people. Every Jew was, therefore, suspect.

Many Jewish specialists were fired and rumors also circulated about the imminent deportation of Jews from Moscow.

It was said that Jews themselves asked to be sent to distant regions to be saved from the “people’s anger.” As many others I thought that the newspapers could not lie; I hated those “Zionists” who were planning to harm our country. Because of them it would be bad for all Jews! Only one hope remained: our great leader, Comrade Stalin, wouldn’t allow this! He saved us from the fascists and he knows that we love this country. He would determine who were the enemies and saboteurs. And our enemies, not just the Jewish ones, always got what they deserved.

FEAR WAS the constant companion of every Jewish family in the Soviet Union. The mass propaganda affected everyone.

In January 1953 I was on holiday at a small rest home near Moscow. Those who relaxed there were mostly simple, uneducated, hard workers who spent their time playing dominoes. However everyone showed up at a lecture about on “the international situation of the USSR.” In fact the hall was full and people were turned away. After the lecturer from the city committee of the Party sounded off about the machinations of “western world reactionaries” and the Soviet struggle for peace, he was peppered with questions about the main topic at the time: “What will we do with those doctors – the murderers in white coats?” Waiving his right arm, the lecturer stated with pathos: “The criminals have confessed. There will be a trial!” On March 5, four days after Purim, when Stalin’s death was announced, I was already 20, but was still terrified. I thought that now, finally, “they” would come after us; there was no longer anyone to protect us. One of the closest men to Stalin and a fellow Georgian, Lavrentiy Beria, became minister of internal affairs, and on April 4 it was announced that the “case against the doctors” had been fabricated by members of the state security service, including its deputy minister, Mikhael Ryumin. All of them had been arrested and quickly executed. Beria himself was arrested, secretly tried and shot.

The Soviet “Haman” and a Pharaoh of our time, who had planned soon after the Holocaust another major program against Jews, collapsed on March 1, 1953. In a symbolic and miraculous way that day coincided with a joyous Jewish holiday and entered Jewish history as “Purim 1953.”

3,000,000 Jews of the Soviet Union and its colonies were saved from the great disaster. One can only surmise what would have happened if Stalin hadn’t died just then. The possibilities included mass deportation of the Jews – following the model of Stalin’s murderous wartime deportations of the Chechens and Crimean Tatars. Disagreements among historians about what Stalin had planned continue to this day.

The truth about anti-Semitic Soviet actions was hidden from the public for many years until the Soviet regime collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s. Only then did Soviet citizens, including myself, become aware of the following.

In 1948 and 1949 a group of Russian Jewish writers was arrested, among them the most prominent being Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, David Bergelson, Itzik Fefer, Leib Kvitko. Famous actor Benjamin Zuskin, who played leading roles in Mikhoels’ theater, was also arrested. All of them and some other Jewish cultural figures were members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) during the war.

Together with them, some prominent public figures were arrested: Solomon Lozovsky, the former deputy foreign minister, Boris Shimeliovich, the chief doctor of the big Moscow clinic, academic Lina Stern, a specialist of physiology. Altogether there were 14 Jews, defendants in the “JAC trial.”

All the accusations were invented – as for example that the leaders of JAC were going to give up the Crimean peninsula to America. The real “crime” of Jewish writers was their activity in Jewish culture. By preserving Yiddishkeit, even at a very low intensity, they were an obstacle to Stalin’s plan to accomplish the Soviet “final solution of Jewish question”: total assimilation of the Jews. After three years of interrogation and torture all the Jewish defenders, with the exception of academic Lina Stern, then 73, were sentenced to death. On August 12, 1952, they were shot in the Lubyanka KGB dungeon. Many other Jews, mostly Jewish cultural and leading public figures, were arrested and sent for long terms to forced labor camps. Some of these people died under interrogation.

In 1949 famous Yiddish writer Der Nister was arrested, and he died in the Gulag in 1950. Yitzhak Nusinov died in prison. Shmuel Persov and Miriam Zheleznov were shot. Solomon Bregman, the deputy minister, died in prison in January 1953.

