PURIM – Averting Catastrophe

As Israel celebrates this week the joyous holiday of Purim which tells of the near-destruction of the Jewish people as plotted by ‘Haman’, the conniving evil adviser to the Persian King Ahasuerus, and as salvation today is sought from the ongoing mass slaughter in Ukraine at the hands of the evil Putin, it is illuminating to return to the Purim of 1953  as told by Dr. Yosef Begun and Larry Pfeffer. Their incisive perspectives first appeared in The Jerusalem Post in 2014. It was a time when after 1948 – the year of Israel’s independence –  that the USSR under Joseph Stalin was getting increasingly antisemitic, when it became clear that Israel would not be turning “red”.

Purim 1953

By Dr. Yosef Begun and Larry Pfeffer

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 of the aviation industry. I was lucky since a year later, in 1948, “the years of late Stalinism” began with all kind 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 Mamma is very upset: she is silent with her hands resting in her lap.

What has 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 and director of the State Jewish Theater and the 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. Mamma and some relatives went for the last farewell to the great Jewish actor and director of Yiddish Theater. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Mamma had a “classical” Jewish girl’s education in the cheder of her shtetl and respected everything Jewish. I was brought up as a Soviet citizen who studied to be an aviation engineer and literally did not know the “difference between Mordechai and Haman”. As a 15-year boy, I had something “more important” to do that day… Till now I feel ashamed for this.

Portrait of a Monster. To the great relief of many, Joseph Stalin  died of a massive heart attack on March 5, 1953. Revered as the man who helped save his nation from Nazi domination, he is no less remembered as the mass murderer of the century, having overseen the deaths of between 8 million and 20 million of his own people.

At the time, we still could not imagine what difficult times were only beginning for us. Soon rumors began to circulate, each more terrifying than the one before. For example, at the great automobile factory Zavod imeni Stalina (Plant of Stalin’s name). in Moscow, they said that “a group of saboteurs” was 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. Antisemitic articles appeared in the central newspapers Pravda, Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda. Therewere caricatures in Krokodil, with exaggerated Jewish noses and sinister faces… The newspapers printed letters from workers demanding that the “Zionist agents” should 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”. Like 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.

Power of Purim. Bottom left shows Stalin on the bedroom floor of his dacha outside Moscow following his collapse. Beria, secret police chief, is not hiding his joy. The tombstone (bottom right) reveals the Jewish victims of Stalin era state led antisemitism. The gate over the rail tracks is taken from the Vorkuta Gulag camp entrance in the 1930s and says: “Labor in the USSR is a matter of Honor and Glory”. The physicians in front of the Communist hammer and sickle icon are the accused in the infamous Soviet “Doctors’ Plot”. The men with the rifles depict the execution of leading Jewish cultural and political figures in the USSR and Czechoslovakia. The train, the nearby crowd and skull allude to Stalin’s rumored plans to deport Soviet Jewry and the likelihood of large number of potential victims if Stalin had not collapsed on Purim 1953.

Fear was a 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 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!”

Four days after Purim, when Stalin’s death was announced on March 5, I was already 20 but was 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 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 didn’t die 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 antisemitic Soviet actions was hidden from the public for many years until the Soviet regime collapsed at the beginning of the 1990-s. Only then did Soviet citizens, including I, become aware of the following.

 In 1948 and 1949, a group of Russian Jewish writers were arrested, among them the most prominent were 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.

Savage Stalin. Jewish cultural icons executed – David Bergelson (left), Peretz Markish (centre left), Izi Kharik (centre right – Yiddish poet killed in 1937 during The Great Purge), and Solomon Mikhoels (right).

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” by total assimilation of Jews. After three years of interrogations and tortures, 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 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.

The Night of the Murdered Poets” – Aug 12 1952. The flower of Yiddish literary culture in the Soviet Union, Stalin’s victims- David Bergelson, Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, and Solomon Lozovsky. 
Joel Sprayregen, a Chicago attorney and activist, later wrote. “Stalin believed he could crush the Jews of Russia with one stroke of mass murder by destroying their culture and language in the darkness of one Moscow night.

Larry Pfeffer’s memories from Budapest

I was ten-years-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 since age 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 others students, attended his wedding in the Orthodox complex courtyard where the chupah was. Suddenly there were rumors in the “Kazincy” central Orthodox synagogue that Shlomo was arrested by the Hungarian secret police. Grownups 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 ten months later and his face showed that he went 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 and 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.

State Murder. It was among the most notorious show trials of the 20th century, the prosecution and sentencing to death of  the Jew Rudolf Slánský, Czechoslovakia’s leading communist, who had been arrested in a brutal purge ordered by Stalin and said to have been tortured into a confession. (Photograph: BBC)

On November 20, 1952, Rudolf Slánský, the second most powerful in Czechoslovakia, and thirteen other leading Czechoslovak communists, were arrested and tortured. Two received life sentence and the rest, including Slánský, were shot. Slánský and ten more of the 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 and occupied the Pest side of the city. Wallenberg disappeared into the Russian dungeons and the Gulag. His fate is still unknown. Reliable and highly respected investigators, such as Professor Irwin Cotler (former Canadian Minister of Justice), clearly stated 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.”

Stalin’s Show Trials.  The purges through the courts came to an end with Stalin’s demise following Purim 1953.

The antisemitic “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.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.