ONLINE NEWSLETTER
No. 7/2002 - October 2002
Editor: Fran Bock

This article was first published in East European Jewish Affairs, 1997, Vol. 27 #2.

The Belarus SIG is grateful for the permission granted by Howard Spier of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London to republish Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky's article on the Belarus SIG Online Newsletter.

We also thank Dr. Smilovitsky for his continuing contributions to our knowledge about the Jews in Belarus and for his permission to republish the article here.

This article is copyrighted by East European Jewish Affairs, its publishers and Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky.

Reprinting or copying of is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders
.

 

Byelorussian Jewry

and the Doctors' Plot, 1953

by Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky,

Diaspora Research Institute, Tel Aviv University

Introduction

It is no accident that the policy of Stalinist leadership towards the Jewish population of the post-war USSR continues to be the focus of scientific research. The studies lead to a better understanding of not only state-imposed anti-Semitism, but also the key ideological and political processes that characterize the Soviet regime as a whole. The post-war years were a period of tense confrontation between the USSR and Western countries, wherein Moscow's anti-Jewish policies played a crucial role. Furthermore, anti-Semitism was used as a tool in the struggle for power within the Soviet leadership. The present article is devoted to the events that came in the wake of the January 13, 1953 publication of the TASS report on the discovery of a doctors' plot in the Kremlin, with Jews forming the majority of the plotters (1). The author's purpose is to provide a direct account of the conduct of Belarus Jews during that time, to describe their reaction to the affair, and to give an idea of the way the Jews perceived their future and immediate prospects, as well as to examine the policies pursued by the republic' s party and government organs in regard to this issue. The article is mainly based on documents from the Belarus National Archives, central and regional state archives, and contemporary press publications. Use has been made of the correspondence between Party and Government organs dealing with the "Jewish problem" in Belarus, as well as a report of the Belarus Ministry of State Security (MGB) on the reaction of Jews and non-Jews to the events of 1953.

Preparation for the campaign

The second half of the 1940s was marked in the Soviet Union by an overhaul of the official employment policies that, in the authorities' view, were to culminate in the removal of Jews from top party, government and economic positions, or nomenclature - the privileged stratum of the system of centralized administration. That was when the government issued secret instructions to bar the Jews from occupying high-level positions. This was accompanied by the unleashing of the engine of terror used as a means of state control during Stalin's regime. For this purpose, the Jews were accused of spying for imperialist countries - a traditional and well-tried measure widely used even before the war.

After members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were accused of collaborating with the American and British secret services, the whole-scale ideological campaign swelled into an all-embracing struggle against the so-called "cosmopolitanism" . Thus the Jews found themselves among other Soviet national minorities facing the charges of national treason. All that was needed to unleash more decisive measures - including deportation from the European part of the country - was a strong pretext. That was the role assigned to the "doctors' affair" . The purpose behind it was not only to wipe out a group of gifted and free-minded medical scientists and intimidate the rest of the intelligentsia, but also to replace the vague "cosmopolitan" image with that of a blood-thirsty, fanatical Jew in the public mind. By virtue of circumstances, the ideological cadres and intelligentsia of post-war Belarus numbered many Jews. In 1946-1949, in the town of Borisov, of the 360 intellectuals 53 were Jewish; in Minsk's Voroshilov district, the ratio was 748 out of 3,438 (2). In Bobruisk, the 539-strong staff of the municipal party committee contained 112 Jews (3). Among Belarus' industrial engineers and technical workers, the Jews comprised 15.5%, and reached the 16% mark among the employees of scientific and cultural institutions. In 1952, the Belarus Academy of Sciences had 429 research assistants, 63 of whom were Jewish, etc. (4).

By the start of 1953, the Jews of Belarus continued to occupy numerous privileged positions in the media and media-controlling bodies. Among the editors of republican newspapers and magazines, they comprised 11.1% (5). Thus the editor-in-chief of the republic's party mouthpiece Kommunist Belorussii was B. Zeltzer; the editor of the Nastaunitzkai gazeta (Teachers' Gazette) was E. Esman; the editor-in-chief of the Rabotnitsa i syalyanka (Woman Worker and Farmer) magazine was I. Shifrina; etc. (6). Chief editors of the Za Rodinu (For Motherland) and the Grodno regional newspapers were Abram Levin and Isaac Avilov (7). The chief secretary of the Brest society for disseminating political and scientific knowledge was Betya Loiberg (8). The propagandists' seminar held at the Minsk municipal party committee featured lectures by heads of the Marxism-Leninism faculty Y. Levin (the Law Institute) and B. Kharik (the Institute of Economics), and senior lecturers of the Pedagogical Inst itute G. Fridman, M. Kantorovich, and others (9).

Party propagandists in Minsk's medical institutions included senior medical lecturers of the Medical Institute Ginzburg, Katzman, Kantorovich and Melamed; chief physician of the medical clinic Shultz; chief physician of the 5th polyclinic E. Dreizen; doctor's assistant at the therapy clinic L. Neifakh; and so on (10). In the Belarus Radio Broadcasting Committee, one out of every four employees was Jewish, and of the three regional correspondents two were Jews (Epshtein and Rubinchik). At the BSSR Council of Ministers' Chief Directorate for Press Censorship, two out of the eight censors were Jewish (11). The share of Jews in the republic's government bodies comprised 3.89%, and 4.12% at the municipal and regional levels (12).

