From the Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, December 23, 1990
STALIN'S WAR AGAINST THE JEWS:
The Doctor's Plot and the Soviet Solution
On January 13, 1952, the Soviet government announced that nine Kremlin doctors, six with identifiably Jewish names, were involved in a plot conceived by Western intelligence agencies and Zionists to kill the top Soviet political and military leadership. Over the next forty days, the Soviet media whipped an already hysterical anti- Semitism into a mass psychosis. Amid this climate of hate, the government circulated a letter for the signature of prominent Soviet Jews. This so-called "Jewish Statement" appealed to the authorities to evacuate all Jews -- for their own safety -- to camps in remote regions of the country.
The Doctor's Plot was to be Stalin's pretext for the Final Pogrom. However, its most profound effect was to hasten the end of the ailing Stalin, whose death in March 1953 -- the exact date and circumstances remain unclear -- abruptly concluded this meticulously organized campaign against Soviet Jewry. Within days, most of those arrested were released, and the Kremlin issued a statement that the plot had been a complete fabrication. In "Stalin's War Against the Jews," Jerusalem Post editor Louis Rapoport has produced an extraordinarily chilling tale of an era of civic terror most Americans literally could even imagine. (Khrushchev described life under Stalin as "The Lottery.") While the overall story of the Doctor's Plot has long been known, Rapoport adds a fresh dimension to the tale by weaving in the personal recollections of those survivors glasnost enabled him to interview last year in the Soviet Union. He also places the episode in the broader context of both Stalin's personal hatred for Jews and the potent strain of anti-Semitism that has long infected Russian life.
Anti-Semitism, as Rapoport amply demonstrates, was hardly a novelty of Stalinist rule. For centuries, pogroms were routinely visited upon Russia's Jewish population. At the turn of this century, government-abetted outrages against Jews led the American ambassador to report that "the acts which have been committed are more worthy of the Dark Ages than of the present century." And it was Czar Nicholas II who helped finance publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The supreme irony is that so many of those associated with the rise of communism in the Soviet Union and even with the atrocities committed under Stalin were of Jewish origin. These includes Marx himself as well as a number of Lenin's key associates -- notably Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Litvinov, Yoffe, Radek and Sverdlov. Rather more paradoxical is the disproportionate number of Jews who joined or actively collaborated with the secret police. Even Kaganovich, Stalin's chief henchman in terrorizing the Soviet people, was Jewish. One of the more moving stories Rapoport offers is that of the beloved Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels and his colleague, the writer Itzik Feffer. During the Second World War, the two ran the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, established by Soviet authorities to harness Jewish energies at home and abroad to the Soviet war effort. In that capacity, they travelled extensively through the United States to enlist financial and material support for the USSR. Yet all the while Feffer was in league with the secret police and, according to Rapoport, was ultimately involved in Mikhoels' murder by government thugs in January 1948. (Feffer himself was liquidated in 1952.)
Rapoport's book does unfortunately go flat from time to time. For one thing, his exhaustive effort to pin down the precise roots of Stalin's own anti-Semitism seems whatever the reverse of gilding the lily might be. Moreover, there are tantalizing mysteries he does not pursue. For example, he lavishes attention on the Mikhoels-Feffer story without ever asking why the authorities felt compelled to make Mikhoels' death appear to be the result of an automobile accident when the customary formula for eliminating such celebrated figures was arrest-torture-confession-execution. Still, these are small complaints about a book that contributes vividly to our knowledge of the anti-Semitism that even today under Gorbachev remains a powerful feature of Soviet life.