The Night of Murdered Poets

The Night of Murdered Poets
August 12, 1952
Remembered on August 12, 2007

[Performance piece
spoken at Neve Shalom
Jacob’s Pillow
August 11, 2007]

The poets who are appearing
in this performance
are all dead
they are the murdered poets
tonight we remember them

the Night of the Murdered Poets.

This from Peretz Markish
one of the poets
murdered on August 12, 1952,
The Night of Murdered Poets.

I don’t know whether I’m at home
or homeless. I’m running, my shirt
unbuttons, no bounds, nobody
holds me, no beginning,
no end
my body is foam
smelling of wind
is my name.

There were fifteen on trial
all were kept in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison
in the basement
Thirteen of the fifteen were executed
on August 12, 1952,
all were prominent Jews and distinguished
Soviet citizens
all were good Bolsheviks
they had emigrated from the Pale of Settlement
to the urban centers Moscow, Kiev,
this from Dovid Hofshteyn,
one of the murdered poets.

I arrived in your harbor
On the ship of my loneliness.
The ship of the loneliness. . .
I rinsed her sails
In the winds. . .
They dwindled and tore
In the lengths and breadths
Of the world.

They were looking for artistic freedom
and inspiration
all of them were committed Marxists
all of them good Communists
optimists idealists all of them
not all were poets
but the event came to be called
The Night of Murdered Poets.

Five poets there were:
Peretz Markish, Dovid Hofshteyn, Itzik Feffer, Leyb Kvitko, Dovid Bergelson.
Who were they?
Some of the greatest Yiddish poets
at the end of the era of Yiddish poetry.
Dovid Hofshteyn, after living in Berlin and Palestine,
returned to the Soviet Union
because he believed in it.
He published numerous volumes of poetry and translations.

Peretz Markish founded a modernist Yiddish movement,
during his years in Warsaw.
He too returned to Russia
and was awarded the Lenin Prize for literature in 1939.
Itzik Feffer edited the Yiddish journals Prolit and Challenge,
became a member of the Union of Soviet Writers.

Dovid Bergelson left his chaotic Ukraine and Russia
went to Berlin in 1921
native Russian speaker schooled in classical Hebrew as a child
he chose Yiddish to write his stories and novels
I’d rather be first in Yiddish than second in Russian.

He never adjusted to life in the West.
Stalin called the exiles home and after some years of wandering
Bergelson fell for Stalin’s dream
in 1934 returned to the Soviet Union.
After the War, Stalin’s cracked obsession with Soviet Jewish culture
turned dark.
January 1949, Bergelson arrested
with dozens of other Yiddish artists.

They were betrayed by what they believed in —
These words of Dovid Hofshteyn,
murdered poet,
a eulogy to Yiddish civilization as he knew it:

My love, my pure love!
one call I’ve always heeded –
mute, I’ve carried it
a thousand days:
above the gray head of my people,
to be
a youthful radiance!

They were all beaten
before interrogations,
Bergelson confessed
that his religious upbringing
was indeed nationalism.
Kvitko denied belief in God.
Bergelson said that Hofshteyn
encouraged the study of Hebrew.
Hofshteyn regretted that he had continued
to write in Yiddish.
At one point Bergelson blurted out
referring to a poem by Itzik Feffer,
one of the murdered poets,
there cannot be anything criminal in the phrase
‘I am a Jew.’
If I approach someone and say
‘I am a Jew’
what could be bad about that?

All of them were members
of an organization founded by Stalin
called The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
Their purpose was to enlist Jewish support around the world
for Soviet anti-fascist activities.
Stalin sent them to the United States during the War,
the first Soviet Jews
to officially visit the West.
Itzik Feffer the poet
and Solomon Mikhoels the actor,
they met with Einstein
and many prominent Americans
in 1943.
Stalin himself had founded
the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
in 1942.
It published its own Yiddish newspaper
when the War ended Stalin became suspicious of his Jews
he questioned Jewish loyalties
especially after the founding of the state of Israel.
In 1949, the Soviet press began
an anti-cosmopolitan campaign against Jews.

Peretz Markish, one of the greatest of the murdered poets, wrote:
Hitler wanted to destroy us physically,
Stalin wants to do it spiritually.

In 1948, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
chairman, Solomon Mikhoels,
was murdered
and the entire Committee was arrested.
They were interrogated and forced to sign confessions,
only one, Boris Shimeliovich, refused,
despite 100 plus lashes daily for a month.
They were charged with disloyalty,
bourgeois nationalism,
and planning to set up a Jewish republic
in Crimea
to serve U.S. interests.

The Night of Murdered Poets,
they murdered fifteen Jewish intellectuals and artists
August 1952,
followed by the Doctors’ Plot,
a group of Doctors, most of them Jewish,
charged with plotting the death of Soviet leaders
in 1953.
Only the death of Stalin in 1953
prevented the final Soviet pogrom.
Stalin had gone mad with paranoia
and obsession.

The Trial

The text of the trial preceding the Night of Murdered Poets
came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The accused knew that the trial was a sham,
still they defended themselves vigorously.
This from Itzik Feffer, one of the murdered poets, defending himself against
the charge of nationalism:
My nationalist tendencies came out in the following ways:
I said that I love my people.
Is there anyone who doesn’t love his people?
I wanted my people to have
what all others had.
And when I saw that everything was being closed down,
everything being eliminated,
this pained me and made me rise against
the Soviet power.
This was what motivated my interest
in the Crimea and Birobidzan.

The principal accusation: the Crimea question.
Jews had established small agricultural communities
in the northern Crimea in the 1920s.
After the dislocations brought on by the War,
the Holocaust,
Mikhoels and others proposed
making the Crimea a Soviet Jewish republic.
The Soviets assumed that the proposal
was a conspiratorial
effort to dismantle the Soviet Union
from within.

— This from Leyb Kvitko, one of the murdered poets —

Day and night
We must loom large in their eyes
They bother with us so.

Small is what we are, so small
Fear drags us to the earth
As if we were fear’s very own

Where, then, we small ones
Can we hide?
Where can we hide our full grown grief?
Our grief?
Our love?
Our secrets?

Day and night
We must loom large in their eyes
They bother with us so

Don’t you wonder –
who were these people
who bothered with us so?
Ask the survivors of the Soviets
let them tell you how close the Soviets came to succeeding
with their paranoia, their cruelty

they murdered our intellectuals
they chased our souls
into the basement prisons of Moscow.

Don’t you wonder about these totalitarians
and why they obsessed about us?

Day and night
We must loom large in their eyes
They bother with us so

We ask to be left alone.

Peretz Markish:
Hitler wanted to destroy us physically,
Stalin wanted to do it spiritually