“I always noticed a correspondence between the destinies of the Jewish and Ukrainian peoples during the Stalinist period”: Boris Khersonsky

Khersonsky talks about the repressions against the Jews, the Yiddish language, and family memory.

Our guest today is the poet Boris Khersonsky. Our talk is pegged to a sad but very crucial date, 12 August 1952, the day that the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were shot. I recalled this date thanks to Boris Khersonsky’s posting on Facebook, in which he explains how it is connected to his own family. 

Iryna Slavinska: We begin with a question for those listeners who don’t know much about Jewish history in the lands of the USSR. What was the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee?

Boris Khersonsky: This date is very sad. On this day in 1952 Jewish cultural figures who wrote in Yiddish were shot, as were other individuals: the members of the so-called Anti-Fascist Committee. This committee was created during the war. Its main task was to establish overseas links in order to help the Soviet army in its war against fascism. Stalin used these people, then took brutal revenge for the services that they had carried out on behalf of the Soviet Union. In fact, all the best-known writers and poets who wrote in Yiddish were executed in 1952. For Stalin, this was just the beginning.

The case of these cultural figures was followed by the Doctors’ Plot. The most prominent medical specialists were arrested and through interrogations and torture, they reached the gallows on Red Square. There was a plan to hang them, and a plan to deport nearly the entire Jewish population to the Jewish Autonomous Region, located in the Far East with its capital in Birobidzhan. But Stalin died. And the doctors were the first to be released after his death. The head of the KGB, Avakumov, was one of the first to be shot for crimes during the Stalinist period. Sad events like these.

Among the poets was Itsik Fefer. Unfortunately, the shadow of collaboration with the NKVD lies upon him. Also Perets Markish, Leonid [Leyb] Kvitko. The latter was a marvelous figure and poet, whose poems in Russian translation I remember from my childhood, and many others whom we remember today and do not forget. Over twenty cultural figures were shot in one night.

Iryna Slavinska: Next in our conversation I asked Boris to explain how these events influenced the development of Yiddish in Ukraine. 

Boris Khersonsky: I always noticed a correspondence between the destinies of the Jewish and Ukrainian peoples during Stalinist times. We remember the period of the “Executed Renaissance,” which struck a blow at Ukrainian culture. The execution of those who wrote in Yiddish nearly killed off this culture on the territory of the USSR.

The journal Radianska vitchyzna [Sovetish Heimland] was published at one time. But practically no one read it. Because there was no one left to read it. A large part of the Jewish population perished during the Holocaust. And young people were not learning their mother tongue. And they didn’t understand, they couldn’t read. And the contents of this journal were exclusively Soviet. Such are the sad recollections today.

Iryna Slavinska: Please clarify which cities you are talking about. Can one speak about individual Soviet republics? Was the persecution of the Jews a general Soviet trend? 

Boris Khersonsky: Nearly everyone who was shot lived in Moscow and Kyiv, like the Kyivite Dovid Hofshteyn. Today there is a memorial plaque at the place where he lived. But there were repressions against the Jewish population in all cities of Ukraine. A few writers in Odesa who wrote in Yiddish, like [Note Lurie], for example, were arrested. The latter spent four years in prison, where he suffered a stroke. But he survived and was released after Stalin’s death.

Doctors were also targeted in all cities; they were dismissed from work. But this was already the end of Stalinism. Stalin died within a little over six months after the execution of these cultural figures. After this everything changed. In the first weeks after Stalin’s death, everyone who had been arrested was freed. And no deportation took place.

Iryna Slavinska: What could have been the pretext for this persecution in the Soviet Union? 

Boris Khersonsky: In 1947 the State of Israel was founded. It is interesting that, at the time, the USSR supported the creation of this state, and even helped ensure that Czech weapons were delivered there. And it was the country that rendered assistance during the first war for independence.

But Stalin had his own calculations. He believed that Israel would become a stronghold of socialism, communism, and Soviet policies in the Middle East. This did not happen. So the dictator was deeply disappointed. I think that he himself was an anti-Semite, and capable of exploiting Jewish figures only when he needed them.

Why do I think this? In 1936 [Grigory] Zinoviev and [Lev] Kamenev were shot. Both men, members of Lenin’s Old Bolshevik Guard, were of Jewish background. Before being shot, the latter began to recite a Jewish prayer. And when this was reported to Stalin, he laughed. This laughter, when he was told about the execution, means that this was not simply a political action; it was an ethnic one as well.

After the war ended, the topic of the Holocaust was banned, as everyone probably knows. Why? We always said that the Nazis were criminals, some of whom were executed by a decision of the Nuremberg Tribunal. But for some reason, there was silence around the Holocaust. Because Jews were not taken into account. They were killed, and that was that. In Odesa, more than 10,000 Jews were burned inside artillery warehouses. And until twelve or thirteen years ago, no one even knew about this. Because parents remained silent. [Editor’s note: After the war, 28,000 skeletons were found in this place.]

I have this fresh observation. Near the house where I live, Jews were shot during the occupation. There was a small memorial plaque on the fence. On it was written that in this spot “the occupiers shot Soviet civilians.” It was a kind of formula. The word “Jews” was “unprintable.” This neighborhood is being actively built up. And every time that I walked past the plaque, I thought that it wouldn’t be preserved. And that’s what really happened. It is no longer there. There are small memorials here and there in Odesa. But all of them were erected with private funds.