As a result, the Belarus authorities found themselves at an impasse. On the one hand, they were obliged to carry out the instructions of the central government. On the other hand, they could not act in total disregard of Jewish employees, many of whom had many years of Party, government and administrative work behind them, had participated in the partisan movement, and were army veterans. Moreover, the campaign's success depended to a large degree on the active efforts of ideological cadres, propagandists, lecturers of the Society for Disseminating Political and Scientific Knowledge, school and university teachers. At the same time it was important to monitor the conduct of ideological workers, to prevent any dissenting views or possible deviations from the general party line.

Rejection of the Official Version

From the outset, the main mass of Belarus' Jewish population treated the TASS report of January 13, 1953 with a great deal of mistrust. Regional, city, and district party committees reported that the majority of Jews kept their silence and stayed away from discussions, refusing to enter into debates and ignoring meetings and rallies. V. Tuzov, head of the department of Party, Trade Union, and Comsomol organs of the Vitebsk regional pa rty committee, wrote to the Belarus Central Communist Party Committee that entire groups of Jews were refusing to read the TASS reports (13). A report from Minsk stated that the Jewish employees of the Belarus Finance Ministry expressed no condemnation of the acts committed by the "killer doctors" ; while the "Red Tailors" Union in the city of Frunze, 90% of whose workers were Jewish, appeared totally indifferent to the events. On January 13, 1953, shop manager M. Mitelman at the Krupskaya garment factory left the public reading of a Pravda article entitled "Despicable spies and murderers under the guise of medical professors" . The factory employees claimed the Mitelman had fled the people's anger aroused by the article about "the Yid poisoners" (14). From Gomel it was reported that the Jews of the city and the region did not share the public outrage at the doctors' " malicious acts of treason" , and tried to avoid any discussions with others. In Pinsk, the second-year Jewish students at the University of Marxism and Leninism were absent from classes on January 13, 1953 (15). The Jewish employees (12 in number) of the Vitebsk city bank, when asked by party secretary M. Lyakhov how many had heard the TASS report, replied that their radio had been off, and one of them claimed that besides an excellent concert, nothing had been broadcast. On the other hand, Jewish workers at the"Banner of Industrialization" factory told the visiting party canvasser that they had already read the Pravda reports, and there was no need to read them again. When, despite these objections, the TASS report was read out, none of them spoke out or offered any comments (16).

Belarus MGB informers reported that part of the Jews were convinced that the arrested doctors had been coerced into confessing. This was the view held by manager of store No. 20 of the Gorodok district, S. Bertenson, who regretted the fact that the doctors had confessed to the charges leveled against them: "If they hadn't confessed, there would have been no case." M. Levin, the principal of the Vitebsk Secondary School No.6, declared that if anyone was guilty, it was the Russian medical professors V. Vinogradov and P. Yegorov (17). Many reports stressed that fact that wherever Jews formed the majority of employees, they would slip into Yiddish when discussing the events. Thus party secretary of the BSSR Academy of Sciences' Biology Institute A. Ivanov stated that while the employees of the botanical garden expressed their indignation over the acts of the gang of spies and murderers masking as medical doctors, their Jewish co-workers were talking in Yiddish among themselves or keeping silent (18). Similar reports arrived from Baranovichi, Molodechno,Volozhin, Rechitsa, Mogilev, Bobruisk, and other localities. Belorussian residents sought out alternative sources of information. For well-known reasons, the most accessible source were foreign radio broadcasts. In the beginning of 1953, Belarus representative of the Soviet Communications Ministry reported on the rise in anti-Soviet broadcasts (19). Among who listened to foreign radio stations were Jews. A preserved Belarus MGB report states that in January of 1953, a Baranovichi's barber, one Yakov Vinogradsky, dismissed the TASS report as a "fairy tale", adding that in the evening he would listen to a "voice" that gave a more truthful account. The MGB report also mentioned that Y. Vinogradsky regretted not having emigrated to Palestine in 1945, calling himself "an idiot" because of that (20).

Denial of the Charges

The Jews of Belarus, though powerless to reverse the situation or come up with any counter-evidence that would expose the fabricated charges, still expressed their objections and looked for arguments to challenge the official slander. The authorities reacted by pointing out that "individual persons of the Jewish nationality" , who were "inspired by Jewish bourgeois nationalism", not only did not condemn the actions of "terrorist group" but even tried to defend them. N. Chulitsky, head of the Bobruisk department of Party, Trade Union, and Comsomol organs of the Belarus Communist Party Committee, reported that the city's Jews denied the charges in the "doctors' affair" , and attempted to conduct counter-propaganda. Thus electrical engineer Dina Goldshtadt labeled the TASS report a modern-day Beilis affair. Yankee Gaister, secretary of the "Progress" association's comsomol organization vehemently denied the charges of terrorism brought against the Moscow doctors (21).

