On this day in 1948, Golda Meir, newly arrived in Moscow as Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, showed up at the capital’s Choral Synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashana. The State of Israel had been declared less than five months earlier, and the government of Joseph Stalin had been the second country to officially recognize the new nation. Yet, local Jews were warned to keep their distance from the Israeli delegation, and the Israelis were apprehensive about making contact even with their own personal relations in the Soviet Union.

Writing in Pravda at the time, Ilya Ehrenburg claimed, “the State of Israel has nothing to do with the Jews of the Soviet Union, where there is no Jewish problem, and therefore no need for Israel.” Golda Meir’s appearance, however, brought tens of thousands of Jewish Muscovites to the synagogue – the city’s largest public gathering in two decades.

“Instead of the 2,000-odd Jews who usually came to synagogue on the holidays, a crowd of close to 50,000 was waiting for us,” she recalled in her memoirs. “For a minute I couldn’t grasp what had happened – or even who they were. And then it dawned on me. They had come – those good, brave Jews – in order to demonstrate their sense of kinship and to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel.”

A few weeks later, Meir attended a diplomatic reception in honor of the Soviet Revolution, where she was greeted by Polina Molotov, wife of foreign minister Vyascheslav Molotov. Mrs. Molotov urged Meir, in Yiddish, to continue attending synagogue. 

Stalin was not long in responding to the “threat” of revived Jewish nationalism. By early November of 1948, the leaders of the previously influential Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested, and Jewish cultural institutions across the Soviet Union were shut down, particularly in Birobidzhan, which had been set up as an autonomous Jewish oblast. In December Polina Molotov was arrested for treason, forced to divorce her husband, and sent to a labor camp. Later came a variety of purges, including the so-called Doctors’ Plot, in which a group of prominent Jewish physicians were charged with conspiracy to assassinate some of the USSR’s political leadership. Their trial was halted, along with the general blood-letting against Jews, and Polina Molotov was released, only with Stalin’s sudden death in March 1953.