The JAC comprised 25 leading writers, artists, doctors, scientists and government officials. It was headed by the most famous Jewish actor in the USSR, Solomon Mikhoels, who was also a professor of drama and director of the State Jewish Theatre in Moscow. (His director’s chair is preserved in the foyer of the theatre). Mikhoels was at once a Soviet patriot and a loyal Jew. His family name was Vovsi. Born in Latvia in 1890, he received a traditional Jewish education. His father-in-law was the editor of a Hebrew newspaper. After school, he studied law and practised for a few years, but abandoned the law for the theatre in 1919, when he joined a Yiddish theatre group and moved to Moscow. The theatre group became the State Jewish Theatre. For a time, the theatrical troupe was joined by the painter Marc Chagall, who had returned to Russia after the 1917 revolution , and designed many sets for the theatre, as well as painting portraits of Mikhoels and his fellow actors. Mikhoels’ talents were widely recognised. He received a state award in 1926, and in March 1935 he was given the title of People’s Artist of the Russian Federation, after he had given a widely acclaimed performance as King Lear. In 1946, he received the Stalin Prize. Mikhoels’ successes were partly due to the policy of the Bolshevik regime in encouraging Yiddish culture (although Yiddish newspapers were closed down in the 1920s). This included support for Yiddish writers, a number of whom had left Russia after the revolution and were enticed back by the regime. Several of them, including the poet Peretz Markish and the novelist David Bergelson, became prominent in the JAC. Mikhoels was instrumental in persuading Bergelson to return.
The suggestion for an anti-fascist committee had also been made by two refugees from Poland, Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter, who were leading figures in the socialist Bund and had been members of the Polish parliament. The proposal was recommended to Stalin, who was sympathetic until he recognised the names of Erlich and Alter as former Mensheviks. They were arrested and interrogated. Erlich was shot, and Alter died some months later in a prison camp. (Recent information from the archives corrects the previously accepted version that both were executed at the same time). The JAC was finally established in June 1942, with the objectives of publicising Jewish contributions to the Soviet war effort, developing a ‘strong anti-fascist camapign’ among Jews in the Allied countries, and raising funds to assist the Soviet government. The JAC also supported Jewish cultural activities and published a weekly Yiddish newspaper, Eynikayt (Unity), the first time this had been permitted since the 1920s. The high point of the JAC’s activities came in 1943, when Mikhoels and the writer Itzik Feffer spent seven months overseas, mainly in the USA, to campaign for support for the Soviet war effort, including demands for the opening of a European second front. The climax of the tour was a mass rally at the Polo Grounds in New York City, attended by more than 50,000 people. The gathering was addressed by Albert Einstein, the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, and the mayor of New York, Fiorello la Guardia (himself part-Jewish). Mikhoels and Feffer then visited a number of other centres, and finally spent some weeks in Britain. Mikhoels privately expressed his unease about Feffer, whom he suspected (correctly, as it turned out) of being an agent of the Soviet secret police, then known as the NKVD. Nevertheless, Mikhoels and Feffer returned in triumph to the Soviet Union, and the JAC continued to grow in importance. At its peak, the committee had a staff of more than 50 people, and occupied two floors of a large office building in the centre of Moscow. It received letters from Jews all over the USSR, as though it were a national representative body. But its very success led to its undoing. Stalin and his circle were pathologically suspicious of any manifestations of nationalism. A year after the war ended, responsibility for the JAC was transferred from the Information Bureau to the Foreign Relations Department of the Communist Party’s central committee, and Mikhail Suslov was given the task of supervising the Committee’s activities. Suslov was a loyal Stalinist hack who acted as chief guardian of the ‘party line’ for many years. In November 1946, he made a secret report to the Politburo of the Communist Party. He acknowledged that the JAC had made a positive contribution during the war, but its work had now taken on an increasingly nationalistic and Zionist character, and was strengthening reactionary Jewish circles abroad. He cited numerous extracts from Eynikayt which were said to indicate the determination of the JAC to campaign for ‘the reactionary idea of a single Jewish nation’. Many years later, in his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev recalled Lozovsky’s activities during the war, and his great success in publicising Nazi atrocities. ‘The Sovinformbureau