Among the various strata of population, from the intelligentsia to the workers, the commonly held view was that the Pravda publication marked the start of a wide-scale campaign with far-reaching repercussions. Head of the faculty of biochemistry of the Minsk Medical Institute, Prof. M. Berezhkovsky, believed that the next step would be a wave of arrests recreating the purges of 1937. His opinion was shared by E. Katzman, a medical consultant at the CC CPB polyclinic, who observed that the latest arrests were only the beginning, with arrests of many other doctors to follow, including those employed in the medical departments of Communist Party committees in other republics. Stevedore David Palchik declared that the "doctors' affair" had been fabricated with the explicit purpose of discrediting the Jews and sparking a mass anti-Semitic campaign. The Jewish residents of Baranovichi insisted that the Pravda article, which had been carried by all Belarus newspapers, was a deliberately fabricated lie meant to incite the populace against the Jews and discredit the memory of Solomon Michoels. In Orsha there was talk of a crusade against Jews, who were being fired from work so that they could be exterminated later (22).

Denial of the "American Connection"

A view commonly held by the Jews of Belorussia was that the authorities' insistence on implicating the US in the "doctors' affair" was no accident. Anna Sinilnikova from Grodno (a Jew) stated that the government was trying to stigmatise the Jews by virtue of the fact that some of them had relatives in the US, and that the arrested doctors were not terrorists but medical specialists who had been beaten and coerced into confessing (23). S. Vorotynsky, a worker from Bobruisk (a Jew) stated that in order to conceal the harassment of Soviet Jews from the world, the government was disseminating information about the Jews' alleged attempts to undermine the Soviet state. And R. Shchukhman, a shop-clerk from Vitebsk, was convinced that attacks were directed at the US because "people live well in America, and badly here" (24).

Indeed, in those years for a person to be accused of anti-patriotic acts or even of working for a foreign secret service, he did not have to break the law or engage in full-scale anti-Soviet activity. It was enough to have relatives abroad, or to have been a member of any non-communist organization in the past. Thus on March 18, 1953 Samuil Bliznyansky, director of an industrial complex in the town of Shereshevo of the Pruzhansky district, was charged with Zionist activity and collaboration with the "Joint" . Prior to 1939, Bliznyansky had been a member of the "ha-Shomer ha-Tsair" organization; and after WWII he, together with his neighbours Lightest, Khedritsky, Aronovich and others, had maintained contacts with relatives from abroad, who were sending him material aid (parcels and letters). Shakhno Pruzhanky, a warehouse manager at the industrial complex in the town of Antopol of the Drogichinsky district, was expelled from the party for concealing his social origins and contacts with relatives (father and brother-in-law) residing abroad (25). This situation was made possible by the policy pursued by Stalin, who was increasingly convinced of a Jewish conspiracy against the USSR. His distrust of the loyalty of Soviet Jews in case of a war with the US led to his belief in the need to strike out against Jewish nationalism and cosmopolitanism.

Jewish Collaborators

For a variety of reasons, a certain portion of Belarus Jews joined the government campaign and backed the myth of "medical poisoners" attempt to assassinate Moscow party leaders. These Jews were either Soviet "apparatchiks" or people occupying positions of responsibility who, by virtue of their dependent status, lacked the courage to speak out. Others had long lost all connection to the Jewish people, and were ashamed of their origins; still others were intimidated by the threat of persecution. Finally, there were those who actually accepted the doctors' plot as the truth. On the whole, the total number of Belarus Jews who sided with the state was insignificant, and every such individual was cherished by the communist authorities, who widely publicized the names of collaborators.

Significantly, the statements made by those people at public rallies, meeting and in the press were identical to the sentiments expressed by non-Jews calling for the death penalty for "murderers in white gowns". Thus, secretary of the Grodno regional party committee R. Korolev reported to the CC CPB that a certain portion of the Jews condemned the terrorist group whose actions "cast a stain on the entire Jewish nation". By way of an example, he quoted the words of G. Vaiman, a doctor at the Lida hospital, to the effect that these enemies and spies should be executed for the disgrace they had brought upon the Jewish people (26). M. Ostashonok (a Jew), a secondary school teacher in the village of Lokshany of the Surazh district, declared that the doctors had sold out to the Americans, after receiving education and material security from the Soviet state, and so they deserved the most severe punishment (27). Reports from the Vitebsk region stated that some Jewish workers and officials, while expressing their indignation at the traitors, stressed that the Soviet government had done a great deal to save the Jews from the Nazis during WWII . A separate group consisted of assimilated Jews engaged in manual labor - plant, factory and construction workers. The party organs made generous used of these impostors who had the presumption to speak on behalf of the Jewish people. G. Revzin, a worker at the Minsk automobile factory, speaking "on behalf of all Jews", called for merciless extermination of the "vipers" who, in his opinion, had defiled the honest Jewish workers. B. Glebov (a Jew), a foreman at the Kirov factory in Vitebsk, pointed out that the Soviet state had saved the Jews from extermination during the war, and they (the accused doctors) had paid back by besmirching "our nation". Reports also quoted Jewish workers from Gomel saying that because of "those scoundrels", the decent Jews were unable to live and work in peace, having to bear the antipathy of the public (28).

