In 1981, PEN International (an organization of poets, essayists and novelists advocating for freedom of expression and human rights) declared November 15 as the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Its goal was to commemorate and publicize the fate of writers who are being persecuted for expressing themselves.

In the spirit of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Jewish Treats steps back to a dark time and place in history in Stalinist Russia, and presents a brief overview of the Night of the Murdered Poets.

The arrests of the “poets” began in 1948. The arrested were all members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). Although they were not all writers, they were all loyal members of the communist party. In fact, JAC had been established to promote pro-Soviet sentiment among Jews around the world. After the Holocaust, JAC took upon itself to also try and rebuild the Jewish cultural life in Europe that the Nazis had destroyed. However, as the Cold War heated up and the State of Israel aligned with the West, the JAC caught Joseph Stalin’s particular attention.

While the arrests took place in 1948-1949, the trial of the JAC defendants did not occur until 1952. The years in-between were filled with torture and interrogation. The accused were charged with “counter-revolutionary crimes” and with trying to undermine the Soviet Union. The evidence, which was presented before three military judges, was largely exaggerated. Of the 15 defendants, 13 (names listed below) were found guilty and sentenced to death. Defendant Solomon Bregman had fallen into a coma at the time of the trial and never regained consciousness. Defendant Lina Stern was found guilty but given a commuted sentence because her scientific research was deemed important. Of the 13 who were executed, five of them were well-known Yiddish poets – hence the name of this terrible event.

Three years after their execution, the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR determined that the evidence against the JAC defendants had not been substantial enough to warrant execution. Obviously, it was too late.

Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, Itzik Feffer, Leib Kvitko, David Bergelson, Solomon Lozovsky, Boris Shimeliovich, Benjamin Zuskin, Joseph Yuzefovich, Leon Talmy, Ilya Vatenberg, Chaika Vatenburg-Ostrovskaya, Emilia Teumin

Leib Kvitko’s last poem: Prison Romance, 1952
No, my dear friend,
We are not destined to meet –
The cold has gripped my door’s corners
And it is difficult to break free, believe me, believe me…
And you — do not appear today, my friend!
Silence and oblivion visit me,
And in my heart, bitter premonitions frighten me.
We will meet tomorrow…or perhaps later,
When the dew sparkles on the leaves,
When the tranquil day shines in the window,
And the sun peeks in the eye.
You will come and dispel heavy thoughts,
And the door will burst open into an awakened garden
And my voice will be joyous and young,
And my glance will radiate tenderness.
No, my dear friend,
Do not appear right now –
A fierce cold has chained the door…

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.