and its Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were considered indispensable to the interests of our State, our policies, and our Communist Party’. But, he added, ‘after the war, it all counted for nothing’. Suslov’s recommendation was that the JAC should be ‘liquidated’, but Stalin was not ready to act. Events in the Middle East suggested that the Soviet regime could extend its influence, and this was not the time to alienate international Jewish opinion. At the end of 1947, he took the opportunistic step of supporting the United Nations resolution for the partition of Palestine. Mikhoels, in the meantime, was a marked man. He never concealed his support for a Jewish homeland. In 1944, he told the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, who was visiting Moscow, that when his plane for America flew over Palestine he ‘kissed the air’. He denounced the official conspiracy of silence over the massacre at Babi Yar. One of his last public acts was a performance of a play by Mendele Mocher Sforim in December 1947, where one character asks, ‘Where is the road to Eretz Israel?’. Mikhoels, speaking with his own voice, responded that ‘Comrade Gromyko gave us the answer to this question from a rostrum at the United Nations’. Mikhoels’ daughter recollected that the audience erupted with an ovation that lasted ten minutes. A week after this incident, Mikhoels was sent by the Party secretariat to review the performance of a new play in Minsk. He was run down in the street in a faked car accident. The assassin was rewarded, secretly, with the Order of Lenin.
While much of the material in Encel's article will already be familiar to those who have studied the Stalin era, new information about this particularly brutal and murky aspect of those years is constantly coming to light. Accounts of Mikhoels's death vary: while Encel talks of "a faked car accident", Robert Conquest, in his book "Reflections on a Ravaged Century" (1999) writes that Mikhoels "was clubbed to death at Belorussia's KGB dacha on January 1948 under the supervision of Stalin's Deputy Minister of State Security, Sergei Ogoltsov (and this was at a time when the death penalty had been abolished!). His body and that of a similarly treated companion were then left on a Minsk street where, it was announced next day, they had been run over by a truck. Later the same month the police officials concerned were. without publicity, awarded medals (similar medals and orders without publication had been given to the NKVD team that murdered Trotsky in 1940)." (p. 101)
Encel describes the subsequent history of the JAC, its liquidation and the arrest, imprisonment and torture of its members, based on the trumped-up charges of "bourgeois nationalism, the creation of an anti-Soviet underground, treason, and spying for the Americans", and the development of the "doctors' plot" affair. Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the whole matter is that the repercussions of Stalin's anti-Jewish progrom continue to be evident in today's Russia. Encel writes:
The official leaders of the Orthodox Church, restored to its traditional role in Russian society, have been relatively cautious in their attitude to Judaism and the Jews. However, sections of the church are overtly hostile to Judaism. The organ of the National Orthodox movement, ironically named Al-Quds (i.e. the Muslim name for Jerusalem), is particularly virulent in this regard. An article in Al-Quds in 1995 compared Stalin with Jesus Christ. ‘Whereas Christ was a martyr in his life, Stalin bore his crown of thorns even after his death… Today the descendants of those who crucified the Son of God many centuries ago, crucify Stalin on the cross of lies and malice’. Another school of apologists for Stalin is to be found in the movement called ‘National Bolshevism’, which is an attempt to present the achievements of the Soviet regime in nationalistic terms, and to justify the purges of the 1930s as a defence against subversion of the Russian fatherland. National Bolshevism identifies the Jews as agents of international capitalism, in an updated version of the traditional ‘international Jewish Bolshevik Masonic capitalist conspiracy’. In its updated form, it describes Zionism as a global conspiracy of the Jewish Financial elite that aims to establish Jewish world domination. Some adherents of National Bolshevism have gone so far as to assert that Stalin was murdered by the Jews involved in the ‘doctors’ plot’, alleging that the killing took place on the night of Purim, March 2nd, 1953, and that they misled the public by concealing the fact until March 6, when they announced the ‘sudden and serious illness of Comrade Stalin’. This is a perversion of the actual sequence of events, which involved a delay because the members of the Politburo were uncertain about the succession, and is in any case preposterous because the doctors were in detention. But the currency of such stories illustrates how the shadow of Stalin still hangs over Russia, and particularly over its Jewish population.