Anti-Semitic Manifestations

The wave of repercussion sparked by the TASS report proved so great that it led to a sharp increase in anti-Semitism. Belarus State Security Minister M.I. Baskakov reported to the republic's Central Committee that on January 13, 1953, at 12 a.m., up to 200 people had gathered at the Lenin Square in Pinsk during a public radio broadcast from Moscow, some of them shouting that if Jews were put to death, they would not have done what they did (29). At a Minsk automobile factory, the workers were saying that the Jewish doctors, acting "at the bidding" of American and British fascists, had been deliberately murdering those they were supposed to heal, and that history knew no killing techniques as devious as those applied by the "subhuman fiends" to their patients. At the Kirov machine-building plant, one veteran worker declared that the entire Jewish nation was not worth the precious lives of A. Zhdanov and N. Shcherbakov (30); while in Bobruisk A. Rudkovsky, a foreman at the Stalin factory, called for a public trial of the Jewish doctors (31).

Local authorities reported to Minsk that in the wake of the doctors' affair, many districts and regions throughout Belarus were witnessing a rise in anti-Semitic tendencies. Some of the republic's residents saw the death of Solomon Mikhoels, the head of the Moscow Jewish Theater, as evidence of the Jewish doctors' guilt. Thus V. Sabillo, an employee of the technical control department of the Minsk cloth factory , was of the opinion that Mikhoels had been murdered by Jews themselves in order to prevent his exposure as an enemy of the people. I. Trivotin believed Mikhoels' murder testified to the fact that the roots of the Jewish nationalist spy-ring were in Minsk (32). Grodno, Lida and Volkovysk reported that relations between Belorussians and Jews were souring, fuelled by the lingering tradition of Polish anti-Semitism instilled in Eastern Belarus until 1939. The Grodno printing house displayed a poster saying "Kill Jews - Save Russia!" V. Parfenov, a teacher at the Grodno high-school No 2, announced that he hated Jews so badly he could strangle them with his bare hands (33).

In a singular incident that took place in Minsk, secretary of the Voroshilov regional party committee V. Yermak received an anonymous letter from a group of workers in a tool-making factory, containing threats directed at the factory management. Among other things, the letter said that since the TASS report, the workers could not rest until the hateful "Jewish parasites" are expelled from the factory. What is more, they stressed that if the party committee wished to avoid trouble for itself, it had to meet their demand within five days. Otherwise the workers promised to "get rid" of the Jews by themselves. On January 16, 1953 V. Yermak informed Belarus party secretary M. Zimyanin and Minister of State Security M. Baskakov that the letter referred to the party secretary of the Minsk tool-making factory, Moisey Rasovsky (a communist party member since 1928), the factory's deputy director Evel Goberman (a communist party member since 1930), and the head of the electrical shop, non-party man Nikolai Meltzer (34). On the whole, the local authorities were alarmed by these developments. The Brest, Bobruisk, Vitebsk, Molodechno, Polotsk, and other regions contacted the Belarus Central Communist Party Committee and the Belarus Council of Ministers, requesting instructions as to the political and social measures they were allowed to use to counter the growing anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Unfortunately, to date the archives have yielded no documented evidence of such measures or of their absence.

Persecution

Jewish physicians and pharmacists became the targets of the mistrust and hostility of the Belarus population. The inquiries launched by government agencies, medical and educational institutions, and financial organisations that had the largest share of Jewish staff, were accompanied by dismissals. A telling illustration is the meeting of Grodno's top medical officials that took place on February 5, 1953, chaired by secretary of the regional party committee Nikolai Avkhimovich. It was attended by employees of regionaland city hospitals, the obstetrics school, the children' s home, kindergartens, nurseries, and the epidemiology center. At the meeting it was said that in a situation where "the enemy' s territory is shrinking", no nationality was immune from spies, and that called for extra vigilance. Avkhimovich also inquired about any comments the employees of the said institutions may have made after the TASS report, and about the general public's reaction to the work of Jewish physicians (surgeons I. Margolin and S. Teitelbaum, nurse M. Joffe, and others). In conclusion it was emphasized that the party central committee was interested to know about the medical institutions' employment policies, and that it was imperative to take the "necessary measures" (35).

This attitude on the part of the authorities had the effect of making many Jews consider changing jobs or places of employment before being forced to do so. E. Kazman (see above), a research assistant at the Minsk Medical Institute, fearing dismissal or even arrest, decided to quit his position as a consulting physician at the CC CPB Health Department. To do that, in his own words, he declared an "Italian strike", which meant staying away from work on grounds of bad health, lack of time, etc. (36). E. Kaplan, head physician of the Grodno psychiatric hospital, appealed to the regional health department to relieve him of his position and transfer him to another job (37). Similar reports came in from Brest, Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev, Slutsk, Chashniki, and other locations throughout Belarus.

