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The voices of protest being raised on behalf of Soviet Jewry will not be stilled. Their volume and intensity will increase day by day until the Soviet government heeds the age-old but still urgent demand : “Let my people go.”
[From the New York Times, Oct. 23, 1971),
HELP US RETURN TO OUR HOMELAND
"ALAS, NEITHER YIDDISH NOR ANY OTHER KIND OF WRITERS HAVE ANY POWER IN
(By Irving Howe, teacher and critic, editor of “A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry.”)
OPEN LETTER TO THE WRITERS OF THE WORLD, WHO WRITE IN YIDDISH
MOSCOW. DEAR FRIENDS: We, who appeal to you. are the widow and son of the Jewish, poet Peretz Markish. We appeal to you for help and for support. Whose hearts can respond better than yours to this letter, written by the family of a colleague of yours, who had been the victim in Moscow on Aug. 12, 1952!
About five months ago we applied to the Moscow Department of Visas and Reg. istration with the request to permit us to emigrate to the State of Israel for permanent residence. Three months later our petition was refused. Our complaints about this unlawful decision, sent to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., to the Ministry of Interior and to the Central Committee of the party have not been answered. There is no one else we can complain to, no one else to whom we can appeal. Help us, our writers, the conscience of our people! Help us to return to the soil of our holy homeland, from where we had been expelled two thousand years ago, and had found no refuge in the great world! We appeal to you in the memory of Peretz Markish: don't remain indifferent to our fate!
Peretz Markish had been a national Jewish poet, his works belong to the Jewish people, to the people of Israel. Only in our historical homeland shall we be able to revive what has remained after his death—the unforgettable words of a poet. This mission is our duty to our people. Help us return home!
Nineteen years ago more than two-score Yiddish writers and intellectuals, including such distinguished figures as Peretz Markish and David Hofstein, were secretly executed in the Soviet Union. Their death came after four years of imprisonment without public trial, an imprisonment begun during Stalin's antiSemitic drive of 1948.
In the history of this totalitarian century, such an incident may seem rather small. We know of the murder of hundreds, thousands. But for Yiddish culture, which had experienced a brilliant moment in the Soviet Union during the 1920's, the execution of these people was a dreadful blow. Coming after the holocaust, the 1952 killing wiped out the cream of the Yiddish intelligentsia in Russia. And among these victims, few were more gifted or vivid than the avant garde poet Peretz Markish, a writer with some points of similarity to the contemporary Russian poet, Mayakovsky, Holder of the Order of Lenin and an early supporter of the Bolshevik regime, Markish had issued more than twenty books under the auspices of the official Soviet publishing houses.
Yet none of these honors or accomplishments saved Markish from the firing squad, though after Stalin's death his wife would be informed by the state prosecutor that a “horrendous crime" had been committed against her husband and that he was being “rehabilitated.”
During the past year Markish's widow, Esther, and his son, David, a film director, asked the Moscow Department of Visas and Registration to be allowed to emigrate to Israel. Their petition was refused. Meanwhile, as seems to be customary, Mrs. Markish and her son have been dismissed from their employment and reduced to the level of nonpersons. They are able neither to live as Jews in the Soviet nor to leave it.
How can we answer her? Alas, neither Yiddish nor any other kind of writers have any power in this world. All we can hope to do as with so many other injustices, is to cry out publicly.
We know, by now, that appealing to governments in the name of justice is likely to be a quixotic task. But perhaps there may be a point in speaking about shame. Shame seems to have caused some Americans to think again about the horrors of Vietnam. Might there not be men holding power in Russia who, remembering what happened nineteen years ago, would say to themselves : “All right, let them go, Markish's widow and son, let them go quietly and in peace"?
Fact SHEET ON SOVIET JEWRY, SUBMITTED BY MR. RICHARD MAASS, CHAIRMAN,
AMERICAN JEWISH CONFERENCE ON SOVIET JEWRY Q. How many Jews are there in the Soviet Union?
A. The 1970 official Soviet census recorded 2,151,000 Jews living in the Soviet Union. This signifies a marked decline from the official 1959 figure of 2,268,000. It is also significantly lower than a 1969 estimate of 3,000,000 made by NOVOSTI, the government press agency. However, some independent sources in East Europe, and in this country, place the estimate at close to 3,500,000.
The officially recorded decline may be due to the fact that many Jews, in these times of stress, prefer to be counted as members of non-Jewish nationalities—in most instances Russian. At the time of a census a Soviet citizen can claim any nationality, despite what is recorded on his internal documents.