The Israeli citizen and prominent lawyer Yaakov Maniowicz donated some money. A monument was erected on the square from which the Jews were brought to the ghetto then to camps in Transnistria, where more than 250,000 people were killed. Next to it is another one, in honor of those who were killed. But all these are private initiatives. Unfortunately, the state does not care about this to this day. Two years ago I read poems on Babyn Yar Memorial Day. At the time there was still no monument. And there still isn’t one, I think.

Iryna Slavinska: Among those who were shot in 1952 was the poet Dovid Hofshteyn, a relative of Boris Khersonsky’s family. I asked him to explain how the memory of these events was transmitted within the family. 

Boris Khersonsky: I knew about this since my childhood because several of my relatives had been in the Stalinist camps. And two of them talked to me when I was ten years old. They gave a detailed account of the Stalinist camps, those interrogations and tortures.

Here is a very brief story of one of my grandmother’s brothers. He lived in Bessarabia and barely knew Russian. [He knew] Yiddish, Romanian, and some French. He was very young when the Soviet armies arrived. All more or less well-off people were rounded up near a church. They sat on the grass for one night, and in the morning NKVD officers came out and read from a list. And people said that they were present. But my relative’s surname was not [on the list]. And he spoke up. They asked him: What is your name? He was tortured. But he didn’t even understand what they were asking. And there was no interpreter. He spent twelve years in the camps. All the other relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

Iryna Slavinska: Not just to remember this and recount it to others. Of course, I could not fail to ask Boris Khersonsky to read a few poems connected to the persecution of the Jews in the USSR, particularly the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

Boris Khersonsky: They are written in Russian. There are no translations so far. But I try to produce both Ukrainian and Russian versions of nearly every one of my poems. Soon my Ukrainian-language book will come out in Lviv.

“I wasn’t taught Yiddish in order to save
from fate those doomed to poverty and pogroms
I can scrape together only a few words from memory
and feel their flutter like butterflies that a little boy
whom we barely know holds in his hands

even though I was a boy people not I but we
a baby boy a youth an old man remember Gumilev
not exclude themselves from Durkee from poverty or prison
don’t forswear the nuthouse sadness and prison
deafness and blind darkness
you won’t ask life why you are a fu*king bi*ch.

man you’re as pale as a bad mushroom
you remember Stalin’s demise the junta in Chile
the Six-Day War the crisis in the Caribbean
the dissolution of the [Soviet] Union and yet you did not die
the boy who never learned Yiddish.” 

“It was nighttime and supper is ready, cracked plates are laid out on the oilcloth. Oh, the interiors of the mid-fifties! Blaze, anthracite in the tiled, old-school speaker! 

A gramophone on a nightstand. In the closet, mothballs in gauze bags; this helps against moths. It was dark. Supper’s ready. The family sits down at the table. A shot of vodka is the best medicine for pain. 

Mama explains to the boy what the word ‘Jew’ means. The boy doesn’t understand, and laughs for some reason. Uncle Yasha and Uncle Kutsa returned from the camps. But Uncle David did not return. And he will never return.”

Uncle Yasha and Uncle Kutsa are real people. Their names have not been changed. I translated Uncle Yasha’s memoirs into Russian at one point. And this one is in memory of Dovid Hofshteyn and others.

“The bastards, they’ll put someone to the wall, order ‘fire.’
Was a guest on Earth, became a handful of earth.
The martyr’s crown will shine in the distance.

Jump, try—reach for it, here,
Like a child—for a rattle, for a piece of paper—a cat.
Learn to distinguish prayer from the cry ‘Oh, Mein Gott!’

Walk around paradise with a notebook of poems in Yiddish, look at the Romanov family,
reigning in the clouds,
feel the spirit change as it leaves the ashes. 

Kyiv, Kremenets, Palestine, Volyn, Lithuania, 
the earth’s crust of large hemispheres, a Jewish head
shot through, then nothing, corpses stacked like firewood.
This wood will go, as expected, into an oven.
Until they burn—guards will stand watch.
The murmuring of a flame. Illegible eternal speech.”

Iryna Slavinska: Next I asked Mr. Khersonsky to reflect on whether contemporary listeners and readers understand poems written about the persecution of the Jews.

Boris Khersonsky: Some understand, others don’t want to. That’s the way it is. I am troubled that when nearly fifty people died in Odesa as a result of disorder and chance, people talk about this and meetings are held. But they say practically nothing about those 10,000 or 18,000 people who were burned in artillery warehouses. This was a long time ago. One can forget about this. But it cannot be used for political purposes.

Iryna Slavinska: Can poetry help to recall and transmit this memory? 

Boris Khersonsky: Poetry is obliged to do this. But only time will tell if it is able to do so. I will only say that one year ago we held an evening featuring a violinist in a new hall. These were readings and music on the Jewish topic. But that very day, the announcement about this concert coincided with an article saying that I had glorified the German and Romanian occupiers. Because today the lies spread by the Russian media are not stopping.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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