A special incident was related to the arrest, on February 10, 1953, of a Pinsk resident, health insurance doctor Maria Weizman, who was the sister of Haim Weizman, the former first president of Israel. The Ministry of State Security dossier stated that Maria Weizman spread Zionist propaganda and conducted hostile criticism of the Soviet way of life. The investigators wanted to know every last detail, interrogating her about her six sisters and four brothers. After Stalin was already dead, on March 20, 1953, M. Weizman was forced to confess that "driven by her animosity towards the Soviet regime and its leaders, she went as far as to express malicious delight over Zhdanov's death... and to wish for Stalin's death." The dictator's demise caused the police to gradually close the Weizman file. Even though on August 12, 1953 a special session of the Soviet Foreign Ministry decided to sentence her to five years of labor camps, at the same time it applied the Supreme Soviet amnesty decree of March 27, 1953 to annul her sentence and release her from detention (38).

The Attitude to Holocaust Victims

In 1953, the authorities continued their biased policy towards those who spent the war in German-occupied areas. Nor did this policy exempt the Jews. Government bureaucrats ignored that fact that Belorussians and Russian, unlike Jews, were not persecuted by the Nazis on racial grounds. What is more, the very fact of their having survived the German campaign of total extermination was regarded as evidence of collaboration with the enemy. On those grounds, Jews were defined as unreliable elements "clogging up" Belarus educational institutions, factories and offices. In February and March of 1953, the Grodno Communist Party committee reported to Minsk that the municipal education department had been "terribly amiss" in its employment policies. The example cited was that of the husband and wife Solomon and Buzya Zhukovsky. Solomon, who was imprisoned in the ghetto during 1941-43, had no education records; and the witness testimonies about his work in a local school from 1923 to 1939 were found insufficient. On those grounds, he was removed from his secondary school teaching position. The pretext for questioning Buzya's background were the two years she had spent in Germany - in a concentration camp (39). R. Vainshtein, head of the manpower section at a smelting factory, was blamed for the fact that she spent the period between 1941 and 1943 imprisoned in a ghetto, and was subsequently transported to Germany where she worked "for the Germans" until 1945. Director of the Borisov piano-making factory Abram Zhlobin was fired for ignoring party decisions (40).

In Mogilev, the municipal party committee removed the party candidacy of Lyubov Gorelik, an accountant at the regional retail trade department, for concealing her trial conviction and for anti-Soviet propaganda. The resolution stated that in 1941, Gorelik had been sentenced by the public court to a one-and-a-half-year prison term and a two-year suspended sentence for telling an anti-Soviet joke. In 1942, she secured an early release by volunteering for the army. Subsequently Lyubov Gorelik fought in the front-lines, was wounded and shell-shocked; and in 1945, while applying for party membership, she concealed her past conviction. In 1953, the authorities remembered her past, and expelled Gorelik from the party for "duplicity" (41).Similar examples of "tainted" government and managerial employees were cited for the Svislochsky, Berestovitsa, Zheludok and Shchuchin regions, as well as the agricultural machinery factory in Lida, the iron foundry in Volkovysk, and so on.

Jews were not the only ones to feel the brunt of the doctors' affair. Yasha Etinger, the son of a medical doctor, Prof. Lazar Siterman, who was killed by the Nazis, was smuggled out of the Minsk ghetto by his Belorussian nurse Maria Khoretzkaya. A Russian physician, one Vladysik, helped her write Yasha into her passport. In 1953, Yakov Etinger was arrested and told by the investigators that since it was impossible to simply "walk out" of the ghetto, the nurse must have been a Nazi collaborator; and so the nurse was promptly arrested as well (42). The authorities' paranoia increased towards those Jews who, after the liberation of Belarus, established contacts with their relatives abroad. One publicized case took place in Minsk in 1953, where Sofia Mostovaya (Goldshtein) was fired from her job of senior lab researcher at the medical institute's faculty of surgery. The pretext was a story whose beginnings went back to the summer of 1944. In Minsk, Sofia had received a parcel of clothing from the "Folk Orden" Jewish organization from Brooklyn, shipped via Russian Relief. She had written a letter of thanks, adding a request to help her locate her aunt, Ida Miller. The letter reached the Dawn of Freedom newspaper, and the two were reunited. Even though the letters f rom the US mentioned Ida Miller's gratitude towards the Soviet government for saving Jews during WWII and providing them with education and other forms of support, the Mostovaya-Golshtein correspondence was declared "hostile activity" (43).

