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The Night of the Murdered Poets 

A commemoration by Duke's Freeman Center for Jewish Life observes the 50th anniversary of an atrocity

Their writings demonstrate little of the nostalgia or piety one often sees in depictions of pre-Holocaust Yiddish culture. All of them--poets Peretz Markish, Dovid Hofshteyn, Itzik Fefer, Leyb Kvitko and novelist Dovid Bergelson--came of age during the Soviet Revolution in 1917. Most of them were young urbanists, "toughs" who moved from the stultifying villages of the Pale to Kiev and Moscow, seeking intellectual and artistic freedom in the great fervor of early 20th century modernism. All supported the emerging Communist state.

One hears their excitement in the opening of an untitled poem by the brilliant Markish:

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.

His sense of the future is echoed in Hofshteyn's more reflective stanza from the poem "City":


I arrived in your harbor

On the ship of my loneliness.

The ship of my loneliness...

I rinsed her sails

In the winds...

They dwindled and tore

In the lengths and breadths

Of the world.

These writers were productive. After several years abroad in Berlin and Palestine, from 1923 to 1926, Hofshteyn returned to the Soviet Union and published numerous volumes of poetry and translations. Markish founded a modernist Yiddish movement, known as Khaliastre, during his years in Warsaw. After his return to Russia, he was awarded the Lenin Prize for literature in 1939. Fefer edited the Yiddish journals Prolit and Challenge and became a member of the Union of Soviet Writers. In 1943, he traveled to the United States with the actor, Solomon Mikhoels, drawing massive audiences in New York in support of the work of the Anti-Fascist League.

Was it so necessary that all of them be murdered?

Last Sunday, the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke University commemorated the five writers, who were slain along with a host of other prominent Jewish intellectuals on Aug. 12, 1952, in one of Joseph Stalin's last post-war purges. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the event. It's known as "The Night of the Murdered Poets."

With restrained simplicity, a local story-telling group briefly enacted the show trials that led up to the execution of the writers. Duke professor emeritus Dr. Warren Lerner spoke of the flowering of Yiddish culture in the early years of the Soviet Union and of its betrayal in these murders. Then readings were given in Yiddish, Russian and English of the poet's works, interspersed with music provided by Jane Peppler, the director of the Triangle Jewish Chorale.

All of those slain were associated with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, established in 1942 by the Soviet Union to appeal to Jewish communities in the Allied Nations for support in the war against Hitler. Once the war was over and the organization no longer useful to his purposes, Stalin--as he so often did--turned against its leaders. He had most of them arrested between 1948 and 1949, and subjected them to show trials in 1952. On the night of Aug. 12 of that year, they were executed in the basement of Moscow's Lubyanka prison.

The deaths of the five, all central figures in Soviet Yiddish literature, represented a second blow to a Yiddish culture already blasted by the Holocaust. This silenced a remaining core of politically active intellectuals and sharply marked the dangers of presuming that such a culture could survive in post-war Russia.

In the works of these poets, one can trace a growing recognition that the hope in these gestures--and these lives--had been betrayed. One sees this in poems which re-invoke connections to Jewish roots in landscape and symbol. Markish writes to the "swollen earth" and "unkempt and carefree wind." He thinks he sees them for the first time in "three-year old eyes":

the red cows, the valley

of mud, the dirty asses and filled up teats,

pleasure hits me quietly: morning warm, the dried hay

from last year, naked horses

I would embrace all the cows

and stretch out with them on the earth

and howl together

His desire for the pastoral is echoed in Kvitko's poem "Esau." In it, Kvitko asks Esau to look to Kvitko's "ancient heart" and "ancient dreams", spun and sewn "on the ashes of the road/on the ashes of being." Then he says:

Leave me and tend your sheep,Your fragrant springs,

Lay your hand on them,

Your hairy ancient hand...

It is a prayer made all the richer by Kvitko's use of the motif of broken relations and subsequent forgiveness from the story of Esau and Jacob in the Torah.

As I left the Freeman Center, struck by the spare beauty of what I had been told was a rare event, I began to wonder if one of the reasons so little of these men and their works, so little of the history of this violence is known, is because it was directed against writers who made the unwise bargain of affiliating themselves with communism.

It is difficult for any of us now to remember the initial optimism inspired by the Soviet revolution. We tend to have little sympathy for writers who compose paeans for the workers or for Stalin, as several of these men did.

But in this we forget our own lives: how we compromise to earn a living; how one year becomes five, and then 10; how we stay in a job or a relationship too long, out of hope, or because we love.

We also forget the difficult choices for Jewish artists of that era, already outsiders and strangers to their traditions as well, who nevertheless made a home, here or there, trying to realize some measure of their promise. And we forget the gradual but ultimately catastrophic ruin wrought by Stalin.

Perhaps the most poignant voice for what was lost can be heard in Hofshteyn's cry:

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!

Such a radiance. Such a waste: now broken, silenced and remembered at what is rapidly becoming so great a distance. EndBlock

  • A commemoration by Duke's Freeman Center for Jewish Life observes the 50th anniversary of an atrocity

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