Q. Where do they live?
A. According to the 1970 census, Jews are dispersed throughout the 15 Soviet republics. 37.6% of Soviet Jewry lives in the Russian Republic; 36% in the Ukrainian SSR, and 6.8% in Byelorussian SSR. It is estimated that well over 1,000,000 Jews live in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Odessa. There are also sizeable communities in Vilna, Kishinev, Minsk, Riga, and Tbilisi.
Q. What is the official status of the Jewish community?
Jews are identified both as a nationality group and as a religious faith. Jews ("Yevrei") have a fixed legal status as a nationality, a matter of strict juridical procedure. If both parents are Jewish, the children are listed as Jewish. If one parent is non-Jewish, there is than a choice at age 16, when internal passports are issued.
Among the more than 100 nationalities in the USSR, Jews rank eleventh in number—and the numerical spread from seventh to eleventh place is less than three-quarters of a million.
There is no Jewish religious community, although individual synagogues do have formal status in Soviet law. As distinguished from nationality, participation in the Jewish religion is a voluntary act.
Q. What is Soviet policy on nationality groups?
A. Soviet ideology, law and practice actively encourage nationalities, whether territorially dispersed or concentrated, to perpetuate their group existence through cultural and educational institutions and activities in their own languages. (In the long run, however, gradual “Russification” may be the objective for most nationalities, especially non-Slavic.)
Q. How has policy been applied to Soviet Jewry?
A. In the first three decades of the Soviet regime, the state supported a wide network of cultural and educational institutions and activities for Jews in Yiddish, which was recognized as their official national language. For example, about 850 Yiddish language books were published in editions of several hundred thousand between 1932–39. Before World War II, there were ten permanent Yiddish theatres. As late as 1940, one hundred thousand youngsters were in Yiddish schools.
By 1948 Stalin had destroyed all Jewish communal-cultural institutions including publishing houses and printing presses which had issued a total of 110 publications in the previous three years. The remnants of the Jewish educational system were also dismantled. The famed Jewish State Theatre of Moscow was closed in 1949. Finally, many Yiddish actors, writers, and leaders were liquidated or imprisoned.
The essential elements of this policy were continued by Stalin's successors and for eleven years there were no books, publications or theatres.
Q. What is the general situation today?
A. There is not a single Yiddish school or a single Yiddish class in the USSR, although Soviet law permits the organization of such classes at the request of ten parents. Intimidation, including the imprisonment of some active petitioners, has prevented such efforts.
There are no schools, classes or courses in any language to enable Jews to learn Jewish history, culture or literature. The only place Hebrew is taught in the Soviet Union is in a Russian Orthodox seminary.
The Jews are even cut off from learning about their recent past. The heroism as well as the martyrdom of Soviet Jews during the Nazi holocast has been constantly downgraded or ignored by Soviet authorities, including historians, local officials and the press. For example, at Babi Yar—the site of the Nazi slaughter of thousands of people, most of whom were Jewish—there stands a monument to the "citizens of Kiev." The authorities do not permit official memorial gatherings at the site, and they have tried to cover most of it with a new apartment development. In recent years Jews have come to Babi Yar on Tisha B'Av, and on the eve of the anniversary of the slaughter, as a symbol of protest against anti-Jewish policies.
Q. What about Jewish culture!
A. There is no Jewish publishing house or Jewish book distributing agency, and only token nods to Yiddish literature. Thus, few classic Yiddish writers, long dead and now part of general "Soviet history," have been published in small editions. On rare occasions the works of living writers have also been published. In 1964 some Yiddish publications was resumed, but only 15 Yiddish books were issued through 1969. In 1969, itself, there were 10 Yiddish books published ; there were five published in 1970, and none in 1971.
Since 1961, a Yiddish literary magazine, Sovietish Heimland, has been published regularly. Much of its edition of 16,000_down from the original 25,000 is for export. In a few instances, contemporary Yiddish and Hebrew writers, especially pro-left Israelis, have been published in the journal. Most often the editor, Aron Vergelis, reflects official party and state views.
There is no longer any state Yiddish theater with a permanent base. However, there is a small amateur troupe in Vilna which has never been permitted to visit cities with large Jewish populations, such as Moscow. There are also about a dozen individual professional performers. In addition a few local amateur groups can be found in other smaller cities. Q. How has Soviet policy been applied to other nationalities?
“A comparison with other Soviet nationalities exposes the basic injustices of their (Soviet Jewry) situation, for even the smallest nationality groups in the Soviet Union are given the opportunity to pursue a cultural, social and political life of their own denied to Soviet Jews.” So wrote Bertrand Russell, February 27, 1966. This situation has not been radically altered.