Ideological Pressure

In January of 1953, the Belarus Central Communist Party Committee instructed the local committees to monitor the extent to which the republic's ideological cadres met the required standards. The results of these inquiries show that their organizers were well-attuned to political reality: most of the discovered deficiencies and violations were attributed to employees with Jewish names. Thus, a 1952-1953 report on the performance of a CC CPB lecturing group spoke about the inferior standard of a large number of lectures delivered. Among the worst lecturers, the report named E. Lerman, a historical sciences candidate and a teacher at the Gomel Pedagogical Institute (for failing to point out that the USSR had entered the stage of gradual establishment of communism); A. Mamro, G. Rakhlin, and I. Fabrikant, lecturers of the Brest regional party committee (for reading their lectures without the required Bolshevik zeal, lapsing into generalizations, abstractions, and lack of references to the resolutions of the 19th CPSU Congress). According to the investigators, lectures delivered in the Minsk, Molodechno, Baranovichi and Grodno regions were not permeated with profound meaning or imbued with the militant party spirit. Special criticism was directed against th ose propagandists whose lectures failed to place due emphasis on Zionist plotting, the treachery of Jewish nationalists, the "Joint" as a puppet of the American secret service, etc. The following are some examples (44).

On March 5, 1953, reviewers N. Lobatenko, V. Shablovsky, and E. Kasperovich (lecturers of the CC CPB) reported to first secretary of the CC CPB N. Patolichev that lecturer Y. Rubin avoided mentioning the Jewish international "Joint" organization and did not expose American imperialists. Rubin was berated for making no mention of the intensifying class struggle in the countries of popular democracy; he had also allegedly passed over the trial of Zionists in Czechoslovakia (45), and "did not utter a single word" on the unmasking of the killer doctors or the anti-Soviet provocations in Tel Aviv (46). In conclusion, the report emphasised that Rubin failed to condemn Israel as the hot-bed of Zionism, espionage and subversive activity, and did not call on the audience to heighten their revolutionary vigilance. On March 13, 1953 that same group of reviewers directed harsh criticism against G. Beilinson, a lecturer at the party school of the CC CPB, who was also blamed for inadequate criticism of American imperialists and their Zionist agents in the USSR and the countries of popular democracies. In addition, Beilinson was reprimanded for being insufficiently harsh towards the arrested doctors, and for failing to call for a struggle against apathy and moral laxity (47).

This theme was taken up in an article published in the March 17, 1953 issue of the Zvyazda newspaper, entitled "Propaganda lecturers to the level of modern objectives". It discussed the need to explain to the workers (the population) that the greater the country's achievements, the more cunning and brutal the enemy becomes, and the more drastic and ruthless his attacks (48). This was attributed to the vestiges of bourgeois ideology and the private ownership mentality. The reader was reminded that while the imperialist world supported the hidden enemies of the Soviet state, it was imperative to remove the fertile ground that bred spies and subversives. The article called for a marked improvement in the quality of propaganda lectures, for regular public lectures and presentations to be conducted in factories and collective farms, elucidating the postulates of Stalin's book "Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR" and the resolutions of the 19th CPSU Congress concerning issues of domestic and foreign policy.

This was followed by a wave of reprisals. Some citizens were forced to recant and write penitential letters, asking the authorities for lenience and promising to reform. Others were demoted or transferred to other jobs. Still others were labelled professionally unsuitable and fired. The saddest fate befell those who were fired for being guilty of "political shortsightedness" . On March 27, 1953 Y. Rubin and G. Beilison, in a letter of apology addressed to N. Patolichev, admitted the justice of the criticism leveled against them. They wrote that they had been careless, had gone against the will of the party, and thus were ready to accept any punishment. In order to keep their jobs, Rubin and Beilinson started dancing to the government's tune. They wrote that the Jewish bourgeois nationalists were the sworn enemies of the workers, that the Zionist "bosses" had been openly "hob-nobbing" with Nazi criminals, and that the Jewish people would be forever thankful to the USSR for saving it from total extermination during WWII. In conclusion, these lecturers reaffirmed the sincerity of their pledges, and appealed for an opportunity to prove their loyalty to the party, the motherland, and the Soviet people (49).

Nevertheless, many of the Jews employed in the field of ideology and propaganda ended up being dismissed from their positions. On January 23, 1953, under the pretext of neglecting his duties ("broadcasting facts distorting the Soviet reality" in the words of the report - L. S .), the news editor of the Regional Radio Broadcasting Committee Sofia Laikhtman was reprimanded; while head of the information department of the regional party committee Boris Margolin was relieved of his position (50). On March 3, 1953 D. Fishman was dismissed for "exhibiting political blindness and negligence" in Lida: in the opinion of the political investigators from the Belarus military district, he had downplayed the role played by the USSR in the defeat of Nazi Germany. What exactly his transgression consisted of was not specified in the report (51). S. Gershman, a staff lecturer of the Minsk State Committee of the CPB, was dismissed for committing "grave errors" in his lectures (52); and Semyon Tulman, an employee of the Belarus Film Studio, was refused admission to the Communist Party, which severely curtailed his career chances. This went on until April 6, 1953, when Pravda ran an announcement by the Soviet Interior Ministry (dated April 4) which stated that the doctors had been falsely accused and their confessions had been obtained by "inadmissible means in total violation of the Soviet laws". Events took a yet more decisive turn in the wake of the CC CPSU resolution, passed several days later, which expressed the state security organs' "unconditional condemnation" of the illegal actions (53) .

