August 12, 1952 – Night of the Murdered Poets

On this night in history, thirteen Soviet Jews were taken from the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow and executed. They had been arrested in 1948 and 1949 after Stalin had launched a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” – by which he meant Jews – and falsely accused of espionage and treason.

Half of these Jews were celebrated Yiddish writers and artists including David Bergelson, David Hofshteyn, Peretz Markish, Itzik Fefer and Benjamin Zuskin. All of the defendants endured incessant interrogations which, for everyone except Itzik Fefer, were coupled with beatings and torture. Fefer was a friend of both Einstein and Paul Robeson, with Robeson requesting a meeting with Fefer when Robeson visited the Soviet Union in 1949.

(Unfortunately Robeson could not be granted a visit with his other friend Solomon Mikhoels, a Soviet Jewish actor and the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater. In 1948, Mikhoels was murdered on the orders of Stalin and his body was run over to create the impression of a traffic accident.)

Stalin’s police brought Feffer out of prison, put him the care of doctors, and began fattening him up for the visit. When Robeson and Fefer met, Fefer silently indicated they were under surveillance, and Fefer drew his finger across his throat. That was of course the last time Robeson saw him.

Soviet Yiddish writer Itsik Fefer, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, and the legendary Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Soviet Consulate, 1943. (via Milken Archive)

Soviet Yiddish writer Itsik Fefer, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, and the legendary Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Soviet Consulate, 1943. (via Milken Archive)

A show trial was held in May, 1852 at which many of the defendants “confessed.” One defendant, Joseph Yuzefovich, told the court at the trial, “I was ready to confess that I was the pope’s own nephew and that I was acting on his direct personal orders” after a beating.

Thirteen prisoners were sentenced to death by execution but two others were not. Solomon Bregman collapsed and was placed in the prison infirmary, remaining unconscious until his death. The defendant Lina Stern, who had done pioneering work on the blood–brain barrier, was sentenced (she was then 74) to three and a half years in a correctional labor camp and five years of exile, but after Stalin’s death she was able to return to her home and continue her studies. During the trial, she was determined to be “no less guilty” than the other defendants but was considered important to the state because of her research.

Lina Stern

Lina Stern

After the execution of the other defendants, the trial and its results were kept secret. Family members did not learn about the fates of the executed until November, 1955.

In the meantime, Stalin continued his targeting of Jews with the Doctors’ Plot, in which a group of prominent Moscow doctors was accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders. Many doctors, officials and others, both Jews and non-Jews, were promptly dismissed from their jobs and arrested. Fortunately, Stalin died during this process, and the new Soviet leadership stated a lack of evidence and the case was dropped. On November 22, 1955, the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR determined that there was “no substance to the charges” against the defendants and closed the case.

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