We cite examples of nationality groups, smaller in population than Jews, which are provided educational and cultural facilities in their native tongue:
1. In the RSFSR (Russian Republic): Bashkirs, 1,181,000; Maris, 581,000; Buryats, 313,000. (Based on 1970 census.) In the Ukraine: Poles, 295,000 and Moldavians, 266,000 (1970 census) ; Hungarians, 149,000 (1959 estimate).
2. Case example: The 1,846,000 Soviet Germans dispersed and repressed by Stalin during and after World War II, were officially rehabilitated by his successors. Volga Germans have been encouraged to develop German language schools-publishing houses and book stores—libraries, radio and television broadcasts and stationstheaters-orchestras—and cultural associations.
Q. What is the official policy of the U.8.8.R. toward religion?
A. Ideologically it is committed to atheism, but formally it accords freedom of religious worship. According to official policy the Party, rather than the State, carries on anti-religious propaganda. By law the State asserts the principle of equality of religion. Q. How has this policy been applied to Judaism?
A. The principle of equality has been observed in the breach insofar as Judaism is concerned. In Soviet society religious centers for various faiths are vital to meeting the needs of religious groups. Unlike other recognized religious bodies, Judaism is not permitted any central or coordinating structure; each congregation must function in isolation.
The late Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin, of Moscow, who died on November 17, 1971 was one of three known ordained rabbis functioning in the European part of the Soviet Union. Increasingly in the past few years he was utilized as the authorized spokesman for religious Soviet Jews, and, in 1968 and in 1969, he was allowed to visit the United States and Hungary, respectively, the first such actions in decades. While he participated in a few meetings of religious leaders of various faiths and denominations from the several Soviet Republics, Rabbi Levin was the only rabbi in Moscow and did not represent any official group of religious Jewish communities.
Q. How does Judaism compare to other, recognized religions, or "cults”?
Cannot publish periodicals and devotional literature including journals, prayer books and Bibles. After years of world protest, 10,000 prayer books were permitted in 1968 but only several hundreds were known to have been distributed ;
Cannot produce essential devotional articles such as "Talethim" (prayer shawls) or “Tfilin” (phylacteries) ;
Cannot have regular and official contacts with coreligionists abroad as contrasted to the experience of Protestant, Catholic and Moslem faiths;
Cannot publish (except in isolated instances, especially the "showpiece" Central Synagogue in Moscow) religious calendars, indispensable guides
to religious holidays and observances. Q. Have there been other official pressures applied to Judaism?
Ă. Yes. In contrast to other recognized religions, there are no Yeshivot, rabbinical schools or seminaries functioning because of bureaucratic maneuvers, such as a denial of housing permits to students. Thus, there are no rabbinic replacements.
The Soviet government allows theological students of many other faiths to study in their own institutions, as well as in foreign seminaries or religious educational institutions. Judaism is the only significant exception.
Synagogues have been closed in almost systematic fashion as a result of both direct and indirect government action. In 1956, there were 450 synagogues in the Soviet Union and in April of 1963, there were under 100. Today, according to non-Soviet sources, there are about 60 official synagogues, in addition to private prayer meetings. However, few of the former function all the time.
By 1962, restrictions on the public baking and selling of “matzoh," indispensable to the observance of Passover, had blanketed the country. Only a few years ago the ban was eased in the large Jewish population centers, after widespread protests from outside the country.
Q. What is the U.S.S.R. policy on anti-semitism?
A. Soviet ideology condemns anti-Semitism and there are laws against incitement of hatred on religious, national and social groups dating from the Bolshevik Revolution. In recent years there have been a few public pronouncements, such as Premier Kosygin's, in July, 1966, assailing anti-Semitism. In 1969, Pravda and Izvestia responded to criticism by simply denying the existence of antiSemitism in the Soviet Union. This has been the formula in the last two years.
But there have also been manifestations of anti-Semitism, even in the postStalin years, such as the so-called "economic" trials in the late 50's and the early 60's.
In the guise of anti-religious propaganda, attacks on Judaism have been antiSemitic and racist. While Soviet officials criticized the notorious Judaism Without Embellishment by Trofim Kichko, after world-wide public protest, other equally vicious material has been printed by government and Party publishing houses and newspapers, and broadcast on State radio.
In general, since the June 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East, Kichko in Judaism and Zionism (1968), Yuri Ivanov in Beware Zionism (1969), Ivan Shevtsov in Fathers and Sons (1970), and other Soviet propagandists have intensified their efforts to debase Jews and Judaism, and to revive medieval anti-Jewish concepts, such as the canard of a world-wide Jewish "conspiracy."