The reaction of Belarus Jewry to these events could be judged by the behaviour of worshippers at the Minsk and Kalinkovichi synagogues (the only ones officially recognised by Belarus authorities). Thus, while Minsk synagogue was attended by 90 persons for the evening prayers on the seventh day of Passover (which fell on April 7th that year), and the Kalinkovichi synagogue by 200 worshippers, the morning prayers of April 8 drew 700 and 300 persons respectively. According to the Minsk rabbi Yakov Berger, even Jews he had never seen before came to the synagogue on that day. Many of them had come not to pray but to swap the latest news. One woman, who had never been to the synagogue before, started shouting, \"We are saved!" When the rabbi tried to find out what was going on, the woman told him that she had no time to pray, she had come in only to announce the joyous news. Throughout the year of 1953, prayers at the Minsk synagogue were marked by profuse attendance. In the rabbi's view, this represented "a sign of gratitude for the dramatic change in the country's Jewish situation." Meanwhile, officials of the Belarus Ministry of Religious Affairs observed that the worshippers were behaving in a much more uninhibited fashion (54).

Conclusion

Thus, the events of 1953 were the culmination point of the greatest cataclysm experienced by Soviet Jews from the end of WWII until Stalin's death. Many of them had to go through dramatic upheavals, from the pain and shock of the Holocaust, through an upsurge of hope for a Jewish revival and freedom to reclaim their roots and identify with the Jewish state, to bitter disappointment in the face of anti-Semitic Soviet policies. The Jews of Belarus experienced the full measure of the regime's unjust suspicions and mistreatment. Under various excuses, they were dismissed, blocked from advancement in their careers, banned from occupying prestigious positions in the country's economy, culture and science. Their children encountered deliberate obstacles in pursuing their education. This went hand in hand with official proclamations about the equality and brotherhood of the Soviet nations.

By 1953, not a single Jew was to be found among the secretaries of the republics' Central Communist Party committees or heads of committee departments, as well as their deputies, inspectors, consultants and instructors. Nor did any Jews remain in the Belarus party school, or among the secretaries of regional, municipal and district committees. Jews were dismissed from all the top posts on the Supreme Soviet and the Belarus Council of Ministers, the executive committees of regional, municipal and district councils, the editorial offices of regional and republican newspapers and magazines. They were purged from the Belarus Education Ministry, the administration of regional education departments; no Jews remained even among the principals of teachers' colleges. There is no need to explain the reason why, during that period, all the Jews were rooted out from key positions in the Belarus Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security, as well as their regional, municipal and district branches. The same goes for the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Supreme Court, and the Belarus Prosecutor's Office. The only exception were regional prosecutors, with five Jews out of a total of 173 (55).

Despite the fact that many Jews, thanks to their expertise, knowledge, experience and professional competence, continued to play a key role at the middle level of economy and science, the authorities' mistrust of an entire people could not have passed unnoticed by the Belorussians and the Russians. All of this brought about the stereotypical notions of the Jews' "guilt complex" , their inherent duplicity, and cast doubts on their patriotism and loyalty. Nor was this ambiguous predicament dispelled during the next stage, when the Party and Government leaders publicly denounced Stalin's personality cult, and vowed to safeguard the national equality of all the country's peoples. In fact, the after-effects of the post-war anti-Semitic campaign continued to reverberate up until the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, and became one of the causes of the mass exodus of Soviet Jews.

Notes

1. For the major aspects of this issue, see Gennady Kostyrchenko. V Plenu u Krasnogo Faraona (Moscow, 1994), pp. 348-57; Yaakov Aizenstat. On Stalin's Preparations for a Jewish Genocide: a Legal Study (Jerusalem, 1994), pp. 61-78; Fedor Lyass. Stalin's Last Political Trials, or the Genocide that Wasn't (Tel Aviv, 1995).

2. The Belarus National Archives, collection 1, inventory 9, file 53, pages 104, 127.

3. Ibid., col. 4, inv. 62, f. 328, p. 481.

4. Ibid., inv. 73, f. 19, p. 130.

5. Calculated by the author on the basis of BNA materials, col. 4, inv. 5, f. 38, pp. 40-51.

6. BNA, col. 4, inv. 7, f. 338, p. 318.

7. The Grodno branch of the State Archives (SA), col. 1, inv. 1, f. 52, p. 88.

8. The Brest SA, col. 1, inv. 6, f. 57, p. 8.

9. BNA, col. 1, inv. 22, f. 15, p. 198.

10. Ibid., col. 1, inv. 9, f. 119, pp. 46, 48, 54.

11. Ibid., col. 4, inv. 109, f. 32, pp. 113, 115, 125; inv. 9, f. 22, p. 125.

12. A. T. Leizerov, "National Make-up of the Belarus Communist Party, government, and economic apparatus, 1920-1950. The topical issues of government and law" , Aktual'nye voprosy gosydarstva i prava. Scientific Studies of the Belarus State University, 4th issue, Minsk, 1994, p. 102.

13. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 352, p. 16.

