19 Jan Planned Accident, Accidental Survival
Gardener of Human Happiness
Maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe in the last five years of his life Stalin considered it a good omen to embark on his purges in January, even a specific day in January. And he was right, as usual. The anti-cosmopolitan campaign succeeded beyond words; the Doctors’ Plot would have too, no doubt, had Stalin not died. It showed great promise from day one.
Let me tell you, the guy was not known as Gardener of Human Happiness and The Best Friend of Athletes for nothing.
Regardless of your age, if you lived in the Soviet Union, years 1948-1953 did not go away, they did not even fade.
In January of 1951, my father was finally fired. I was five-and-a-half and tired of expecting it for three years, practically since I remembered myself. His trouble began with my stupid choice of Churchill (whoever he was) over Stalin (whose portrait was everywhere) on a caricature.
He tried to convince me that most likely there didn’t have to be a reason. Or it was possibly the fault of his aunt who had immigrated to America when he was four. Jews who lived in America made us, Soviet Jews, into cosmopolitans, rootless cosmopolitans. I could not pronounce these words but they never left my mind.
Top to Tail
Losing a job meant being taken away—it was called arrest—and I had almost prepared myself to my father’s disappearance. Like many others we knew, my father would be send to a camp—camp did not mean summer camp.
Wonder of wonders, even though my father was fired he was not arrested! All we had to do was to vacate our 140-square-foot room within 72 hours—he was not an employee of the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) any longer so he had no right right to live in an MVD building. My parents looked gloomy, but I welcomed a change of scenery.
My grandmother whisked me away to Aunt Ida’s house. Aunt Ida was my mother’s friend and almost part of the family. She lived alone in an 80-square-foot room and my job was to stay in the room and not talk to her communal neighbors. It was fun. I loved sleeping between my grandmother and Aunt Ida. Since they lay top to tail I made a game of choosing which way to face. And I still remember it fondly.
My mother stayed with another friend and they probably slept top to tail, too. I was not allowed to ask where my father slept but much later I learned that a young soldier on duty at the MVD headquarters, grateful for a past favor, let him sleep for a few hours on a desk uder the stairs. First, everyone was afraid to hire my father but in nine months he did find a job and, amazingly, his boss assigned him an apartment. All was perfect again.
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Accidents Do Happen
January 13, 1948. On this day, the beloved Soviet Jewish actor, director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), Solomon Mikhoels became a victim of a hit-and-run accident in Minsk. Thousands of people greeted his body in Moscow.
That was 70 years ago and a couple of months before I so carelessly picked Churchill over Stalin and thus fingered my father as a cosmopolitan.
Since Stalin could not risk a show trial of an internationally renowned figure, an accidental murder fit the bill to a tee. Because, well, accidents do happen, even in socialist countries. The hit-and-run was perfectly choreographed: the contract killer dumped the body into the path of a contract truck. All involved received medals for their performance. After Stalin died, the medals were taken away and the overseeing officer arrested but not the lowly executors.
Stalin sent off Mikhoels in grand style, state funeral, profuse eulogies, et al. The Jewish theater was renamed after its eminent director and performer then promptly shut down along with other Jewish cultural institutions.
The Culture’s End
Arrested and tortured for the next three to four years, all the members of JAC—counterrevolutionaries, spies, obviously rootless cosmopolitans—were executed. August 12, 1952, when thirteen leading Jewish writers perished, became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. Mikhoels, posthumously transformed into an anti-revolutionary, a collaborator with the West, and, needless to say, a cosmopolitan.
The brilliant cohort was gone. Yiddish culture has not survived the surgical hit that Stalin’s expert hand delivered following the equally expert hand of Holocaust. Hitler would have been proud. As Mikhoels’ daughter said, “readers had been massacred; writers had not been born.”
At home, adults constantly whispered names that, I later discovered, belonged to the victims of the latest campaign. They burst with pride of having met Peretz Markish (executed), and that my great-aunt had been friends with Shneer-Okun (perished in exile). Vovsi, the birth surname of Mikhoels, they uttered gingerly as though the very sound could break it. It was a funny-sounding name but I didn’t dare to laugh.
Beware Thy Doctor
January 13, 1953. On this day, the Soviet newspapers announced the arrest of nine prominent physicians who attended major Soviet leaders. Six of them were Jewish. They had recently succeeded in murdering some of them and planned to strike more plus some army generals. The doctors confessed.
Thankfully, the Doctors’ Plot came to light in the nick of time—Stalin’s personal doctor and Miron Vovsi (Mikhoels’ cousin) headed the group. That was 65 years ago, and again my parents anxiously whispered the name Vovsi.
That first crop was the tip of the aisberg. Clearly, the “murderers in white coats” worked on behalf of the world Zionism, especially that Israel was in no rush to embrace communism as Stalin had hoped.
Overnight, hysteria exploded. Patients and colleagues of Jewish doctors avoided them like the plague. Everyone faulted them for anything health-related. Their communal neighbors refused to talk to them or to prepare food in the kitchen in their presence. Mothers covered their children’s faces when passing the door behind which one of the families was a doctor’s. The fear on both sides was palpable and it permanently scarred the next generations.
On March 5, 1953, just as the hatred of the Jewish doctors-killers was approaching crescendo, Stalin died. And that’s in spite of his physician already behind bars.
Heavy Industry Counts
Already in April, the Doctors’ Plot was over. The doctors were released and exonerated. It turned out that the charges were false and confessions made under torture. Had Stalin been alive, those who fabricated and executed the case on his orders would have gotten medals. But he wasn’t, so they were executed.
The tendency in Russia seems to poo-poo Stalin’s atrocities. Not dismiss them altogether but to point to the positive that offsets them, like the genius required to build heavy industry. After all, there had to be fear and strict order in order to create heavy industry.
No better proof that Stalin is alive than the commemoration of his death.