Yom Ha’atzmaut in the Gulag

Jewish culture By Colin Shindler 11th Apr 2018

The fact that no state in western Europe could ensure the elementary rights of the Jewish people or defend them from the violence of the Fascist executioners, explains the aspiration of the Jews to set up a state of their own. It would be unjust if we were to reject the right of the Jewish people to achieve this aspiration.

So spoke Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet representative at the UN on 14 May 1947. For many, it was an remarkable statement, given the Soviet persecution of Zionists since the 1920s. For Marxist Zionists in Palestine and left wing Jews in the Diaspora, there was a sense that the Kremlin had finally recognised the efforts of the socialist pioneers in the Yishuv. Yet as history records, this was a short-lived period – the Soviets wished to oust the British from the Middle East and prevent the Americans from coming in. For the Zionists, however, this presented an unprecedented window of opportunity with both superpowers endorsing a two-state solution.

In the USSR itself, Soviet Jews followed every twist and turn in Israel’s struggle for recognition and independence. Moscow radio announced the emergence of a state of the Jews late at night. It was heard by amazed Jewish prisoners amongst the Gulag population. In a camp in the Komi region in Northern Russia, one Jewish prisoner later wrote:

All the non-Jews who were there with me became silent with astonishment. Then they rose from their bunks and spontaneously shook the hands of the Jews and congratulated them. In honour of the festive occasion, each of us produced the little food in his possession and we camp Jews held a feast together. We could not sleep all night. In our hearts and thoughts we were at the front with our brothers and sisters who had begun a bitter war, rifle in hand, against the invading Arabs.

The Jewish prisoners felt reborn, their bitterness at their fate replaced by hope and purpose. Many endeavoured to speak Yiddish or Hebrew that evening to symbolise their membership of the Jewish people.

In the privacy of their homes, Soviet Jews embraced each other and thanked God for allowing them to reach this day of national redemption. Coming after the tragedy of the Shoah, many could not believe that a Hebrew republic had arisen. One letter from Kharkov in October 1948, pointed out that, ‘Yesterday there was neither people norstate, and overnight there is a state with a government’.

There were demands to renew the teaching of Hebrew, which had been banned since 1919. David Hofshtein, the Yiddish writer who had lived in Palestine and written in Hebrew, began openly to advocate the teaching of Hebrew in the USSR. A clandestine group of Hebrew writers, calling themselves MARAK –M’dabrim rak Ivrit(we speak only Hebrew), revealed their existence. In a letter to Stalin, the Hebrew writers, Zvi Praegerson, Meir Baazov, Zvi Plotkin and Aron Krikheli, asked for permission to leave for Israel.

Many believed that since the Soviet Union supported the cause of Israeli independence, it would also allow its Jewish citizens to go and fight for Israel.

In April 1948, Major Joachim Shperber attended a three-week course at the Tushino air base near Moscow and was told by a high-ranking officer that a plan to create a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan was being pushed by the Kremlin on Marshal Voroshilov’s initiative. Moreover there was a plan to organise an expeditionary force, tens of thousands strong. Shperber believed that he would be one of 800 pilots sent.

These expectations were never realised.

Many wrote letters to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and later to the Israel Embassy demanding to go to Israel. It is believed that these letters were intercepted by the KGB and their authors subsequently arrested.

Stalin’s actions were not as straightforward as many believed. He was prepared to embrace Jewish aspirations externally – but to crush them internally. No dissent would be tolerated. By the end of 1948 the first wave of arrests took place.

This was the beginning of ‘the Black Years of Soviet Jewry’ which ended in the Doctors’ Plot of January 1953 in which physicians – a majority of whom were Jewish – were accused of attempting to poison the leaders of the USSR. David Hofshtein was one of several Jewish writers who were executed in the cellars of the Lubyanka on 12 August 1952.

The establishment of the state in May 1948 allowed the Jews to return from the margins. The late Israeli literary critic, Dov Sadan, depicted the nations of the world as crowded together in a room. After independence, the Jews were no longer a despised, defenceless group, forced to remain outside. After May 1948, they may have been uncomfortably squeezed in at a corner of a table, but unlike the violent past, they now occupied a position in the centre of the room.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London and a member of New North London Synagogue

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