This campaign reached a peak in 1970 when mass meetings were organized and prominent Jews, under pressure, publicly denounced Judaism, Zionism and any affinity to Israel. In defiance of official displeasure, however, other Soviet Jews countered with petitions to the Soviet government.
More recently and with increasing frequency, articles under such titles as "Zionism-a Racist Ideology" and "Zionism and the Swastika” have appeared denouncing Israel and those Jews in the Soviet Union whose sole desire is to move to Israel.
Q. Is there discrimination against Jews ?
A. Apparently there is none in housing, nor in various aspects of social life. It also appears that employment opportunities in most fields are generally open, although advancement to highest ranks is almost impossible.
However, discrimination against Jews does exist in vital, decision-making sectors of Soviet society, particularly government, political life and in fields involving foreign contact.
The number of Jews in the scientific field has also been declining sharply. In 1958, over 10% of Soviet scientific workers were Jewish; in 1966 the figure had dropped to 8%.
The quota system at universities, the key to advancement in Soviet society, operates, according to one study, “to the particularly severe disadvantage of the Jewish population." In 1935, Jews represented 13% of all university students, but by 1970 they comprised only 2.5%.
Q. How have Jews reacted to this policy?
A. Despite hostile pressures, there are ever-increasing press ons of courageous Jewish identification.
In 1969, Jews from all over the USSR began to assert their self-expression by petitioning leading governmental and Communist authorities, as well as the United Nations. They demanded freedom to go to Israel where they can live as Jews.
Tens of thousands of young Soviet Jews, who know little Yiddish or Hebrew, have gathered to sing and to dance outside synagogues in various cities. Initially held on Simchat Torah, this practice has spread to other festivals including the Sabbath.
In the western areas, under Soviet control only since World War II, the determination of those with traces of Jewish backgrounds to remain Jewish is clearly evident. Hebrew is being taught; informal study groups are being conducted; Jewish and Hebrew texts are circulated and/or reproduced by hand.
According to the 1970 census, nearly 380,700 Soviet Jews officially regard Yiddish as their "mother tongue". Thousands of others consider it a "second language", not listed on census tracts. The Soviet authorities speak of the lack of interest in Yiddish, but despite this, thousands of Soviet Jews have jammed the halls for the rare Yiddish concert occasionally permitted.
In the earlier protest period, individual Jews, such as Boris Kochubiyevsky, have publicly protested, usually on pain of imprisonment. Since then many thousands of Jews have publicly demanded to be allowed to emigrate, despite harrassment and pressures at school and at places of work.
Groups of Jews, from many Republics, have staged sit-ins at local Party Headquarters, and have even demanded to be received by the Central Committee in Moscow in order to have their demands heard, notably the right
to live as Jews in Israel. Q. What has been the Soviet response to Jewish activism ?
A. Not only was a major propaganda effort launched in the USSR, and in the West, but the Soviets have tried to crack down, while avoiding the most extreme of Stalinist practices. In 1970 and through mid-1971 trials were staged in Riga, Kishinev and Leningrad at which the incriminating evidence included collections of Bialik's poems, Hebrew literature, and similar “illegal” material.
In December, 1970, the Soviet government brought nine Jews and two nonJews to trial for allegedly plotting to hijack a plane in order to flee the country. Hoping to break the back of the Leningrad activist group, and to exploit the world-wide anti-hijacking sentiment existing at that time, the authorities imposed death sentences—which were later commuted-on some of the "conspirators.” Today these and other “political/religious" prisoners of conscience are languishing in “strict regime" prison camps, where they are required to do hard labor on semi-starvation rations.
Q. Can anything be done to change Soviet policy?
A. The voices of concern have been growing. Thousands of human rights advocates throughout the world, including eminent Soviet scientists, have protested, despite Soviet denials of anti-Semitism,
Major Communist and Socialist parties, including those in France, Holland, Austria, Britain, the United States and Australia, have publicly reflected their concern as has the Council of Europe, the United States Government and the Socialist International. The American Jewish community and others have demonstrated a determination to continue to expose the pattern of discrimination against Soviet Jewry until Soviet policy is reversed.
In 1964, the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry was organized. Other groups interested in advancing the cause of human rights for Soviet Jews have been formed in the United States, Europe, Israel and Latin America. In February 1971, many groups met in Brussels, at the World Conference of Jewish Communities on Soviet Jewry, where the delegates declared :