Larry Pfeffer’s memories from Budapest I was 10 yeas old in Budapest when Stalin collapsed and died. I only recall the pervasive sense of mourning in the city. Black flags and black drapes were hanging from the buildings. The newspapers’ front page had a picture of Stalin within a thick black frame. As far as I recall on the eve of Purim 1953 I acted in a purimshpiel in the Orthodox community complex auditorium. Sundays and afternoons I attended cheder in that complex, from the age of six. Probably this was one of the few operating cheders left in the Communist empire.

Periodically I saw the principal, Shlomo Grossberg – in fact, like other students I attended his wedding in the Orthodox complex courtyard. Suddenly there were rumors in the “Kazincy” central Orthodox synagogue that Shlomo had been arrested by the Hungarian secret police. Grown-ups didn’t discuss such matters with children.

Perhaps they also didn’t know what really happened.

I recall Shlomo returning to his position maybe eight to 10 months later, and his face showed that he had been through very difficult times. I recently met him in Israel and learned that he was arrested on Purim 1953 for a “Zionist” show trial. I didn’t want to ask him how he was treated, because I didn’t want to bring back painful memories.

Even as a child I often heard typical Communist propaganda about “Titoist traitors,” the “imperialists and their lackeys,” and “capitalist warmongers” – especially during the Korean war. In Hungary I was not aware of the scale of the Stalin’s terror against Jews, or that it was not limited to the USSR: anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist trials were organized also in the Kremlin’s colonies.

Only long after I escaped from Hungary in late 1956 did I become aware of the following events.

On November 20, 1952, Rudolf Slánský, the second most powerful man in Czechoslovakia, and 13 other leading Czechoslovak communists were arrested and tortured. Two received life sentence and the rest, including Slánský, were shot. Slánský and 10 more of those arrested were Jews. The trumped up accusation was being “Titoists” and “spying” for the “Western capitalists and imperialists” – typical of Moscow-directed show trials of that time.

Raoul Wallenberg, who did so much for humanity, fell into the hands of the Russians on January 17, 1945 – a day before the Russians drove out the Germans.

Wallenberg disappeared into the Russian dungeons.

His fate is still unknown. Reliable and highly respected investigators, such as Professor Irwin Cotler (former Canadian minister of justice), clearly state that Wallenberg was probably alive for decades after his abduction.

In 1952/53 a Moscow directed “Wallenberg” and “Zionist” show trial was in preparation in Budapest.

Leaders of Hungary’s Jewry: Lajos Stöckler, Miklós Domonkos and Dr. László Benedek, were arrested – along with two non-Jews who worked with Wallenberg: Pál Szalai and Károly Szabó. They were tortured to force them to “confess” the “crimes” invented by the “script,” according to which in 1945 they “murdered” Wallenberg in Budapest. (Szalai and Szabó rescued many Jews during the Holocaust. At Wallenberg’s request Szalai met with German general August Schmidthuber and prevented the murder of Budapest ghetto’s 70,000 inhabitants.) Other Jewish leaders were arrested and accused of “Zionist crimes” and “spying for the “capitalists and imperialists.”

The anti-Semitic “Doctors’ Plot” and Budapest show trials stopped and the danger to Jews in the Soviet Union and its colonies was prevented by Stalin’s sudden possibly assisted collapse on March 1, 1953, which was Purim, and his subsequent death a few days later.

The accused doctors, the accused in Budapest, and probably large number of Jews and others living in Soviet Union and its empire were saved when Stalin collapsed on Purim, 1953.

It is suggested to start remembering Purim 1953 in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world.

Hopefully the Knesset would have an annual remembrance event and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel would advise synagogues to celebrate the miracle of Purim 1953. It is also hoped that schools in Israel will teach about these events and the immense crimes of international communism, which is estimated to have taken about 94 million lives (The Black Book of Communism – Harvard Press).

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