14. Ibid, f. 324, p. 159.

15. Ibid., pp. 160, 182, 218.

16. Ibid., f. 352, p. 16.

17. Ibid., p. 17.

18. Ibid., f. 324, p. 166.

19. In 1953, over 30 short-wave foreign stations were broadcasting in Belarus, intercepted by only two jamming stations in Minsk and Baranovichi. According to V. Kosov, this was not enough; and so he proposed a plan for constructing and financing a network for intercepting foreign broadcasts in major provincial and regional cities of Belarus: BNA, col. 4, inv . 62, f. 352, p. 107.

20. Ibid., f. 324, p. 160.

21. Ibid., f. 352, p. 3.

22. Ibid., f. 324, p. 160.

23. The Grodno branch of the SA, co. 1, inv. 29, f. 12, p. 19.

24. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 352, pp. 3, 17.

25. The Brest SA, col. 1, inv. 10, f. 101, pp. 158, 161-162.

26. The Grodno NA, col. 1, inv. 29, p.18.

27. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 352, p. 16.

28. Ibid., f. 324, pp. 167, 218.

29. Footnote: the original number of Jews in Pinsk, and the number that perished.

30. Zhdanov, Andrey Aleksandrovich (1896-1948) - Soviet government and party figure, colonel-general (1944). In 1934-48 served as secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, and concurrently (1934-1944) as secretary of the Leningrad regional and municipal party committee. Belonged to Stalin's political inner circle; was among the most active organizers of the mass purges of 1930-40. Shcherbakov, Alexandr Sergeevich (1901-1945), Soviet government and party figure, colonel-general (1943). In 1938-48, served concurrently as secretary of the CC AUCP and head of the Soviet Bureau of Information; from 1942, head of the Chief Political Directorate of the Soviet Army and deputy of the USSR People's Defense Commissar.

31. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 324, pp. 159, 180, 182; f. 352, p. 1.

32. Ibid.

33. The director of the Grodno printing house was Moisei Gofmekler - The Grodno SA, col. 1, inv. 29, f. 13, p. 17; f. 100, p. 129.

34. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 352, p. 4.

35. The Grodno SA, col. 1, inv. 29, f. 29, pp. 4-18.

36. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 324, p. 158.

37. The Grodno SA, col. 1, inv. 29, f. 12, p. 19.

38. G. Kostyrchenko. V Plenu u Krasnogo Faraona (Moscow, 1994), pp. 351-354.

39. The Grodno SA, col. 1, inv. 2, f. 151, p. 32.

40. Ibid., col. 1, inv. 29, f. 4, p. 88.

41. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 351, pp. 61-64.

42. E. G. Yoffe. Stranitsy Istorii Everex Belorussii (Minsk, 1996), p. 183.

43. From a letter by BSSR Health Minister I. Insarov, dated February 27, 1953, addressed to First Secretary of the CC CPB N. Patolichev: BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 366, p. 58.

44. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 326, pp. 179, 181.

45. Slanski, Rudolph - former secretary-general of the Czech Communist Party Central Committee, a Jew. In November of 1952, he was charged with subversive Zionist activities and abetting American imperialism, as well with taking active measures to shorten the life of CSSR president Clement Gotwald by providing him with doctors from a hostile environment and with a murky past. On December 3, 1952 Slanski and another eleven people charged with the crime were executed by hanging, their bodies were burnt, and their ashes scattered.

46. As reported by Pravda on February 15, 1953, a bomb was exploded on the territory of the Soviet diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv, wounding the wife of emissary K. Yershov, the wife of mission employee A. Sysoev, and mission employee I. Grishin. The Israeli President and Foreign Ministry condemned this terrorist act and took measures to catch and punish the perpetrators. Despite this, diplomatic relation between the two countries were broken, to be restored in July of 1953.

47. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 352, pp. 124-125.

48. An interpretation of the famous thesis proposed by Stalin at the March 1937 Plenum of the CC AUCP, stating that as the Soviet Union draws closer to establishing a communist society, the class struggle inside the country will become more acute, while the imperialist pressure will intensify. See: I. V. Stalin, "On the shortcomings of party work and measures for liquidating the followers of Trotsky and other double-dealers", March 3-5, 1937, Moscow, p.23.

49. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 352, pp. 127-29, 133-34.

50. The Grodno SA, col. 1, inv. 29, f. 16, p. 38; f. 17, p. 116.

51. Ibid., col. 1, inv. 29, f. 18, p. 8.

52. BNA, col. 4, inv. 62, f. 326, p. 181.

53. The author's personal archives: records of a conversation with S. Tulman on November 15, 1995 in Jerusalem.

54. The Russian Federation State Archives (Moscow), col. 6991, inv. 3, f. 260, pp. 100-102; f. 262, pp. 246, 248. For more details, see: Leonid Smilovitsky, "Jewish Religious Life in Minsk, 1944-1953" , Jews in Eastern Europe, Jerusalem, 30/1966, pp. 5-17.

55. Calculated by the author on the basis of BNA materials, col. 4, inv. 109, f. 32, pp. 256-258.

Copyright 2002 Belarus SIG, the publishers of East European Jewish Affairs and Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky

Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters

Back to the Belarus SIG website